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Sunday 24 September 2023 Dublin: 16°C
Alamy Stock Photo Dungarvan harbour in Co Waterford
Moral panic 'fizzled out' of Dungarvan after gardaí arrested woman over alleged false statement
Disinformation experts say the town is a textbook example of how the far-right attempts to exploit incidents.

OVER A RECENT four-week period, the community of Dungarvan in Co Waterford – a small town more commonly in the news for its scenic seaside views and craft beer offerings – found itself in the grip of swirling rumours about a spate of attacks allegedly being carried out by ‘migrant’ men in the area. 

It all started with a social media post about an alleged assault. 

Soon, more rumours began to take hold – about other attacks carried out in the town centre and of children in particular being in danger. 

The hearsay – all of which was unfounded – was exploited by elements of the far-right in a move disinformation experts say fits a textbook example of how fringe groups attempt to whip up a ‘moral panic’ around refugees and asylum seekers in specific areas. 

A month after the initial social media post was circulated, a Garda statement was issued scotching reports of such attacks by groups of migrant men.

In the unusual statement, gardaí in Dungarvan said they were not “aware of any alleged spate of attacks by foreign nationals as suggested”. They also hit out at the “significant volume of misinformation, disinformation and fake news in circulation in relation to public safety” in the area. 

So how did these rumours spread, how and where were they exploited and what steps can be taken to make sure similar events don’t play out in other communities across Ireland?  

In a recent visit to Dungarvan, The Journal spoke to locals and community leaders about their experience of what happened, how seriously the rumours were taken and what impact they have had since. 

dungarvan-harbour Alamy Stock Photo Dungarvan Harbour Alamy Stock Photo

Events can be traced back to last month when someone published that social media post accusing a number of men of carrying out an attack on a woman in Dungarvan in the early hours of Sunday 19 February. 

A small number of media outlets, both online and local, reported news of a statement from gardaí which said they were investigating a report of an “alleged attempted assault”. Gardaí told the press that they were aware of “social media commentary” repeating the reported accusation but that the information was unverified at that point.

Around the same time, the family of the alleged victim claimed to a media outlet that gardaí asked them to take down the initial Facebook post which carried the allegation that a “gang” of foreign men had carried out the assault. 

Following this, locals in Dungarvan told The Journal of further rumours of alleged attacks carried out by migrant men. One was purported to have been carried out in the town centre and the other saw men accused of preying on children in the town.  

Amid this uncertainty, a group calling itself ‘Volunteer Safety Patrol’ was formed and a lightly attended protest also took place in the town centre. 

However, two weeks ago, in an almost unprecedented intervention, gardaí released their lengthy statement detailing their position on the unfolding situation in Dungarvan.

The Garda Press Office, which is normally guarded on alleged incidents, issued a similar statement of this type over an alleged assault of a woman in the Finglas area of Dublin last month, describing as “a significant volume of misinformation and disinformation in circulation” regarding the investigation. 

It came in the wake of erroneous claims made by anti-immigration groups that a migrant was involved in carrying out the alleged assault in the Dublin suburb. 

Back in Dungarvan, significantly, gardaí said they had also arrested a woman for allegedly “knowingly making a false report” as part of an investigation into an alleged attempted assault in Co Waterford.

This was done as part of the Garda probe into the alleged sexual assault. The woman was arrested for an offence contrary to Section 12 of the Criminal Law Act 1976.

She was subsequently released and file is now being prepared for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions.

Section 12 of the Criminal Law Act 1976 relates to “any person who knowingly makes a false report or statement”. 

The statement confirming the arrest also said – likely in relation to the volunteer patrol group which had been formed – that: “An Garda Síochána is the sole agency invested with the statutory role of preserving peace and public order. It is also An Garda Síochána’s statutory role to investigate crime and enforce enacted legislation.

“An Garda Síochána would urge anyone with information relating to any crime to report it immediately to An Garda Síochána where it will be investigated. 

