Extremists are trying to fill the gap caused by COVID uncertainty and conspiracies

A photo of the Cork anti-lockdown rally on 6 March which attracted various conspiracy theories about COVID-19 as well as extremists.

Last August over 1,000 people gathered at the Custom House in Dublin to protest against the COVID laws and the lockdown. Speakers at the rally told them that COVID wasn’t as dangerous as it is. And that a viable treatment existed at the time but was being withheld by governments. Masks, according to one speaker, were one step on the path to a totalitarian state of some kind. But the rally was a cover for far-right groups and extremists aiming to recruit new followers.

The Irish Freedom Party (IFP) and National Party were both present, with the former playing an active role in the rally. At that same rally counter-protestors were assaulted by fanatics. As we argued at the time, not all of the people there were extremists. But extremists were there to take advantage of the people fed up with the lockdown. 

And in the last few months that equation hasn’t changed.

From Bill Gates to 5G

Dublin last week and Cork over the weekend were stark reminders of this. Although many are still supportive of the lockdown, knowing that it’s all that stands between even more deaths and the health service being completely overrun, that’s not to say that some people have had enough. Over a year into the pandemic and they feel there’s no end in sight.

Still others have fallen down the conspiratorial rabbit hole. They variously believe that the pandemic is part of a globalist agenda of some kind to institute a one-world government; that Bill Gates is somehow involved in the spread of the virus and that the vaccine is part of a plot to insert tracking chips into every human; or that 5G technology is linked to the virus. More Irish-specific variations of these conspiracy theories insist that the pandemic is a cover for a power grab by the current government.

Across the Irish online ecosphere such beliefs are widespread. In Facebook and Telegram groups one can find such beliefs being openly discussed with fellow believers. Influence from outside of Ireland is also evident, from German group Querdenken’s involvement in the rally in August last year to legislation being shared in Irish groups that applies to the UK.

Far-right presence

When the presence of extremists is added to this the situation becomes even more critical. As in Dublin last week, the anti-lockdown rally in Cork over the weekend attracted members of Ireland’s various far-right groups. 

The National Party were in attendance handing out fliers calling on the government to “House the Irish!”. Another flier demanded that the government “Let Ireland Live!”. Apparently this aim would be achieved by supporting the National Party and ending the lockdown in that particular order. 

At least one member of Niall McConnell’s far-right Síol na hÉireann was also in attendance. The same man was photographed assaulting a counter-protestor at the August rally. 

Also there was John Bowler, a US émigré and member of the IFP who travelled from Kerry, with gardaí stopping another member, Daithí Ó Fallamháin, outside Cork as he made his way from Westport in County Mayo. Both men ran as candidates for the party during the last general election.

“The seriousness of the situation”

Speaking to The Beacon about recent events, a spokesperson for the group Le Chéile argued that “Tarring all protestors as ‘extreme’ and ‘far-right’ does more damage than good”. 

They also noted a tendency on social media for some to consider conspiracy theorists at the anti-lockdown rallies as being “unworthy of serious consideration”. According to the group, such tactics are unwise because conspiracy theories are some of “the fuel that drives” the anti-lockdown rallies. And, what’s more:

It minimizes the seriousness of the situation, failing to address the fact anti-lockdown protests are recruitment drives for far-right organisations

It believes more work must be done to debunk these various conspiracy theories. Based on what can be seen across Irish social media in relation to the pandemic, this is a sorely and quickly needed. Some likely can’t be turned but that doesn’t mean the effort shouldn’t be made. 

Le Chéile also pointed to far-right activists who “are highly committed” and “are travelling from other counties to bolster the attendance at these events”. And that we shouldn’t “underestimate the levels of coordination and organisation amongst the far-right”.

Such an assessment is fair. 

By exploiting the legitimate concerns of people along with encouraging and taking advantage of various conspiracy theories, far-right groups and individual extremists are attempting to gain ground where pushback will be minimal or non-existent. A seemingly endless third lockdown and governmental incompetence has given these extremists an advantage they otherwise mightn’t have. With social media they can control the message as effectively as any government PR advisor. And the rally in Cork is perceived by these various groups as having been wildly successful.

So the situation is serious. But parts of the media continue to play the “both sides” game, insisting the left is comparable to the right. 

As journalist Philip O’Connor recently pointed out, “This is not some opportunity you can use to scare voters back into your corner”. Instead, there’s “a very specific response needed when fascists take to the streets”. And one aspect of this is “to reject them and their ideology out of hand as being specifically undemocratic, not by lumping them in with others”.

Given that violence is inherent to far-right organising, how the Irish mainstream handles the threat today will determine the number of casualties down the line. All we can do is hope the situation is eventually treated a seriously as it should be. But given the pattern thus far, it’s hard to be optimistic.

Featured image via Twitter – Screenshot

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