Dublin is gripped by an edginess and an utter disillusionment amongst some younger men who will kick off when the spark ignites, writes Una Mullally (for the Irish Times).
“A few hundred people turned the city upside-down.” I was speaking to a friend who lives in Dublin 1 and got caught up in the riots on Thursday night while on his way home, and this was his assessment. When a place is primed, and when far-right agitators of a certain mindset revel in priming it, it doesn’t take a lot.
There are two main things going on. There’s coalescence, and there’s context. The coalescence is the far-right agitation that has been continuing for years now, where known racist rage-merchants whip up anger and spread disinformation online and off.
This is strategic. It’s nihilistic. It has nothing to do with “protecting” people, and everything to do with endangering people. It has nothing to do with “standing up” for communities, and everything to do with tearing them down. There is zero respect for Gardaí, who are seen as the enemy, or politicians, who are seen as “traitors”.
Had LGBTQ+ people, anti-fascist activists, people of colour experiencing street-level racism, and migrant rights organisations been listened to, maybe this would have been taken more seriously. Very sadly, there were also times where it was minimised by certain commentators, who I hope are reflecting on how their biases coloured their perspectives. There have also been some politicians who have parroted far-right talking points. They need to be taken to task.
The second thing is context. Even without far right agitation, Dublin is broken in many ways, and also thriving in others. There is no overarching simple narrative, but there is the reality of an edginess, urban decay compounded by the pandemic, social stress compounded by the housing crisis, and an apparent utter disillusionment among some younger men who will kick off when the spark ignites.
Thursday night will be experienced by some as exciting and invigorating. There is a certain kind of ambient wild energy in the city that can pop up at any time. Dehumanising people for acting in this way instead of understanding the social context within which this occurs isn’t helpful. It’s much easier to say “scumbag” instead of asking “why?”
Last Tuesday evening, I came out of a gig in the Guinness Storehouse with my wife and a friend. My friend who lives in the area was nervous about walking home. I, stupidly in retrospect, minimised her fear and said she’d be grand. When myself and my wife walked down Thomas Street, at the junction of Bridgefoot Street, a woman approached us who was clearly high and agitated, asking for money. The atmosphere shifted. As we tried to talk her down and move away, she reached inside her jacket. It’s a gesture I understand: someone about to pull a knife.
We got away, sprint-walked down the street, troubled, and ruminated on the dark energy in the city. I have a tendency to shrug these things off by just saying “Dublin”. I think a lot of people are used to this stuff, it’s a city after all, but the reality is the vibe has become more grim. There is destitution, there are people on edge, and there’s a sense of hopelessness around. There’s also wealth, fun and pleasantness. Everything, everywhere, all at once.
I am worn down by trying to highlight the systemic and structural issues within the fraying fabric of the urban ecosystem. There is no real leadership in Dublin. The city has effectively been abandoned by national Government, left rudderless by the lack of a cohesive future plan by local government.
Businesses, services attending to the most vulnerable and most marginalised, infrastructure, and many people dealing with the starkness of their poverty are all struggling.
As the rioting died down on Thursday night I was left with the sad, evergreen realisation that there is not one single obvious, credible leader with the authority and necessary sense of connection to speak for or to Dublin city. This is a huge failure. But it’s hardly news.
If I’ve learned anything from trying to highlight the weird edginess, the far-right aggression, and the potential for unhinged violence to kick off in Dublin city, it’s that no one with the authority to address it did enough. This has been coming. Business owners I spoke to on Friday used the same terminology: tinder box, pressure cooker. We’ve seen the arson, the violence, the roaring, the rage. People have been sounding warnings about the far right and how Dublin never “came back” from the pandemic. Coalescence. Context.
When I’ve attended the frankly awful series of anti-immigrant protests in Dublin in a reporting capacity, the one thing that struck me was the lack of a sense of control. Journalists were already being singled out and harassed. As Gardaí monitored the protests – and I understand the “softly, softly” approach, but I think we can see now that it hasn’t worked – I was left with the sense that if someone wanted to kick off, they absolutely could. Catalysts are always unpredictable. But the coalescence and the context was very predictable indeed.
Like many Dubliners, I was shocked by Thursday. But I tell you what I’m not: surprised.