The Dublin Riot: Mayhem, with Many Layers
Estimated Reading Time: 7 minutes
An obscene attack on defenseless children, and a brutal public response culminating in vandalism, looting and opportunistic mischief. Such were the morbid scenes witnessed in Dublin on November 23rd, 2023.
Amongst the participants and enablers of what became the Dublin Riot were adherents to Ireland’s (relatively obscure) far-right, no doubt. Others were opportunistic thieves - to credit these with a committed political line of some kind would be to offer them an undue credit. But to view the riot as a flash-in-the-pan outburst instigated by far-right opportunists is to ignore a complex aggregate of failings by successive Irish governments, as well as the deep symbolism of the brutal stabbing which gave rise to it.
It is this volatile combination which collided last week, to Ireland’s great detriment.
Anatomy of an angry society
Ireland is a wealthy country. Yet the land still fares ill. Many of Ireland’s key public services are atrocious for a country of its advanced wealth: it ranks poorly in public transport and healthcare, with Prof Martin Curley (Director of the Health Service Executive’s Digital Transformation) describing Ireland’s healthcare system as the worst in the Northern Hemisphere (citing overcrowded hospitals, long wait-lists, and an absence of universal coverage). But more relevant, in the context of this article, is Ireland’s housing and property market: this is nothing short of a national disgrace.
Dublin is - as most capital cities - a hub for young professionals, and the main site of general economic activity on the island. With Ireland’s unprecedented economic growth in the 1990s, Dublin became a destination for qualified expatriates from all over the world (reversing the centuries-old stream of migration from Ireland). Predictably, an urgent need for housing emerged, for which Ireland neither prepared itself nor responded adequately. Instead, it responded appallingly.
A prospering society - supposedly
As Dublin’s population grew, new housing developments expanded outward from the city, causing its metropolitan area to drown surrounding stretches of countryside. This did not resolve demand, and it collided with the woeful absence of urban transport networks to service the new fringes of Dublin.
The city has no underground metro, and features a tram network of just two lines. Some train networks exist, but only a fraction of the amount which existed in Ireland a hundred years ago. Dublin commuters are thus heavily dependent on cars and on bus connections - resulting in a deeply congested and polluted city, and with record-high commute times (for the EU) due to abundant traffic.
Moreover, home ownership has become an almost-alien concept for most young Irish: The Irish Times reported that less than one-third of adults in Ireland under 40 years old own a home, in 2023. In 2022, the Irish Independent found that housing costs in Ireland (including renting, buying homes, and water, gas and other utilities) were 112% above the EU average. A recipe for severe anger.
But Ireland’s phenomenal ineptitude at taking advantage of its wealth did not receive the scathing backlash it deserved for much of the 2000s. The only consistent protests, as the housing situation deteriorated, seemed to be from the fringe Solidarity/People-Before-Profit party (a far-left party). Yet public anger evidently did fester. What occurred, visibly, was a resentment at inbound migration (especially by asylum-seekers), which was seen to exacerbate the chaotic housing and skyrocketing homelessness rate in Dublin by draining the limited public housing or emergency accommodation available to residents.
The Irish Times’ article also noted that, while the government had pledged to build 30,000 new homes from 2021 to 2030, this did not take account for the significant influx of migrants and asylum-seekers, no doubt an above-average number in the following year. Significant, given the themes of the November 23rd riot.
So ‘hospitable Ireland’, namesake of the Dublin Protocol, came to become increasingly hostile to its government’s asylum policy. The government can hardly have been unaware: protests across Ireland against immigration have flared since 2022, although these received scant media attention other than dismissal as the insignificant whims of far-right agitators and common-or-garden racists.
The grotesque attack which broke the camel’s back
Ireland remains a proud nation: seeds of nationalism and strength of identity run strong, perhaps unusually so for a contemporary Western society. The symbolism of the November 23rd stabbing at Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire - and its connection to Irish identity - is something perhaps unseen to many observers.
The attack took place on 5- to 6-year-old children, enough to inspire revulsion on its own. But the attack also occurred on a Gaelscoil (an Irish-language school). Gaelscoils are relatively rare (their small number representing another dramatic failure by Irish governments in their attempt to revitalise the ailing Irish language). The Gaelscoil is a quintessentially Irish institution - and could be seen, culturally, as innately tied to ‘Irishness’ itself.
Paling in importance to the first element, the latter is nonetheless likely to have resonated with Irish citizens (from the political left and right, even), and helped pull the public to the streets in protest.
It is likely the accumulation of these facts - not the encouragement of far-right factions on X alone - which underpinned the start of what would become the Dublin Riot.
A torrid sequence of events ensued, from any angle.
Failure by Irish Police, Media and the Irish Government
As the details of the attack (its victims and location) emerged, anger boiled.
According to Holdo and Bengtsson’s case study (2019), the pull to participate in riots is a cocktail with three ingredients: “(a) general local incentives that appeal to individual motives, (which) only lead to participation in riots when (b) the delicate local equilibrium is destabilized by an event that (c) makes riots appear justified, riskfree and thrilling”.
In this context, the ‘general local incentives’ may have been the anger at Ireland’s social failings, coupled with the encouragement of enablers on social media (far-right factions included). The ‘destabilising element’ here needs no elaboration.
