The Phil have distorted the real story about the Nick Griffin affair

In 2010, 214 million people around the world lived outside of their country of origin. Most were forced to leave because of economic and political forces beyond their control. Migration is one of the great issues of our time and it’s vital that we discuss it. I have done so many times, in my political activity, in my work, in college; with immigrants, with emigrants and with people who have never left their home. If I was organising a formal debate on migration, say in a university debating society, I would first and foremost invite actual migrants. I would not invite, say, someone with a neo-Nazi past. I would not invite someone who had devoted their entire life to politically attacking non-white people.

One autumn as I began my third year in Trinity I learned that the Phil had invited Nick Griffin, the British National Party leader, to propose the motion that “immigration has gone too far.” I was one of the many students and political activists who decided to pressure the Phil into cancelling the invitation. I’m proud to say we succeeded, but at the time I argued that there had to be a large anti-racist, anti-fascist demonstration on the night of the debate. This would send a clear message that Griffin was not welcome and, if possible and if numbers were big enough, prevent him from speaking.

Recently, a friend, who was also active in this campaign, forwarded me an email from the Phil advertising a debate on the motion that “This House Would Re-invite Nick Griffin.” The email included a lot of pious wind about “our values of balanced discourse and debate”, but ironically it also included a run-down on the Nick Griffin affair that was distorted and mostly incorrect. This “balanced” e-mail included, in all, two half-sentences that entertained the vague possibility that there might be something wrong with giving free publicity to racists. The e-mail started badly by claiming the Nick Griffin affair happened in 2012 – it was in fact in 2011. Then it got worse. The invitation apparently only got “some media coverage from far-right and -left organisations”. I originally heard the news from the Union of Jewish Students, who made the first call for the Phil to deny Griffin a platform. Very soon afterwards Love Music Hate Racism organised a gig down the road from Trinity to protest against the invitation. I’m happy to say many left-wing organisations, along with their members on campus, expressed anger as well.

It’s true about the far-right groups, but it wasn’t what you’d call “media coverage”. A shower of racists called Democratic Right Movement Ireland, who among other things have called a friend of mine a “mongrel” for his ethnicity, were drooling with glee all over their appalling online forum. The invitation was a major encouragement to them and a validation of their ideas. In the email, Trinity Against Fascism is described as a “small group of students”. TAF in fact snowballed to a membership of around a hundred students in a few short days. TAF “contacted the Phil’s sponsors”. Yes, that’s right – TAF let KC Peaches in on the fact that their money was helping to publicise Nick Griffin. As I remember, KC Peaches – not a “far-left organisation” – threatened to withdraw funding.

But TAF gets off lightly in the e-mail next to these sinister “far-left organisations” which are never named in the e-mail, but which appear never to do anything except “threaten” people. Now, I am a proud member of what is probably one of these “far-left organisations”, the Socialist Party. I never came anywhere close to “threatening” anyone. Neither did any of my fellow party members, or anyone I know. A worker on campus who was a member of another “far-left organisation” brought the matter to his union, which as far as I know also put some pressure on college authorities. The night before the Phil announced that the invitation was withdrawn, some anti-fascist activists held a mildly rowdy protest at a Phil meeting. I wasn’t there, and I feel that a few leaflets and a bit of chanting outside the front doors would have done the job. But to this day it makes me very happy to think of working-class anti-fascist street activists intruding on the genteel and rarefied atmosphere of a college debating society, with its suits and bells, its minutes and formulas, and dragging them very harshly down to earth.

During the campaign we were criticised for portraying the Phil and its membership as privileged and disconnected from the real world, and I expect to get some stick for the paragraph above. But class really is an unavoidable issue here. People who were mostly rich and upper-middle-class were giving a racist publicity, for their own amusement. Griffin’s visit would have helped to encourage or organise racist elements in Ireland, so poor and downtrodden migrants would have paid the price for the Phil’s xenophobia freak show. And I remember Phil members getting in a massive flap over the possibility that the Graduates’ Memorial Building might be damaged if there were protests.

