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Ireland’s far-right using anti-lockdown movement to smuggle in its own agenda

The second in a four-part investigation into the far right in Ireland looks at the intersection between online campaigns and the move to the streets.

This is the second of a four-part series published today and tomorrow by Noteworthy and The Journal on the growth of far-right ideology on Irish online networks, its influence and impact on real-life protests and events and the political endgame for some of its proponents.

Here, Ian Curran looks at how Irish people’s frustration with the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic is being used by certain commentators to advance other far-right ideologies.

HARD RIGHT NARRATIVES that have flourished online since the start of the pandemic are helping small, electorally unsuccessful fringe right-wing parties and personalities gain a political foothold in Ireland.

As part of our probe into the online explosion of far-right narratives online in Ireland in the past year, Noteworthy and The Journal can reveal that:

  • Having previously focused their energies around issues like immigration, 5G and anti-abortion activism, the pandemic has seen online groups coalesce around Covid-related issues and criticism of the scientific orthodoxy about the virus.

  • Since the beginning of 2020, a disparate group of personalities and political parties have seized upon the confusion and frustration caused by the pandemic.

  • The real-world effect: the stirring up of an informal anti-lockdown movement, which has made its presence known through street actions.

  • Separate from these public-facing organisations and events, conspiracy theories pushing right-wing narratives about the virus and vaccines have spread online.

  • Deliberate campaigns to push false narratives in the aftermath of news events have also been observed.

  • An assortment of other theories have been imported wholesale from the United States, to help to drive far-right narratives.

Of these other theories, some, like the ‘Great Replacement’ theory, have clear racist overtones. Other theories — like QAnon or the notion that Bill Gates, George Soros and others are trying to bring about the ‘New World Order’ through Covid vaccination programmes — are difficult to believe at a surface level.

And yet, they have found purchase in Ireland since the beginning of 2020.

This is a global trend from which Ireland has not been immune. Misinformation has spread far and wide through both mainstream social media platforms, reaching into previously apolitical spaces, and alternative ones, where the more hard-edged supporters organise and share ideas.

  • Read here to explore how direct provision centres became a catalyst for far-right activism to plant deep roots in Ireland>

***

“In Ireland, however, we have ever seized upon mediocrities and made them our leaders; invested them in our minds with all the qualities we idealised… Their failure dragged us down along with them because we had insisted that they were wiser than we were, and had stoned whoever declared them to be common mortals and not all-wise geniuses.” 

So wrote James Connolly in a 1915 article about the perils of uncritical devotion to leaders. 

Distrust of official narratives and dissatisfaction with political leaders are nothing new or unique to Irish public discourse.

Indeed, the right to question and critique the State’s ability to handle crises — whether through bank bailouts or Covid-related public health restrictions — based on informed, active engagement with the facts should be jealously guarded in any democracy.

But in the past 12 months, the spread of misleading or completely false information about the pandemic has significantly muddied the waters of debate around the government response and the virus itself.

Thousands of people have turned up to anti-mask or anti-lockdown demonstrations across the country in the past year, despite public health advice to the contrary.

Preying on insecurity and confusion at a time of national crisis has allowed certain previously fringe groups on the edge of the political right to varnish their image in a bid to increase their reach.

The anatomy of an anti-mask protest  

“If we have any bit of awareness of the power of our minds, we know that we can manifest our reality. So, we all have to be aware of where we’re channelling our energy… are we going to take control and go into a deep state of meditation and visualise exactly what it is you want to manifest?

“So, there’s many people worried about this weekend and they’re worried about getting arrested and they’re worried about not getting into the park and all I’m saying to guys is visualise all of us peacefully sitting in the park on a lovely day, enjoying music and living in a high vibrational state.”

These clearly aren’t the words of a typical right-wing ideologue. They are, however, the words of one proponent of the anti-lockdown protest that took place on Dublin’s Grafton Street on 26 February.

