Analysis: How has the far-right grown and how have the Gardaí responded?

How the growth of the far-right has accelerated in recent years

Thursday, November 23 saw unprecedented levels of far-right violence in Dublin city centre. Minister for Justice Helen McEntee said that the most riot police in the history of the Irish state had been deployed to deal with the violence, highlighting the grave nature of Thursday evening’s events. Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, in the strongest terms, condemned the riots as “disgraceful”, and said a “hooligan faction driven by far-right ideology” had contributed to the unrest.

Harris has been consistent in personally condemning the actions of the far-right; he expressed concern at the use of the national flag at protests, saying: To see that flag hijacked by a very small number of individuals – who do not speak for Ireland, who have no democratic mandate – is really despicable and should be called out of such. His policing tactics, however, seem to have helped far-right ideology spread, and in some cases facilitated their actions, leaving many open to intimidation and harassment. 

 In November 2022 in Dublin’s East Wall, a group of between 200 and 300 people gathered outside an old ESB building to protest against its use as a centre to house refugees, chanting “Irish lives matter” and “get them out”. Monitored by a relatively small group of Gardaí, the protestors blocked traffic on the road. This “#IrelandIsFull” movement began to spread across Dublin, causing significant disruption, including main traffic arteries at Dublin Port Tunnel and Dublin Airport. Members of the far-right National Party and Irish Freedom Party attended, and in many cases, organised these protests, using their platforms to spread racist and anti-LGBTQ messages. 

On January 20, a group of men attacked a migrant camp of 15 tents on the banks of the Tolka River in Ashtown, Dublin, armed with a baseball bat and four dogs, including a German shepherd. #IrelandIsFull protests continued across Dublin, with a number of protests happening in other parts of the country. 

In May, an anti-immigrant group attacked and destroyed a camp of homeless asylum seekers on Sandwith Street. Two days previous, protestors had gathered in front of the camp to oppose the refugees’ presence. In attendance was far-right “citizen journalist” Philip Dwyer, who has a large social media following on YouTube, Twitter and Telegram. Footage emerged online showing a group of young men smashing up the camp before it was set on fire.

Later in May, Harris defended his decision not to move more firmly against anti-immigrant protests, insisting that the far-right was “not growing”, and that Ireland had defied the trend in far-right growth seen in other European countries. He defended the Gardaí’s widely criticised “hands-off” approach to far-right activity, defiantly saying that Gardaí would not “fall into the trap” of its “playbook”. This “hands-off” approach emboldened anti-immigrant protestors to block roads across Ireland, especially in Dublin City, in protest of direct provision centres being set up to house asylum seekers.

While the wave of anti-refugee protests ultimately did not last, it allowed the far-right to test the limits of policing, such as in Inch, County Clare, where protestors reportedly boarded a bus carrying more than 30 asylum seekers to perform a headcount and recorded them on video. Then-Minister for Justice Simon Harris said that it was “not for us to second-guess” the decisions of frontline Gardaí while policing complex forms of protest.

In April 2023, far-right groups began to protest books related to LGBTQ+ issues being in public libraries, falsely describing the material as “pornographic”. A medium-sized group of anti-LGBTQ+ protestors at Swords Library in north Dublin held signs such as “there is porn in the children’s section” and “stop the gender ideology in libraries and schools”. They also handed out leaflets accusing staff of providing pornographic material to children. The demonstrators were later escorted into the library by members of An Garda Síochána. 

Similar actions targeting libraries and bookshops began to spring up across the country in areas such as Mayo, Longford, Limerick and Cork. In Cork, the city’s main library was forced to close due to fears for the safety of staff ahead of a demonstration planned by the far-right political party “Ireland First”. Cork City Council were responding to the harassment of library staff and visitors, who had slurs shouted at them through megaphones. The party placed a banner at the entrance of the library without permission and refused to remove it when requested to do so by staff, causing the escalation of a “tense situation”. A statement from Cork City Libraries said: “Having liaised with An Garda Síochána it was decided it would be unsafe for library staff to attempt to remove the banner.”

Cork Sinn Féin TD Thomas Gould told anti-racist and pro-LGBTQ counter-protesters that only two groups had succeeded in closing Cork City Library: “The black and tans and the far-right”. Lord Mayor of Cork Councillor Kieran McCarthy told Newstalk that he had asked the Gardaí to “step up their game” with regard to the protests, saying that putting up the banner was illegal and that the protestors had been “moved on” by Gardaí.

In September, protestors barricaded the back entrance of Leinster House, preventing TDs and Oireachtas staff from driving into the building. Hashtags #CallToTheDáil and #IrelandIsFull were used to organise the protest, which featured a mock gallows with portraits of prominent politicians such as Roderick O’Gorman, Mary Lou McDonald and Leo Varadkar, as well as Drew Harris and the former Chief Medical Officer (CMO) Tony Holohan. Bottles of urine were alleged to have been thrown at Gardaí and independent TD Michael Healy-Rae’s intern. Multiple protestors were arrested on public order offences. 

 The Dublin riots were not an isolated event, but a culmination of fear and anger from a small, radical far-right section of society. It is difficult to say whether or not the far-right has grown significantly in numbers, or simply grown in confidence. It is clear, however, that the far-right has grown as a threat in a very public manner as seen in the use of social media and messaging services. Questions will be asked of the government and An Garda Síochána about their lack of foresight. The Gardaí’s policy on political policing will also almost certainly be called into question. With the benefit of hindsight, one cannot help but point out a timeline of the far-right becoming more and more emboldened up to this point.