Bloodied and bashed, an image of LGBT campaigner Izzy Kamikaze being attacked for voicing her opposition to anti-face mask demonstrators last weekend in the capital went viral.
The gay rights activist was beaten around the head with a wooden pole draped in a tricolour by factions of the extremist far right. Suddenly, the general public and mainstream media sat up and paid attention. Even Taoiseach Micheál Martin felt compelled to criticise the violent scenes.
Officers from the Special Detective Unit (SDU), which monitors the activities of terrorists and violent extremists, are now looking with "renewed interest" at far-right extremists active in Ireland. They consist of a "small number of potentially dangerous individuals" that have "latched on to" the controversial anti-mask movement, who have been staging a series of protests denouncing pandemic restrictions - predominantly in the capital, security sources say.
"There is monitoring going on right now, in light of last Saturday, violence at other protests and some online activity. Gardaí are well aware of the growth in popularity of some ideas, particularly online. The SDU have lots of ways of watching those who need to be watched," a security source told the Sunday Independent.
Specialist detectives have also probed potential far-right extremist involvement in orchestrating arson attacks at proposed direct provision centres, it is understood.
"It is the function of the SDU to keep the Government in power and monitor all extremists. Without going into specifics for obvious reasons, a lot goes on behind the scenes."
The attack on the LGBT activist symbolised the sinister side of the rising popularity of the extreme far-right movement in Ireland. A garda sergeant has been appointed to investigate the attack.
This weekend, Kamikaze described the attack, saying: "It hurt a lot. It knocked me to the ground. They were screaming 'paedo scum', which is how they refer to gay people. I had my scalp glued later in hospital. I'm being subjected to harassment online now and accused of photoshopping blood on to the images by the far right."
But the violent extremist elements successfully penetrating large-scale demonstrations that denounce Covid-19 restrictions didn't spring up overnight. And this is by no means the first foray into violence. In fact, just four weeks ago on August 22, Health Freedom Ireland (HFI) and Yellow Vests Ireland organised a protest against what HFI called "oppressive government restrictions and mandates" outside the Custom House. But security sources say the protest was "hijacked" by "far-right elements carrying weapons, intent on causing trouble".
It is understood that former members of Generation Identity Ireland, which dissolved in January, were the chief violent agitators at this protest, as well as last Saturday's. Former members of the white nationalist group are "being monitored" by the elite SDU and were collated carrying weapons including iron bars and attacking counter-protests at the demonstration on August 22.
Contacted this weekend, HFI Ireland, who did not attend last Saturday's demonstration, said: "HFI is a non-political group of volunteers. Our primary aims are to maintain choice when it comes to vaccination, be it a new Covid-19 vaccine or an existing vaccine from the childhood schedule ... HFI are a peaceful organisation and as such we condemn any form of violence."
Who are the organisers of the increasing number of protests in Ireland, questioning undisputed medical science about the dangers of Covid-19?
Yellow Vests Ireland, Síol na hÉireann, Irish Freedom Party and the National Party have been the predominant organisers of rallies in Dublin, hijacked by violent far-right extremists, including those formally linked to disbanded Generation Identity.
The Irish Freedom Party is chaired by UCD medical professor Dolores Cahill. She addressed an anti-mask protest in London last month, where she led chants of "stop the testing" and "no more masks", leading to calls for her resignation from UCD.
Hermann Kelly, president of the Irish Freedom Party, said its members had participated in peaceful anti-mask demonstrations at the Custom House last weekend and described his party as "liberal", adding: "Trying to smear us as far right is like calling Mother Teresa an Albanian gangster. It's ridiculous."
Cahill also addressed crowds at the anti-mask rally on August 22 at the Custom House, as did prominent lawyer Una McGurk. The senior counsel's involvement caused a political furore and Justice Minister Helen McEntee is now consulting with the Attorney General following receipt of a report from the International Protection Appeal Tribunal (IPAT) into the lawyer's attendance at the controversial rally.
Yellow Vests Ireland, which says it is apolitical, is led by Ben Gilroy and Glenn Miller; the former is a self-described anti-eviction campaigner . The Yellow Vest movement put themselves front and centre of the Roscommon anti-eviction protests of 2018, involving the McGann family in Strokestown, much to the furore of the local community.
While Yellow Vest Ireland is considered a "populist, grassroots revolutionary political movement", far more openly controversial are Síol na hÉireann. Sheep farmer Niall McConnell from Castlefinn in Donegal is the party's leader. He had a failed run for a Dáil seat in February, where he stood as an independent nationalist candidate on an anti-immigration and pro-Christian ticket. In a pre-polling day interview with a local newspaper he branded then Taoiseach Leo Varadkar a "q**** heathen Indian fella who is a friend to big business and a lackey of the banks".
McConnell picked up 580 first-preference votes.
