Michael Clifford: Large garda presence keeps things under control at Dáil protest

Michael Clifford: Large garda presence keeps things under control at Dáil protest

Anti-lockdown protesters (left) clash with counter demonstrators (right) during an anti-lockdown protest outside Leinster House. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

The violence at the gates of Leinster House flared for little more than a minute, two tops.

They spat bile and hatred at each other, lunging across the barriers erected to separate them. A firecracker was set off, missiles fired.

For a few seconds it looked as if the gardaí standing between the two gangs would be overwhelmed as each side lunged to break through the separating cordon.

So it went just after 1pm on Saturday on Dublin’s Kildare Street. Two groups, claiming to represent extreme opposite positions on the political spectrum, debating the issues at parliament’s gate in their own styles.

It could have gottn out of hand but then, in a flash, up to a dozen more gardaí appeared, jumping off bicycles, tearing down Molesworth Street, ploughing into the middle of the confrontation, their urgency heightened by the spectre of colleagues being in danger of serious injury.

Sirens blared through the chilly air and, next thing, the boys and girls from the Public Order Unit waded in to restore order and keep the peace.

The most noticeable feature of the flare-up was the professional and swift manner with which the gardaí handled it.

Social distancing was nowhere to be seen in the confrontation between the two sides, collectively numbering close to two hundred, albeit in two separate pods.

There were plenty of masks and face coverings, but the impression lingered that some of the latter were designed to prevent identification rather than protect from the virus.

The confrontation was the latest in a series of clashes between what can broadly be described as right-wing and anti-right wing groups that have taken place during the pandemic. The clashes have included assaults inflicting headwounds.

These kind of confrontations – which sometimes descend to violence - are taking place across the world right now.

Here, the numbers on both sides are relatively tiny, but history on this island shows that a small group intent on disruption can, in certain circumstances, gain a purchase.

Different groups operate under different flags but they all, right across the spectrum, proudly fly the tricolour.

On Saturday, it was the National Party that was meeting on Kildare Street for their protest. The meeting was advertised on social media.

So it was no surprise when, just before 1pm, a group of self-styled anti-fascists marched down Molesworth Street intent on disrupting what they claim is a fascist gathering.

The anti-fascists are referred to an antifa, but it is not clear what exactly they represent. Some of their number have associations with disaffected so-called Republican outfits.

The physical characteristics of both sides are pretty similar.

Plenty of young men in dark clothings and face coverings and baseball hats. Plenty of tricolours flying. Plenty of older men who look like they’ve nothing better to be doing.

Some, but not plenty, of women on both sides.

Members of An Garda Síochána order counter demonstrators to move back during an anti-lockdown protest outside Leinster House. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Members of An Garda Síochána order counter demonstrators to move back during an anti-lockdown protest outside Leinster House. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

A smattering of clothing items referencing the men and deeds of 1916. (Those poor signatories, they have ended up being claimed by every headbanger from Termonfeckin to Tehran).

The gardaí received criticism for their approach to some of the previous gatherings, but their lot in the midst of a pandemic is no picnic. This time they were well prepared.

The premise for the meeting of the National party was to decry the handling of the pandemic, with a particular emphasis on conspiracy and control as they see it.

The party leader Justin Barrett, is a veteran of various causes. He arrived dressed in a suit and shirt and tie, the only person so attired in the whole gathering.

The National party were put inside a double line of barriers, next to the wall of the Leinster House grounds. The antifa crowd were kept outside the barrier.

That was until the twain tried to meet in the middle with serious intent.

Mr Barrett and some of his colleagues took no part whatsoever in the violence.

After the flare-up the two sides spat insults across the barriers.

“Nazi scum off our streets,” roared the antifa or whatever they were.

“Paedo scum off our streets,” roared back the Nationalists.

Members of An Garda Síochána attend an anti-lockdown protest outside Leinster House. PA Photo. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
Members of An Garda Síochána attend an anti-lockdown protest outside Leinster House. PA Photo. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

One National party man kept shouting over: “Go home you fat slag”, as if chronic obesity was a known characteristic of anti-fascists. After a while he began chanting “McDonald’s…Burger King.” Now and then, somebody looking for the National Party meeting would wander up Molesworth Street, be spotted by the opposition, and chased back down.

The guards had their hands full with this carry-on. Many of these people apparently know each other by sight.

Eventually, the thin blue line of gaurds pushed the antifas back into Molesworth Street, while inside the barriers the speeches got underway For all of this, huge garda resources were deployed on Saturday afternoon.

Beyond Kildare Street, Dublin city centre was eerily quiet. It was as if much of the population was home in front of the telly for some massive national sporting event.

Except, of course, they weren’t.

Just as the pandemic has given rise to the regular confrontations of extremists, so has it prompted many others to attempt to stay safe.

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