The violence seen at last week’s anti-lockdown protest in Dublin has drawn a focus on, not just the simmering tensions around the movements, but also those who organise and use the demonstrations for political gain.The disturbance saw 23 people arrested and 13 people charged that evening with public order offences.One man, Jake Merriman, with an address at Meadowlands Avenue, Monkstown, Dublin, has been accused of possession of an eight-shot cannon firework and firing bottles at gardaí on Grafton St last Saturday. 
He has been charged with five offences in total.
While the vast majority of attendees at last week’s event in Dublin were peaceful, it was by no means an organic event and was organised through right-wing messaging groups on social media apps like Facebook (which has deleted a number of groups), Gab, and Telegram.
This weekend’s event in Cork is more centrally organised than the one in Dublin, and a follow-up is planned for St Patrick’s Day in the capital.
At last week’s event, right-wing parties such as Renua, the Irish Freedom Party, and Direct Democracy Ireland handed out a joint flyer which made a number of claims about Covid-19, and the far-right National Party also handed out flyers and had a visible presence.
Angry anti-lockdown protestors at St Stephen’s Green in Dublin City centre. Picture: Sam Boal/
These parties have sought to position themselves as the key opponents of public health measures throughout the pandemic. Members of the Irish Freedom Party had previously been involved with the organisation of protests under the umbrella group Health Freedom Ireland.
After last week’s violence , much of the discussion focused on the politics of those involved, particularly after Garda Commissioner Drew Harris’ comments that “far-left” groups were observed. Sources clarified that this was a reference to known republicans, though one Garda source said that the force’s definition of “far-left” as those engaged in violence for political aims was “outdated”.
Indeed, research from counter-extremism group Moonshot this week showed that the Irish far-right extremist audience is actively searching for highly niche extremist material.
“This could indicate that Ireland has a small, but dedicated, far-right scene,” says the group’s founder Ross Frenett.
Mr Frenett said that while Ireland has a much smaller per capita interest in the far right than the US, those who do follow it do so “with intensity”.
Garda sources said people associated with certain dissident republican groups were seen at last Saturdays protest. But they said it was not clear if they were active in agitating for violence at the event.
There were a few individuals associated, either in the past or still are, with Republican Sinn Féin, there, said one source. He said it appeared they were there as individuals, as opposed to a group, and did not appear to be acting as a cohesive unit.
It is thought this information had influenced Mr Harris when he referred to the far-left being involved in the anti-lockdown protest.
A second source with close knowledge of dissident republicans said he was not aware of any of the various republican groupings being involved, and said he would be surprised if they were.
He pointed out that RSF had issued a statement condemning what they described as the right-wing protest.
This source said it was very likely some republicans were there as individuals, as there were some who shared the politics of the anti-lockdown groupings.
He said some former members of RSF and 32 County Sovereignty Movement did go into the QAnaon, anti-vaxx, pro-Trump orbit over the last couple of years. He said there was a former prominent official in RSF who was vocal on several internet forums expressing conspiracy theories like 5G and Covid.
The source said people who are associated with murdered Real IRA boss in Dublin, Alan Ryan, might be popping up in these circles and at the protests, but the source did not think they were currently members of any republican group. He said there were some people with links to RSF who were behind some anti-lockdown protests but, again, said he did not think they were members of any republican groups as such.
One source said that many of those who have been seen were “not into the politics of Republican movements, as such”, adding that many were involved in dissident movements as a means to engage in criminality.
Disinformation analyst at the Institute for Strategic Dialogue Ciarán O’Connor says that far-right groups are taking advantage of people “at a very vulnerable time”.
“People’s lives have been turned upside down, they’ve lost jobs and loved ones,” he said. “And sometimes people need someone to blame.
“But it’s a very slippery slope once you enter into these online groups. You’re being exposed to a lot of content from across the internet. You can see how this stuff bleeds over.
“And these far-right groups are using that to sow division and hostility to push their own political objectives.”
He added that the conflation of the terms “far-right” and “far-left” showed the need for many Irish institutions to be more educated in their use of language around these events, saying that labelling is important in these situations.
