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Wednesday 29 November 2023 Dublin: 2°C Protesters outside Dáil Eireann at the start of the new Dáil term after the summer break.
Leinster House

Who were the protesters at the Dáil and what exactly were they protesting?

Filming from the protest yesterday, former Exposé presenter Aisling O’Loughlin said that she was there “giving our TDs a welcome back.”

THE MOOD WAS tense around Leinster House yesterday, as a group of around 200 protesters gathered outside the main gate of the Oireachtas, many bearing signs and banners featuring anti-immigration slogans.

Across the day, 13 people were arrested for public order offences and TDs and other Oireachtas staff were effectively trapped in the complex for a period after protesters blocked the Merrion Street entrance to the building.

One group of protesters erected a makeshift, imitation gallows with photographs of prominent politicians, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris and former Chief Medical Officer Tony Holohan attached to the frame around an effigy hanging from a noose.  

The aggressive tone of yesterday’s protest was clear and was especially evident in the video footage that has circulated online of Kerry TD Michael Healy-Rae being escorted through frenzied protesters as he left the Dáil in the afternoon.

Many protesters shouted indiscriminate abuse at people as they entered and left the Oireachtas campus and it was reported by staff that a bottle of what appeared to be urine was thrown over the wall into the car park.

But the overall message and demands of the protesters were not coherent across the day and it was not immediately clear what had united them.

So who exactly were these protesters and what was their end goal? 

Well-known faces

Call outs about the protest were posted online across social media earlier this week.

In a video posted on X (formerly Twitter) on Tuesday night, one male protester filmed himself outside the Dáil as gardaí were setting up barriers. He told viewers to “be there tomorrow for the biggest protest of the year”.

He continued: “If it is to do with the alleged proxy war in Ukraine, if it’s to do with people getting injured from taking pharmaceutical medicines that were emergency use only authorised or if it is to do with the housing, homeless, cost of living crisis or for whatever reason you are disgruntled with the government get out here tomorrow.”

Across social media, organisers of the protest have used hashtags like #CallToTheDáil and #IrelandIsFull to spread their message and encourage people to take part. 

Some of the tweets appear to be innocuous. One image shared to X ahead of the protest invited people to take part at 10am on Wednesday. It read: “Now is the time to speak up for freedom of expression”.

But others were attached to stronger messages, with one man writing “It’s time we put the government on the run”.

Hashtags like ‘Ireland belongs to the Irish’ and ‘Protect Children’ were also commonly used alongside these hashtags and continue to be used alongside videos and photos of yesterday’s protest.

One video, shared with the text “The feeling at The Daíl today was… TRAITORS OUT” [sic] showed an angry group of protesters chanting “Traitors out, traitors out”.

On the day, a number of relatively well-known conspiracy theorists and far-right organisers were in attendance at the protest.

Members of the National Party were also in attendance, with the party describing the protest in a tweet as an “anti-government” one.

Filming from outside the Dáil yesterday, former Exposé presenter Aisling O’Loughlin said that she was there “giving our TDs a welcome back”.

O’Loughlin regularly posts fringe content to her social media channels, often claiming that there is a global conspiracy involving killing people and covering up their deaths to coerce people into taking “dangerous” vaccines for Covid-19.

She has also previously claimed that the earth is flat, and not round. 

At the protest, O’Loughlin was photographed hugging Derek Blighe, the leader of Ireland First, a self-described “Centre-Right Nationalist Party” that officially registered as a political party earlier this year. Both Blighe and O’Loughlin posted the photos to social media.

While the group officially claims not to be anti-immigration, Blighe is well-known for leading anti-immigrant protests around the country.

An investigation by the Irish Times into the group’s invite-only Telegram channel showed racist and homophobic comments as well as regular encouragements to violence, including calls for TDs to be “dragged out of the Dáil”.

“Tomorrow’s the day,” Blighe said in a video promoting the protest. 

