It could never happen in Ireland … or could it?
When “patriots” stormed the US Capitol Building in Washington DC in January of last year in a bid to thwart the peaceful handover of power, people in Ireland consoled themselves that those kind of scenes would never occur here.
Four years earlier, when a far-right extremist, Richard Spencer, greeted the election of Donald Trump by proclaiming “Hail Trump! Hail our people! Hail victory!”, while people made Nazi salutes in the audience, such an occurrence seemed unthinkable in the Emerald Isle.
Even last weekend, when far-right politician Marine Le Pen attracted 42% of the vote in the final round of the French presidential elections, it was comforting to think that the kind of extremist anti-immigrant, anti-Muslim, pro-Putin views she expresses in France would never be embraced by Irish voters.
And yet it would be naïve to think the kind of views expressed by Trump, Le Pen, or Spencer would never, ever gain traction on this island.
Just last weekend, Gardai (the Irish police) confirmed that they have been visiting the homes of far-right activists to determine whether or not they pose a threat to senior Irish politicians and public officials.
Who would want to be a politician in Ireland right now?
In the UK, Conservative MP David Amess was stabbed multiple times at a constituency surgery in Leigh-on-Sea last October and died at the scene. A 25-year old man was given a life sentence for murder.
His killer may not have been a far-right extremist, but the murder highlighted the issues of security and safety for elected law-makers.
Last night, I watched a video of a former member of a tiny extreme right party in Ireland harass and follow a Fine Gael TD from outside the front gates of the national parliament. The protester kept challenging the TD (Irish MP) with questions about migrants as he walked along the street in Dublin.
Throughout the pandemic, enabled by the “echo chambers” provided by the social media companies, anti-vaccine and anti-mask protesters have staged protests outside the private homes of Irish politicians.
Actions which would have been considered beyond the Pale, and completely unacceptable, by protesters just a few years ago. Whatever one thinks of a politician, his or her private place of residence should not be fair game for protests which impact on families, mental health, and the well-being of neighbours.
Politicians have public offices and there are public buildings where people can make their feelings known.
Over the past six months, at least six far-right activists have been visited by Gardai from the Special Detective Unit (SDU) which has the responsibility for protecting politicians.
In some cases, individuals had made threats against specific politicians online.
One person, a retired member of the defence forces, ended an online message aimed at a senior politician with the sound of a gunshot.
In a subsequent video, he claimed there was nothing sinister about it.
But the politician he targeted has been subjected to numerous protests outside his Dublin home and was recently abused as he jogged along the quays in Dublin in a video which the perpetrator shared online.
What would this politician, or his extended family, make of seeing an angry video addressed to him end with the sound of a firing gun?
The algorithims used by Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube ensure that opinions are polarised and reinforced every day.
When anonymous accounts are suspended by the social media giants, their views are reinforced to an alarming degree when they seek out “freedom of speech” on far right platforms which don’t have anything like the limited regulation or content moderation on Twitter or Facebook.
If you believe that the US election in 2020 was a fraud, then your social media feed is going to reinforce that opinion and you are not going to come across factual articles which would tell you otherwise.
Here in Ireland, people with no medical qualifications spent much of the pandemic sharing videos on social media which claimed that Covid19 was a hoax and that there was no need for a lockdown, or masks, even as our hospitals were being filled to capacity.
When the Government rolled out the free vaccination programme, the far-right soon sought out conspiracy theories which claimed that the pandemic was planned or that the vaccinations were part of some mass global conspiracy by the pharmaceutical companies.
The kind of mad stuff which was circulating in the United States in the year or so before the election of Donald Trump can now be found online in Ireland.
People with no electoral mandate interview each other over and over, direct abuse at opponents, and spread conspiracy theories.
The people who stormed the US Capital Building in January 2021 were actual fascists.
The scary thing is that, without a shred of verifiable evidence, they really believed that the election had been stolen from Donald Trump.
Because he repeated the lie over and over, as his ego would not allow Trump to accept that he had been beaten fair and square.
But let’s not fool ourselves that there is no far-right in Ireland.
Throughout Ireland, we had “anti-mask”, “anti-lockdown” and “anti-vaccine” demonstrations organised by tiny far-right groups during the pandemic.
Thankfully, they have performed dismally in Irish elections, but they have used social media to spread hatred, abuse, and conspiracy theories online.
In private groups, they discuss how to win Irish people over to a view of the world which is filled with hatred, fear, discrimination and division.
People who never cared too much about the homeless before are suddenly up in arms that accommodation is being found now for Ukrainian families fleeing a terrible war.
At a time of unprecedented crises in homelessness and public health care, it is inevitable that many people feel anger and antipathy towards our political leaders.
The videos blaming immigrants, or migrants, or minorities for a shortage of accommodation, the high cost of living, or the huge queues in public hospitals have long been circulating online.
Protest is justified in the face of injustice and inequality, but we should not fool ourselves that the populism of Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen could never get a foothold here.
Former reality TV star Peter Casey showed it when his remarks about Travellers resulted in a sudden surge in support ahead of the 2018 Presidential election.
Some TDs capitalised on genuine concerns over the location of Direct Provision centres in small, rural communities by making racist remarks about asylum-seekers.
Public sympathy for Syrians fleeing a tyrant in their own country never reached the outpouring of sympathy we have seen for the people of Ukraine in recent weeks and months.
An Independent TD here in Galway even claimed that African migrants came to Ireland to “sponge off the system” and that only Christian refugees were legitimate.
The USA and France are certainly not the only places where populists and racists try to capitalise on fears and frustrations by focusing their ire on the weakest and most vulnerable in society.
The unthinkable online rhetoric which led to the rise of Trump has made its way to Ireland in a way which would have been unthinkable just six or seven years ago.
Find Ciaran Tierney on Twitter: https://twitter.com/ciarantierney