The protest was put together by a group calling themselves RiseUpEireann and heavily promoted on its Facebook page.

In the days before the demonstration, one of the organisers promoted it as a festival of culture and life.

The event was also assiduously publicised by prominent far-right internet personalities in the days before, like Rowan ‘Grand Torino’ Croft, a former British Army soldier from Dublin, who has become a lynchpin of the hard right in Ireland through his activities on YouTube in recent years.

Describing the organisers as “lefties”, Croft assured his followers that they were trustworthy and urged his own fans to show up in force.

Where exactly RiseUpEireann falls on the political spectrum is not clear, nor is the group particularly important within the landscape of the far-right.

But the group is an object lesson in how Covid misinformation and conspiracy theories have spread beyond traditional right-wing groups and into different spaces since the start of the pandemic.

ANTI LOCKDOWN PROTEST 303A7720 Anti-lockdown demonstrators clash with gardaí on Grafton Street Source: Sam Boal

The group’s founder has posted plenty of Covid misinformation and conspiracy theories on Facebook since the start of the pandemic, including a smorgasbord of conspiracies about everything from the fluoridation of water to Bill Gates’ involvement in Covid vaccine programmes. One post is marked with the hashtag #SaveOurChildren, which has become a rallying cry for QAnon believers around the world in the past 12 months.

Croft himself said something similar in his pre-protest video.

Asserting that science itself has “become corrupted”, he described the vaccine as “an operating system being put into your body to reprogram your immune system, your DNA, the basic building blocks of who and what the fuck you are”.

As an aside, in an explicit nod to the QAnon conspiracy theory, he also called one former government minister “a baby-eating witch”. Noteworthy asked Croft for comment in relation to this article but received no response.

No surprise then that Q banners appeared at the protest. Organised by a seemingly politically unaffiliated local group like RiseUpEireann, the event was attended by members of groups like the National Party. The Journal reporters witnessed at least five people handing out National Party literature on the fringes of the demonstration.

How did we get here?

Early anti-mask, anti-lockdown protests were sparsely attended but towards the second half of 2020 and as the first pandemic year turned into the second, the tone of the protests has become increasingly embittered.

Simultaneously, the discourse on social media has become more and more paranoid and conspiratorial.

Last summer, National Party members held up banners depicting nooses at an “anti-paedophilia” protest on Kildare Street at which they called for Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman’s resignation.

Dubbed ‘the March for Innocence’, it was part-organised by National Party affiliate Mick O’Keeffe and inspired by an online campaign led by anonymous accounts.

Demonstrators, including National Party leader Justin Barrett, called for the resignation of O’Gorman, who they falsely accused of being an apologist for paedophiles. Noteworthy asked Barrett for comment in relation to this article but we did not receive a response.

DAIL PROTEST AM4Z8104 National Party leader Justin Barrett (second from left) at the 'March for Innocence' last July Source: Sasko Lazarov; Farrell

Around the same time last summer, ‘Save the Children’ rallies had been popping up all over the United States, strongly associated with the QAnon conspiracy theory.

There are many facets to QAnon but one central idea is that a cabal of paedophiles is at the wheel of global power and that former US President Donald Trump was waging a secret war against them.

On the other side of the Atlantic, QAnon supporters have zeroed in on a troubling statistic: that 800,000 children are reported missing in the United States every single year.

The narrative that 800,000 children are “disappearing” each year, however, is false.

As QAnon observers Julian Feeld and Travis View explained on US podcast TrueAnon last September, the idea that 800,000 children go missing each year comes from an old article from the National Centre for Missing and Exploited Children.

The podcast hosts explained: “What people did was that they just googled how many children are missing every year. And [800,000] was the Google answer box answer: the very first result that you see when you Google that question.

“And this is where the QAnon and PizzaGate people stopped researching. They didn’t look any further than that or ask deeper questions. They saw 800,000 missing children and they concluded from that that there are 800,000 abductions and children are just disappearing off the planet at a rate of about a million a year.”

