The situation in some communities where the “far right is gaining a foothold like never before” was “on a knife-edge” and “could go either way”, depending on how the issue was responded to, a seminar this week heard.
The event on Wednesday was hosted by the Far Right Observatory (FRO), a civil society organisation which monitors, analyses and strategises to counter far right activities.
FRO director Niamh McDonald said activists were “whipping up fear and panic” in communities that had “lost trust” in political leaders, institutions and the mainstream media.
“This is time to make tracks on the ground that will lead to the local elections in 2024,” she said. “We can’t fool ourselves about that. They are going to start running candidates in every area. Right now, these situations are on a knife-edge.”
We want to bring the temperature right down, which is in complete opposition to what the far right are doing
Responses to far-right rhetoric should be led by “trusted actors” within communities, Ms McDonald added. “Trust is a vital component because there is no trust where the far right has whipped up panic and fear,” she said.
“Our aim is de-escalation. We want to bring the temperature right down, which is in complete opposition to what the far right are doing – so people can start to breathe, start to think in a rational way.”
The aim of the far right, she said, was to “create conflict and division in our communities and to create an ‘us or them’ in their messaging”.
“It is about fear, it’s about distrust, about anger and about panic. They generate that very, very well using lies, disinformation to mobilise. Social media platforms are their accelerant.”
Ms McDonald said it is important to acknowledge the “righteous anger” in many communities, the foundations of which had been laid in the 2008 financial crash, the “decimation of the community sector” and the housing crisis. It is important not to label people with genuine concerns as “far right”.
[ Una Mullally: The comforting theory Irish people won’t coalesce around the far right has disintegrated ]
She said it was not useful to try to rebut the far right’s “lies” with facts, as they would counter them with more disinformation. It was more effective to acknowledge the struggles in people’s lives, and offer solutions like “protesting at the Government” and stressing that “we are stronger together”.
“There’s no shaming. There’s compassion. It happened in Ballymun, in East Wall. It’s a slow process but it’s a process. Solidarity inoculates the hate,” she said.
“This has to be a community response – the far right are on their football pitch kicking around their hate and misinformation. We should not even be on that pitch. We should turn our backs and ignore them on our own pitch with our own values. We play our own game. The more you engage with them, the more you extend their reach.”
Citing the Tidy Towns as a “key place of solidarity and social cohesion”, she said it “came up trumps in Ballymun, Fermoy, Clondalkin”.
“It is probably one of the first places people seeking asylum volunteer because they can see people cleaning up, planting flowers and it’s a really good activity where people can join in. I never thought I’d say the Tidy Towns were the kind of undercover anti-fascist network, but it’s one of the things I’m seeing.”
We are definitely seeing an increase in the volume and intensity of the violent discourse online
She said the target of the far right’s “chaos” might be anti-refugee now, but would move on to be anti-LGBT, or anti-sex education, or to other groups and issues.
Mark Malone, researcher with the FRO, said a small number of individuals were adopting “an increasingly militant stance . . . including calls for violence”, which would lead “inevitably to real-world harms as we saw over the weekend [in Ashtown]”.
He added: “We are definitely seeing an increase in the volume and intensity of the violent discourse online – that’s across all the groups – and an increase in the levels of anger and threats of violence and intimidation at demos.”
There were indications that criminals were joining these protests, Mr Malone added.
The level of “fear, noise and panic” they created, however, did not appear to be reflected in the numbers, whom he estimated involved “two or three small political organisations” and fewer than 25 to 30 individuals “providing the sustained content” confined mainly to Dublin, with a “tiny number in Cork”.