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Why are gardaí so passive when policing the far right?

Officers rarely intervene to remove or arrest far-right protesters; observers are divided on whether this cautious approach is helping or hindering troublemakers

No sooner had the flames been quenched at a fire in a makeshift migrant camp in south inner city Dublin last week than an anti-immigration protest, with roadblocks, emerged on the other side of the country in Inch, Co Clare. In the days since, media attention has once again been fixed on the immigration issue and the actions of far-right protesters.

This weekend locals continue to block access to a hotel in Inch where asylum seekers are being housed amid anger in the community about their arrival. Meanwhile, a criminal inquiry is under way into the events on Sandwith Street in Dublin’s south inner city, where migrants living in tents up a laneway were forced out after angry protests, before their belongings were set on fire.

As anti-immigration sentiment stirred again, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he did not believe gardaí had enough resources in Dublin to police far-right protests. Just hours after he made those claims, Minister for Justice Simon Harris was giving interviews and steadfastly not echoing the Taoiseach’s views.

He made all the right noises when asked about the Taoiseach’s remarks – “you could always do with more guards” and “we want to increase Garda numbers”. But ultimately he was clear that Garda Commissioner Drew Harris had told him he had the resources he needed for his policing plans and for “operational integrity”.


Varadkar’s comments raised more than a few eyebrows in the Garda force. There was clear annoyance at his remarks among the senior ranks in Garda Headquarters in Phoenix Park, Dublin. Some sources said Varadkar did not seem to understand that policing at protests was deliberately subtle and that that approach, they said, was working.

Garda sources who spoke to The Irish Times described the policing of protests in the Republic as “passive” compared to other countries, especially Britain and France

Some Garda sources who spoke to The Irish Times this week were concerned that the Taoiseach was seeking to “deflect” from the Government’s failures on housing – one of the main reasons asylum seekers are on the streets in tents – and towards some unspecified problem with policing.

However, even before Varadkar made his remarks, The Irish Times had quoted several gardaí who believed the policing of anti immigration protests – specifically the more aggressive, far-right events – was too soft. They said a cohort of far right protesters had for months conducted themselves at events in a manner that breached the criminal law, committing public order crimes or abuse-based and threat-based offences, but had not been arrested.


So what is the accurate picture? Do gardaí have too few resources to police far right events or all the resources they need for the job? And is the policing of the far right, and the protests they organise or hijack, firm enough?

In his comments this week, Simon Harris urged people “not to fall for the propaganda of the far right” and appeared to make a very clear distinction between the protesters on Sandwith Street yesterday week and those who mobilised in Inch over the past week. One group had engaged in “sheer thuggery and attempts to intimidate”, while the others raised “legitimate questions and concerns a community might have”, even though they were blocking a public road and demanding to see identification before letting people pass.

Garda sources who spoke to The Irish Times described the policing of protests in the Republic as “passive” compared to other countries, especially Britain and France where police often clashed with demonstrators. The same sources said the Garda’s approach was to facilitate protests, something the force was obliged to do as protesting was lawful and a human right and no permit was required.

They argued that the Garda’s “passive” approach was the main reason anti-immigration events almost always passed off without violence or Garda-protester clashes, which they believe had stymied the far right’s recruitment efforts. The policing approach was put to the test when pro-refugee counter-demonstrators arrived at far right events, but even then violence very rarely broke out.

“They (the far right) are only looking for a clash (with gardaí) so they can record it and spray it all over social media, hoping they’ll get more crowds out the following weekend. And we haven’t given them that chance over the last few years,” said one source. “We just escort them around, let them protest and block the traffic for a while, and eventually they go home.”

If we [the Garda] go in ready for trouble every time, then these events will attract people looking for trouble

—  Garda source

His summary, of killing the protesters with kindness, was echoed by many other Garda sources, who believed the Irish approach was much more progressive and effective than most other European countries.

