The far right rises: Its growth as a political force in Ireland

Analysts have said conditions are ‘good’ in Ireland for the far-right to grow in popularity. Illustration: Paul Scott
It remains a fragmented minority movement in Ireland, but the far right is exploiting the Covid-19 crisis to extend its influence – online and on the street 

Shortly after 3pm last Saturday, messaging accounts belonging to Ireland’s most active far-right activists began to light up with glee.

“Ever see a lesbian bleed before?” a poster named “Irelands Woes” asked their 1,650 subscribers. “The left must have a fetish for getting beaten up,” said another poster calling themselves “Edgy memes na hÉireann”.

Their joy on Saturday was caused by an assault on a veteran LGBT+ campaigner who goes by the name Izzy Kamikaze, who had been attacked while counter-protesting an anti-face mask rally outside Leinster House. Kamikaze was hit by a piece of wood wrapped in a tricolour, leaving her with a nasty head wound that required hospital treatment.

The words of the posters are almost as ugly as the attack itself. The people who wrote them are part of what experts and gardaí believe is a growing far-right movement in Ireland – one that is attempting to hijack social concerns in a bid for the mainstream support.

Until recently these movements existed almost entirely online, often in the shadier corners of the internet. But issues such as direct provision, child protection and, more recently, opposition to Covid-19 measures, have brought the far right onto the streets. Violence has sometimes followed close behind.

The messages above – and others like them – were posted on Telegram, a platform popular among the Irish far right due in part to its almost complete lack of moderation. Telegram has a much lower profile than mainstream social sites and allows users complete anonymity. Hidden by this cloak, they are often very forthright in their views.  

On Telegram, glee over Kamikaze’s injury soon turned to suspicion that she had faked it to make far-right activists look bad

Anti-Semitism, neo-Nazism and the promotion of violence against minorities – positions that can result in users being banned from Facebook and Twitter – are celebrated in many of the Telegram communities.

It is also a forum where activists plan ways of getting their message out to what they call the “normies”, i.e., the general public. These schemes include organising users to flood social media with racist comments about an RTÉ show about black Irish people, and placing anti-Semitic stickers on Dublin lampposts at night.

The masked man who hit Kamikaze at Leinster House was part of a group of protesters wearing badges that read “Antifa Hunting Permit. Open Season. All 58 Genders.” (Antifa, short for Anti-Fascist, is a left-wing, decentralised protest movement which has gained prominence in the US in recent years for aggressively, and sometimes violently, protesting against the far right.)

The attack on Kamikaze was the second violent incident involving far-right activists in a month. On August 22nd, a group of men wearing face masks and surgical gloves and armed with a variety of weapons clashed with counter-protesters at a much bigger anti-mask demonstration at Dublin’s Customs House. Some of the group, which made up a tiny minority of those attending the event, would later claim they were protecting demonstrators from “Antifa”.

With similar demonstrations and marches planned over the next several weekends, gardaí fear the violence could escalate. It is not clear how lockdown measures might affect this activity.

Back on Telegram, the glee over Kamikaze’s injury soon turned to suspicion that she had faked it to make far-right activists look bad. Several posters asserted she had employed some sort of blood pack for added realism. Users were instructed to spread this theory on social media.

Gardaí have been concerned about the burgeoning far right in Ireland for some time. Some years ago a small unit was tasked with monitoring their online content – but only last year were these fears voiced publicly.

“I am concerned about right-wing extremism. We can see evidence of it on our shores as we have seen it spread across Europe,” Commissioner Drew Harris said in November.

In June, Europol also warned of a marked increase in far-right activity in Ireland, adding that “known criminal elements have been identified as affiliated with right-wing protests”.

According to Garda sources this referred to former dissident republicans, drug dealers and burglars.  

According to Dr Eileen Culloty, a disinformation researcher at DCU, far-right activity has accelerated since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic

Several of the men involved in the violence at the Customs House in August were previously members of the apparently defunct group Generation Identity and, according to security sources, are believed to have attended combat and survival training courses abroad with the group.  

