[Chapter excerpt from AFA's book 'Undertones: Anti-Fascism and the Far-Right in Ireland 1945-2012'. A few copies are left and are available to buy here.]
Having been officially founded in 1991 the individuals who formed AFA really consolidated friendships and trust when they came together to help defend pro-choice pickets from attack by the extreme anti- abortion group Youth Defence (YD). It should be made clear it was AFA members in individual capacities who became involved in clashes with YD as opposed to AFA as an organisaion.
The main pro-choice group, including many young activists from both independent and left-wing backgrounds, was the Dublin Abortion Information Campaign (DAIC). DAIC’s main activity was public leafleting to distribute the phone number for a womens helpline which gave out contacts details for abortion clinics in Britain. Distribution of this information was illegal in Ireland at the time.
That’s probably how the different elements that became AFA, really came together – from fighting with YD. Even though it wasn’t organised by AFA as such, the people who were prepared to fight and get stuck in kinda all came together during this period. It helped people who were militant make links with each other. A lot of people ran and some would stand. You soon found out who you could trust and as a result you were able to bond with them. It was really important in the development of AFA.
In reality none of the encounters with YD amounted to much, jostling and scuffles really. If they knew you would fight they were less keen for aggro. The more middle class people on the pro-choice side did not understand this at all, they had not experienced physical opposition to their ideas before. They thought the ‘opposition’ was a distant and unseen body called ‘the government’ or ‘capitalism’
From the start of 1992 to around 1994/1995, nearly every weekend, there were altercations with YD people. “Sometimes they tried to move us off from the GPO and sometimes we’d try to move them off from the traffic island in the centre of O’Connell Street” Mary remembers.
Mary got involved with AFA as a direct result of seeing that they refused to back down. “At that stage, it was only the Red Action and AFA people who stood up against YD. Most of the lefties and liberals wanted to avoid confrontation. They’d suggest moving to Grafton St to leaflet instead of the GPO in case YD showed up. By that logic you would end up in your own bedroom pushing leaflets under the door.”
Barry, a full time Socialist Workers Movement (SWM) organiser at the time, looks back at the group’s response bitterly. “They didn’t take it seriously. They riled people up into protesting against YD but offered no help or guidance when YD started to attack pro-choice people.”
Youth Defence was taken by surprise when young militant working class pro-choice people began to fight back. Harry: “They just couldn’t figure this out. We weren’t the usual students, willing to move when they were told to. As a result, they brought in heavies then from Donegal and Coolock. Absolute knife merchants. It got very dangerous for a while”
Peter’s “first encounter with YD was when they attacked Barry who had an ear ring ripped out. Just prior to that they had attacked a Socialist Workers Movement (SWM) meeting in Tallaght.”
A weekend in late October 1992 saw three separate days of AFA members clashing with YD. This weekend, which would go down in the AFA history annals, helped to stabilise the organisation and strengthen friendships within the group that remain to this day.
On Friday October 23rd, Democratic Left Youth organised a picket outside YD’s Headquarters, which was above Pipers House pub (now The Thomas House), owned by an Irish nationalist and YD supporter, on Thomas Street. Thirty picketers, mainly students, were attacked by around fifteen men in their 30s and 40s who came out of the pub armed with sticks, planks of wood and other weapons. In the melee, a photographer from The Star newspaper was beaten and had his camera broken.
I was there that day in Thomas Street when they came out of the pub. I had said at a SWM meeting a few nights before that the march was likely to be a disaster. They hadn’t done their homework. They were going to march on a pub in the south inner city as outsiders. The people who ran that pub were dangerous fuckers. Sure any pub owner would object to his business being picketed but this was a different kettle of fish. After the incident, I was pretty annoyed and began to become more cynical of the SWM and eventually left.
Peter remembers at the picket:
I was writing a slogan on their front door when it suddenly opened and Willie Ryan, the owner came out. He punched me and I hit him back. All hell broke loose then. Ryan got a pickaxe handle and came running towards me. That’s when I decided to leg it!
