IT was recently voted the third friendliest city in the world, but on Saturday afternoon, Cork experienced a rare moment of division.
It happened when two cohorts of people faced each other in front of City Hall.
One side was comprised of more than 200 activists with Rebels For Peace, a newly established group formed to celebrate “diversity, inclusiveness, and solidarity”.
They were on the streets as a counter-protest to the other group, consisting of more than 70 people.
This was identified on Facebook as comprising of ‘Rural-Ireland Nationalists’, and was there to protest at the Government’s proposed hate speech legislation, claiming it would actually restrain their right to freedom of speech.
Last Saturday’s protest was the first of its kind in Cork city for that group. Last year, right-wing figure and former journalist Gemma O’Doherty had organised similar protests in Dublin.
Activists at Rebels For Peace are concerned that racist sentiment will grow on Leeside.
Kathy D’Arcy, Cork-based poet and activist and a key organiser with both Rebels for Peace and Rebels for Choice, which campaigned for the liberalisation of the country’s abortion laws, said she felt the need to oppose racism as firmly as she fought for the repeal of the 8th Amendment.
“I think all of us have noticed over the past few years that [racist sentiment] is exponentially increasing, and it is quite terrifying,” she said.
She added that racism has always been present in society, but “now it’s on our streets, they are organising protests without any fear, that is very frightening to me. “
Last September, a study conducted by the European Union’s human rights agency revealed a “worrying pattern” of racism in Ireland. According to the survey, 17% of immigrants in the country, studied by the agency, had faced discrimination because of their skin colour.
On New Year’s Day, a black newborn called Victoria became Ireland’s first baby of 2020. On social media, some lamented the fact that the country’s first baby of the year was not white. Some of the language used was derogatory.
Tjitske de Vries, an activist with Rebels for Peace, said it saddened her that a baby’s birth was “politicised”.
“To me that’s insane, and these comments on social media, they may be removed at some stage, but I think they are up for way too long,” she said.
Tjitske said that when she saw that a protest in Cork was taking place to advocate an anti-immigrant message, she and fellow activists saw the need to form a group and organise a counter-protest.
Tjitkse, whose Facebook page has been targeted with abusive messages, says Rebels for Peace is fully committed to defending Cork’s welcoming aura.
Educating people is a high priority on their list, Tjitkse says.
“People get fed these lies that immigrants are to blame for the housing crisis, we need to fight this misinformation,” she says.
Kathy agrees. She says that the growth of racist sentiments has had an “unfortunate side effect” in the sense that it blames immigrants for all social eccentricities, covering up “the Government’s incompetence” in tackling the housing issue.
“I know communities in Cork who are scared of being harassed, bullied and discriminated against, who experience the impact of that on a daily basis,” she says.
Before the protest, Kathy told The Echo that the Rally for Peace is an attempt to “come together to show the far-right that Cork city will not succumb to intolerance”.
She added: “We are one people, one human race, one vibrant, unified city whose people are known throughout the world for their kindness, friendliness, good humour, and inclusiveness.”
On the other side of the road, the activists were keen to get out their message.
Larry Molloy, who was wearing a yellow vest and a cap emblazoned with the letters NY, and holding a megaphone, said: “We thought to bring our protest to Munster.”
A younger man, called Declan, said if the proposed hate speech legislation becomes law, “we are going to be restricted in our abilities to challenge things that are offensive”.
Declan doesn’t believe that hate speech may lead to hate crimes, reasoning that there is no “evidence” for that.
On the other side, among the Rebels For Peace group, a young man reveals that division is running deep on this issue, targeting familial bonds.
He says he saw his father honking his car horn in solidarity with the other group.
“Thank god he didn’t join them, I didn’t want to stand here with my sister shouting at my dad on the other side,” he says, laughing.