An anti-LGBTQ+ protestor stands outside the Dáil in July. Eamonn Farrell

Explainer: Why is the far-right targeting Ireland's libraries?

In recent months a number of right wing and conspiracy theory fuelled groups have staged protests at numerous libraries. Why?

ON SATURDAY 29 JULY the City Library on Grand Parade in Cork closed its doors early to the public because of a planned protest that was to be held there.

Just before midday, a crowd began to gather on the street outside. Demonstrators set up microphones and chairs and hung a banner across the main entrance that read:

“There are only two genders Male & Female”

The event was billed as Cork Says No, and was organised by the leaders of Ireland’s newest far-right political party, Ireland First. The speakers at the event used the platform to expound anti-refugee, anti-climate policy, and a number of other right-wing political views and conspiracy theories.

Among these was a protest against the availability of LGBTQ+ reading materials for children at the library. While the banner and choosing the library as a location made it seem as though this was the central issue, the main speakers focussed on different topics.

One of the main speakers talked about the “communist infiltration” of Ireland, and referenced the “15 minute city” conspiracy theory. Another central figure called Ukrainian refugees “scammers”. One well-known protestor – Andy Heasman - talked about the “marxist infiltration” of the Catholic religion in Ireland. Others attacked the media, the government, and Sinn Féin.

A counter-protest was also held nearby, with the crowd shouting slogans against those present. In a statement on the day, Cork City Libraries said that the library was forced to close early “due to public safety concerns”.

“As part of a protest on Grand Parade a banner was mounted across the entrance without permission,” the library said.

“A request was made by Cork City Library staff that the banner be removed.

This request was refused and resulted in an escalation of a tense situation. Having liaised with An Garda Síochana it was decided it would be unsafe for library staff to attempt to remove the banner.

The demonstration was the latest in a string of anti-LGBTQ+ actions that have been held at libraries in recent months by the same individuals and a number of different groups. 

During these demonstrations, staff and the public have been filmed and aggressively confronted, and LGBTQ+ books have been torn up. The City Library in Cork has been the site of rolling protests throughout the year, and has been forced to close a number of times as a result.

In early July, hundreds of protestors marched through Cork calling for greater protections for workers in libraries. Organisers said library staff were facing ever more aggressive attacks by a disparate group of demonstrators opposed LGBTQ+ literature. 

But who is behind these protests? What are they protesting against? What do they hope to achieve and what has been the response from the mainstream political parties and the gardaí?

What are the protests about? 

While the latest demonstration at the Grand Parade took in a variety of far-right issues, in recent months libraries have been targeted specifically for the LGBTQ+ reading materials on offer, or or for holding drag story events, in which drag queens or kings (usually men dressed as woman or women dressed as men) read age appropriate stories to children.

Protests around similar issues have taken off in the United States, and have been successful in getting the books in question taken off reading lists or banned from schools in a number of states. According to a report in The Guardian earlier this year, drag storytellers in the US face regular threats of violence and wild conspiracy theories around grooming and abuse. 

According to Aoife Gallagher, Senior Analyst with the Institute of Strategic Dialogue, a think-tank that researches and seeks to counter extremism and political polarisation, movements in Ireland have been encouraged by the US example. 

“These movements in the States have actually been very successful at bringing in legislation that will restrict the teaching of LGBTQ issues in schools, and that happens really quickly in the US,” said Gallagher.

I think it really kind of galvanised the movement here to do the same. 

Since last year, direct action protests have been held in various libraries and bookshops across the country, including Dublin, Louth, Leitrim, Cork, Kerry, Mayo and others.

The protests follow a similar pattern to anti-vaccine, anti-migrant and anti-refugee direct action protests that have taken place in recent years. Demonstrators usually enter a library and locate the books, before repeatedly questioning staff about their content, and if they will be removed.

The entire action is usually filmed and broadcast live on social media, with individual clips of interactions edited and posted on Facebook, Twitter or other social media sites where they are shared widely.  

“I would call it outrage bait,” says Gallagher.

They just know that [the clip is] going generate outrage in some way or another and that is what will make it go viral.

Who is involved and main actions

Many of the central figures involved in the library protests are among those who were most involved with the anti-Covid-19 lockdown and anti-vaccine protests during the pandemic. 

According to Gallagher, from early 2022 conversations among different right-wing and far-right groups around vaccines and Covid-19 declined significantly, and were replaced with different topics of focus.

“But since then, the conversations that have bubbled up within those communities are about immigration and asylum seekers and refugees and an anti-LGBTQ mobilisation more generally,” she said.

One of the central figures involved in the library protests is Andy Heasman, who 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 after a protest in Dublin on St Patrick’s Day of this year.

Heasman is a hardline Catholic, and regularly films himself confronting library and bookshop staff about the LGBTQ+ books he objects to. At the recent Cork protest he claimed he was involved in a “spiritual war”.