It’s difficult to get concrete figures but most credible estimates put the number of child victims of sex trafficking in the US much lower. 

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), over 400,000 children are reported missing in the US every year. That’s still very high, of course, but roughly 99% of them return home safe. The FBI says that on average, fewer than 350 people under the age of 21 have been abducted by strangers in the US every year since 2010.

But it shouldn’t be difficult to understand why certain QAnon or QAnon-flavoured narratives have found purchase in Ireland, given the legacy of widespread clerical abuse and other sexual abuse scandals. While Q and its various offshoots have no obvious link to the pandemic, the theory has flourished in Ireland in the past year.

As The Journal reporter Stephen McDermott explained recently, conspiracy theories can help “to portray a world that is ordered amidst the uncertainty of the pandemic.”

“Conspiracy theories flourish when social machinery breaks down and available ways of making sense of the world prove inadequate for what is going on,” Open University psychology lecturer Jovan Byford explained on the BBC last year.

‘False flag operation’

At another protest in Dublin in September 2020, security groups’ wearing mocked up ‘Antifa (anti-fascist action) hunting permits’ were photographed patrolling the edges of the demonstration. 

Analysis of posts on Telegram, a messaging app used as an alternative to Facebook-owned WhatsApp, revealed a huge push to amplify disinformation about an incident at that protest in the days that followed.

According to the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD) — a London-based think tank that monitors extremism online who worked on this project with Noteworthy and The Journal — prominent Irish ethnationalist and far-right channels published disinformation that the incident at the protest was staged. Separately, counter-protestors were targeted with antisemitic slurs online.

Some channels pushed the narrative that the incident was a “false flag operation”.

This kind of paranoid thinking about public incidents is extremely common in these circles.

Following the fatal shooting of George Nkencho by gardaí in west Dublin in January, popular right-wing YouTuber Gearóid Murphy said that the media had been involved in “an op” to muddy the waters around the incident.

Corkonian Murphy is a far-right activist who, in a now-deleted tweet from 2018, described his political views as “probably somewhere between libertarianism and national socialism with a touch of Christian ethos”.

In January, he said that because media outlets had reported on the quantity of disinformation about Nkencho — particularly the false claim that he was a convicted criminal — that spread through mainstream and alternative social media platforms in the hours after his shooting, this was evidence of coordination between the media to discredit the far-right.

In a video posted on his YouTube channel, Murphy said the idea was that “anyone who promotes a point of view and says that [Nkencho] was a criminal, and that the media ignore black crime, and that they excuse it… if you think that you’re far-right”.

“There’s no way that that happens just by accident,” he said, “ that they all just happen to think, ‘This is the most compelling fact of all’. It is a coordinated thing. It’s an op”.

Spinning the George Nkencho shooting

Institute of Strategic Dialogue ISD research found that five hours after the news broke, clear directions were posted across Telegram channels that instructed followers how to react to the George Nkencho shooting... stay home. . . make memes, dig up stats, turn on your VPN and get trolling

In reality, it was the far-right who began spinning about the killing in the hours after the shooting.

ISD analysis revealed that conspiracy channels on Telegram were giving clear instructions to followers on how to use the shooting to stir up racial tensions with others on social media. 

According to ISD, “Five hours after the news broke, clear directions were posted across Telegram channels that instructed followers how to react to the shooting incident. Followers were told to avoid going to protests or getting into discussions with people about the incident. Instead, they were told, ‘stay home. . . make memes, dig up stats, turn on your VPN and get trolling’.”

One message said that “joggers” are “not capable of logical reactions, they only think emotionally and have zero impulse control”. Joggers, in this context, is a racial slur used to describe people of colour that originated as a meme on 4chan following the fatal shooting of Ahmaud Arbery in the US in February 2020.