The term “far right” can be a clumsy and vague label. Some on the left apply it to anyone to the right of the mainstream political parties. Some conservatives see the term “far right” as a way of denigrating mainstream conservative views such as strong immigration controls and opposition to abortion.

But if the term is taken to mean groups with extreme views, such as belief in the anti-Semitic “great replacement” conspiracy theory, or who have established links to European neo-Nazi or fascist groups, then there is little doubt the movement has grown in recent years, according to the Garda and monitoring groups.

“Certainly in the last year there has been proliferation of groups and there has been growth in the likes and shares they are getting on social media,” says Shane O’Curry of the European Network against Racism Ireland (Enar).

Enar received 530 reports of racist incidents in 2019, an increase of 140 on 2018 figures.

And according to Dr Eileen Culloty, a disinformation researcher at DCU, far-right activity has accelerated since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.

“Back in March they were mostly scapegoating minorities for breaking the lockdown rules, even though minorities are making up a large proportion of the key workers keeping Europe open.

“Then over the summer it moved towards exploiting people’s frustration over the restrictions and claiming Covid was a hoax. And then, in the last month or so, it has culminated in these anti-mask demonstrations that are popping up around Europe.”

Involvement of the far right in European anti-mask protests is most evident in Germany where, on August 29th, a group of activists that included far right members tried to storm the German parliament after a demonstration.

Far-right groups have been active participants in anti-lockdown protests in Dublin, including one in August and two separate events last weekend.

Philip Dwyer, a National Party candidate who received 508 votes in the last general election, boasted about providing security at the Customs House protest in August. Party members also unfurled a banner at the event reading “Ireland belongs to the Irish”.

The far right is a tiny minority of the attendees at the Yellow Vest and HFI-led protests

The National Party, which was founded in 2016, describes itself as “Irish nationalist party dedicated to the fulfilment of the Irish national idea”. Its leader Justin Barrett has called for the deportation of non-ethnic Irish people such as Dublin Lord Mayor Hazel Chu and has said his party is for straight Irish people only.

The organisers of the August protest, Health Freedom Ireland (HFI), says it is a non-political group and that all are welcome at its events.

HFI bills itself as a group which “actively supports medical freedom of its citizens”. “We ask that all people in this country that share some or all of our concerns set aside any other differences they may have and unite for the common concerns that we all have in a peaceful manner,” founder Maeve Murran told The Irish Times.

She says it is not in contact with Dwyer or the National Party. “We cannot control who is going to show up and who might share our views on this topic,” she says. “We are protesting for a very specific reason and we don’t expect every participant to agree with us on everything else also.”

The far right was also present at a similar protest last Saturday led by the Yellow Vests, a populist protest movement set up to emulate the French Gilets Jaunes. It has protested on a broad range of issues in recent years, including vulture funds, property taxes and the banking system. It is also a vocal critic of the immigration system.

Its march on Saturday was led by a formal “colour party” made up of members of a Donegal-based far-right group called Siol na hÉireann.

The group’s founder Niall McConnell describes it as a “hard line Irish Catholic Nationalist Party”. In fact Siol na hÉireann is a registered company; McConnell stood in the last general election as an independent and received 580 votes.

McConnell was also one of the speakers at the Yellow Vest protest where he railed against “LGBT propaganda” and equated immigration to a “plantation”.

Yellow Vest leaders later spoke out against McConnell’s speech and said all were welcome at their protests. Neither the Yellow Vests nor McConnell responded to queries about his role in the march.

The Donegal man, who is a sheep farmer by trade, regularly hosts members of European fascist parties, such as the German NDP and the Romanian Noua Dreapta, on his YouTube channel.

Last month he and his followers attracted headlines when they confronted a priest in Ballyhaunis who had allowed two members of the Muslim community to give a blessing at Mass. In a video uploaded online, the group accused Fr Stephen Farragher of being a “heretic” and of “bringing foreign, satanic cultists” into the Church.  

A crowd gathered for Yelllow Vest protest in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times
A crowd gathered for a Yellow Vest protest in Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill/The Irish Times

The far right is a tiny minority of the attendees at the Yellow Vest and HFI-led protests. Culloty says it is important to realise that people attending these protests are from a broad range of backgrounds.  

