"This is for our culture, our country. The only way to deal with [ refugees] is to burn them out. Go to where they live and burn them out."
The masked speaker outside Finglas Garda Station was the embodiment of the febrile atmosphere at anti-migrant protests in recent weeks.
That the man incited violence against migrants and was not immediately arrested garnered huge online comment, but gardaí have insisted they are not light on those who organise or take part in such protests.
In Finglas, some protesters were focused on the arrest of a key organiser of the "men-only" protests. Graham Carey was arrested early on Wednesday at his home in Finglas, having told an audience online that protestors would "go through" Finglas Garda Station.
Well-known far-right figures attended and streamed on social media from the rally. One person held a Nazi flag complete with swastika at the protest, which blocked main roads in the north Dublin suburb. While much of the content is less overtly
violent than the sentiment expressed by the man in the red mask, the undercurrent of the last fortnight has shifted around protests, calling into focus Government and Garda responses, with activists pointing to repeated warnings over the last three years.
While Covid lockdowns had fed into an anti-Government, broad conspiracy theory coalition, the crisis surrounding international protection has taken the rhetoric and vitriol to another level and has led to questions over how to police protests.
The concern is being felt in Government, where one TD says they have raised fears with Justice Minister Simon Harris that gardaí are "too friendly" with far-right organisations.
On Monday, Assistant Garda Commissioner Angela Willis told Dublin city’s Joint Policing Committee that in all of 2022, An Garda Síochána policed 307 protests.
In the first 30 days of January, alone, that number stood at 64.
She told councillors the recent spate of protests represented a “significant challenge” for An Garda Síochána from a policing and resourcing perspective.
“If it spills into violence, or disruption, we have to be measured in our response,” Assistant Commissioner Willis said. “We don’t want to cause a riot-style situation.”
Later that day, gardaí began an investigation into a possible arson attack at a property in Dublin city. Local representatives said rumours had been spread on social media that asylum-seekers were to be housed there. A social media video shows young men talking about the supposed new use of Rawlton House.
However, despite the rumour, the innuendo and the attack, the Department of Integration said the building was never going to be migrant accommodation.
Throughout the week, as these further anti-migrant protests continued pushing well beyond that 64-mark, the “potential for violence” has now increased, security sources have suggested.
On the plinth at Leinster House on Tuesday, Solidarity-PBP TD Paul Murphy said the situation was becoming “extremely scary”.
“I think we are on a trajectory for someone being very seriously injured or killed,” he said.
With tensions ramping up, and the gardaí warning this week of a “significant volume of misinformation and disinformation” in just one case that had become a lightning rod for anti-migrant sentiment, activists fear a tipping point in the offing.
Thehas learned of multiple instances where public representatives, community activists and volunteers have been targeted on social media for abuse or faced actual threats due to their comments or actions welcoming refugees. The issue of safety was raised at the Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting on Wednesday.
In one instance, a volunteer attending a rally welcoming refugees in recent weeks was subsequently identified online and their image shared on social forums used by the far right. They took the threat seriously and contacted gardaí. The person did not tell their family about the threat, however, as they did not want to worry them.
Others have said that as anti-migrant protests are livestreamed by attendees, or refugees-welcome demonstrations also livestreamed by far-right activists, there have been instances where screenshots have been taken of particular individuals and spread on forums, with efforts made to identify them and their places of work.
In another instance, a person who had posted on a notice board supporting Ukrainians had her private Facebook page identified and was sent a number of threatening private messages.
Furthermore, abuse is dished out to politicians who have expressed support for migrants via publicly-available comments on Facebook and Twitter, in direct messages, and in person. In September, Mr Murphy was kicked outside Leinster House during a confrontation with a number of far-right actors.
In Dublin this week alone, there have been a number of incidents, including one where a migrant man was almost struck by a car which mounted a footpath after the driver had threatened to "put him over the bonnet" of the car. This, and other incidents were filmed and uploaded to both mainstream and fringe social media, where conspiracies and misinformation have thrived.
Aoife Gallagher, an analyst for the counter-extremism think tank the Institute for Strategic Dialogue, said during her years of research she has never seen “anything like the level of extreme rhetoric and incitement to violence” in Ireland as has emerged over recent months.
“Even in the last week, every day things keep getting worse and worse,” she said, citing incidents in Ashtown, Finglas and a suspected arson in Dublin city.
“Generally, I think we’re seeing a seriously heightened level of incitement to violence against asylum seekers. A huge amount of false claims, and completely unfounded rumours, are mainly directed against migrant men.
In recent weeks, one rumour that had been spread widely on social media by right-wing agitators was that male refugees or black men had carried out an alleged sexual assault on a woman in north Dublin.
