The Dáil far-right protests – An event “without precedent”?

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Caoimhe Doyle gives an account of the far-right protest that occurred outside Leinster House on 20th September and discusses how the recent rise in far-right sentiment has not come out of the blue.

On the afternoon of the 20th of September, a crowd of about 200 people adorned with Tricolours and carrying signs gathered outside the gates of Leinster House. I was walking up Kildare Street to meet my friend outside the National Library when I spotted them. I took little notice of them at first but as I came closer, I started to realise the nature of their protest. The mostly male crowd were being led by a man with a megaphone who was starting chants and singing songs. Protesters carried small, homemade signs, larger more sophisticated banners and one man at the back of the group was carrying a horn which he intermittently blew, eliciting cheers and laughs from his friends around him. There were a mishmash of signs, some reading “Irish Lives Matter”, others carrying the hashtag “#Protectchildhood” and the caption “Stop Sexualising Children”. Another sign was simply a picture of President Michael D. Higgins with the caption “Globalist Traitor” under it. There were clearly racist tones to the signs but many also carried overtly transphobic and homophobic messages.  

There was a mishmash of signs, some reading “Irish Lives Matter”, others carrying the hashtag “#Protectchildhood” and the caption “Stop Sexualising Children. 

 Despite the lack of one coherent group or message, the far-right undertones of this protest were evident - especially thanks to the accusatory signs tinged with conspiratorial language. The signs notably mentioned COVID-19 vaccines, transgender rights, sex education in schools and proposed hate speech laws but mostly focused on immigration issues. Despite it initially being a relatively small gathering of primarily small groups, both the National Library and the National Museum of Archeology on the other side of the Dáil had been closed and a large metal barrier had been erected around the gates of Leinster House. Although I left the area having seen no overt violence, there were signs of the events that were to come. Some protesters were shouting at a group of men in suits and preventing them from walking up Kildare Street. It was unclear whether the men worked in the Dáil or not, but the presence of possible politicians was enough to rile up the protesters. On one occasion a woman approached me with some choice words about my vaccination status, despite me never telling her I had been vaccinated. The atmosphere signalled that despite being a small group, the protesters were going to cause trouble for the people working behind the barrier. 

 Later that day social media was flooded with pictures and videos of the protest. The crowd had increased since I had seen it and a mock gallows, with an effigy of a politician hanging from it had been brought in front of the Dáil. It was bordered with pictures of politicians from the three parties in government, as well as pictures of Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou MacDonald, Eoin Ó Broin and the independent TD Paul Murphy. A number of politicians including independent TD Michael Healy-Rae had to be escorted in and out of Leinster House by Gardaí as they were being hassled by protesters, who threatened them with verbal and physical abuse.

The protests elicited much comment from politicians. Tánaiste Michael Martin condemned the protesters, saying they exhibited “fascist-like behaviour” and added that “many deputies and senators feel very intimidated by what is happening”. Some TDs called for the introduction of a “sterile zone” around the Dáil, wherein public access would be restricted for security reasons. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar commented that many of those protesting outside the Dáil had a history of violence and convictions. A consensus emerged amongst politicians and the media that although these protesters were small in numbers and largely uncoordinated, they were dangerous. 

One of the politicians who commented on the protest was Ceann Comhairle Seán Ó Fearghaíl, who said that the protest was a “fundamental attack on democracy” that came “without precedent”. Although the level of aggression shown at this protest was shocking, the event was not unprecedented. The far right have been steadily growing in Ireland for the last few years, greatly aided by the anti-lockdown movement during the Covid-19 pandemic, which provided a space for many right-wing conspiracy theorists to protest about multiple issues under the guise of being anti-vaccine or anti-lockdown. These protests were also perhaps a radicalising factor, as people who did not agree with the state-enforced lockdowns were exposed to other conspiratorial or anti-establishment ideas. The last year alone has seen a number of similar incidents. In February of 2023, The Far Right Observatory, a civil society organisation that monitors far right activities reported that the far right movement in Ireland was “gaining a foothold like never before” in local communities. This summer also saw the closure of Cork City Library after right-wing protesters exhibited threatening behaviour towards library staff during a planned protest against LGBTQ+ reading materials. 

Although the level of aggression shown at this protest was shocking, a protest of this kind was anything but unprecedented. 

This protest and its motivations fit into a larger historical pattern of nativist movements, both in Ireland and elsewhere. Dr Irial Glynn, a migration historian from the School of History in UCD told the University Observer that in the last thirty years, nativist movements have nearly always been linked to the far right. An examination of the recent comments made by the media and politicians show that this protest has sparked a newfound sense of panic and shock at the growth of the far right in Ireland and has challenged the popularly accepted notion that Ireland has never had a far right problem. To this point, Dr Glynn said that “there is a large history of racism in Ireland, this is not something that is new.” He pointed to “clear evidence of antisemitic attitudes” towards Jewish refugees in Ireland in the 1930s and 40s, as well as Ireland’s history of discrimination towards travellers. Dr Glynn also pointed to previous far right protests in Ireland, saying that “when direct provision was first set up in late 1999, there were various arson attacks on centres and protests around the country, so the presence of violence and protest is not new in that sense.”

Dr. Irial Glynn: 'There is a large history of racism in Ireland, this is not something that is new.'

 Dr Glynn also pointed out that “in the mid-1990s there was already an anti-immigration party formed called the Immigration Control Platform.” He noted that “they failed electorally but nevertheless, some of their goals were realised anyway. They campaigned on changing Irish nationality laws and this happened in the 2004 citizenship referendum.”  Dr Glynn explained that this is a recognisable phenomenon in European politics, citing the example of the Netherlands in the 1980s, where the emergence of a far-right political party was initially met with condemnation, but overtime their presence in the public sphere made their rhetoric more acceptable. The same is very possible in Ireland. Dr Glynn commented that “they might not make an impact electorally yet, but their prominence in the public sphere might mean that some of the issues they focus on become more prominent sources of debate and discussion. Although they might not appear anywhere in terms of elections, if they manage to influence what is being discussed they will have succeeded to a certain extent.” He added “I suspect some of the more mainstream parties will be looking at some of their [the far right’s] rhetoric and maybe those who are unsure if their seat is safe will adopt some of these [anti-immigrant] beliefs.”

'Although they might not appear anywhere in terms of elections, if they manage to influence what is being discussed they will have succeeded to a certain extent anyway.'

According to Dr Glynn the most successful factors in countering far right movements are “strong leadership and top-down measures”. Strong political leadership, he says, could “refute some of the accusations made” by the far right and stop the spread of misinformation amongst susceptible communities. Dr Glynn adds that “as well as countering far right messages and leading from the front, they also have to try and solve big problems like the housing crisis and the cost-of-living crisis”, in an effort to stop dissatisfied people from becoming indoctrinated by far-right rhetoric. 

The important thing to recognise with protests such as this is that they rarely appear without precedent. Their existence can arguably be seen as a part of an inevitable historical pattern wherein disenfranchised people attempt to take their frustration out on the state by making minority groups the scapegoats for their problems. The inevitability of these movements does not mean society should be complacent about them. Rather, politicians and citizens could look to the past in an effort to recognise the signs of a growing far right, anti-immigrant movement and seek ways to prevent it from reaching dangerous extremes. Lessons from the past will show that although the far right in Ireland are still largely uncoordinated and electorally amateur, their rise must not be ignored.