“It’s not just middle-aged skinheads anymore, the radicalisation that’s taking place is completely indiscriminate.”
Anatomy of a lie
In the hours after footage appeared on social media of skirmishes between gardaí and some of those in attendance on Grafton St, supporters of the anti-lockdown movement scrambled to place the blame elsewhere.
In a carbon copy of what happened in the wake of the Capitol Riot in Washington DC, anti-lockdown protestors began messaging each other that the people involved were doing the bidding of everyone except their group.
The link between the far-right in America cannot be removed from the anti-lockdown groupings in Ireland. Many of the agitators on social media who are stoking fear, promoting violence, and sowing misinformation either openly reside in the US or by creating fake accounts pretending to be Irish. They are let down by their American vernacular, posting things about “politicians in diapers” or praise for “the troops”, for example.
One prevalent rumour was that some of those involved in the unrest were members of the Gardaí, or “plants” ordered to foment chaos in what they termed “a peaceful march”.
A picture of a uniformed Garda officer holding a firework was circulated in the time following the chaos on Grafton St, which anti-lockdown protestors used to try to validate a theory that the Gardaí had organised the incident. However, Gardaí have confirmed to the Irish Examiner that the officer pictured had lifted the firework off the street in the midst of the disorder.
In right-wing messaging groups, a rumour spread that certain individuals were wearing a “garda-issue stab vest” or “had a Garda haircut”. While many in the larger groups saw this as false, the narrative continues online.
An anti-lockdown protester is held by gardai on OConnell St, Dublin. Picture: Leah Farrell/
Users said the unrest was a “false-flag”, a term used to describe an act committed with the intent of disguising the actual source of responsibility. Many far-right groups in America have used the term “false-flag” about tragedies like the Sandy Hook massacre, where 20 children and six adults were shot and killed. They claim these incidents are set up to take “their fundamental freedoms” away much like Irish anti-lockdown protestors claim Covid-19 restrictions take away “their constitutional rights”.
Social media posters wrote: “We were there. It wasn’t our protesters it was the Antifa” … “they are funded to do this but shame to discredit the others”.
“A PAID HIRELING WITH NO CONSCIENCE..who…managed to panic the gardai… in a deliberate ploy to fool politicians, the media and the public and it worked.”
Others suggested Sinn Féin paid agitators to be there.
In the hours after the protest, this narrative ramped up when the Garda Commissioner released a statement in which he attributed blame to both the “far-left” and “far-right”. That galvanised those who wished to spread the blame.
Within an hour of Drew Harris’s comments, some of the harsher fringes of the groups were arguing that the trouble had been caused by “antifa scum”, while others argued that the “same had happened in the US”, a reference to a lie that was spread by the far-right in the US, that it was actually left-wing activists who had stormed the Capitol Building in January.
This lie was then spread further when Ben Gilroy of the Irish Freedom Party falsely stated on social media that one individual on Saturday had links to People Before Profit TD Paul Murphy, incorrectly claiming Garda Commissioner Drew Harris had stated this on RTÉ.
Mr Murphy said the Commissioner’s initial comments of the far-left’s involvement had fuelled such defamatory rumours.
Protesters clash with gardaí in Dublin city centre. Picture: Damian Eagers/PA Wire
St Patrick’s Day
Galvanised by their “win” last week, the groups have now set their sights on St Patrick’s Day. Many have posted on social media that they had last year’s event “taken away” from them and plan to celebrate this year, in contravention of the health restrictions.
Many warned of gardaí and roadblocks, and are suggesting to each other how to overcome such obstacles, such as: “People need to form groups and creates [sic] plans to be in Dublin. Get in a few days before if you can.” 
Some are offering each other lifts in their cars, other anti-lockdown protestors have stated they plan to travel from England for the day.
Others have called for attendees to be aware of local graveyards as a cover story if people are stopped by gardaí.
The date is being flagged as the date of the “Great Reopening”, when businesses are being urged to throw their doors open in contravention of public health measures. This plan had been floated at the turn of the year to take place on January 30, but failed to materialise and a subsequent attempt to urge businesses to open on Valentine’s Day also failed to gather momentum.