The solution, the author of the Telegram message said, is to “abuse them [Black people angered over the shooting of Nkencho] (anonymously) on Twitter and Instagram and fuel the chimp out”. This, they hope, will lead to them taking their anger onto the streets to direct it towards the Gardaí.

ISD recorded 4397 posts across 28 channels in the week following the shooting of George Nkencho, with 3,072 of these consisting of text-based messages.

***

Members of the tiny Irish Freedom Party have been central to the spread of Covid-related misinformation since the start of the pandemic.

Although its leader Hermann Kelly disavowed the violence that occurred on Grafton Street and told The Irish Independent that he is “sick to death of unsubstantiated conspiracy theories which come from watching too much YouTube”, members of his own party have been observed spreading falsehoods about the pandemic.

Professor Dolores Cahill, the party’s deputy leader and the thought leader of the small but vocal Covid scepticism movement in Ireland, has since early last year, made numerous false or misleading statements about the virus.

For example, in a now-infamous video, which has been removed from Facebook after being debunked by US science website Health Feedback, the UCD academic claimed that people will have “hardly any symptoms” if they get the virus once they have been eating healthily and taking vitamins C and D along with zinc. She also said that there is no need for a vaccine for Covid-19.

DAIL PROTEST AM4Z8089 Irish Freedom Party leader Hermann Kelly speaking outside the Dáil last year. Source: Sasko Lazarov; Farrell

But who exactly are the IFP?

Formally launched in 2018 to advocate for an Irish exit from the EU, the hard right party targeted the 2019 European elections as its first electoral outing. However, having failed to tick a box on its application form sent to the Oireachtas Registrar, the party was unable to contest the election as a full-fledged party.

As such, party members including Kelly and Cahill ran as independents, both unsuccessfully.

The party is also strongly associated with Yellow Vest Ireland, which while avowedly apolitical, has been a central plank to the anti-lockdown movement in Ireland.

Ben Gilroy — a self-described anti-eviction campaigner with strong anti-abortion convictions — is one of their main spokespersons. He also ran as the IFP’s candidate for Dublin Bay North in the last general election.

Kelly — a former advisor to Nigel Farage — has links with both loyalist and far-right personalities and parties in the UK.

In 2019, he appeared in a video interview with Britain First founder and far-right agitator Jim Dowson. Although he has since left Britain First, Dowson, a former Orange Order member and a close confidant of British fascist Nick Griffin, remains a key figure on the hard right in Britain and Ireland.

He has previously described the ultra-Catholic far-right group Síol na hEireann and its Donegal-based leader, Niall McConnell, as his “good friends” and praised him for delivering a speech outside the offices of The Journal last September, which railed against the “fake news Irish media” for “pumping anti-Irish Marxist, communist rhetoric” and “LGBT propaganda”.

Email correspondence released under Freedom of Information between Standards in Public Office Commission (SIPO) officials and IFP finance officer Michael Leahy reveal that the party received 26 online payments from Great Britain throughout the course of 2019. Some 22 of these payments were related to membership.

On 12 December 2019, SIPO official Brian McKevitt emailed Leahy to confirm that membership fees are “not a donation for political purposes, where it concerns membership of a third party.”

However, McKevitt wrote, “a payment by the person on their own behalf, or on behalf of one or more than one other person, of a fee or subscription for membership or continued membership of a registered political party is a donation for political purposes.”

McKevitt asked Leahy to confirm that the four payments in question “were made by Irish citizens”.

On 20 May 2020, McKevitt emailed Leahy again.

“The Commission has not received a reply from you,” McKevitt wrote. “Please respond to the outstanding issues as soon as possible and no later than 20 May 2020.”

SIPO finally received a response from Leahy on 10 June, 2020. “In the interests of data protection”, Leahy said he had included a print-out of the IFP’s online contribution page but redacted the names of donors.

McKevitt replied asking for unredacted versions of the documents to be returned to SIPO no later than 19 June. 