In an unusual step, An Garda Síochána chose to address these rumours[/url[ in a statement this week and made clear it was following a definite line of inquiry and it is understood the white man referred to in their release is a suspect in the case. Gardaí said they are “not looking for anyone else at this time”.
The concerns of gardaí on the ground were made in forceful terms by the Garda Representative Association last week, which warned of “near anarchy” as “antisocial elements” have latched on to protests against asylum seekers.
Detective Garda Mark Ferris of the GRA in Dublin west called for a specialist taskforce to cope with the “emerging conflict”, and that youths at anti-immigrant protests had threatened officers and called them “the fucking enemy”.
“Recent nights have seen the sub-district of Finglas thrown into a state of near anarchy as antisocial elements have latched on to a growing protest movement concerned about State policy on asylum seekers,” he said.
Meanwhile, the current Lord Mayor Caroline Conroy recently expressed concern for her personal safety during a recent demonstration outside the Mansion House. Dublin City Council is set to carry out a security review following the incident.
The Green Party councillor said she felt the need to phone gardaí after a large group of protestors campaigning against the housing of refugees in various parts of the city moved from the Shelbourne Hotel to outside the Lord Mayor’s residence on Dawson Street.
Ms Conroy told the council’s protocol meeting in late January that the “hate speeches” of the demonstrators had made her feel “very uncomfortable”. The Lord Mayor said she had also called her husband and daughter, who were not at home at the time, to tell them not to come back to the Mansion House.
In early January, a number of coordinated anti-migrant protests took place on the same evening in Dublin and Cork.
Ballyfermot was one of the locations and during the protest there, a number of demonstrators, including a prominent anti-lockdown protestor during the pandemic, ended up outside the home of former Lord Mayor of Dublin councillor Vincent Jackson.
The demonstrators were propelled by false claims that refugees were being accommodated in a number of local schools.
Mr Jackson said this week that what happened outside his home was part of a “very disturbing trend”.
“They’re spreading false innuendo, hate and creating division in our communities,” he said.
The independent councillor said some of what has been directed at him on social media has been “vicious” and he tries to encourage his daughter not to look at it online.
“I am shocked from a few people who I thought I knew who have bought into that narrative about communities coming in,” he said, adding “James Bond couldn’t think up the script line” of what some of the false stories emerging of refugees being accommodated in schools.
He has since looked at installing security at his home, and said his family feels a little unsafe after January’s incident.
Mr Jackson added: “I know some local reps who’ve said they’d seriously reconsider standing for public office again.”
His fellow Ballyfermot-Drimnagh councillor Hazel de Nortúin said in recent weeks she had spoken to friends living abroad in Germany and Australia who cannot get their head around what they have seen on social media in recent weeks.
“The whole world seems to be looking at Ireland,” she said. “People who emigrated asking what the hell is going on.”
Ms de Nortúin said the situation for local representatives at the moment is “really intense”, particularly given the speed with which these issues have ramped up in recent months.
“I’m in politics,” she said. “I have a responsibility to be aware of these issues and get involved. But my family doesn’t. It’s really affecting them. I’ve colleagues asking me if I’m worried. I’ve had to block people on Facebook because of the threats.”
Buzz O’Neill Maxwell is a member of Drimnagh for All, another of the community grassroots organisations that have been recently formed.
“We’ve been watching people going into a community, sowing dissent, stepping back and watch it explode,” he said. “It’s very dangerous.
Kate O’Connell from Fermoy and Mallow Against Racism added she felt it was “ironic” given the rhetoric from many far-right activists was about making people, particularly women and children, safer on the street when it was actually these demonstrations which were making the streets less safe.
“One of the things really striking me is when those involved in Fermoy for All are going to organisations asking for stuff, people are bending over backwards to get involved and lend support,” she said.
“If anything, the far-right activity in the town is making people aware of the situation refugees are in. There’s a defiance in that we will find places on our sports team. We will find the boots. We will find the jerseys, that kind of thing.”
Mr Jackson said similar work was under way in Ballyfermot and Drimnagh, with efforts to come up with a strategy to “counteract the negativity”.
This includes a leafletting campaign with factual information about the housing of asylum seekers, as well as a specific child-friendly version of the leaflet.
Mr O’Neill Maxwell stressed it was important to get the messages out of the good things happening in the community.
“These have to be messages of positivity,” he said.
“When you’re whipping up people’s fears and prejudices, it could be a case that somebody does something stupid and the consequences will be serious,” Mr Jackson said.
“And when that happens, the person who actually whipped up all of that may be nowhere to be seen.”
• Additional reporting by Cormac O’Keeffe