The Dublin riot – Ireland’s wake-up call

Dec 10, 2023
A bus and car on fire on O'Connell Street in Dublin city centre after violent scenes unfolded following an attack on Parnell Square East where five people were injured, including three young children. Picture date: Thursday November 23, 2023. Image: Alamy

You might be forgiven for thinking that the images from Ireland the other week of a burning bus and of riot police came from Belfast. After all, arson is a form of public protest we tend to associate with Northern Ireland (Northern Ireland deja vu: They’re burning buses again). Yet the rioting we saw this time on our TV screens occurred not in belligerent Belfast but in docile Dublin. So, what was it all about?

The ignition point (excuse the pun) was a stabbing spree by a deranged man, who knifed several school children as they were emerging from their primary school near Parnell Square in Dublin’s north inner-city.

Initial reports in the mainstream media referred to the assailant in generic terms. Not so social media, which described him as an ‘illegal immigrant’. This was wrong. He was an Algerian-born naturalised Irish citizen who had been living in the country for more than two decades.

Those unfamiliar with Ireland’s recent immigration history might ask, ‘How is his ethnicity relevant? Hasn’t Ireland been historically associated with emigration since the Great Irish Famine of 1846-51?’ And that is true. The population of Ireland north and south today is just over 7 million, still below the 8 million counted in the 1841 census.

But since the economic boom of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ in the 1990s and the enlargement of the European Union in 2004, Ireland has seen an influx of migrants from Eastern Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East. From the 1990s to the present, Ireland has experienced net immigration at a rate that has been increasing year on year, except for the years of the global financial crisis and the pandemic.

This has been a new experience for Ireland. What was once an ethnically homogeneous country has turned into a multicultural society in the space of less than 30 years. According to the census conducted on 3 April 2022, 20 per cent of residents in the Republic of Ireland were born outside the state. That figure includes only a tiny fraction of the more than 95,000 Ukrainian refugees who have arrived in Ireland since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine in February 2022.

For Dublin the proportion born out of the state was 25 per cent, with the Central Statistics Office noting, ‘Electoral Divisions in the North Inner city of Dublin had the highest proportion of people who were born outside the State, with several areas having more than half of the population born in another country.’

The rioting last month is not the first time there have been anti-immigration protests in Ireland. Since November 2018 hundreds of local protests have been held at refugee shelters in towns and villages across the state as well as in Dublin. Those protests intensified after Ireland began accepting Ukrainian refugees.

In May 2023 a makeshift refugee camp for homeless asylum seekers in southeast inner-city Sandwith Street was set alight hours after an angry protest there. A shortage of accommodation has meant that large numbers of asylum seekers are sleeping rough around the city centre, many in tents.

In September 2023 protesters blocked entrances to Leinster House (the Irish parliament building), harassing MPs and their staff, sometimes with violence, and displaying mock gallows with photographs of politicians. That protest was not only about immigration. Various issues seemed to excite the mob, including Covid-19 vaccines, transgender rights, sex education in schools, and proposed hate-speech laws. According to one commentator, ‘Collectively, they are the anti-everything brigade, espousing a pick’n’mix of reasons to justify their anger.’

The Dublin riot on 23 November is therefore not an isolated event, though the level of violence exceeded anything seen in the city for decades. Early commentary on the riot drew attention to inner-city poverty, particularly in the northeast of the city, which is said to be the most disadvantaged neighbourhood in Ireland. According to a recent report in the Irish Times, ‘Gardiner Street is believed to have the highest concentration of homeless accommodation in the country.’

More considered reflections on the riot, such as that by Fintan O’Toole, claimed it was ‘grossly unfair to inner city communities to stigmatise them as the sources of this disgrace’. He observed that while some of those charged over the riot lived in the inner city, many others lived in the suburbs and in towns outside of Dublin and were summoned to the inner city by far-right activists using social media.

In countries across Europe, right-wing, anti-immigration parties have been gaining significant electoral support. No such popular party has emerged in Ireland, let alone achieved electoral success. However, early this year a new party was registered – Ireland First led by Derek Blighe, who has been accused of being a conspiracy theorist and of spreading misinformation about immigration as well as leading many of the protests, including blockades of asylum seeker accommodation centres.

On its very sophisticated website, Ireland First describes itself as a ‘Centre-Right Nationalist Party’. Its political agenda ranges widely: it is proudly nativist (‘The Nation Of Ireland Belongs To The Irish People’); it advocates a 32-county republic; it believes Ireland should leave the EU after a referendum; it supports Irish neutrality, even opposing aid to Ukraine; it is pro-life and wants another referendum on abortion; it seeks the protection of the Irish family unit; it is dedicated to combating destructive climate change policies.

The website lists several social evils it hopes to address: homelessness; the housing crisis, which it attributes to ‘irresponsible immigration policies’; the energy crisis; food insecurity; and imbalances within the legal system.
On immigration, its website cannot be accused of ‘red-neckery’. Its language is tempered and subtle:

‘We support immigration policies that benefit our country rather than burden our welfare system, ensuring that the non-Irish population does not exceed 10%. Unfortunately, government corruption has allowed this threshold to be surpassed, and we seek to address this issue.’

However, it does not say how the issue is to be addressed. With the 2022 census indicating that 20 per cent of the population was born outside Ireland, drastic measures will be necessary to reduce the proportion to the party’s acceptable level of 10 per cent.

It is too early to say whether Ireland First will become a serious political party around which angry, disorganised voters might coalesce. In the wake of the November riot, the nascent party and its supporters will no doubt be encouraged by the attention given to their cause by prominent international right-wing figures, such as Tucker Carlson, Steve Bannon, and British National Party president Nick Griffin, whose tweets on the riot espoused bewildering alternate facts and conspiracy theories.

Irish politicians and police are beginning to talk more and more of the threat posed by far-right activists seeking to capitalise on a housing shortage, the cost-of-living crisis, and fears about growing numbers of immigrants and asylum seekers. Legislation before the Dáil aims to modernise existing laws against hate speech and the government has promised the Gardaí more and better equipment to deal with civil unrest.

But unless the government does more to address the underlying issues, too long ignored, law and order solutions might prove insufficient to keep the lid on rising discontent. Populist parties like Ireland First might then be in a position to break the mould of Irish politics and actually gain electoral support like their counterparts in the rest of Europe.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!