A number of conspiracy theorists along with activists linked to far-right parties were involved in an anti-mask rally that was held in Dublin on Friday. On the surface the rally, which attracted roughly 1,000 people, was held to protest against the mandating of the wearing of masks by children in schools in order to combat the spread of COVID-19. As the government has introduced another round of restrictions to deal with surging cases of the virus, the public is rightly angry. But considering the speeches at the rally, as well as those involved in its organising, it seems that a more nefarious agenda was at play. It looks as if the real plan involves luring people down the far-right, conspiracy theorist rabbit hole.
It isn’t the first time that such a rally has taken place. Dozens of similar rallies have been held over the duration of the pandemic. What made the one on Friday, 3 December different was the involvement of children. The organisers of the rally made their supposed defence of the rights of children the centrepiece of the day. Many children were also present to hear various conspiracy theories and mistruths from the platform erected on Merrion Square. Some also got to witness a mob descend on a small number of gardaí which started shouting abuse at them.
Teaching the conspiracy
A prominent aspect of the rally was the attendance of members of a relatively new group called the Irish Education Alliance (IEA). On Facebook it describes itself as a movement of people working in education “who are concerned about a number of issues facing students, staff and their families since March 2020”. More specifically, it says the group will allow members to support each other and “liase [sic] with other partners in education to engage in campaigns to mitigate against discrimination in educational settings relating to Covid-19 policies, government guidelines, public health advice and data protection”.
The driving force behind the IEA appears to be national school teacher, Helena Byrne.
A teacher in Co. Wexford, Byrne is a member of far-right party Renua. She ran as a candidate for the party in the 2019 local elections and then again in the 2020 general election in the Carlow-Kilkenny constituency. In both cases she failed to get elected, receiving only 992 first preference votes in the latter. Byrne has also promoted the showing of anti-abortion movie, Unplanned, in Carlow. In defending the film, which the Huffington Post said “perpetuates distortions and potentially dangerous myths” about abortion, Byrne argued that “abortion is barbaric, inhumane, and wrong”. She’s also attended at least one National Party rally, with photographs showing her present at such a gathering last year which targeted minister for children Roderic O’Gorman. At the now infamous protest, National Party members held a banner and placards with nooses on them.
Her Facebook page is littered with anti-mask messaging. In one post she refers to children wearing masks as “Child Abuse!” and in another describes it as “a child protection matter” that’s causing “hidden damage” to children. Byrne has also shared videos of far-right extremist Dara O’Flaherty, who has a history of arrests and aggression, and far-right website Gript. She’s also posted content belonging to the Irish Council for Human Rights (ICHR), an anti-lockdown group founded by former Renua members, and siblings, Tracey and Neil O’Mahony. Ms. O’Mahony has appeared alongside Gemma O’Doherty and John Waters at political rallies and is currently attempting to sue the state in relation to the COVID legislation she says is unconstitutional.
But as Byrne was introduced on to the stage during the Merrion Square protest, this history was not mentioned. Instead she was there as a concerned teacher, a member of the IEA, and to “represent everyone who works in the education sector”. Byrne told the crowd that children had a right “to be barefaced in a classroom”. But now this freedom “was taken away” and “risks becoming the freedom that their younger brothers and sisters will never enjoy and that your grandchildren will never know existed unless you tell them”. During her speech she described children as being “muzzled” by face masks and that teenagers have had their “bodily integrity” undermined for the last year because of wearing masks. Byrne went on to declare that teachers “have a duty of care to protect children” and, with this in mind, should oppose children having to wear face masks in school.
Other members of the IEA echoed Byrne’s claims. Lynda Kelly, also a founder of the group TeenHeard — which sent letters to every secondary school in Ireland calling for an end to teenagers having to wear masks — insisted to the crowd there’s “nothing that can justify children wearing masks”. She claimed the practice is risky and, in fact, that “Children are not at any risk from COVID”. Kelly maintained that the issue of children wearing masks has nothing to do with health and is instead “about control and gaining compliance”. She also criticised parents for allowing their children to wear masks and called on them to “Wake up” and “Protect your children”. Like Byrne, she described children wearing masks as a form of “abuse”.
Another member of the IEA who identified herself as Kathleen, described the crowd in front of her as an “army” that was ready “to fight for” children. She also attacked the Irish National Teachers’ Organisation (INTO) for agreeing to the government’s guidelines.
Barra De Róiste, a national school teacher in Dublin and also a member of the IEA, spoke out against masks, going so far as to encourage children in school to take them off. During his speech he suggested that parents and children should protest against the wearing of masks outside of schools. And he told them to “Send them all the letters you can send them”. De Róiste also quoted Dr. Margareta Griesz-Brisson who has expressed concern about the dangers of face masks. But experts have previously debunked the German doctor’s claims that wearing face masks can cause oxygen deprivation and eventually brain damage.
The Beacon contacted the INTO regarding the comments. A spokesperson replied, saying “We will not be commenting on this matter”.
A pattern of conspiracies
Other speakers on the day also promoted similar conspiracy theories.
