Raising ire in Ireland: Covid lockdowns prove fertile breeding ground for far-right groups

The pandemic and lockdowns have proved a fertile breeding ground for far-right organisations and parties to use public fear to spread hate towards ethnic and sexual minorities. 
Raising ire in Ireland: Covid lockdowns prove fertile breeding ground for far-right groups

Anti-lockdown protests have been seen in cities nationwide, with violent clashes between anti-lockdown, far-right protesters and counter-protesters in October.

In the hours following the fatal shooting of George Nkencho by gardaí in west Dublin last December, an image began to circulate on social media.

Among many tributes to the 27-year-old, one striking image was shared. It contained a picture of Mr Nkencho along with a number of crimes he had, according to the image, committed.

It stated he had 32 convictions. The image did not explicitly say what its purpose was, but the implicit reason was clear — that Mr Nkencho was violent and unpredictable and that made his shooting justified.

The image is a favourite of right-wing discussion groups on social media platforms like Facebook, Telegram, and Gab.

It is also completely untrue.

Mr Nkencho had no criminal convictions and gardaí have, while not commenting directly, warned about lies swirling around the case which is subject to a Gsoc and criminal investigation.

In the hours after Mr Nkencho’s shooting, Dublin Lord Mayor Hazel Chu sent a pair of tweets.

First, she tweeted: “Thoughts are with George Nkencho’s family and friends. May he rest in peace.”

She followed this up: “Regardless of circumstances, a family is grieving & thoughts are with them. It doesn’t mean thoughts aren’t with all those involved, especially for those harmed mentally or physically during this incident by virtue of doing their jobs. But there is a life lost & a family grieving.”

The tweets sparked faux outrage among those on the right, with some of the more hysterical reactions accusing the Green Party councillor of “inciting a race war”.

Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu: "If it comes down to one thing — you don’t like a woman of colour in this office — then we have a huge problem." Photo: Leah Farrell / RollingNews.ie
Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu: "If it comes down to one thing — you don’t like a woman of colour in this office — then we have a huge problem." Photo: Leah Farrell / RollingNews.ie

“This is the playbook of the far-right,” says Stephen* who actively tracks misinformation from far-right figures.

“They will latch onto a seemingly reasonable or justifiable concern and turn it into a crusade. So they will pretend that Hazel Chu has said something unbecoming of the office when the tweets were perfectly reasonable.”

The tweets prompted two now-deleted petitions to have Ms Chu resign from her position, but Stephen says the success of these was never the point.

“It’s about a gateway drug, something to trip you down the rabbit hole. The pattern that we’ve seen time and again is that people will take a position that they’re against one thing — and that can be a very reasonable thing — but once they’re in these groups and on these pages, they’re bombarded with so much ‘awakening’ propaganda that they can be become ensnared. Others will take criticism at home or online about one issue and dig in on every issue."

With Hazel Chu, it was never about getting her to resign. It was about her being an outspoken woman of colour. It always has been.

Last month, Ms Chu was physically accosted outside the Mansion House by a small group of protesters calling for her resignation over the tweets.

“I didn’t think my life was in danger but it was deeply uncomfortable,” Ms Chu told the Irish Examiner.

“They’ve been calling for my resignation since I spoke about the shooting of George Nkencho.

“It’s not about my policies because no other Green Party rep is being protested. If it comes down to one thing — you don’t like a woman of colour in this office — then we have a huge problem. We have a vocal minority in this country we have to tackle.”

That vocal minority has grown in number over the last year, using public scepticism about public health restrictions, masks and lockdowns to amplify their messages.

Supporters of the family of George Nkencho, who was shot dead by gardaí in west Dublin last December, hold a candlelight procession in his honour last month. In the hours following the fatal shooting, an image began to circulate on social media that was completely untrue.
Supporters of the family of George Nkencho, who was shot dead by gardaí in west Dublin last December, hold a candlelight procession in his honour last month. In the hours following the fatal shooting, an image began to circulate on social media that was completely untrue.