“If you’re not happy about the climate scam being pushed on you,” Blighe said, or about lockdowns, migration, or “the filth that the government is trying to push on your children, you need to be in Dublin tomorrow”. 

Blighe had recently made a video in which he claimed that free school books were a ploy to stop parents from knowing what their kids were being taught, citing an excerpt from a Horrid Henry book as an example.

Following the protest, Blighe claimed that he was unconcerned about TDs being trapped in the Dáil, saying that they should have been concerned about being “coerced to take an experimental injection”.

He later suggested that “Gardaí and politicians” had staged “a violent event to attempt to discredit peaceful protesters”.

Blighe was found guilty of theft this year after stealing what he described as a “€4 t-shirt” from a Ukrainian support service.

Activists who have taken part in protests about LGBTQ+ or sexual education books in libraries and bookshops were also at the event, including Andy Heasman.

Speaking to a crowd outside Leinster House, Heasman praised a conspiracy theorist character who appeared on the RTÉ soap opera Fair City.

“Well done Fergal,” Heasman said to cheers, adding: “He’s right on the money!”

Among other claims, Heasman said that the only purpose of proposed Hate Speech laws was to stop people from talking about “vaccine deaths” and “the indoctrination that’s happening on our children” [sic].

Heasman also encouraged people to take their children out of school en masse, echoing Blighe’s claims about free school books and claiming that students are being made to sign contracts so that they can’t tell their parents about sex education.

Heasman was jailed for two months during the pandemic for refusing to wear a mask on public transport. Heasman was also involved in protests outside Leo Varadkar’s home in 2021 and was charged for an offence against public order after an anti-immigration protest in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day of this year.

Immigration, vaccines and children

Throughout the day, the protesters seemed to take aim at politicians from across the political spectrum.

The mock gallows was adorned with images of politicians including the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald, Eoin Ó Broin, and PBP-Solidarity TDs Paul Murphy and Bríd Smith.

dail-resumes-after-summer-recess Brian Lawless / The mock gallows and effigy hanging from a noose that was brought to yesterday's protest. Brian Lawless / /

Photos of former chief medical officer Tony Holohan and Garda Commissioner Drew Harris were also attached to the mock gallows.

Repeated chants of “You’ll never beat the Irish” were heard throughout the day, and placards and signs were visible with slogans like “Irish Lives Matter”.  Another banner read “Stop sexualising children”.

At around 4pm, the crowd gathered outside the Kildare Street entrance had dwindled somewhat as protesters moved around to the Merrion Street entrance instead.

Songs were played over a speaker on Kildare Street and a woman later addressed the crowd over a microphone.

The woman spoke for about 10 minutes uninterrupted, her message although vague and confused was angry.

It was unclear who she was referring to when she said: “Pigs, that’s all you are.” 

She added: “We’ll find your addresses, and we’ll go to your home”.

The same woman also told protesters: “They will rape your fucking children” and called politicians “traitors”.

These sorts of talking points are ones shared by far-right and QAnon conspiracy theorists in the US and UK.

The claim at the heart of the QAnon conspiracy, which gathered momentum during the pandemic is extreme: that Donald Trump is waging a war against a global elite who worship Satan and traffic children. QAnon believers have decided that those who are complicit in this allegation include mainly US Democrats, celebrities and members of the media.

It is similar to the ‘Pizzagate’ conspiracy in 2016, a bizarre rumour peddled on Reddit and 4chan, that claimed a Washington pizzeria was a sinister front hiding a politically connected paedophile ring.

Shortly after the woman speaking at yesterday’s protest finished, two women were detained by Gardaí and led away from the scene.

Protesters began shouting at the Gardaí in response with one individual yelling: “Get it together for us. They are the enemy.”

As well as being promoted on X (formerly Twitter) and Facebook, the protest was also heavily flagged on the Ireland on Lockdown Telegram Group.

“What a day,” one commenter wrote late last night after the protest had dispersed. They added:  “When is round 2?” 

Jane Matthews and Shane Raymond