Some believe in conspiracy theories about the virus but have no problem with immigration. Others, probably the majority, simply think the Government restrictions have gone too far.

Initially the crowd at Saturday’s demonstration cheered McConnell when he lambasted the Government and EU but were noticeably silent when he moved onto immigration and LGBT+ criticism.

One of the speakers at the HFI protest in August was Dr Marcus de Brun, a Rush GP who has been a vocal critic of the Government restrictions.

“I would consider myself liberal, left-leaning in my political outlook,” he tells The Irish Times, adding that he shares concerns about far-right elements inserting themselves into the anti-restrictions movement.

“I would have nothing to do with the Irish Freedom Party [whose leaders also spoke at the protest] or the National Party.” The Irish Freedom Party was launched in 2018 to campaign for Irish withdrawal from the EU. Its leader, Hermann Kelly has advocated for a “monocultural” Irish society and been a proponent of the “great replacement”, a conspiracy theory stating western governments are intentionally replacing their native populations with immigrants.

At least some of the blame for the growth of the far right, says de Brun, lies with the media, including The Irish Times, and the mainstream establishment which is afraid of going against the narrative on Covid-19.

“So you’re really left with this vacuum that got filled up very, very quickly by the same people who object to everything in order to try and get a foothold on public platforms.”  

Opposition to Covid-19 measures is merely the latest cause hijacked by the far right, says a member the Far-right Observatory, an informal network of anti-racism activists which monitors the Irish far right.

“They like to jump on bandwagons. For some of them it’s cash motivated; the bigger their audience, the more money comes in from YouTube views and merchandise sales. For others, it’s about building up an infrastructure and growing it.”

Last year, activists focused on the opening of direct provision centres in rural Ireland, often travelling to prospective host towns and spreading disinformation about the asylum system. Their advice was often rejected by locals.

In July, the Irish Freedom Party, the National Party and an activist called Michael O’Keeffe, who often goes by the online pseudonym Chopper, helped organise a rally outside the Dáil demanding the resignation of Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman who they accused of being sympathetic to paedophiles.

O’Gorman faced weeks of abuse before and after the event because of a 2018 photograph of him at a Pride March alongside UK LGBT+ campaign Peter Tatchell, who in 1997 wrote a controversial letter to the Guardian newspaper concerning sex between adults and children.

By their own measures the event was a success for the far right. About 1,000 people stood and listened to an address by Barrett, the National Party leader, who has previously spoken at neo-Nazi rallies in Europe. Some of the crowd held up placards depicting a noose.

The event was also addressed by actor John Connors (he later said he regretted attending and apologised to O’Gorman).

“The accusations are rooted in homophobia, stoked by anonymous, far-right Twitter accounts,” O’Gorman said later. “These accounts are using manipulation for their own ends, playing upon the genuine deeply held concern we all share for child protection.”

The far right, both here and abroad, has developed an obsession with paedophilia; videos regularly show activists accusing counter-protesters of being “paedo-scum” or some variation thereof.

According to Aoife Gallagher, an analyst with the Institute for Strategic Dialogue (ISD), a counter-extremism organisation, much of this comes from the QAnon conspiracy theory popular with the US far right.

QAnon is shorthand for an array of fantastical theories, including a belief that the highest levels of government has been taken over by paedophiles.

Gallagher says Irish far-right groups believe O’Gorman is a “perfect target” … “given that he is an openly gay man and Minister for Children,” she says. “The far right have been linking paedophilia to homosexuality for decades, mostly down to a complete ignorance about LGBTQ lives and lifestyles.”

Far-right activists achieved another breakthrough of sorts this year when they sought to shape the narrative around an attack on a white teenager by a black assailant.

The endeavour, spearheaded by O’Keeffe, focused on portraying the incident as a racial attack despite gardaí saying there appeared to be a different motive.

“Patriot Analytica are about to break the internet,” O’Keeffe announced on Twitter, a reference to his loose collective of far-right activists.

Over on 4Chan, an online discussion board infamous for its unrestrained racism, an anonymous user implored readers to take to social media and fight back against the “narrative” that the incident was not racially motivated.

