Tensions following the government lockdown restrictions came to a head on August 22, with a rally on Custom House Quay organised by Yellow Vest Ireland. The demonstration stretched across the quay, with reports of hundreds in attendance but from photos, it looks larger. Only one day after the Golf Dinner scandal, the group was protesting government lockdown restrictions, as well as the mandated wearing of masks, and potentially mandatory tests and vaccinations. They were seen to be chanting “freedom”, but beneath their calls for liberty and justice rested a much more insidious ideology which we must be wary of.
Plenty of people in this country are rightfully frustrated with the government’s response to the pandemic. Whether that be the hypocrisy of the Dáil’s chief Covid-19 compliance officer attending an 81 person golf club dinner, or the evident reluctance to abolish or reform Direct Provision centres which are creating clusters of the virus. It is also likely that some people just wanted to protect their freedom of movement, and this is understandable too. However, even if every protester in attendance was well meaning and only wanted to ensure that autonomy, they fundamentally misunderstood the meaning of “freedom”. Yes, it is difficult and annoying not to be able to see your family and friends, and masks can be uncomfortable. But when we flagrantly ignore and resist social distancing, we put the most vulnerable people’s liberty in jeopardy. Staying inside all day may not feel like freedom, but neither will being hooked up to a ventilator. We do not have the right to jeopardise the health and safety of others in advance of our own perceived liberty, and we never have. My comfort should never come at the cost of your freedom. In a kind of bitter irony, the evening of the Yellow Vest Ireland protest saw 156 new cases of Covid-19 confirmed in Ireland, the highest number in weeks. In advance of the need to make important decisions about reopening schools and businesses, as well as entering later phases of lockdown, it would be a mistake to fool ourselves into thinking that these views deserve a seat at the table.
“When we flagrantly ignore and resist social distancing, we put the most vulnerable people’s liberty in jeopardy. Staying inside all day may not feel like freedom, but neither will being hooked up to a ventilator.”
A greater problem however, is that many people at that rally were not simply there to benevolently ask for a return to normal life. Among the misplaced anger was an active hostility and deliberate spread of misinformation from the alt-right. Various reports from the rally show multiple placards referencing “QAnon”– a far right conspiracy group with a history of racist and anti-semetic talking points who allege there to be a secret plot by a “deep state” against US President Donald Trump. Similarly, there were signs referencing #pizzagate and #saveourchildren, slogans borrowed from a debunked alt-right conspiracy theory regarding Hillary Clinton’s alleged involvement in sex trafficking. More locally, the far right Irish National Party were reported to be out in full force, advertising themselves with a banner reading “Ireland belongs to the Irish,’ an anti imperialist quote from Pádraig Pearse which has since been twisted to bolster their anti-immigration rhetoric.
“This is not just a case of bad apples infiltrating a well meaning protest. The speakers they platformed and the organisation itself show a rotten barrel of hateful and dangerous lies.”
Even if these individual signs don’t point to an endemic toxicity at the rally, the facts of it should. One of the platformed speakers flat out denied the danger of Covid-19 altogether, captured on video saying: “it’s not a killer virus, it’s a flu.” Dolores Cahill, chair of the far right Irish Freedom Party was also given a platform and microphone to address the crowd. The rally itself was led by Maeve Murran and Kelly Johnson, both activists who have spoken out against vaccinations for one debunked reason or another (importantly, these reasons are often to do with the claim that vaccinations cause autism, a false conceit built on a hatred of neurodivergent people). This is not just a case of bad apples infiltrating a well meaning protest. The speakers they platformed and the organisation itself show a rotten barrel of hateful and dangerous lies.
The event itself has the feeling of a conspiracy theory. The mere fact of hundreds of people gathering maskless and in close proximity is predicated not just on a mistrust of the government, which is often fair, but the assumption that they are actively lying to us.
This is the largest example of far right protests that we have seen in recent Irish history. I would posit that the reason for this is directly linked to the pandemic. These organisers are aware that left wing counter protests are just less tenable than they used to be, due to a reluctance to break government restrictions and endanger the safety of themselves and others. As well as this, the underreporting of the dangers and scale of previous protests have instilled alt-right organisers with a certain sense of confidence that they will not face backlash. This lack of adversity has made the spread of misinformation and hate material all the more dangerous. With no views to knock against, the most malicious people at far right events are free to exploit the concerns and frustration of well meaning citizens. Radicalisation does not only happen on reddit forums and in shady underground buildings. Right now, it is occurring in front of our eyes, right on the doorsteps of our government buildings, and we are doing nothing. Why else would the National Party be waving their anti-immigration banners if not in an attempt to recruit people to that racist ideology? The bigger these protests get, the more dangerous and logistically difficult any significant counter movement becomes.
“Radicalisation does not only happen on reddit forums and in shady underground buildings. Right now, it is occurring in front of our eyes, right on the doorsteps of our government buildings, and we are doing nothing.”
Ireland often feels itself exempt from the dangers of the populist far right. With our perpetually centre-right governments and medically backed Covid-19 guidelines, we see ourselves as fundamentally different from the likes of Hungary, Poland, and the United States. But surely, there was a time when everyone living under an oppressively right wing government felt the same as we do now, as if they too were immune from the tempting promises of right wing populism. This rally is an example of why this is a foolish way to think. We as Irish people should be wary of a political landscape which sees misinformation and outright lies as nothing more than a difference of opinion. This isn’t an issue of the right to protest, it’s not about healthy debate or finding common ground in the marketplace of ideas. When you’re operating on a fundamentally different set of facts to the other side, there is no such thing as meeting in the middle.
This group and groups like it will continue to organise if they do not face resistance, there is a similar rally planned for Saturday, September 12th showing that they have only been emboldened by the lack of pushback from last month’s rally. It is of the utmost importance that we do what we can to resist this movement and attempt to stop it in its tracks. Whether that be through safe, distanced counter-protesting, pointing out misinformation when we see it, or becoming involved in anti-fascist organising. This may not be a problem that people feel affects them right now, but political change begins on the ground and works itself up until it is too late. We cannot let these views become acceptable, and we must work harder to stop them than the far right work to to propagate them.