They were eventually furnished later that month and the Commission wrote to the IFP to confirm that “despite its initial refusal, the party had ultimately complied with the request for unredacted documents showing the identity of donors to the party”.

Asked if those issues had been resolved and whether the four donors were, in fact, Irish citizens, a SIPO spokesperson told Noteworthy that while the Commission “cannot comment on specific compliance matters, what I can say is that the Commission has no outstanding queries in respect of donations received by any party in the 2019 reporting year”.

We asked the Irish Freedom Party’s Hermann Kelly if he could comment on the interactions with SIPO or confirm if the Irish Freedom Party had British-based members but he declined the opportunity to respond to this or any other request for comment Noteworthy made in relation to this article.

Where to next?

The ultimate goal for the IFP and also the National Party is electoral success, something that has eluded them in recent years.

For example, the IFP, by far the more experienced political operation of the two with former Farage advisor Kelly at the helm, ran a total of 11 unsuccessful candidates last February, pulling in just 0.25% of the national vote. In Dublin Bay North, Gilroy managed to muster up just over 1% of the first preferences.

But the pandemic has given anti-lockdown figures like Gilroy a large platform from which to self-promote. In Balbriggan recently, he appeared alongside a beauty salon owner who opened her business in breach of Level 5 restrictions. The event was live-streamed on the Yellow Vest Ireland Facebook page.

Behind the scenes, efforts have been made in recent weeks to unite the various forces, leading to February’s protest gathering on Grafton Street dubbed ‘Unite the Tribes’.

In some ways, it was a gathering that was remarkable for the people who were not there. There was no sign, for example, of Gilroy or National Party leader Barrett who both spoke at a number of anti-lockdown protests last year in the capital.

Activists who monitor the far-right in Ireland say this is part of a new strategy to allow smaller, atomised groups like RiseUpEireann to take on the mantle after their activities drew unwanted scrutiny from the media and Gardaí last year.

Another development in recent weeks has been the so-called ‘purge’ of mainstream social media platforms like Twitter, Facebook and YouTube in the wake of Capitol Building riots on 6 January in Washington DC.

trump-supporters-storm-us-capitol The storming of the Capitol building in Washington DC in January motivated some of the larger social media platforms to perform a clearout of some far right players. Source: Lev Radin/Pacific Press via PA Images

As social media companies belatedly began to take action against the groupings and personalities who had spurred on the violence, certain prominent Irish far-right figures have been caught in the crossfire.

Some Irish personalities have since withdrawn from or been booted off mainstream platforms.

Since January, radical right YouTubers Croft and David ‘Computing Forever’ Cullen to name some of the more well-known, have either been removed from mainstream platforms or left in protest.

Croft and Cullen disappeared from YouTube, although Cullen’s page has recently reappeared on the site. On another platform, Croft told his followers that YouTube booted him for “medical misinformation” relating to a video he posted of Professor Dolores Cahill as well as “a little bit of hate speech”.

Prominent Yellow Vest page Tiger Reborn — a prodigious publisher of Covid-19 misinformation— has also evaporated in recent weeks.

But activists who monitor these groups and figures in Ireland say that the so-called purge of mainstream platforms has been completely overblown. Countless Covid-denying Irish Facebook groups are still in operation.

Personalities like Croft and Cullen use what’s left of their mainstream presence as a billboard, advertising content on alternative platforms.

With more anti-lockdown protests scheduled for St Patrick’s Day, the activities of these groups and figures are set to once again return to mainstream attention.

***

This investigation was carried out by investigative platform Noteworthy and our colleagues at The Journal.

The idea for this investigation was proposed and funded by you, our readers, as well as with support from the Noteworthy general fund to cover additional costs.

You can support our work by submitting an idea, funding for a particular proposal or setting up a monthly contribution to our general investigative fund HERE>>

  • Special thanks to Aoife Gallagher and Ciarán O’Connor of the Institute of Strategic Dialogue for their assistance in tracking far-right content online across this EYES RIGHT project.

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