He also talked about how Ireland had “been infiltrated by Marxism in our parishes” and how the Second Vatican Council of the 1960s was designed to “put the Marxism teachings” into civic and Irish society.

Another central figure in the protests is Ross Lahive, who has been involved in some of the most widely broadcast and aggressive actions in libraries.

Lahive was also heavily involved with anti-Covid-19 restrictions protests during the pandemic. He was convicted in 2022 of breaching Covid guidelines after attending a children’s birthday party at the height of the pandemic. Gardaí told the court how Lahive had been “insulting and abusive” and had called them “Nazi scum”.

Lahive also used to report for the Epoch Times, an online medis site based in the US that often publishes Covid-19 misinformation.

Lahive was among a group of protestors who were escorted into Swords library in April by gardaí during counter-demonstrations that took place there.

According to reports, Lahive – along with another central library protest figure Jana Lunden – were brought into the library, where they confronted staff about the books on offer there, which protestors termed “pornographic”. Rival demonstrators supported by People Before Profit were kept outside. 

The move by gardaí was widely criticised by LGBTQ+ groups and the counter-demonstrators present. 

Lahive and other protestors have previously filmed themselves tearing up LGBTQ+ books in the City Library in Cork, and he was also involved in an action that garnered huge international attention from far-right media and conspiracy theory websites. 

In July, Lahive – along with other protestors – filmed themselves pushing their way into a room in Tralee Library, Co Kerry, where a small group of parents and their children were taking part in a Drag story time hour.

The event was a part of Kingdom Pride Week, and two drag kings were reading stories to the children and their parents.

Lahive filmed those present and did not let the event continue. He was calmly asked to leave on a number of occasions but refused to do so. According to reports, gardaí were eventually arrived and the demonstrators dispersed. Children were reported as being left “terrified” and library staff were “shaken and upset” by the encounter.

An edited clip of the event incorrectly captioned and posted without any context then went viral and was shared by US website InfoWars, the vehicle of noted conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, that frequently boosts misinformation. It was spread by right wing media around the world on Twitter, generating thousands of hateful comments and reactions. 

In an emotional video following the event one drag king said it had been “a truly terrifying experience”. 

According to Aoife Gallagher, the demonstrators know that aggressive and confrontational tactics spread well online.

“They really realise that these kind of aggressive and confrontational tactics work really well online. And that kind of outrage will spread that video viral in two different ways,” she said, with both people who disagree and who agree with the actions sharing it.

A third noted library campaigner is Jana Lunden, who was also involved in anti-lockdown protests, and has been at the centre of many anti-trans and anti-LGBTQ+ library demonstrations.

Along with this, a number of small campaign groups are involved, such as the Natural Women’s Council, the Irish Education Alliance and the Parents’ Rights Alliance.

What the protests are about

The demonstrators are small in number, but highly vocal and recently organised. In general, they take issue with certain LGBTQ+ books being available to people under the age of 18 in libraries, regardless of whether their parents consent to it or not.

According to Libraries Ireland, a child can only join a library with the consent of their parent or guardian, and if they want to change a borrower category (from a Child to a Young Adult, for example) parents/guardians must accept the terms and conditions of membership on their behalf.

While there is a list of titles that demonstrators object to, the book that gets the most focus is This Book is Gay by English trans writer Juno Dawson.

The book was first published in 2014, and is described in its tagline as a “funny and pertinent book about being lesbian, bisexual, gay, queer, transgender or just curious – for everybody, no matter their gender or sexuality”. It is listed as being for the 14-17 year-old age range.

The book has also been described as a “how-to” for gay relationships that explores many aspects of LGBTQ+ life and culture. However, in recent years it has been widely condemned in the US by right-wing and conservative commentators, and was the 9th most banned book in America last year.

While the book itself covers and wide range of topics, protestors zero in on what they say is “sexually explicit” content within. Specifically, they take issue with sections of the book that deal with gay dating or hook up apps and the detailed guides on LGBTQ+ sexual relationships, arguing that this material is explicit should not be available for children.

Within this context, demonstrators frequently accuse library staff as facilitating “grooming”, which is defined as building a relationship and lowering a child’s inhibitions for the purpose of sexual abuse.

The “grooming” slur is one frequently levelled against LGBTQ+ people and is linked to the widespread misinformation and homophobia directed at these groups.

In an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine earlier this year, Dawson hit back at claims that the book is “pornographic”.

“I would challenge anyone to be titillated or aroused by what is essentially a textbook,” the author said.

What I would say, however, is that it’s thorough. We teach young people who are 11, 12, and 13 years old how babies are made. We teach them about sexual intercourse, contraception, and sexually transmitted infections. And that’s great and we should be doing that. But I also think LGBTQ+ people should be taught about sexual relationships. 

A number of other books have also been targeted for the materials contained in them, with protestors arguing that they should not be available for children.

