The Irish far-right’s role in the infodemic

As political tensions rise, right-wing groups in Ireland have found their way into the centre of the action

The death of George Nkencho at the start of the year brought Irish far-right online activity, which had been bubbling and fomenting under the surface for years, into open view and public discourse. Likes, posts and comments surged on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter. Above are two typical examples, posted on the Irish Patriot Movement Facebook page, which is followed by ten thousand people. The reaction to George Nkencho death was just a recent incarnation of the notable increase in online right-wing conspiracy theories cropping up over the last few years, particularly since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. But is just a spontaneous consequence of ever-encroaching social media? To what degree are Irish right wing parties and organisations responsible for nurturing and promoting conspiracy theories on social media?

At a public meeting of the Policing Authority in October 2019, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris noted this acceleration, stating; “It’s very clear from my interactions with European colleagues, and then also what I see myself, that there is a rise in right-wing extremism right across Europe.” He added: “The difficulty with it is that it’s spread through the web and spread through social media. And we just need to be very careful, in terms of some of the things that have happened to date here in Ireland. We now see it starting to arrive on our shores.” 

The media has to be apportioned some of the blame for this phenomenon. In extensive coverage of anti-mask activists such as Gemma O’Doherty, some media gave her the public platform to magnify baseless conspiracy theories. Given the fact that groups such as Anti-Corruption Ireland, O’Doherty’s organisation, enjoy very little support among the Irish populace, one might reasonably ask why articles such as this one exist, giving desperately needed oxygen to fringe political groups. From the perspective of a media outlet, outrageous headlines and extremism generates clicks, retweets and ad revenue. Thus controversial actors such as Gemma O’Doherty and Katie Hopkins can enter into symbiotic, mutually beneficial relationships with media outlets; coverage in return for clicks. And despite this, coverage of the current growth in Irish far right activity online is necessary, as recent protests in Washington and Amsterdam have shown how online discussion can mutate rapidly into real life consequences. 

Of the constellation of Irish right-wing political groups, Anti-Corruption Ireland is perhaps one of the most extreme, but many others exist, all with little electoral success. The National Party, led by Justin Barrett, occupies the far right end of the spectrum. Barrett has in the past stated he would totally ban Muslims from entering the country, telling Cork 96FM: “There needs to be a check of all people coming into this country. Most people, at a quick glance, you can tell they are no threat.” In 2020, the National Party Twitter account retweeted a tweet from Leo Varadkar condemning racism, adding, “If racism is the virus then cultural distancing is the best prevention”.

Last summer, Justin Barrett took to the stage at the March for Innocence protest, falsely declaring Minister for Children Roderick O’Gorman “a paedophile apologist”, prompting roars and cries of “paedo” from the attendant crowd. This allegation was levelled at O’Gorman as he had appeared in a photo with British campaigner Peter Thatchell at Dublin Pride 2018. It was comments made by Tatchell in a 1997 letter to the Guardian newspaper for which O’Gorman was baselessly attacked on social media. As a gay man, the homophobic subtext of the attacks on O’Gorman could hardly be more clear. O’Gorman was also accused by some of having shared cannibalistic Satanic images, echoing conspiracies of powerful Satanic paedophile rings; a regular motif for the QAnon movement. 

In the last year, Covid-19 conspiracy theories have become increasingly common on somewhat more mainstream, although still very minor, parties such as Direct-Democracy Ireland, Renua, and the Irish Freedom Party. All three have sown doubt over the safety of the Covid-19 vaccines. Direct Democracy Ireland has openly questioned the existence of the virus on social media, sharing a post alleging that hospitals are empty, and that they “feel sorry for these Nurses and Doctors compelled to keep this secret. Obviously the pressure of losing their jobs is keeping the health care staff quiet.” The Irish Freedom Party’s Chairwoman Pr. Dolores Cahill of UCD has been centre stage on the anti-vax and “plandemic” circuit, both in Ireland and internationally, sharing to her 70,000 Facebook followers that “people might start dying after taking the (Bill) Gates vaccine”. 

Speaking to the Trinity News, former Nigel Farage aide and leader of the Irish Freedom Party Hermann Kelly says that the Irish Freedom Party has no connections with Anti-Corruption Ireland or the National Party, and is often criticised by those parties as being “too moderate”. He confirmed that they currently have a pro-free speech and anti-lockdown leaflet and social media campaign with Renua and Direct Democracy Ireland. Kelly said that the Irish Freedom Party is opposed to racism in all its forms, but that it was no more responsible for comments left on its Facebook page than any other online publication. 

Below a video they posted on rioting in Belgium were some explicitly racist comments – “there are no decent Africans”, “post them back”. Kelly says that such comments are deleted as soon as they are noticed. The Irish Freedom party are Eurosceptic, and a good deal of Kelly’s campaigning efforts are directed towards increasing support for an “Irexit”, and drawing attention to controversial fishing practices by foreign fishing “supertrawlers” in Irish waters.

Right-wing groupings in Ireland hold very little electoral clout, and none of the above political parties have ever managed to elect a TD. But the past year has shown a marked increase in online activity and traffic to conspiracy theories on Twitter, Facebook and Youtube. These range from shady cabals planning global mind control through vaccination; to photos of “empty” hospitals ‘proving’ that the virus does not in fact exist. Conspiracies and misinformation have already fueled protests such as the March for Innocence, and the anti-mask “Yellow Vest Ireland” protests. Irish right wing or far right parties, small as they are, have provided a forum for this misinformation, and presented it to a large audience. Whether this will become a permanent legacy of the pandemic in Ireland remains to be seen.