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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 0°C
Sam Boal Gardaí made thirteen arrests in the course of the day yesterday.

Tom Clonan There is a real danger now of serious injuries or fatalities at a far-right protest

The senator witnessed the Leinster House protests yesterday – he says irresponsible rhetoric or complacency from politicians will lead to even more violence.

YESTERDAY’S AGGRESSIVE PROTESTS outside Leinster House led to 13 arrests and the effective lockdown of the Oireachtas campus for almost two hours.

Apart from TDs and Senators, over 1,000 people work in the extended complex of Leinster House and Government Buildings. These include political staff, civil servants, technical grades, ushers, catering staff, journalists, Gardaí and members of the Defence Forces.

Our parliament is a very busy workplace and in a functioning government, hundreds of people visit the site each day. These include visiting politicians from other jurisdictions, diplomatic delegations, school groups, non-governmental organisations and most importantly, citizens engaged in advocacy for local and national issues. It is the beating heart of Irish democracy.

Right on the rise

Yesterday, that engine of Irish democracy was temporarily interrupted. Internally, the work of parliament did not stop – but the ability of citizens to access their public representatives was disrupted.

I was in Leinster House yesterday from 1pm until 9pm. I witnessed at first hand the protests on Kildare Street, Molesworth Street and on Merrion Street. The crowd of about 200 was concentrated initially at the Kildare Street entrance. They were loud, aggressive and provocative. One of my colleagues was subjected to racist slurs as they arrived to work.

This is not a new phenomenon. On 11 July – just before the Summer recess – I introduced a Disability Bill into the Seanad. There was a smaller – but similar – crowd of far-right protesters gathered at the Kildare Street entrance to Leinster House. Members of my family, including my adult son – who is partially sighted and a wheelchair user – attended the debate on the Disability Bill. Afterwards, when they exited the grounds in a wheelchair accessible van, my family – including my 19-year-old daughter – were accosted by the protesters.

They stood in front of the vehicle and verbally abused my family – using the ‘C’ word to address the female members and shouting expletives at my sons.

According to An Garda Síochána, in 2022 the emerging far right in Ireland carried out 307 separate anti-immigration protests countrywide. This trend is consistent in 2023. I have attended a number of security and intelligence briefings on right-wing extremist groups hosted by a number of our EU partners with extensive experience of the phenomenon of the far right. This is a growing phenomenon in Ireland and we must confront the reality here that the far right has established itself firmly here.

The story behind

In 2022, researchers at Maynooth University published a comprehensive report titled ‘Resisting the Far Right – Civil Society Strategies for Countering the Far Right in Ireland’. In this clear, precise and forensic document, its authors chart the causal factors – including austerity, growing societal inequality, poverty and an acute housing crisis – that are exploited by the far right to gain traction in marginalised communities. This is consistent with trends across Europe.

According to intelligence sources – and open-source academic research there are approximately 12 organised far-right groups operating in this jurisdiction along with at least two political parties. They mobilise homophobic, racist and faux-nationalist rhetoric online in order to attract traffic and followers to their digital platforms. They exploit the often confrontational, adversarial and polarising communication dynamics of digital platforms to generate fear, rage and hatred. A recurring theme among the far right – dating back to the Nazis in 1930s Germany – is to create the perception of a ‘crisis’ with an immediately and easily identifiable ‘enemy’ of the people. For the Nazis, the enemies were Jews, Homosexuals and Gypsies.

For Irish fascists, the enemies are immigrants, asylum seekers, the LGBTQ+ and Roma communities. In their Telegram groups, Facebook pages, X accounts and elsewhere, they spread conspiracy theories and attempt to engender a ‘moral panic’ about the groups they have targeted as ‘enemies’.

A recurring trope is the ‘rape propensity’ of ‘foreign males’ or members of the LGBTQ+ community. In many of their protests – including yesterday’s protests at Leinster House – many of these racist and homophobic sentiments were evidenced in chants, shouted insults and in their posters. They also carried a mocked-up gallows and images of Irish political leaders – implying the threat of violence towards elected representatives across the political spectrum.

Moving beyond online

In many respects, these far-right groups are taking the communications dynamic of the online space into real-time, face-to-face encounters. From the hate speech, cancel culture and ‘mobbing’ of digital platforms – the far right incorporates these dynamics into open confrontation and physical violence on the street.

This includes pointing camera phones in the faces of members of the public, public representatives and members of An Garda Síochána. This behaviour has become increasingly assaultative. A number of TDs – including Paul Murphy and Michael Healy-Rae – have been assaulted and jostled by such protestors.

These assaults are choreographed in order to provoke a response from those targeted in this way. Filmed and uploaded, the images of such assaults are high in news value and generate an exponential level of digital traffic – and traditional media coverage – of their activities. This adds to the momentum of far-right attempts to create a sense of ‘crisis’ and ‘immediacy’ and to hijack, exploit and harness the sense of unfairness and exclusion experienced in marginalised communities suffering greater levels of societal inequality.

No complacency

This is a very dangerous moment for Irish society. I listened very carefully to many of the speeches made by yesterday’s demonstrators. A recurring theme – apart from the racist and homophobic rhetoric – was the repeated assertion that the protests would continue.

Speaker after speaker stated that each and every citizen had a ‘moral obligation’ to continue this pattern of protest and to ‘end’ the current political consensus.

From a strictly security perspective, research and international experience demonstrate that an incremental escalation of violence is an inevitable consequence – and deliberate tactic – of far-right groups. These protestors will return to Leinster House in the coming weeks and will continue their anti-immigration protests and protests at public libraries in communities throughout the Republic. At the moment, these groups have seized a tactical initiative of sorts – mobilising street violence for their warped political ambitions. There is a very real danger now of serious injuries or fatalities at a far-right protest – or in the targeting of a public representative at their place of work, or in a constituency office. This has been the case internationally – and given the accessibility of Irish politicians, they are particularly vulnerable in this regard.

According to the research carried out by Maynooth University – which is consistent with the advice given by our EU and UK partners with greater experience of the phenomenon of the far right – we now require a timely, whole of government response to this threat to our democratic structures. The priority must be to fund and empower community-based civic groups and NGOs to educate, inform and counter the toxic narratives of the far right. There is also a requirement to immediately address the stressors exploited by the far right – the cost of living crisis, the housing crisis and crises in health and social well-being.

Specifically in relation to Leinster House, I would have concerns for those members of An Garda Síochána who are literally at the front line when confronted by these groups. They need our support and the government might consider establishing a dedicated Garda unit for our houses of parliament – as is the case in many EU capitals. I also believe that my female colleagues in Leinster House are particularly vulnerable to the type of attack witnessed yesterday as misogyny and gender-based violence are also hallmarks of the far right. Most – if not all – female TDs and Senators are routinely targeted for highly sexualised online abuse, some of which has escalated into incidents of harassment and abuse in their places of work and in their constituencies.

All of the academic research into this phenomenon recommends that the government and all political parties need to be unanimous in their condemnation of the far right in all of its manifestations. There needs to be visible, vocal leadership on this and violent anti-immigration protests and protests at public libraries should not be tolerated. Each and every public representative has a responsibility to show leadership in this regard. Irresponsible rhetoric or complacency could lead to the type of violence witnessed at the US Capitol attack of 2021.

Dr Tom Clonan is a retired Army Officer and former Lecturer at TU Dublin. He is currently an Independent Senator on the Trinity College Dublin Panel, Seanad Éireann.