Led by a group of right to far-right figures, anti-lockdown protests have been seen in cities nationwide, with violent clashes between anti-lockdown, far-right protesters and counter-protesters in October.

Just 11 days later, the violence spread to Dublin’s Grafton St as gardaí arrested 11 anti-lockdown protesters. Garda sources say this protest was “worrying” as it contained “much nastier language and elements” and had dispensed with any real political covering.

Previous lockdowns had been led by politicians from the Irish Freedom Party or a coalition group called Health Freedom Ireland, but the one which found itself marching up Grafton St had no such pretence and garda sources say that many involved were “actively looking for hassle”.

They say that gardaí now fear that these splinter groups are more violent and less politically focused than the movements from which they originate.

“Some of these fellas don’t even pretend to be respectable,” said one source.

The case of Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman

The first elected official to feel the brunt of the far-right during Covid-19 was Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman.

Mr O’Gorman, who is gay, was accused without evidence of promoting paedophilia after a picture from 2018 of Mr O’Gorman with LGBT rights and Aids campaigner and former UK election candidate Peter Tatchell appeared online.

In 1997, Mr Tatchell was forced to defend parts of a letter he wrote to The Guardian newspaper in which he spoke about sex between adults and children, in which he said his comments were taken out of context, adding that the letter said paedophilia was “impossible to condone”.

After the photograph appeared, an online campaign was launched to have the Green Party minister resign.

Minister for Children Roderic O'Gorman says that heading into post-Covid Ireland, everyone must stay vigilant to the prevalence of the far right. File Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie
Minister for Children Roderic O'Gorman says that heading into post-Covid Ireland, everyone must stay vigilant to the prevalence of the far right. File Photo: Sam Boal/Rollingnews.ie

Later, a demonstration was held at Leinster House, attended by Renua, the Irish Freedom Party, and the far-right National Party, where banners, adorned with pictures of nooses, were paraded as people shouted: “hands off our kids”.

Mr O'Gorman was threatened and defamed repeatedly. He admits it got “intense” very quickly.

“It was very quick after being appointed as minister however I don’t think I ever felt unsafe.

“However, waking up in the morning and seeing notifications on all your social media feeds, with all kinds of really vile abuse was really disconcerting.

“Seeing who it was from, the kind of anonymous bot accounts with fake names, and numbers and Irish flags instead of a picture, something like that, I kind of had a sense it was from the far-right and it was masquerading as concern for children but really it was just used to attack me.

"So, even if I was never afraid for my safety, it was an experience like I’ve ever had before."

The minister says that heading into post-Covid Ireland, everyone must stay vigilant to the prevalence of the far right.

“I think it’s education, and we think it’s responding appropriately to the small stuff and fighting lies with facts, rather than maybe direct attacks on individuals, because I think, a lot of the far-right, they generate a persecution complex around themselves.

“When you’re engaging, I think we should be contradicting them with facts and I think that’s really relevant to their use of Covid, rather than attacking them individually, saying: You’re wrong for the following 17 reasons and listing those reasons.”

The case of Sinn Féin Senator Fintan Warfield

One of the most trolled politicians in Ireland is Sinn Féin Senator Fintan Warfield.

Mr Warfield is the party’s LGBT+ spokesperson and was forced to go to gardaí after far-right trolls targeted him online and he was abused in the street.

“Although I’ve always been trolled, this particular instance started because I was wearing a gorgeous, very colourful shirt in the Dáil,” he said.

“I spoke about what the Government was doing to progress gender recognition for transgender kids and the legal recognition to change birth certs.

“Over the next few days, I’m told that the screenshot of me in the Dáil was moving around online, debate about what to wear in the chamber was kind of raging, and then it tipped over into the content of my speech about transgender rights.

“Then it started to get quite sinister, at this point I’m off Twitter and not checking it, and then being told by people other photos were being pulled from my Instagram from 2017 when I was wearing a T-shirt of Pope Francis on it.

“People took it as offensive, some other photos that had previously been used to mock me online from Pride with my partner.