“You see the recent scenes in Paris and London,” said one source, referring to police clashing with protesters in both cities. “The police there have tried to control these large events with strength. So you see a very large number of police on the streets. Many of them are in public order [riot] gear and the biggest (police) vehicles are also on the scene; a show of strength. But if we [the Garda] took that posture, then the protesters respond to that and you’ve got two sides ready for a battle. It’s not the way to go.”

Another Garda member agreed, saying: “If we [the Garda] go in ready for trouble every time, then these events will attract people looking for trouble.” He also believed far-right protest groups remained very small, and were now organising far fewer events, precisely because they had been denied clashes with gardaí that would have generated publicity for them and bolstered their ranks.

‘Gone too far’

Garda sources say the number of anti-immigration protests in Dublin – where most of the events have always occurred – increased exponentially in the first two months of 2023. More recently, however, they say the number of protests has markedly reduced.

One Garda source who has been present at protests believed a better balance needed to be struck when policing the events, saying the “passive” approach had “gone too far”. He believed some far-right suspects had racially abused members of the public – or ethnic minority gardaí – as well as issued threats and engaged in extreme, often racist, verbal abuse with no consequence.

“When they do it once and there’s no move against them, it’s a blank cheque for them,” he said. While a man was arrested at the disturbance on Sandwith Street on May 12th, the garda source was concerned that a criminal inquiry into the fire and other events on the night only appeared to commence after several days of media focus. He added that although the fire was lit after the protest and when the tents were unoccupied, it was “criminal damage” at a minimum and should be pursued whether teenagers were responsible, as suspected, or older far-right members.

Tony Gallagher is a former Garda inspector who was based in Dublin’s inner city and specialised in policing public events – including every anti-immigration, or far-right, protest that took place in Dublin city during his time on the force until his retirement last year. He said that while some members of the public – especially motorists blocked by protests – often became “frustrated and wonder why firmer action isn’t being taken”, that firmer action came with significant risks.

In the age of camera phones and social media, he said, gardaí did not want to be filmed by protesters while engaged in robust policing for fear of going viral and being identified and targeted. They also did not want repeated complaints being made against them to the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission, which was inevitable after clashes with protesters.

...if the Garda approach was to be ‘heavy-handed’, protesters could use their phones to call for their allies to rush to the scene, meaning the challenge faced by gardaí could become larger and more volatile very quickly

In terms of the bigger picture, Gallagher pointed to those countries where the police intervened against protesters – to drag or lift them off roads, for example – saying their actions created a “high expectation” that they would intervene every time. They then became obliged to ready themselves for direct intervention at every protest, which led to flooding protest venues with resources.

In the Republic, this would include moving large Garda cellular trucks into place to facilitate multiple arrests being made on the street at the same time. Public order gardaí, dressed in riot gear, would also need to be on hand to move in and remove protesters who refused to budge. Gallagher said this would change the environment, making it more fortified and oppressive. This would only crank up tensions, thus increasing the likelihood of disorder.

He added that if the Garda approach was to be “heavy-handed”, protesters could use their phones to call for their allies to rush to the scene, meaning the challenge faced by gardaí could become larger and more volatile very quickly. He believed footage of robust policing targeted at protesters would be leveraged for recruitment purposes. Far-right activists, he said, were adept at running propaganda campaigns online.

Suppressing growth

But his real concern was that deciding to abandon, or to even marginally move away from, the current passive default policing mode at far-right protests would be met with serious violence. He pointed to France and Spain, where very robust and proactive police officers were regularly targeted with the type of violence gardaí never encounter. “It amounts to firebombing and petrol bombs and missiles,” he said.

Overall, the Garda’s passive policing approach to anti-immigration protests had suppressed the growth of the Irish far right, the strength of which he believed was overestimated by the media.

Despite the pandemic years, and now the spike in asylum seekers coming to the Republic coinciding with a housing crisis – all of which should be fertile ground for the far right – Gallagher said it was a movement that remained very small. “But they are a very vocal group, and that makes it appear they are a greater force.”