Over the last 19 months the approach of the gardaí to policing of the far right and various anti-lockdown groups has been roundly criticised. Again and again the same individuals and groups were allowed to gather and march around Cork, Dublin, and other urban centres while the rest of us did what the government asked of us and stayed at home. Gardaí intervened on only a handful of occasions to make arrests out of the countless times they’ve observed these gatherings.
Events outside Leo Varadkar’s home last week were no different to the majority of these protests that have taken place. Gardaí looked on as people they’ve previously arrested gathered to spew bile and lies. These same people made homophobic and outright defamatory comments about Varadkar.
In the aftermath of the small gathering of conspiracy theorists and homophobes some have called to introduce laws which would limit or outlaw protests outside the homes of politicians. It’s a rational response to an irrational situation created by irrational people. But is it a step too far? Is it simply about limiting protest for fear of the righteous anger of legitimate protests caused by an out of touch government?
They’re questions worth asking.
Protest during a pandemic
This is especially so given that some commentators have attempted to link the far-right mob outside Varadkar’s house to apparently aggressive comments on social media directed at politicians. But this is a cynical manoeuvre on the part of the commentariat. Legitimate anger with the government and opposition to its policies is just that: Legitimate. And trying to conflate this with the actions of homophobes and conspiracy theorists is a ploy to undermine protest movements before they’ve even gotten started. We’ve seen it all before with the anti-water charge movement when Varadkar, the minister for health at the time, wrote it off as an anti-democratic “sinister fringe”.
This description is more appropriate for the groups that we’ve regularly seen outside the Custom House and GPO during the pandemic. For these people democratic norms are barriers to be roundly ignored and pushed aside. Defamation and demonisation of their targets is a regular occurrence. Varadkar is the latest to come into view of their crosshairs, with minister for health Stephen Donnelley and members of the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) being previous quarry.
But we’re still left with the original questions.
In June the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) tried to tackle the issue. It rightly pointed out that protest is legitimate although policing has been inconsistent. Gardaí excessively regulated left-wing protests or stopped them from going ahead in the first place. But various anti-lockdown protests proceeded without garda interference while counter-protests were recipients of “a far more heavy-handed approach”. Fundamentally, though, protest is a democratic right and such “rights should be protected” according to ICCL director Liam Herrick.
Simon Coveney, minister for foreign affairs, appears to agree with this assessment in the aftermath of the protest outside Varadkar’s Dublin home. He said he’s “not sure” that any legislation can be introduced to deal with the issue even if protests are taking place at the homes of politicians. Instead he asked for some “common decency” and suggested there are appropriate places to protest that aren’t outside a person’s home.
Ironically Varadkar has played to the far right in the past. His comments about the concerns of white men being of no interest to Sinn Féin and accusing certain asylum seekers of being illegitimate are all far-right dog whistles. Last December his minister for justice, Helen McEntee, argued that reforming Ireland’s regressive citizenship laws could have “unintended consequences” by putting pressure on health and welfare systems and the job market.
No sign of stopping
Anti-lockdown and far-right protestors have vowed to continue their targeting of people at their homes. After their protest outside of Varadkar’s house had ended one of the more vocal of those present, Graham Carey, threatened to start targeting journalists.
On his Facebook page he wrote they’ve treated him and his compatriots with “contempt”. And if this continues “then it’s your doors we will come too [sic] and we will expose you and your part in the robbery of Eireann [sic] and ungodly acts on God’s little ones”. Carey also insisted that what was said during the protest was “was all true” even though it was “horrifying” and “appalling”. At one point during his livestream of the protest he implied that the tánaiste was a paedophile.
For all of their pious bleating about the gardaí and government stripping away their freedoms, authorities will not stop the same group that was outside of Varadkar’s home from protesting in the future. They’ve been allowed to protest for the entirety of the pandemic with little to no resistance from gardaí. And that’s not going to change.
At the same time their rhetoric has become increasingly hostile both in Ireland and elsewhere. Earlier in the week an anti-mask activist killed a petrol station worker in Germany simply because he was asked to wear a mask. We’ve yet to see such extremism here. But Irish anti-lockdown and far-right protestors could’ve easily killed someone in the past. And with their ramping up of the demonising of anyone they view as an enemy, more violence is almost a certainty.
Regardless, Coveney is correct. A legislative tightrope would need to be walked in terms of tackling protest believed to be illegitimate. The government attempting to deal with the anti-lockdown and far-right movements by introducing new laws limiting their right to protest would only feed into the paranoia and victimisation complex that large parts of these groups already display.
There are no easy answers. But the authorities and parts of the media have blithely looked on as the threat festered. And now the consequences are outside our doors.
Featured image via Screenshot