The Democratic Left group and TCD students panicked and ran through the traffic on Thomas Street, pursued by a handful of men taking swipes at all and sundry with pool cues and baseball bats. Myself, Barry, and a very few others, stewarded people safely away from the area. It was a rearguard action. The whole event was a disaster. We had tried to stop the march ever going there from the start.
The next day there was a tense standoff between YD people and AFA in the city centre.
On Sunday, YD held a 1,200 strong demo through town. It was met by a small counter picket of around 150 people. A short scuffle broke out between the two sides and a YD member and AFA activist James were arrested and charged with breach of the peace.
James takes up the story:
I got arrested at the Sunday demo fighting one of those Saor Eire guys. We were in court that Monday. It was only a breach of the peace. When the YD bloke who I’d been fighting with went out for a smoke, one of our guys walked over and punched him in the head. He came running back into the court to get the police to come out but they wouldn’t. After the case was heard, we went to the pub next door for a cup of tea. There was only about six of us. In the mirror, we saw a big gang of YD piling into the pub from the far end. We thought they were going to go for us. We jumped up and grabbed everything. I had a chair in my hand; Barry had one of those heavy ashtrays. When they saw us like that, they froze. It was funny though because there was a little hatch in the window where you could see into the side of the pub where the cops could go for a drink away from the criminals. I looked out of the corner of my eye and saw one cop with a cup of tea half raised with his mouth wide open. Anyway, they backed out the door and we chased them down the road.
While YD was not a Fascist organisation, it certainly did contain a number of people with far-right sympathies. People like Justin Barrett, Michael Quinn and Maurice Colgan were all heavily active with the group in the 1990s. All three were arrested along with five other YD activists at violent pro-life picket outside Adelaide hospital in April 1999.
Mick McCaughan, a journalist with Hot Press, had infiltrated YD almost from their inception and he observed them at close quarters for six months. His feature article revealed the casual racism and right- wing nationalist views of a number of YD’s main activists at the time.
Through contacts, AFA were able to find out that Maurice Colgan had shared a flat with ‘Barnsey’ of neo-Nazi band Celtic Dawn. During the same period, Colgan was seen at one YD leafleting- session wearing a Celtic Dawn t-shirt.
In 1993, the International Third Position (ITP) magazine ‘Final Conflict’ printed articles praising YD. In September of that year Candour, the British Mosleyite Journal, republished an article by YD activist ‘Cliona Ni Mhurchu’. The article was full of “Nazi terminology and thinly veiled references to Jewish conspiracies”. It had originally appeared in the ITP publication, Catholic Action. A certain layer of YD was certainly becoming influenced by Third Positionist politics during the early to mid- 1990s.
One day during this time, a group of YD activists turned up to the General Post Office (GPO) wearing a semi -uniform namely long blue army surplus coats and blue hats. It was possible that they were dabbling with the idea of creating a more Fascist, uniformed group. The pro-choice leafleters just laughed at them and they were never spotted wearing the gear again.
There was another confrontation with YD in June 1994 at the Dail, where some of them turned up with hurleys, and then scuffles with them at demos surrounding the ‘C’ case in 1997.
In 2000, Maurice Colgan and two other YD people attacked two AFA members who were traveling home from having joined an ALDI workers picket line. AFA, as a group, went after them following that incident.
We were geared up to do a major attack on them but they weren’t where we expected them to be. It was actually the first time in anyone’s memory that they did not turn up to the GPO, bit of a coincidence there. The mobilisation was not entirely wasted as, as luck would have it, on the way back through town, we bumped into a team of Security Guards for Aldi who had been abusing striking workers and we decided to give them a few slaps. Afterwards, a YD members house was visited
(The story of Justin Barrett’s involvement with Fascist politics in Ireland and throughout Euripe in the mid 1990s through to the mid 2000s period and then Michael Quinn’s involvement in similar stuff from 2010 onwards is another day’s work…)