The Republic of Ireland faces a reckoning in the wake of Nov. 24 violence in Dublin.
The episode began with the stabbing of three children and one adult outside a local school, reportedly at the hand of an immigrant, quickly followed by a spasm of right-wing looting, arson, and attacks on police. Now, the Irish government and people must take a hard look at tension between the country’s growing non-native population and rising anti-immigrant ideology, and the even tougher challenges of economic equality in a world transformed by globalism and technology.
“The Dublin riots have changed everything,” The Irish Times proclaimed in a next-day headline.
Changed utterly? Perhaps.
This was not the first time street violence and looting have flared in the Irish capital. It’s worth remembering that the April 1916 Easter Rising began with high-minded nationalist ideals. But it also included opportunistic looting and indiscriminate arson that had nothing to do with republican aspirations.
Most recently, the February 2006 “Love Ulster” riot is the more precise precursor of the latest unrest. It resulted when a group of Northern Ireland unionists came to Dublin to protest alleged government collusion with the IRA. They were met by dissident republican counter protestors. The two groups clashed with each other and the police. Historian John Dorney detailed the event, based on personal observations, on The Irish Story website he edits.
Replying to my outreach on the latest event, Dorney wrote that the 2006 riot started as “a small demonstration of political extremists that attracted a wider crowd of people basically looking for trouble. The looting was the same. The geography of these disturbances was almost exactly the same as those, also.”
What’s different this time around, Dorney continued, is the level of destruction and the driving ideology.
“You have a segment of young people, mostly males, a lot of whom are involved in petty crime or anti-social behavior who have been recruited by anti-immigrant agitators in Dublin over the past year or so. … Thanks to the internet a lot of them believe in conspiracy theories like ‘the great replacement’. We have social media to thank for this.”
Simmering trouble, uncertain future
Kindling for the recent riot has gathered at least since the start of the COVID pandemic. It was apparent in September as 200 right-wing protestors harassed and threatened politicians, government staff, and journalists outside Leinster House, the republic’s legislative home. In addition to anti-immigrant messages, the crowd appeared driven by COVID conspiracy theories, attacks on transgender rights, and other grievances, such as Ireland’s (especially Dublin’s) affordable housing crisis.
Unconfirmed social media messages that a native Algerian was the perpetrator of the school stabbings fueled the latest riot. Details of the man’s nationality and status in Ireland have not been released by officials. But Irish census data reveals 20 percent of the population in the 26 counties was born abroad. The growth has been driven by enlargement of the E.U.; the arrival of more than 90,000 Ukrainian refugees fleeing the Russian invasion; and arrivals from India, Brazil, Nigeria, the Philippines, and other places for a variety of reasons, Shane Harrison noted at BBC.com. Ironically, a Brazilian food delivery driver stopped the knife wielder.
“My Dublin-based friends are mostly internationals; many of them are people of color,” wrote Daniel Carey, a teaching assistant at the Dublin City University School of Communications and another of my transatlantic Irish history connections. “More than one colleague whose experience of Ireland has been overwhelmingly positive has reported being racially abused in the days since. At least some are considering their futures here. How did we – a nation of economic migrants – get here?”
Dublin historian Felix Larkin begins to answer that question by pointing to a broader “root cause of the malady which troubles our liberal democratic societies,” not just Ireland. He noted the American political philosopher Michael Sandel has identified the “competitive market meritocracy that deepens divides and corrodes solidarity.” With meritocracy in practice less based on ability and talent than generally acknowledged, the system leaves those who fall short with a sense of personal failure, hopelessness, humiliation, and resentment.
“That, in my view, is the most convincing analysis of the reason for the rise of populist movements today: Trump and MAGA in the U.S., Johnson and Brexit in the U.K., and now Geert Wilders in The Netherlands,” Larkin said in reply to my outreach. He continued:
Ireland is not immune to this phenomenon: it has been bubbling below the surface of our society for some years, and it is a factor in the phenomenal rise of Sinn Féin. What we saw on (Nov. 24) in Dublin was an ugly manifestation of it, one not without precedent in other great cities of Western Europe and North America. All it takes is a spark to light the fire, like in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017. Those of us who value liberal democracy need to take heed.
Keep in mind that while Sinn Féin might have populist underpinnings, the party leans left rather than right. As Harrison observed, Ireland’s right-wing extremists so far have not yet rallied around a single personality or party. But in the early aftermath of the riot, it appeared former UFC champion Conor McGregor was positioning himself for the role in a series of–what else?–incendiary social media postings. “Ireland-we are at war,” he wrote days before the riot in support of the boyfriend of 23-year-old Ashling Murphy, murdered last year by an immigrant.
American friends of Ireland should keep things in perspective. The U.S. State Department has not issued any travel advisories for the Republic; the usual Level 1: “Exercise Normal Precautions” status remains in place. The September protest outside Leinster House was hardly the same stuff as the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. Ireland, thankfully, has avoided the mass shootings that plague American communities.
But as is true for the United States, the Irish will have to move beyond the knee-jerk cliches of political leaders claiming, “This is not who we are.” (Joe Biden, Leo Varadkar) and columnists such as Fintan O’Toole outdoing themselves to denounce the rioters as “scumbags” and “pitiful thugs.” That hasn’t worked on the MAGA crowd, and it won’t work in Ireland. As Irish artist Adam Doyle wrote in guest column for The Irish Times: “Demonizing and dehumanizing these communities pretty much ensures this will happen again. Calling people names and questioning their right to exist in the city means they’ll never trust you. You’ll never see eye-to-eye with someone who thinks you’re an animal.”