Yellow Vest Ireland and Síol na hÉireann were the predominant groups at the larger of two Dublin city anti- mask protests last weekend, attended by up to 2,000 people. Niall McConnell led this march, where there was little social distancing and some of the banners read "take off your mask" and "it's only a common cold".
Simultaneously, there was another anti-mask protest taking place on Kildare Street outside the Dáil. The smaller protest, which numbered several hundred people, was dominated by the National Party but was also penetrated by former members of Generation Identity, as well as far-right figureheads active online. The latter two groupings displayed a "propensity for violence" and are on An Garda Síochána's radar, it is understood.
The National Party was founded by Tipperary man Justin Barrett and one of its key manifesto aims is to deport all immigrants from Ireland. Barrett has previously admitted attending rallies held by Nazi-sympathiser group the NDP and Italian fascist organisation Forza Nuova. "Some of protesters up at the Dáil were the hardcore group of ethno-nationalists, never afraid to use violence," explains a rural-based anti- racism activist, who spoke on condition of anonymity for personal security reasons. This man has previously received garda security advice because of threats from far-right groups.
"They (far-right groups) have attacked me before at a different rally. They have a security crew whose job is to attack counter-protesters. This security crew wear rubber gloves and carry iron bars disguised in their banners. They even wear arm bands and consider themselves the far-right police. They are scary."
The anti-racism activist was present at a small, socially distanced counter-protest on O'Connell Street last Saturday. He chose not to walk towards the Dáil, where speakers denounced pandemic restrictions.
But five counter-protesters, including Kamikaze, did walk up towards the "hardcore" group of demonstrators. Footage shared widely on social media shows masked demonstrators pushing some of the counter-protesters before Kamikaze falls to the ground, after being hit with a wooden pole. Gardaí then attempt to separate the two groups, moving the counter protesters away. An ambulance took Kamikaze to hospital for treatment to a head wound. She was released the following morning.
"The far right in Ireland now has a communications structure that dwarfs RTÉ. On Facebook alone during the pandemic, they have reached over one million people. They have hit a perfect storm of conditions," adds the activist, who recently infiltrated a closed Facebook group of far-right sympathisers, entitled the Gemma O'Doherty Supporters Group. The former journalist and far-right activist herself is not believed to have been a member. "It was a fascinating eye-opener. I learned how they develop and train others in the far right to join other Facebook pages and community groups. I saw how they get into these groups and begin to spread their message, gently at first. The far right are a massive propaganda machine. People are being propagandised online. They talk about being pro-Irish a lot. And hundreds of thousands of Irish people, some of them vulnerable, are watching their videos and supporting them, not really knowing what it is they are supporting."
One such person who recently fell victim to unwittingly getting involved in something he later regretted was Traveller, actor and activist, John Connors. In July, he attended a protest organised by the Irish Freedom Party and the National Party outside the Dáil, calling for the resignation of Green Party children's minister Roderic O'Gorman. The minister was the subject of online attacks from the far right after appearing in a photograph at a Pride march in 2018 with UK activist Peter Tatchell, the only time the two men ever met. The English LGBT rights campaigner spoke about sex between adults and children in 1997, comments he later clarified.
The July rally, like last Saturday and on August 22, also turned violent and counter-protesters were attacked, though not seriously injured. Connors later apologised publicly to Mr O'Gorman, saying his participation in the "online frenzy" against the politician was "wrong and unfair on every level".
Gavan Titley, a lecturer in media studies at Maynooth University and author of a number of books examining racism in Ireland, explains how the far right is effectively reaching a huge new audience thanks to Covid-19.
"These groups are shape-shifting and fluid. They jump on big issues online where they know they will get some support. Be it opposition to evictions, direct provision centres and now, of course, Covid-19. They pick a wedge issue, this allows them to infiltrate local communities," he adds.
"Covid has been by far the most successful issue for them to capitalise on. They have successfully capitalised on the fact that there's a lot of anxiety in the general population about Covid. After the Oireachtas golf affair, they pushed a message that 'the elite are continuing their way of life, why don't you?'. What's most worrying is the increase in physical attacks on their political opponents. There is a hardcore who want trouble. The violence is manifesting and getting worse."
There is no question that the far right is effectively mobilising support in Ireland. This much was evident when a couple of thousand people took to the streets last weekend backing the anti-mask movement.
"It's not really about masks. That's just a convenient cover for recruitment and fundraising purposes. [They] attract people who aren't necessarily racists or members of the far right. So you end up with a crowd consisting of people who are probably vulnerable, scared, and simply want answers, alongside men who are members of the National Party and Generation Identity. And these people can then be radicalised and used as a source of funding, as foot soldiers, or both," according to Bryan Wall, who writes for The Beacon, a website which reports on Ireland's far right.
But could the far right ever become a political force to be reckoned with? "I think we're at a very dangerous period in Irish society. These groups won't just disappear," Wall says. "While electorally they haven't achieved more than 2pc of the vote in general elections, it doesn't mean we should be complacent. Examples from the continent show us how quickly 2pc can become nearly 20pc."