“In emergency situations such as crime in progress, or urgent Garda assistance is required, members of the public should always contact 999/112.”

Local reaction

When The Journal visited Dungarvan this week it found several people who described an atmosphere of uncertainty in the wake of the initial allegation and its spread on social media. 

One man who works at a retail outlet in the town said “many people jumped on” the initial social media posts.
He said it reminded him of another tale from the 1990s, when an ‘Angel of Death’ was rumoured to have taken to Dungarvan’s streets.

According to gossip, which was very much of the era, this figure came in the form of a woman passing around the AIDS virus by sleeping with dozens of men in the locality and beyond.

It was later put down to a misinterpreted church sermon intended as a parable for locals.

“It’s the same thing again,” he said.

At first, he said, people may have been taken what they heard about the initial alleged assault at face value because “at the time they’d have no reason not to”.

He said that when it comes to the end of the Garda investigation they still might “have no reason not to”, adding: “At the same time if accusations aren’t going to come true and that they’re made up – that’s terrible as well.”

Since the initial flurry of rumours, and the Garda response, he believes people began to “move on” and accept the whole story “might not be as clear cut”.

‘Anyone can make a victim of you’ 

Two women aged in their early 20s sitting outside the library on Davitt’s Quay outlined the uncertainty people felt following the first allegation. 

“There were a lot of people wondering. You heard that a girl was assaulted but then nothing else, so we were wondering: has this been covered up? What are the guards actually doing? Why is nobody talking about it?”

She said they later “realised” it was “all about blaming foreigners”. 

One of the women mentioned “feeling unsafe” when walking home at night, before adding: “But anyone can make a victim of you.”

Elsewhere, one woman told this website: “It’s the kind of small town where you’d always question anything that you hear because they tend to grow legs. Like I heard about it and I wondered what the story was, is that actually the case or what?”

Críostóir Ó Faoláin, a Green Party representative who is a member of a refugee support group and a local policing feedback committee, said it came up on the doors during a recent leaflet drop. 

“Some people were asking whether the social media post was true, while others said they felt it was a cover-up, that they felt it was being ignored by media and the gardaí,” he said.  

Over the past week, Ó Faoiláin said he has found people “feel really disappointed” by the possible “stoking of concerns”. 

“I honestly haven’t heard any issues beyond that – but a fairly small group of people were trying to use what happened to further their own agenda.”

‘Moral panic’

What happened in Dungarvan isn’t unusual, according to Aoife Gallagher, an analyst who works with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue which examines movements such as the far-right.

Gallagher pointed to various protests that have been taking place across the country in recent months, from Finglas in Dublin to Fermoy in Cork, as examples of “anti-refugee and asylum seeker mobilisation” in Ireland.

These groups are aiming to create a “moral panic” around refugees and asylum seekers, Gallagher said.  

“It follows a pattern that you see quite regularly with any kind of misinformation that circulates online. So [this instance] started with Facebook posts that make an allegation from a person with very little evidence to back it up.”

Those initial Facebook claims were “shared across Telegram groups associated with anti-immigrant activities and the far-right across Ireland”, Gallagher added.

“And from there, it gets picked up by so-called citizen journalists and the alternative media who seized on the story very, very quickly in order to push a narrative that has been front and centre of the entire anti-refugee and asylum seeker mobilisation over the past few months, which is essentially to try to create a moral panic over the idea that migrants pose an inherent threat to people – more than anything an inherent threat to women and children,” Gallagher said.

This effort to frame migrants as a threat can be a very powerful way to mobilise people. It’s all about creating fear and Dungarvan is essentially a perfect example of that.

One far-right figure who visited Dungarvan in the wake of the claims was Derek Blighe.

The Cork-based social media personality leads a group called Ireland First, which describes itself as a nationalist party and travels up and down the country to places where asylum seekers are living, claiming that Ireland is “under a sustained assault” from “unvettable fake refugees”.

