Far-right concerns raised over Belfast 'yellow vest' protest
An anti-extremism campaigner has warned that one of the first 'yellow vest' protests to take place in Northern Ireland could be used to "further extreme far-right beliefs".
The yellow vest movement began in France last year as a protest against fuel taxes and is named after the fluorescent vests which French motorists must keep in their cars by law.
Two protests have been billed on social media to take place at Belfast City Hall on January 12 and 19 - although they appear to be at opposite ends of the political spectrum.
The first - organised by groups calling themselves Occupy Stormont, Occupy City Hall and Yellow Vest Occupy Belfast - lists aims including equal marriage rights, ending fracking and abolishing zero hour contracts.
However, the group organising the second protest, which calls itself the Yellow Vest Movement of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, features a picture of a clenched fist covered in a Union flag as its social media profile.
The background picture for the group is of a young white girl surrounded by figures in burkhas with their backs to the camera. It is captioned: "Britain 2050: Why didn't you stop them grandad?"
Another image shows a figure with a hammer attacking the star and crescent symbol often associated with the Islamic world, alongside the words 'Smash Islam'.
At the time of going to press, 94 people said they were going to the January 19 protest, with 543 indicating they are "interested". The group has also listed events in Cardiff, Portsmouth and Nottingham on the same day as the Belfast protest.
Referring to the January 19 event, Hope Not Hate campaigner Matthew Collins warned that local people should ensure they are "not unwittingly jumping on something that is run by racism, fascism and hatred of people".
"A lot of people have been fuelled by things on social media and believe that they can DIY their own fascist organisation," he said.
"They are using the symbolism of the yellow vests to further extreme far-right beliefs.
"I would warn the less experienced DIY brigade that the things they want to say could land them in court."
Warning the law "doesn't allow racial hatred" to be preached, Mr Collins said he believed the PSNI would have to "look into" the January 19 event. "There are no official 'yellow vests' - it has become a symbol of protest and anti-government feeling for anyone who has a gripe with the government from the left or the right," he said.
"They think it represents their anger and disillusionment - for the left that could be housing or anti-racism, for the right that could be nationalism, anti-EU, conspiracy theories about Brussels.
"I would say to people, if you do share in the disillusionment and you see yellow vests, make sure you are not unwittingly jumping on something which is run by racism, fascism and hatred of people. When the far-right takes over they distort and twist things - concerns about immigration becomes hatred of immigrants."
However, Mr Collins said he didn't believe that Northern Ireland is "becoming a hot bed of xenophobia".
"I don't think people should be afraid or concerned - in a free society there are always people with daft ideas," he said.
"The only thing to be mindful of is that the law is maintained and dignity is maintained. I would say there will be about 12 people at that protest."
Britain First leader Paul Golding said his organisation is "definitely not" involved in organising any of the City Hall yellow vest protests.
PSNI Superintendent Muir Clark said police were aware of the January 12 event, and had a plan in place. But he added: "Police are aware of information posted online regarding an event being planned for Belfast city centre on Saturday, January 19. However, to date, we have not received any notification from event organisers.
"The PSNI is committed to ensuring all events pass off peacefully and that those involved are able to exercise their rights in a safe environment.
"So that we can avoid any unnecessary disruption and ensure public safety, we encourage all event organisers to notify both police and the local council in advance of any proposed dates."
Organisers of the right-wing protest did not respond to a request for comment.