And then there’s the claim that cancelling the invitation “ultimately garnered more media attention for Nick Griffin.” This claim is made because it’s a repeat of a line of argument that we kept hearing at the time: that when racists are denied a public platform they exultantly claim the “moral high ground” and “victim status”. The argument goes that if you debate them publically, you can expose their ideas as false, but if you deny them a platform they become “martyrs”. In other words, defeat is victory and victory is defeat. But this argument, as well as being obviously far-fetched, contradicts itself. If the racists claim “victim status” then this presupposes that some harm has been done to them. This is true; harm has been done. When an invitation to speak is withdrawn, or when an anti-fascist demonstration dwarfs anything they can muster, they have been defeated and humiliated. The anti-fascists are stronger than them, and won’t give them an inch. It seems that nobody supports their ideas. They can’t even get a hearing. All their grueling, time-consuming political activity seems pointless. All their horrible fantasies are revealed to be unattainable dreams.

On the other hand, if the only opposition the racists come up against is a witty and watertight seven-minute speech by a young person who was the brightest pupil in the class two years ago, followed by a show of hands, then that’s a victory for them. In fact, they can look at the crowd and see who’s voting in their favour, and then try to recruit those people after the debate. Even if the opposing speaker were some absolutely brilliant anti-fascist expert, what matters is that the racists have spoken in a prestigious public forum. Racist cranks and convinced fascists raise their heads. They come out from behind their keyboards. They become bolder, they organise, they mutually reinforce each other, they get active. Violence follows.

So victory is victory, and defeat is defeat. The only question is: do you want to facilitate a victory for politically organised racism, or help to defeat it? The Phil e-mail begins with a quote from Oscar Wilde, which is a parody of the old saying attributed to Voltaire and Thomas Jefferson, the one that goes “I disagree heartily with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” Hang on a second. Would any reasonable person really defend to the death Nick Griffin’s right to spend his life encouraging racial hatred and violence? Of all the causes in the world for which you could give your life, you would die so that the right to freedom of speech can be dogmatically and ridiculously understood to mean the duty to give publicity to people with disgusting views, just to prove a point?

That’s not for me. If I had a hundred lives to give, I would not defend “to the death,” or even to mild discomfort, Nick Griffin’s right to blow his nose. The Phil, on the other hand, show a touching generosity when it comes to the democratic rights of fascists. My message to them is: save your generosity for people who deserve it and who will not repay it with bloodshed. Use your resources to champion those who need help, not to arm the bigots who want to crush them. Mercy and generosity are admirable qualities. But mercy and generosity to racists and fascists means, by definition, cruelty and oppression to migrants, women, LGBTQ people, and the labour movement. Golden Dawn in Greece are suspected of having murdered dozens of migrants. It’s not a coincidence that the first non-migrant they killed, last September, was socialist Pavlos Fyssas. On Tuesday Showan Shattak, founder of Swedish group Football Fans Against Homophobia, came out of a ten-day coma after being stabbed by fascists on International Women’s Day. In Hungary, Trinity graduate Márton Gyöngyösi stood up in parliament and called for a list of Jewish people in parliament and government. He’s not a lone eccentric; he’s one of Jobbik’s 43 MPs.

If you oppose racism, sexism and homophobia, then you are in a struggle with fascists. Examples from around the world show that it’s not a formal debate over a podium, it’s a life-or-death struggle. Thankfully, Ireland is no Greece, Hungary or Ukraine. There is no sizeable fascist or ultra-nationalist organisation here, even though there are deep and bitter wells of hate. Anyone who tries to tap into these wells will have to deal with a much bigger and better-organised network of anti-racist and anti-fascist organisations. If, following this debate, the Phil committee decides that it would be a great idea to re-invite Nick Griffin, then we will convince them otherwise.