Readers were asked to “reply to all the lefties” and “drown them out … Take control of the narrative now”.

'They are able to mobilise social media campaigns to turn some relatively small event involving migrants and crime and then that gets amplified around the world'

The call to arms was successful. The 4Chan thread attracted some 350 replies; 68 of them mentioning the offensive word “n****r”.  

It is a well-worn strategy, according to Ross Frenett, the founder of Moonshot CVE, a London-based technology company that studies online violent extremism.

Online activists spot reports of crime involving a black or Muslim perpetrator. The incident will then be artificially amplified with the aim of having a prominent right-wing personality such as Katie Hopkins, or even one of the Trump family pick up it and make it go mainstream.

Data gathered by Moonshot showed only 39 per cent of the tweets about the assault came from Irish accounts. Eighteen per cent came from the US.

“While these individual far-right groups in Ireland seem very small they are part of a bigger international network of far-right extremists across Europe and the US where they are emboldened by leaders like Donald Trump or Victor Orban in Hungary. They learn from each other and feed off each other,” says Culloty

“They are able to mobilise social media campaigns to turn some relatively small event involving migrants and crime and then that gets amplified around the world by this international group.”

Speaking to The Irish Times in June, O’Keeffe denied being part of the 4Chan aspect of the operation. “4chan has a mind of its own and they like to take credit for things they haven’t done,” he said.

Asked what Patriot Analytica is, he said it is “a group of people all over the island who cover the stories your employer refuses to”.

The future prospects of the Irish far right remain unclear. Despite appearances, mistrust and jealousy means the far right remains a fragmented movement here, says Gallagher, the analyst from ISD.

“A lot of the different groups are very, very fractured and they don’t seem to be able to get along that well.”

A case in point is McConnell who has been shunned by much of the far right in the past week. One of the reasons for this is his address to Saturday’s anti-mask rally.  

According to Telegram users, McConnell was too upfront with his views on immigration and LGBT+ people in the presence of the general public, a cardinal sin for far-right activists. “He is the biggest threat to Irish nationalism right now,” fretted one Telegram user shortly afterwards.

Others believe he is only out to make money through donation appeals and selling Michael Collins T-shirts. For his part, McConnell has said he is suing members of the National Party. He is currently seeking donations for his legal fund.

Also shunned by many activists is Gemma O’Doherty a former journalist who, until recently at least, was one of the most prominent figures in the far-right movement. The Dublin woman has regularly uploaded videos railing against LGBT+ people, Muslims and immigrants as well as conspiracy theories alleging the Jewish philanthropist George Soros was behind a plan to flood Ireland with immigrants.

O’Doherty told her followers recently she was not welcome at July’s Roderic O’Gorman protest.

Also against the movement is the fact that, after much criticism, social media companies are beginning to wake up to the problem here. YouTube, which is owned by Google, has long been accused of allowing people to become radicalised by extremist content through its video recommendation algorithms.

In response it overhauled its algorithm and updated its hate-speech policy, leading to a five-fold increase in the number of channels being removed.

“Our policies are consistently changing and evolving just as societies change and evolve,” a spokeswoman said.

Monitoring at Twitter’s Dublin offices has improved in recent months, leading to far-right accounts being removed with greater frequency. This includes the account of O’Doherty, who was removed from the platform in July, having been banned from YouTube and Facebook in 2019.

This has had serious knock-on effects on O’Doherty’s ability to spread her message. In recent months her personal website has fallen about 400,000 places in the global rankings.

The far right’s electoral prospects appear similarly grim, although not all would agree with that. Some 30 candidates competed in the most recent general election on a far-right platform. None polled high enough to even get their expenses back.

But there is cause for concern, says DCU political scientist Dr Eoin O’Malley.  

The growing opposition to Covid restrictions combined with a lack of other anti-establishment parties – now that Sinn Féin has gone “mainstream” – mean there is fertile ground for growth, O’Malley says.

“The conditions are as good as they’re going to get for them in Ireland. There is more of a possibility of electoral success than I’ve seen in a long time.”