While Cork and other libraries have refused to remove the book from the Young Adult section of the library, some previous complaints about Dawson’s book have seen the book removed. 

In January, Children’s Books Ireland said it had removed This Book is Gay from its Pride Reading List for 2023, which contains 100 LGBTQ+ inclusive titles for young readers aged 0–18.

CBI said this decision followed the receipt of a complaint about the book which led to a review of its includsion on the Reading List. 

“After careful consideration, we have decided to remove This Book is Gay from the Pride Reading Guide,” CBI said in January.

The book was first published in 2014 and revised in 2020. Much of the book’s content remains valuable for LGBTQ+ teenagers, however some aspects do not reflect the more inclusive current language used by the LGBTQ+ community.

“Although it was initially recommended for readers aged fifteen and older, we have found that the language and tone is better suited to older teenagers and young people outside of Children’s Books Ireland’s 0–18 age remit.” 

The wider context

The library protests can also be viewed as part of a wider trend of anti-LGBTQ+ protest and actions that have taken hold in Europe and the rest of the world, fuelled by disinformation. 

According to a report from the European Digital Media Observatory (EDMO), an organisation that seeks to analyse disinformation, mis- and disinformation targeting the LGBTQ+ community is one of the most present and consistent in the European Union.

The EDMO highlights one of the main narratives within this kind of disinformation centres around conspiracy theories about the “dictatorship” of LGBTQ+ philosophy and “indoctrination”.

“This narrative is one of a forced imposition of inclusive values, which characterises this last trend and has emerged as the most widespread throughout the European Union,” the observatory states.

Library protestors frequently wear green t-shirts with the slogan “education not indoctrination”. Protestors also frequently use the “grooming” accusation, a paedophile slur that has been frequently and historically used against gay communities.

According to Aoife Gallagher, in general anti-LGBTQ+ book protests tend to see queer relationships as fundamentally different to heterosexual relationship.

“They see them as being solely focused on sex,” she said.

“What these books do is that they give queer teenagers vital information and they are a vital resource, and a hell of a lot better than getting their information from porn online.

But what they see instead is an effort to groom children and to sexualise children.

This misinformation is fed by the historic anti-gay tropes mentioned above, as well as the recent gender critical and anti-trans movements that have sprung up in Ireland, the UK and the US.

What will happen next

The protests and closures of Cork library have been widely condemned across all mainstream political parties.

“I want to condemn completely people who go into libraries to hurl abuse at staff. That’s absolutely wrong, it shouldn’t be happening,” Minister for Rural and Community Development Heather Humphries said last month.

The minister confirmed that the issue had been raised with the Taoiseach and Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, and she added that officials from her department were engaging with the Department of Justice and the Department of Housing and Local Government, who have responsibility for local authorities.

“Ultimately the staff in the libraries are employees of the local authority so it’s important they get all of the support.”

Speaking to the Irish Times last month, Tánaiste Micheál Martin said that tearing up books was “outrageous”.

“We have to stop such vigilantism. We had that before. Joyce and Ulysses. The great novels were banned. We put that era way behind us. We have to trust parents. Libraries are an oasis for society and the community – they are lovely places, beautiful places,” Martin said.

According to Liz Fay, a Fórsa assistant general secretary based in Cork, who has been working with the affected library staff there, the main concern is “the health and wellbeing of our librarian members”.

“They have been subject to harassment and intimidation in their workplace and this is absolutely unacceptable,” Fay said.

We are further concerned that the protesters are essentially blocking the public from accessing library services, while the non-consensual video recording of library staff, and online distribution of this content, raises concerns both in terms of data protection and personal safety.

Fay cited Health and Safety and Work laws that deal specifically with bullying in the workplace by clients and customers, and said the union was seeking proactive engagement with library management to implement a response to this behaviour.

“Fórsa is calling on senior management to conduct an independent health and safety risk assessment at libraries, on the threats from protesting groups entering the library, as a matter of urgency. This should be conducted in consultation with Fórsa’s library members, local representatives and officials,” Fay said.

Fórsa is also seeking that library management to engage with An Garda Síochána on emergency response measures, and to update library bye-laws, and to actively explore legal measures for the permanent exclusion of offenders, including the use of injunctions and barring orders.

Local representatives in Cork have also for more garda action in relation to the protests.

In response to the most recent protest that closed Cork City library, gardaí said

“There is a constitutional right to the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech, subject to statutory provisions. An Garda Síochána respects the right for citizens to exercise their constitutional rights.

An Garda Síochána has no role in permitting or authorising public gatherings.

Meanwhile, the protests continue. Most recently, library demonstrators have staged protests in Limerick City and Killaloe in Clare, with other libraries on the agenda. Speaking at the event in July in Cork, Andy Heasman told the crowd:

“We will continue to keep closing down this library and every one across the country if we have to.” 

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