Aisling O’Loughlin cut her presenting teeth on what was TV3′s now-defunct Xposé programme, gushing over Kim Kardashian makeover tutorials and earnestly informing the nation that monochrome is the colour trend of the season.
These days, she applies those skills to a rather different purpose, broadcasting a hotchpotch of anti-vaccine, anti-immigration content and conspiracy theories on a number of social media platforms including Rumble, Telegram and YouTube. “To me it looks like the Irish are being poisoned and being replaced”, is the kind of thing she says these days, in the tone she might once have adopted when describing how to achieve the perfect cat-eye flick.
O’Loughlin was one of those who turned up outside the Dáil on Wednesday to, as she put it, “welcome TDs back”. On her Telegram she posted a selfie with aspiring far-right politician Derek Blighe, who registered the anti-immigration party Ireland First earlier this year. “Great day for a protest in fairness,” her caption read. Another selfie she posted was captioned: “Traitors out.”
A product of the “rogue” mainstream media she now sees as part of a global conspiracy, O’Loughlin’s presence was evidence of the disparate nature of the event. Irish Times journalist Conor Gallagher compiled a list of the other participants who included Mike Connell, a former Defence Forces corporal turned far-right activist; Rowan Croft, an ex-British soldier and far-right activist; former Workers’ Party election candidate, Malachy Steenson. One of the speakers was vaccine sceptic Dr Vincent Carroll, who described our democratically elected Dáil as a “beacon of betrayal ... a government that will destroy us if we do not say to them your time is over”.
Collectively, they are the anti-everything brigade, espousing a pick’n’mix of reasons to justify their anger. Anti-politician. Anti-hate speech laws. Anti-fake news media. Anti-vaccine. Anti-lockdown. Anti-excess deaths. Anti-immigration. Anti-gardaí. Anti-sex education. Anti-trans rights. Anti-climate action. Anti-the way things are. Anti-take your pick, because several of them didn’t seem quite sure what they stand for.
Their posters were a smorgasbord of indiscriminate resentment and invective. “Irish Lives Matter”, they read, or “Beep if you know our politicians are corrupt”. A prop gallows was trundled on to the street featuring posters of the faces of a number politicians. Thirteen people were arrested and more are likely to follow. On Friday it was reported that the use of the mock gallows is also being investigated by gardaí.
The speed with which the mood turned nasty seemed to take gardaí, politicians and even some of those who had been promoting the event on social media by surprise. It shouldn’t have. This was not a highly secretive guerrilla mission, it was a well planned and very deliberate show of anger that had been flagged endlessly on every far right social media account for the past two weeks.
Afterwards, O’Loughlin condemned the violence and said she believes in peaceful protest. Violence is “a turn-off for middle Ireland and gives ammunition to those who conspire against us”, she told her Telegram followers, adding that she was “trying to figure out if they’re infiltrators purposefully wrecking a peaceful protest to create nasty headlines or if they’re really peeved”.
Similarly, Blighe initially said the violence had been “staged by gardaí and politicians to attempt to discredit peaceful protesters” before suggesting protesters were angry with Michael Healy-Rae because he was someone who had made money from what Blighe refers to as the “fakeugee crisis”. But then, almost in the same breath, Blighe “absolutely condemned” the violence.
This is classic populist dissembling. What you saw probably didn’t happen. Or it might have happened but it wasn’t what it seemed. Or it did happen but it was understandable. Or it happened but it’s all part of a conspiracy to silence us. The truth is whatever I say, or whatever you want it to be. Even if you’re wrong, it is only because you have been wronged. And so on.
This should come as a warning, too, to politicians who sometimes like to flirt with populist language or tropes
If you are one of those who has been steadily ratcheting up the heat and feign surprise when the pot boils over, you’re either being disingenuous or dangerously naive. You can’t tell people repeatedly they’re being “poisoned” and “replaced”; or talk about how the Government intends to “destroy you”; or urge your followers to come to a protest to “let the regime know who’s the boss ... show them the whites of your eyes” (as so-called “citizen journalist” Philip Dwyer did, in a post shared by O’Loughlin), and then act stunned when it turns ugly.
It should come as a warning, too, to politicians who sometimes like to flirt with populist language or tropes, or who talk almost casually – as People Before Profit did in a pamphlet earlier this year – about how the “wealthy people” who “control the media” would, in the event of an elected left-wing government “deploy the police and the army” to overthrow it via a military coup. You can’t pose for pictures with far-right protesters – as Healy-Rae has done – and then act as though you never saw them coming. You can’t write off the far right as a label being applied as a cheap trick, and defend their “right to protest”, as Independent Senator Sharon Keogan has done, and then expect people to take you seriously when you later condemn them.
Will it just fizzle out? Not judging by the triumphalism on the social media accounts of those involved. With about 200 protesters the numbers physically present were relatively small, but for Ireland’s emerging new right, in-person protests are a sideshow. Their real power lies in the story they can tell on social media – and that, as we have seen, bears little relation to the truth.