At nearly every protest in every western country, the attendees can be broadly divided into two groups of people. One group is the people who are there because they feel very strongly about the particular issue being protested. Some of them may never have protested before, and may never protest again. They may be there because an issue affects them personally, or because it has touched them emotionally and they felt that they really needed to have their voices heard.
The second group is an entirely different group: They’re the people who organise protests, and who attend them regularly. For them, the issue being protested doesn’t always matter that much, necessarily, because it’s part of a wider pantheon of issues that they’re protesting about, every other week.
The proportion of these two groups at any protest usually determines the media coverage it receives. When a hundred people protest for Palestinian rights outside the Israeli embassy, nobody pays much attention. But when the exact same hundred people are joined by thousands more to protest water charges, it is national news.
This latter group nearly always have views that the rest of us would consider to be fringe: On the left, a lot of them are anarchists or communists who see every protest as part of the effort to ferment a revolution. On the right, they tend to be blood and soil nationalists who see every protest as part of the effort to “take back the country from the invaders”.
There’s only one difference between them, and it’s this: At large protests attended by the anarchists and communists, the media focuses on the ordinary people and their concerns and hides away the extremism in their midst. At large protests organised by the nationalists, the media focuses on those with the fringe views, and hides away the very many normal people with perfectly normal concerns. This is because, to be blunt, most people in the media consider the far left, with their half a dozen TDs and significant state funding, a bit kooky, but harmless; but consider the “far right”, which is made up of about three youtubers and fifty anonymous twitter accounts, to be an existential threat.
And that is how you get the present panic about Saturday’s “far right” protests.
The vast, overwhelming, majority of those who protested on Saturday were not “far right” in any meaningful sense of the term. They attended a protest about the compulsory wearing of facemasks, and the prolonging of other restrictions.
They feel that wearing facemasks is absurd, for a number of reasons: They point out, reasonably, that six months ago, the Government agreed with them, as did the Government’s scientists. Facemasks were not just discouraged six months ago, they were actively regarded as dangerous, and likely to help spread the virus.
They point out that the compulsory wearing of facemasks does not seem to have had much of an impact in stopping the spread of covid, either: Numbers are rising, and the Government seems to have very little control over how quickly they are rising, and facemasks are not making any obvious difference to the numbers.
They look at the present restrictions and see what everyone else sees, but few enough of us admit: That the government’s restrictions increasingly make no sense and are contradictory, and arbitrary.
These are not fringe, far right, views. These are perfectly normal, and legitimate concerns, which many people share.
To many of us, compulsory facemasks means popping one on when you go into the Supermarket to do your shopping, and popping it off again when you are back in the car. But compulsory facemasks mean something quite different when you have to wear one all day, every day, at work, or in school. Then, understandably, they begin to feel much more like an imposition, and a burden. They are, and this is no small point, life-changing, in a bad way, for those who lip-read. They create a barrier between us in basic communication – the inability to see another’s face, to read their expression, to understand their emotions.
The reasons for objecting to them are compounded, then, by the fact that the science around their effectiveness has been so thoroughly rejected – by our own Government, no less, in the early spring and summer.
Anyway, none of that matters to the Irish media, which has been organising a conscious campaign of defamation against those who attended Saturday’s protests. We are not supposed to think of them as ordinary people, but as fringe far-right activists.
But these protests are not happening because the fringe far right is suddenly popular. They are happening because the centre of Irish politics is increasingly unpopular, and detached from normal people’s concerns. It’s a coincidence, but not a shocking one, that the protests happened on the same day that Fianna Fail, once the party of Ireland’s working class, collapsed to ten per cent in the opinion polls.
Who in the Dáil, for example, is speaking up for people who think that facemasks are an infringement on liberty, and of limited effectiveness? Who in the Seanad? Who in the media? At Gript, we’ve tried to give these views a fair hearing, because they are not unreasonable. But elsewhere, people who believe what the Government was saying about facemasks in the spring are being treated as pariahs.
So why would they care, then, that they’re standing beside some far-right fella who wants a white-only Ireland? And why should anyone else care? For years, supporters of lefty causes have had no issue whatever standing beside people who endorsed the Soviet Union, or who supported terrorist violence on this island and elsewhere, and nobody cared.
The media, in Ireland, have a double standard on these things. And what’s more, everybody knows it. That might be one reason that some of the protests were focused on media buildings on Saturday.
The response has been a conscious campaign of defamation against the protestors. It won’t work.