One of the organisers of the rally was Rachel Whelan, a classically trained singer who’s linked to far-right group Corruption Awareness Ireland. She’s also organised previous rallies, some of which included the presence of members of the IEA. Speaking to the crowd on Friday, she told them the wearing of masks is not supported by science and lambasted minister for education Norma Foley for calling on children to wear them in school. And she contended that the emotional, intellectual, and mental development of children will be stunted as a result of wearing masks in school every day.
Whelan also claimed that COVID-19 doesn’t pose a danger to children. The singer argued “We know that children are not at risk from COVID. We know that they are not a significant source of spread”. Given this, she told parents and children present in the crowd that the latter shouldn’t be afraid of “something that is not a risk to them”.
She also drew attention to an amendment to the Health Act, which Whelan said the government will quietly renew later this month and which will allow it to detain people suspected of having COVID-19. Whelan failed to mention that this amendment to the act was introduced last year. There are also strict rules as to when the authorities can detain somebody infected with, or suspected of being infected with, COVID-19. It’s clearly stated that a medical officer can only detain someone if they’re a “potential source of infection, and the person is a potential risk to public health”.
What’s more, the act clarifies that their “detention and isolation is appropriate” to limit or stop the spread of COVID-19 and protect the lives of people. And, on top of this, the state can only confine the person or persons in question if they “cannot be effectively isolated, refuses to remain or appears unlikely to remain in his or her home or other accommodation arranged, or agreed, by the Health Service Executive”.
In finishing her remarks she proclaimed, “The masking of our children is the last straw which is why we are here saying ‘No’, loud and clear, ‘We will not comply’”, which the crowd then chanted back to her.
Also speaking at the rally was Dr. Vincent Carroll. A regular speaker at these gatherings, during the summer he told a sizeable crowd outside the Dáil that there’s no science behind the COVID-19 restrictions. At the same protest he attacked the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) and demanded to know their “vested interests”. Carroll has also previously spread disinformation about PCR tests, calling them “misleading”. During Friday’s rally his message was much of the same, adding that as a result of the new mask mandate in schools “childhood has been abolished”.
Speaking along similar lines actor Grace-Anne Kelly, referring to teenagers wearing masks in school since last year, accused the state of “indoctrinating, they are conditioning, they are disempowering an entire generation”. She also claimed that the “other side” has “big tech” and the media to back them up.
As the rally ended a large number of the crowd went to Leinster House. Once there, and encouraged by conspiracy theorist and far-right activist Sandra Giltrap, members of the crowd began placing brown envelopes through the bars at the entrance. According to Giltrap, the envelopes contained “legal papers” in relation to lockdown legislation that those present had now “served” on the government.
In the lead-up to the rally in Merrion Square it was clear that a large amount of coordination was taking place across social media. On Twitter posts about COVID-19 and the introduction of mask wearing in national schools were inundated with replies promoting the rally. On Telegram far-right channels and others associated with promoting conspiracy theories also actively publicised the rally.
The last time there was a similar level of coordination was when gardaí shot and killed George Nkencho. Administrators and users of a number of far-right Telegram channels sprung into action in order to spread racist conspiracy theories about Nkencho. They also arranged to harass anti-racism activists, telling each other to “Be as callous as possible” in order to increase people’s anger in an already fraught situation. In the case of TeenHeard, the group has posted template letters for people to download and then send to their children’s school. Amongst them are letters not consenting to a child being given a COVID-19 vaccine, “or any other vaccine”, while at school as well as purported notices of liability.
Many have insisted that it’s just concerned parents and teachers who attended Friday’s rally and prior ones. And that they’re not conspiracy theorists or far-right agitators. This may be true, but it doesn’t apply to everyone present.
On full display at the rally were placards calling into question the effectiveness of vaccines and their safety. Other placards insinuated NPHET chief Dr. Tony Holohan and taoiseach Micheál Martin are guilty of crimes against the Irish people while another accused Martin of being a Nazi and warned “We are coming for you”.
Also in attendance were well-known far-right extremists, such as O’Flaherty, as well as members of the National Party and people previously associated with the Irish Freedom Party. In the case of the former, their members were handing out leaflets to the crowd which accused the government of now having “the power to arbitrarily exclude you from civil society”. Included on the leaflets is information on how to join the National Party.
Activists and various groups have been warning for months that the far right has been attempting to use the pandemic to promote its ideology and recruit new followers. Even gardaí have noted the continual presence of extremist elements and their hand in organising anti-lockdown and anti-mask rallies. Given the lack of appropriate policing gardaí have carried out in relation to the far right over the last 20 months, most would be correct to be sceptical.
Part of the problem is that the issue has been allowed to fester for so long. And, now, the Irish Times has entered the fray. The day after the rally it published a piece with a headline that “Parents are being gaslit into masking children”. Coming at a time like this, when the far right is using the issue of children wearing masks to recruit and spread lies, it’s a deeply irresponsible move. With the government epically mishandling the pandemic, they’ve gifted the far right an opportunity. Because of this, those with genuine concerns need to be aware of who’s behind anti-mask rallies and who’s in attendance. If not, a fall down the conspiracy- and extremist-laden rabbit hole is not unlikely.
Featured image via Screenshot