One comment on an Instagram picture of my partner and I said: ‘All of you will be removed, mark my words’.

“It was highly intense over a weekend, everything else before that felt small. That week, I was walking home from the Dáil one evening after work and a group of young men called me a pervert as I passed them.”

After speaking with his party leader, Mr Warfield went to the gardaí.

A dossier handed over to gardaí details some of the most disturbing tweets.

Sinn Féin Senator Fintan Warfield faced abuse for his views. 	Picture:RollingNews.ie
Sinn Féin Senator Fintan Warfield faced abuse for his views. Picture:RollingNews.ie

Mr Warfield is repeatedly called a “paedophile”, “a danger to children”, “a pervert” who “needs the rope” and is “a danger to children”.

“After that, the people who oppose you start to try and piece apart what you’re saying that you created this fake narrative or lying about what happened, which feels weird,” he said.

“Most of the accounts had no followers with names like: ‘Irish patriot’, it was clear it was far-right. It was intense but it wasn’t new.”

The case of Fiona Ryan and Jonathan Mathis

The issue of far-right movements goes far beyond politicians and into day-to-day life.

In 2019, a Meath couple left Ireland after receiving racist abuse and death threats. Their offence? Appearing together in a supermarket ad.

Fiona Ryan, her Brazilian-born fiance Jonathan Mathis, and their 22-month old son featured in an advertising campaign for retailer Lidl. 

The ad was tweeted by former journalist and head of the Anti-Corruption Ireland party Gemma O’Doherty with the comment: “German dump @lidl_ireland gaslighting the Irish people with their multicultural version of ‘The Ryans’. Kidding no-one! Resist the Great Replacement wherever you can by giving this kip a wide berth. #ShopIrish #BuyIrish.”

Ms Ryan and Mr Mathis were subject to torrents of racist abuse, subsequently leaving the country.

Fiona Ryan, partner Jonathan Mathis, and their son were forced to flee the country after appearing in an advert for a supermarket.
Fiona Ryan, partner Jonathan Mathis, and their son were forced to flee the country after appearing in an advert for a supermarket.

Ms O’Doherty had earlier that year tweeted a photo of a junior infants class at a school in Longford with the caption “The changing face of county Longford in rural Ireland” and said it “illustrates how Irish people are quickly becoming an ethnic minority in many towns of Ireland”.

The Great Replacement to which Ms O’Doherty refers is a far-right conspiracy theory which claims that white people are being intentionally eradicated in Western countries. It was pinpointed by Garda Commissioner Drew Harris as one of the common threads found in anti-lockdown movements who try to disrupt State infrastructure.

He said in October: “Their intention is as stated through intelligence, we know they are there for an unlawful purpose.

“The disruption of legitimate business, the disruption of government business or indeed the functioning of government departments.”

The far-right and direct provision

A frequent target of the far-right in Ireland is direct provision. Because the system institutionally detains asylum seekers, it is a lightning rod for anti-migrant sentiment.

When Rooskey in Roscommon was earmarked for a centre in 2019, the proposed hotel was set on fire twice. Gardaí said they were concerned “at the level of determination” shown by those behind the fires, saying they were well planned and coordinated.

In Oughterard in Galway, far-right activists produced videos to urge the locals to “identify moles lurking among you”.

Bulelani Mfaco, a South African direct provision resident and activist, said that the rhetoric surrounding asylum seekers is imported directly from America in a lot of cases, but has the same aim.

“People on the far-right create their own myths about the imagined horror of migrants.”

He says that genuine anxieties such as lockdowns or uncertainty about a person’s future are often exploited.

People have anxiety over housing and homelessness. And far-right groups pretend to care about that, but then the message becomes ‘House the Irish First’. 

"People’s fears are being exploited and they find fertile ground when there is a political class which is happy to point to migrants as a problem.”

He says “politicians are either not interested in learning or don’t care about the impact their language can have” and said that they are often disconnected from the realities of the rising far-right movement.

This point was highlighted this week in an Oireachtas housing committee discussion on electoral reform.

