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How an electrical fire in Balbriggan became a weapon used by the far-right to ignite racial tensions in the town

Far-right activists tried to paint the incident as some form of criminal act.

The house which caught fire last month.
The house which caught fire last month.
Image: Garreth MacNamee/TheJournal.ie

ON 9 AUGUST, a home in an estate in Balbriggan, north Dublin, caught fire and was gutted.

What would normally be a local story detailing how a family lost everything in the blaze attracted a different type of attention.  

The incident became a weapon used by far-right media commentators and Twitter accounts to stir up division and hatred against members of the black community living in the area. Social media became awash with conspiracy theories, the central theme being that a group of (mainly black) teenagers had started the house fire. 

Tweets from English far-right groups mentioned “African gangs” and how they were “swarming” Balbriggan. More lies began to spread about why the house was “targeted” with some claiming that a local drug dealer lived there and the fire was an attack on him. 

These claims came with no evidence and were, in the end, wildly inaccurate. The house fire was caused by an electrical fault, and the oil tank at the rear of the property added to the devastation, according to an official Dublin Fire Brigade report seen by the family who live in the house and TheJournal.ie

No drug dealer lives at the house and gardaí are not looking for anyone in relation to the incident. The family devastated by the fire has no involvement in crime whatsoever. 

But false narratives – ranging from the blaze being linked to anti-social behaviour to an arson attack – were already online and the people who lived in the house went into hiding for nearly a week because they feared for their safety.

Jakub Zarkowski, a close friend of the family, set up a GoFundMe page after their home was destroyed. He said he found the reaction to be “ridiculous” and “racist”. 

“When it happened, I started hearing all these things about drug dealers and gangs and stuff. It could not be less true if they were trying. I think people are just trying to make up these stories for their own purposes,” he said in an interview with TheJournal.ie.

Like, there are no gangs here. Right, you see a group of white guys hanging around the shops and they’re just a few lads. But when there are black guys there, it’s a gang.”

This particular incident is one of a number in recent months which the far-right has jumped on to paint Balbriggan as a “no-go” area for the white population of Ireland. In the aftermath of the fire, even the housing minister Darragh O’Brien faced criticism for furthering the racist conspiracies by linking it to “earlier anti-social and criminal behaviour”. (He has since deleted the tweet and said at the time that he was not linking the incidents.)

Use of videos

Over the past two months, multiple videos have been shared online showing fights between local groups of teenagers in Balbriggan. The clips purport to show “black gangs” – a phrase often mentioned by the uploaders – but, in fact, they are usually groups, both black and white, who have been part of alleged anti-social behaviour in the town.   

Screenshot 2020-09-01 at 10.23.25 AM

Last month, a group of up to 40 teens began fighting in the local shopping centre.

Many similar incidents appear to be organised fights, which gardaí – who have regularly been called out for these occasions – believe were arranged through Snapchat and Instagram. 

One source familiar with policing in the area described how a cohort of young people are “waiting with their phones out” to record videos of the gardaí arriving. 

“It’s as if it’s a game to see what it will take to get the gardaí out,” he added. The recording of these fights has resulted in a large number of people viewing them on social media.

What it has also done is allow certain sections of the far-right in Ireland and the UK to use these videos as ‘evidence’ of “roaming African gangs” being violent to “natives”, a racist trope used often by ultra-white nationalists. 

In the middle of August, a car was set on fire in the Bremore Court area of Balbriggan. Almost immediately, Twitter and Reddit were full of comments claiming that the black teenagers in the town were once again to blame.

The rhetoric was identical – there are “black gangs out of control”, “migrant gangs to blame”. However, the car in question belonged to a man convicted of possession of child sex abuse images and gardaí believe this act of criminal damage was carried out by locals who did not want a convicted sex offender living among them.

Gardaí probing that arson incident explicitly said it was not linked to the ongoing anti-social incidents in Balbriggan involving young people.   

Lucy Michael, a spokeswoman for the Fingal Against Racism community group, believes the “far-right is using ideas from well-known playbooks”.

“I lived in Stoke-on-Trent when the English Defence League was trying to recruit people and it is absolutely being replicated here,” she says. 

“They’re trying to upset people about safety issues and about ‘black gangs’.”

Fingal Against Racism was set up last year when a number of high-profile, right-wing activists attempted to use the region to stir racial divisions. There are dozens of members of the group but Lucy is the only one to speak on-the-record to media about their activities.

She claims many people have had their personal information shared online by far-right activists as a way of trying to get the person to stop combating racist misinformation. 

“There are people who are trying to create these scare stories to get local people riled up. We set up a campaign group of teachers, parents and those who are members of local clubs and schools to fight back against this.”  