He refers to direct provision centres as “plantations”, and “people trafficking centres”, and often alleges that the asylum seeker population in Ireland are disproportionately responsible for rape and sexual assault incidents. 

Prior to Dungarvan, he led and attended protests in Fermoy, Dublin, Kerry and Wicklow, and in nearby Lismore where protests were held over the use of a hotel as a direct provision centre. 

An “information vacuum” can also exist in the wake of serious claims as seen in Dungarvan.

“[This relates] to what journalists can report, what the guards can publicly say and what you can say on social media. It’s the wild west on social media,” Gallagher continued. 

When gardaí released their statement confirming a woman had been arrested and accused of making a false report, Gallagher said she found the idea of a “cover-up quite widespread”, which she outlined goes into “a primary narrative that something else is going on – a general conspiratorial mindset”.

sunset-dungarvan-county-waterford-ireland Alamy Stock Photo Sunset, Dungarvan, County Waterford Alamy Stock Photo

The impact can be severe, as seen in a case in England where a woman was jailed for eight-and-a-half years after being found guilty of lying about being raped and trafficked by an Asian grooming gang, and making false rape claims against a series of other men.

As reported by the Guardian, during her sentencing at Preston crown court earlier this month the judge Mr Justice Altham said her allegations were “complete fiction” and criticised her for showing “no significant signs of remorse”.

But the impact of it saw Cumbria police record 151 crimes linked to the case in 2020, including malicious communications and harassment, while “hate crimes tripled in Barrow that summer”, the newspaper reported. 

However, Gallagher stressed there is “no easy answer to how to combat” the issue of when claims break online.

“In the short-term, really good media reporting can help fill in the gaps, without breaking any media laws around what can be reported. People also need to feel trust in the institutions that are meant to protect them.  

“It’s very easy to make people believe there are cover-ups taking place when they don’t have any trust in institutions like the guards and the media in the first place.” 

The majority of people who spoke to The Journal were blunt about what they perceived to be behind the spread of news around the incidents. One woman in her 50s said she had realised it was “the far-right trying to do something”, while one man similarly felt it was due to “the far-right” that the claims had taken off. 

In Grattan Square, a woman in her 50s said she has “started reading about the far-right in Ireland” in a bid to “understand what’s going”.  

She said: “I’m aware of pockets of it around the country but I think it might be more of a micro-minority of people. Dungarvan feels like a very open place, we’ve had Syrians here in Clonea [since 2015] and the community has welcomed Ukrainians as well.”

‘Shifting’ the conversation

Gallagher said she found it a “relief” to hear that a number of people who this website spoke to were becoming comfortable describing the far-right movement in Ireland as just that: far-right.  

But she warned that the purpose of movements such as the anti-refugee groups is to also “shift” the conversation towards far-right talking points.

This can hold the aim of to “either push for more electoral success” for specific far-right parties or to “sway the parties currently in power to bring in legislation to appease the far-right”. 

A number of people aged in their 50s and older who spoke to this publication said they felt they saw more about the story from sources outside Dungarvan rather than hearing about it locally for the early days.

“I’d say that at the start I saw more about it throughout Ireland than I did here in town,” one woman said, while another local said he first heard about it from a friend living in the west of Ireland. 

One trader, who said he was not Irish, said he was reluctant to comment on the issue in case it “drew” far-right activists to his shop door. 

Other said they are aware that a small number of the Eurosceptic party National Party have been active in the region in recent years.

Dungarvan, similar to Lismore and Fermoy, is one of a number of towns dotted along the N72 that have been the scene of protests by far-right activists in recent months. The latter were targeted after it emerged that accommodation in each was earmarked for refugees.   

Emily Stafford, who was among the people to found Dungarvan Pride for the town’s LGBTQ+ community, which marched in their first St Patrick’s parade last year, said she has not found the last few weeks to have made any impact. 