Jane Suiter of DCU told the committee that there was “a very clear pattern that shows that some of the discourse that is starting in QAnon groups in the US is arriving in Ireland”.

QAnon is a debunked and outlandish right-wing conspiracy that claimed, among other things, that former US President Donald Trump was fighting a secret battle against “deep-state enemies” and a cabal of child sex traffickers.

A spokesperson for the Far Right Observatory, which monitors far-right groups in Ireland, said that the pandemic has seen numbers grow.

A spokesperson for the Far Right Observatory, which monitors far-right groups in Ireland, said: “What we’re seeing is the digital architecture which can be rolled out at election time.” File photo
A spokesperson for the Far Right Observatory, which monitors far-right groups in Ireland, said: “What we’re seeing is the digital architecture which can be rolled out at election time.” File photo

“There’s an overlap between the National Party, Telegram groups, and YouTube personalities who espouse right-wing ideology. And what we can see happening is the building of a digital infrastructure.

“So around the lockdown, the Great Reopening (a call for businesses to open against public health advice) has a closed Facebook group with 4,000 members. But I would see these as digital marketing test groups.

“What we’re seeing is the digital architecture which can be rolled out at election time.”

The spokesperson said many people are attracted to the far-right under seemingly reasonable guises.

“The alt-right has a well-honed language around what they call ‘redpilling’ — you take a talking point around housing, immigration, or lockdown and you drip, drip, drip the message.

“When there’s a real issue on the ground they show up in solidarity, they represent the community and they never say the quiet part loud at the beginning.”

Sewing division in Irish communities

Last November and December, leaflets were posted through letterboxes in north and west county Dublin, Longford, and other counties by the National Party.

Both Longford and parts of north and west Dublin have been lightning rods for the far-right to stir up tensions in the community in the last year.

These communities often have considerable ethnic minority populations due to new housing developments, nearby direct provision centres or an influx of immigrants who have chosen certain areas to settle.

Local issues around transport, infrastructure and inability to access services are easily stoked by those who wish to sew division in communities, many of whom do not live in the communities themselves.

One leaflet distributed in the north Dublin area in November warned of the Government’s plan “to create a totalitarian ‘new normal’.” 

It included the baseless claims that it was:

  • mandating masks to “promote fear”;
  • that masks contributed to long-term health issues;
  • the Government was involved in a “roll-out of remote-controlled Radio Frequency Identity nano-chip implants to allow constant 24-7 monitoring of your movements, contacts, health status and digitial payments. These implants will remove all human privacy”.

Communities with ongoing local issues are targeted by such groups in order to plant seeds of distrust in government and democracy, which is further compounded by Covid regulations, loss of income and recession.

Balbriggan in north Co. Dublin hit the headlines last August when an electrical fire in a home of a black family was pounced upon by far-right agitators.

The fire was portrayed on social media by far-right accounts as a deliberate arson attack as a result of a racially motivated gang and drug violence, using doctored videos sent around Whatsapp to further promote the theory.

Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien, who is one of the TDs for the area, posted on social media at the time that the fire: “Follows very serious anti-social & criminal behaviour earlier in the town. My information is that they may be related.”

While Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell appeared on the Niall Boylan radio show on August 12, and also appeared to link the fire to anti-social behaviour, adding: “I’m no expert but it looks like there was an accelerant used.”

Mr O’Brien later deleted his tweet and Fingal Communities Against Racism said at the time it was “a very easy mistake to make given we haven’t had a long history of far-right in this country, public reps are only learning now that repeating this information is irresponsible”.

The group said the far-right was “using fears over crime in Balbriggan to push a racist agenda”.

“The far-right use every opportunity to exploit people’s fears, including fear of crime and anti-social behaviour, to stir up hatred and division and turn neighbours against each other. Unfortunately, this is part of a pattern of far-right groups targeting Balbriggan by linking crime with diversity through a narrative of racially motivated ‘gang’ violence. 

"By the time the real facts (of the fire) had been established in the media, great damage had already been done.”

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