Following the stabbing at Colaiste Mhuire, #IrelandIsFull trended on Twitter. Irish media users were quick to express their disgust. Many participants in the bedlam which ensued on Dublin’s streets appropriated the - justified - public disgust as an outlet for vandalism and looting, which punctuated the night of protests. The police response - criticised by many from all angles of Ireland’s political sphere - was the third element of the cocktail: weak and unprepared, with social media videos of retreating police officers (being harassed by protestors) in swift circulation.
Figures from Ireland’s Justice system deserve criticism for the unpreparedness of the police force - but also for the vague response which failed to quell the public in the immediate wake of the attack. By omission or by oversight - Irish media and the police contributed to the public anger.
The attack details were (and remain) conspicuously obscured. An Garda Síochána (Ireland’s police service) hurriedly hosted a press conference after the attack, wherein they declared their belief that the attack was not terror-related, but also offered no alternative motive for the attack. The police and Irish media jointly eliminated mention of the attacker’s name or nationality - despite such being common practice in media coverage of comparable attacks in other countries. It was murkily announced only that the suspect was ‘an Irish citizen’ and resident of Ireland for twenty years.
This opaque coverage likely accomplished nothing other than to allow ample room for conjecture and misinformation, fertile grounds for abundant rumours circulated by a furious and traumatised public. Agitators were quick to capitalise, and an evening of destruction ensued.
Government officials’ response was meek even after the inglourious events of the riot. Minister for Justice Helen McEntee moved swiftly to accuse the participants of ‘thuggery’ on repeated instances - accurate or not, this likely accomplished little other than to fortify the simmering fury of the public at the attack. Both McEntee and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar were also criticized for a lackluster police response to the protests, facing calls to resign from left-wing opposition in Sinn Féin. Most notably, Varadkar and former Taoiseach Micheál Martin were subject to accusations of passivity towards the anger of Ireland’s population, including through vitriolic attacks from Conor McGregor - perhaps Ireland’s most well-followed media personality - on X.
The Irish government has helped sculpt an angry public - let it learn correct lessons from the events of November 23
The Dublin Riot - contemptible as it was - probably featured many types of participant: with looting certainly the work of hoodlums with little political convictions whatsoever, presented an opportunity to sack and steal goods with unimpeded abandon.
But above all, the Riot was driven by an angry public, and herein lies the uncomfortable truth: the day’s events began with citizens driven to action due to dissatisfaction related to a multitude of elements over great periods of time: elements related to the economy, to accommodation, and government disregard towards their disquiet. The hideous attack on defenceless members of the society was only the fuse which lit the powderkeg.
Irish leaders - Leo Varadkar included - and figures like Drew Harris deserve much criticism throughout all this. Their murky statements regarding the details of the attack did not help to dissuade rioters from taking to the streets. But it is decades of failure and ineptitude which allowed the conditions necessary for the riot. A night of anger, decades in the making.
Irish leadership would be wise to take heed: to fix all aggravating policies which uphold the ongoing housing disaster in Ireland, and eliminate the conditions which could draw the country into greater division and/or anarchy.
To date it has not done that: Varadkar and McEntee have focused post-riot discourse on ostentatious bolstering of police forces and requests for public assistance with the identification of the rioters. Still no statements to assuage or remedy the elements which caused the vicious anger which enveloped Dublin’s streets.
All this in - we are told - during the first sustained period of affluence in independent Ireland’s history.
Prof Martin Curley, Ireland’s health system is one of the lowest performing in the northern hemisphere, The Irish Times (2023) https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/2023/06/21/irelands-health-system-is-one-of-the-lowest-performing-in-the-northern-hemisphere/
Desk Staff, Irish Examiner, Survey puts Dublin fifth in Europe for time spent on daily commute, Irish Examiner (2020) https://www.irishexaminer.com/news/arid-30981501.html
Carl Kinsella, This map shows how much better Ireland's railway system was in 1920, Joe.ie (2016) https://www.joe.ie/life-style/pic-this-map-shows-how-much-better-irelands-railway-system-was-in-1920-554977
Kitty Holland, Homelessness in Ireland hits record peak of more than 11,700, Irish Times (2023) https://www.irishtimes.com/ireland/social-affairs/2023/02/24/more-than-11700-people-homeless-in-ireland-in-new-record-high/#:~:text=In%20Dublin%2C%20the%20numbers%20are,are%20headed%20by%20lone%20parents.
Christy Cooney for BBC News, Paris attack near Eiffel Tower leaves one dead and two injured, BBC News (2023) https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-67604591
Sarah Collins, Irish housing costs more than double the EU average in 2022, The Irish Independent (2022) https://www.independent.ie/business/irish/irish-housing-costs-more-than-double-the-eu-average-in-2022/a811470483.html
Shauna Bowers, Ireland’s housing crisis facts and figures: All you need to know, The Irish Times (2023) https://www.irishtimes.com/ireland/housing-planning/2023/03/23/irelands-housing-crisis-facts-and-figures-all-you-need-to-know/
Markus Holdo & Bo Bengtsson, Marginalization and Riots: A Rationalistic Explanation of Urban Unrest, Housing, Theory and Society, 37:2, 162-179 (2020)
January 24 2024
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