“We have found this to be a really lovely place to be and to be supported, and I can definitely say the atmosphere of the past few weeks hasn’t been felt on this side by anyone I’ve spoken to thankfully.”

Housing issue

Postmaster Joe O’Riordan said the past month saw “the far-right” at play. “There was a lot of speculation and gardaí really did come under serious pressure, but they also had their own enquiries to make as part of any investigation,” he said.

When people are asked what are the big issues facing the town, O’Riordan and others pointed to housing as being key – something which is regularly repeated by far-right figures who pin the blame on people coming to Ireland. 

According to Daft, rent prices in Co Waterford had the highest increase of anywhere in the southern half of the country last summer with the average rent for the second quarter of 2022 at €1,295 – an increase of 16.5%. 

The struggle for accommodation rings true on a simpler, less scientific level as well. When The Journal looked up properties to rent on on Friday, it found just one home available. On Air BnB there were 487 properties.

This was among the issues flagged by people that makes it difficult for locals to move back and live in the area, as they find themselves priced out. 

“I really think that the government have purely made housing this major issue,” said O’Riordan, who in the past has stood as an independent candidate in local elections.

“There’s people making a fortune out of beleaguered people. Twenty years ago you could get an apartment for €400 in the centre of Dungarvan – now it would cost you €1,400, but Dungarvan also isn’t classed as a rent pressure zone.”


The Journal did speak to one person who, after saying that it would be concerning if a false accusation was made, expressed concern about ‘the native being replaced’. 

This man said that when he looked around the town centre, he believed this is what is happening. The replacement theory is a common trope where there is fear and Ireland’s far-right has been using the phrase #plantation to spread the theory online. 

Gallagher said these ideas have been around for “decades if not centuries” and get recirculated in different eras, but added that it is “indicative of where we are now” that they were being repeated during the visit to Dungarvan. 

“It shows these ideas that even three or four years ago lived on the fringes of the online world or general society are now being mainstreamed. They are the same lines that you hear from protesters. These are far-right talking points,” she said. 

Gallagher added: “This case is the idea that white people are being systematically killed off or replaced.

It creates a sinister agenda out of the reality that Ireland is no longer ethnically homogeneous. 

“I actually believe a lot of those protesters are not far-right but if they are using this language, they don’t realise it but they are parroting the narrative that has been forged by the far-right. They have been mobilised into action by the far-right whether they know it or not.”

After the Garda statement, which said a woman aged in her 30s was arrested accused of knowingly making a false report, the panic “fizzled out”, O’Riordan told The Journal.

‘Appeasement’ by parties in power

Members of the Volunteer Safety Patrol group, which counted over 900 Facebook members as of the start of the week, has “receded” and appears to be no longer active, according to one individual who is a member online.

For Gallagher, she cautioned against assuming the danger has passed entirely, saying that the purpose of movements such as the anti-refugee groups is to also “shift” the conversation towards far-right talking points.

“I still don’t think that they [the far-right] have a great support base, but they are very good at using the online world in order to spread fear and to mobilise people. So I think that we shouldn’t be complacent about where they could go.”

Garda Commisioner Drew Harris said a “hardcore” group have been involved in spreading anti-migrant sentiment but he believes “that sentiment has actually reduced” recently.

When asked about the frequency and decline in numbers at far right protests, he told The Journal: “They were building up on fear and sentiment and they were creating a certain sentiment of concern in local communities, and then using that to their own ends.”

Speaking at an event in Dublin, Harris said the anti-migrant sentiment has “reduced as people see the reality . . .  of the the actual experience of living beside refugees or migrants”. 

It’s then they find that “there’s no grounds for fear and in effect then, the numbers at some of these protests have certainly subsided, and indeed, the numbers of protests have subsided as well.”

“I think sense is prevailing. I think, regrettably, we will have a group of people with an extreme view of this, but we are constantly monitoring that and gathering intelligence as it is our responsibility to do.”

Contains reporting by David Mac Redmond