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Thursday 7 December 2023 Dublin: 10°C Green councillor Hazel Smyth said many councillors felt "intimidated" against speaking out against demonstrators in Mullingar. Photo shows protests from earlier this year.
anti-migrant protests

Local politicians call for action over 'increased sense of threat' amid far-right protests

Councillors told The Journal of how recent months have seen a focus on local representatives from certain parties.

LOCAL POLITICAL REPRESENTATIVES say they are facing an “increased sense of threat” from far-right activists over recent months as a result of a growth in agitation around anti-immigration protests.

City and county councillors from around the country outlined incidents, from being called slurs including “groomer” and “baby killer”, to direct confrontations during canvasses.

They told The Journal it’s an example of how politicians on the Left in particular have been the focus of “intimidation” and attempts to “make them afraid of speaking up” in support of marginalised communities.

Some local party branches have now adopted security procedures to guarantee their safety while ensuring they can organise in their community.

A number of representatives who spoke to this website said numerous incidents were linked to their support for the LGBT+ community.

One councillor in Westmeath said there is an increasing fear that “some protesters might resort to violence to quash the counter-narrative” provided by local anti-racist networks and politicians around migrants seeking refuge in Ireland.

The past week saw a new escalation in attacks on politicians with a rock thrown through the window of the family home of independent Dublin councillor Hugh Lewis.

Lewis’s father now resides in the residence and he found the rock wrapped in paper carrying a message that his son was to stop providing support to migrants.

“This is your last warning,” the message read.

Prior to that incident, People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy had his home targeted while he and his partner were giving their newborn baby a bath.

Other representatives have been targetted in recent years, including former Lord Mayor of Dublin Hazel Chu, and councillors who spoke to The Journal said they have seen an uptick amid wider agitation against migrants and LGBT+ people.

Hazel de Nortúin, a PBP councillor for Dublin, said she can trace these incidents back to January.

Drimnagh protest

It was at that point that protests took place outside a local school in Drimnagh that was used to provide emergency accommodation for refugees over the Christmas period.

De Nortúin found there to be widespread disinformation, including some anti-migrant demonstrators claiming she had organised one protest that she in fact had no role in arranging.

“There is this fear in communities that they’re tapping into,” she said. 

She outlined a confrontation where a man came up to de Nortúin and other canvassers. He pushed them and when canvassers held their ground the incident concluded. But the branch now maintains a rule that activists are not to canvass alone.

“There have been instances where canvassers are told they’re ‘groomers’ by people,” de Nortúin said, referring to a term used by opponents trying to frame LGBT+ people as paedophiles.

Protests later took place in Mullingar, Co Westmeath outside a disused army barracks which has been used as accommodation for asylum seekers.

Demonstrators planted election posters in the ground for party leaders and local TDs from across all the major parties – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Sinn Féin – with red writing across each, branding them a “traitor”.

ANTI IMMIGRATION MARCH 1L2A2737 Eamonn Farrell Signs such as the above of Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, from a protest in Dublin, were dotted around the entrance to Mullingar Barracks. Eamonn Farrell

Local Green Party councillor Hazel Smyth said the protest had an impact on many local representatives, and she was herself “discouraged by other councillors from speaking out” about the barracks protests.

“I was told to avoid it like the plague or like keep a 12-foot pole away from it, that kind of thing.

“Because some of these people who are involved in those protests could be quite dangerous and vicious so I was told ‘you might be better off just staying away from it,’” Smyth said.

“I do think that as a public rep, you need to work to be able to listen and filter out the actual kind of valid concerns versus those that aren’t,” she added.

Smyth found that among the protesters were some “vulnerable” people who were being “almost preyed upon” by more senior far-right agitators.

She decided against visiting the barracks due to concerns for her safety.

‘Baby killer’

She had previously received phone calls where the caller, a woman, told Smyth she “hates women” and is a “baby killer”.

The former mayor of Mullingar said that canvasses and local work are needed to try to provide a counter-narrative on refugees and LGBT+ people.

However, Smyth said there is a fear among several councillors and activists that “some protesters might resort to violence to quash the counter-narrative” provided by local anti-racist networks and politicians.

While she found canvasses in Mullingar regularly provided people who disagreed with the protests, her party colleague Janet Horner has found the doorstep in Dublin to be quite different, where slurs are shouted at her and canvassers regularly over the past year.

Horner, who is based in the north inner city ward, said she feels an “increased sense of threat” which has also been reported back by locals living in the area.

This is most often felt by “marginalised communities, Hornder added and cited examples of “gay couples no longer holding hands in public” and black people feeling uneasy out and about.

However, she is determined not to be put off by the attacks and believes it’s important not to give in and “not allow yourself to be pushed away from organising”.

Horner said she “wants to see a strong clear line from gardaí that it’s 100% not acceptable, that you can’t engage in this type of behaviour against people”.

She added that there hasn’t been a “stern hand to date” from An Garda Síochána in addressing protests.

“People should be supported by their institutions and the gardaí,” Horner continued.

Abuse for activists

Brian McCarthy only took a seat on Cork City Council last month and has already faced a marked contrast in what comes his way – especially on social media.

“My social media would haven’t been targetted at all before now,” McCarthy said, adding that the larger presence on social media since being co-opted for his party colleague Fiona Ryan had seemingly drawn abuse.

But as an activist over the past year prior to entering electoral politics, he says he saw numerous confrontations when running stalls, canvasses etc.

“The issue is a few people could take the abuse that’s happening now a step further. We saw that with the rock thrown through Hugh Lewis’s window.”

Several months ago, the Socialist Party in Cork adopted “security procedures to prevent the far-right from being able to disrupt” its stalls, canvasses and meetings, McCarthy said.

This was done to guarantee the safety of members and ensure their activism can continue.

What’s next

McCarthy gained comfort following a protest held by trade union Forsa for library workers earlier this month, where a large crowd turned out to show support for staff.

He said this showed that the far-right are outnumbered, even though “they shout very loud”.

“The one thing and one thing only giving them space and oxygen to grow and that’s the housing crisis. That needs to start going in the right direction very soon or this will only continue,” McCarthy said.

De Nortúin said communities need stronger funding to begin to turn the tide and prevent further disillusionment from taking hold.

“How do we pull this all back? It’s a disgrace on all of us that it’s been let get this far, but politicians in government haven’t listened to the pleading of people, of children in homelessness. I don’t know how many reports have been written about my community and yet we’re still in this position.”

In Mullingar, Smyth said there is a need for “church and sport leaders” to take a more active role in combatting disinformation and preventing that type of messaging from becoming normalised”.

“Some of the rhetoric is very aggressive and very hateful, and as a public rep you have to consider your own safety and the safety of your loved ones. But we need to prevent this from taking a foothold in the country because it can have devastating consequences.”

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