Micheal explained that the family at the centre of the house fire had to go into hiding due to fears for their safety. She also described how some people were prepared to use the fire for their own political purposes.

“Within two hours of the fire on the 9th, somebody in a far-right group had stitched together a video of kids fighting with an image of a fire. Someone video edited that together within two hours. They have a strategy ready to go.” 

Annotation 2020-09-07 121151 A screenshot of a video which spliced together a group of teenagers running from gardaí with the house fire.

The far-right in Ireland

Proposals for Direct Provision centres in some rural towns have acted as lightning rods for misinformation, anti-immigration rhetoric and racism over the past three years. Protests against their establishment have also been used by alt-right and far-right groups to gain a foothold in those areas

But the full extent of the power or size of such groupings in Ireland is unknown. 

“We know of regular meet-ups and weekend retreats where ideas are shared and tactics assessed. One far-right group has set up local branches to fundraise and recruit new members,” says Bryan Wall, a journalist with The Beacon - a website which tracks and reports on the far-right in Ireland. 

Speaking to TheJournal.ie, he claims the far-right here are well organised and adept at using social media push out their message.  

“There are a few main players who, combined, have a pretty large audience. This
doesn’t necessarily translate into feet on the ground so now we’ve seen a completely
cynical shift to a concern for the rights of children, as well as questioning the pandemic.

“That’s why there were 1,500 to 2,000 people at the Custom House a few weeks ago;
people who don’t believe that Covid-19 is as dangerous as it is, and aren’t necessarily
racist, alongside members of the Irish far-right.

“Some of the people that were there were identified by us, as well as anti-racism activists, as being a regular feature in far-right circles.” 

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The ploy by the various underground and online groupings to stoke racial tensions hasn’t found a strong footing in Balbriggan just yet but it is an obvious target.

According to Census 2016, Balbriggan is one of the more diverse towns in Ireland with 11% of its residents (2,371 people) classifying themselves as Black or Black Irish.   

Claire Anderton, who is originally from England, moved to Balbriggan five years ago. She said that lockdown has created a perfect storm for teenagers, gardaí and racists. 

She told TheJournal.ie: “I grew up in Hull and the same crap that is happening over there is happening here now. Now, those young lads are not innocent by any stretch but the way the media has been looking at it makes it look like there’s some race war going on. A load of rubbish, if you ask me.”

(There have been a number of stories posted on a handful of Irish websites that appear to back up the idea that the national press was ignoring serious incidents in Balbriggan because of race.)

Screenshot 2020-09-01 at 10.22.17 AM

While people in the town told TheJournal.ie about a perceived increase in anti-social behaviour and young people fighting during a recent visit, there isn’t a racial element to their concerns.

At the Castlemill Shopping Centre, cited by online commenters as a place where ‘being white is out of place’, a security man said he likes when it rains as ‘the kids don’t come around and stay in their gaffs’.

Another Covid compliance worker at the shopping centre said she is fed up of the fights and the “messing”. For one security officer, they are “just a pain in the arse”.  There was one serious incident late last month in which a teenager was hospitalised after receiving stab wounds during a fight near the shopping centre.

Teenagers – of all races – can also be observed hanging around shops, rolling cigarettes, asking people to go and buy them drink, shouting abuse at other young people, and at times, selling drugs.     

Screenshot 2020-09-01 at 10.22.59 AM

Multiple sources say that while Balbriggan has a problem with anti-social behaviour among its teenage population, it is not a particularly special case. 

One source describes how a reduction in community policing has created a level of distrust between youths and gardaí in many areas.

One garda source believes that having young people off school for six months – and giving them nothing to do – was bound to create a situation where some would find themselves in trouble. Parental responsibility is one aspect, the source says, but there is an onus on garda management to reinstall the community policing programmes which activists say were working well until Covid arrived. 

TheJournal.ie understands that a raft of community policing measures are being reintroduced in the coming weeks. But gardaí have also had to put up with their own fair share of misinformation.

In recent weeks, the garda station in Balbriggan has been receiving phone calls from people in the US who are claiming to be resident in Balbriggan and are worried about the “African population” coming in and ruining the town.

Far-right groups continue to organise using social media as well as messaging apps such as Telegram and WhatsApp but Lucy Michael wants to change the narrative on Balbriggan. 

“What we need to do is come together and fight this. There are kids fighting in the town but show me another Irish town that doesn’t have the same problem. We have to stop using the language which describes people as being part of ‘black gangs’. This is just helping to consolidate this narrative which is unfair and incorrect.”             

  • Our colleagues at Noteworthy want to find out how the far right is influencing Irish public opinion online. See how you can support this project here >>

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