By Manus Lenihan
The burnt shell of a tram looks even uglier in the morning light. Scorched wrecks of vehicles are being hauled away, and ash is being scrubbed off the streets after a night of fire and terror in Dublin. On Thursday, 23 November, a riot followed a frenzied knife attack on children as several hundred white men rampaged through the city centre, led and egged on by far-right and fascist organisations. On Saturday, people were planning to protest in solidarity with the people of Gaza; this and much else has been cancelled, as the weekend sees Dublin in semi-lockdown with an air of fear, especially felt by all migrants, people of colour and the LGBTQIA community.
The courage, decency and cool-headedness of ordinary Dubliners stand out even clearer against this backdrop. The suspected attacker had injured three children and one of their carers who risked her life to protect the children when Caio Benicio, a Deliveroo driver from Brazil, intervened quickly and struck the knife-wielding assailant with his motorcycle helmet, then grabbed the blade and threw it out of reach. Hundreds of thousands of euros have already been raised in a GoFundMe to ‘buy a pint’ for Benicio, showing the widespread appreciation across Ireland.
Relatives of the victims of the Stardust fire were attending the inquest into that tragedy just across the road. One of them also intervened to prevent the possibility that bystanders, understandably enraged, were about to kill the disarmed suspect. Healthcare workers were on the scene within minutes, treating a critically injured child and a childcare worker who reportedly shielded children with her body.
It was later that, on the instigation of far-right groups, parts of Dublin city centre descended into a state of chaos.
To many, this came as a shocking, unprecedented turn of events. But it comes after a year of such shocking turns. Anti-refugee protests and harassment of library workers have become widespread. Refugee accommodation has been picketed, blocked by tractors, and even firebombed. In Ashtown, a homeless encampment was attacked with a baseball bat. On Sandwith Street, refugee tents were burned. Politicians were hung in effigy outside the Dáil in September, as staff in the Dáil had to run the gauntlet of intimidation, abuse and physical assault in a menacing atmosphere. All these things, taken together, represent the development of a new far-right movement of hate and division led by a hard core of out-and-out fascists.
This far-right movement has met with significant resistance. Important protests were organised in the wake of the attacks at Ashtown and Sandwith Street. Members of the public rallied to protect libraries from harassment. The wave of anti-refugee protests was answered by a major demonstration in February, bringing together tens of thousands – far more than the far right have been able to mobilise. There is widespread disgust at the antics of the far right.
Reflecting this, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions called a protest at the GPO the Monday following the riots. This is a good initiative but we need to ensure it’s not a one-off. Unfortunately, we have not heard the voice or felt the power of the trade union movement in relation to the fightback against the far right, nor the protests against the horror in Gaza, nor – it has to be said – on the cost of living, health or housing crises. It organises 500,000 workers in this state, and this is a potential power, along with the working class generally, that must be mobilised.
Many will still be wondering how such a riot could happen.
In recent months, the far right have been on a hair-trigger, waiting for some excuse to go into the streets. A shocking crime committed by an Irish national would not cut it. When Lorna Woodnutt was brutally murdered in Tullamore, screenshots from far-right chats showed that agitators were not only disgustingly keen to see the video; they also wanted to know whether the murderer was a migrant. National Party leaflets urged Irish men to ‘man up – women and children are not safe in multicultural Ireland.’
There are now large networks of people on social media who are wide open to sensational hate-mongering. After the initial positive response to the knife attack by bystanders, far-right agitators showed up – real ambulance chasers, they were ready at short notice. They tried to break through a Garda cordon and disturb the crime scene – the kind of stupid behaviour that can ruin a trial. Over the coming hours, hundreds, mostly young white Irish men, arrived around Parnell Square and O’Connell Street and with the gathering dark, the rioting began in earnest. Clearly, the call went out in an organised way. It was answered by an audience that was primed and ready, including those who are either directly connected to far-right and fascist groups, or young people alienated and angry – influenced by them.
Tourists in town for gigs were stuck in their hotel rooms, filming scenes of violence outside their windows. Brazilians, other groups involving migrants and people of colour circulated warnings not to go into the city – people of colour and migrants were reportedly being attacked on sight. Three buses, a Luas tram and multiple cars, including Garda cars, were burnt to a cinder. It was a terrifying night to be a retail worker as 13 shops were smashed up or looted. This was a race riot; a participant told AFP that ‘Irish people are being attacked by these scum’. This is what the likes of the National Party means by ‘manning up’ – acting out macho fantasies of senseless destruction and violence. The online ‘manosphere spreads this toxic version of masculinity,’ Andrew Tate, etc, which has a strong crossover with the far right. The guys who have disgusting ideas about migrants and people of colour, also have disgusting ideas about women. They wouldn’t be anyone’s first choice as ‘protectors.’
As one X user said in a post that was shared widely: ‘The kind of violent, toxic masculinity on display by fascist thugs on the streets of Dublin this evening is actually the biggest threat to women and children. Not the colour of someone’s skin.’
The far-right narrative
For those in the city centre, it was a night of terror. For those outside the city, it was, at the very least, disturbing and distressing. For everyone, it was an occasion to discuss why this was happening. Some who were opposed to the riot still argued that the rioters had legitimate grievances.
Unfortunately, at this point, large numbers of people seem to believe that migrant men are being let into the country with no background checks, being given free houses, and going on a rampage of assault and crime. But, literally, no part of this is true. Direct provision is squalid and miserable. Not only does Ireland have stringent vetting, Ireland is part of the EU’s policy of ‘Fortress Europe’, which sees tens of thousands of refugees drowning in the Mediterranean due to strict border controls, while Libya and Turkey are given piles of money to keep refugees locked up in camps. Refugees and migrants pay the same crazy rents as everyone else, and spend years on the housing waiting list like everyone else. But unlike everyone else, they also face language barriers, job discrimination and racist abuse.
The far right did not incite riots over any of the 264 women who died violently in this country since 1996 – most murdered by their Irish partners or fathers. Most violence and abuse happens inside the family. Ignore Graham Dwyer, the gangsters who dismembered a teenager in Drogheda, the Galway man who savagely murdered Manuela Riedo, the Cavan school principal who murdered his entire family; forget all the many women and children abused or murdered by Irish men. The far-right don’t care. That’s business as usual as far as they are concerned. They only care when a migrant does it.
How did it get to this point, where in the 2020s, we’ve seen this far-right emerge in Ireland? Migrants started arriving in this country in large numbers in the late 1990s and 2000s, as the Celtic Tiger boom brought investment and jobs. A whole generation has grown up here, and while racist ideas and attitudes have always been widespread, nothing like this ever happened. But in the intervening period, countless thousands of people have faced extreme hardship. The economic crash in 2008 saw the return of mass unemployment and emigration and severe cutbacks during the austerity years.
There has been a decade of house prices rising to unbelievable levels. There were all the inequities and injustices during the response to Covid. Banks, funds and corporations have extracted massive wealth from this country – at the expense of the homeless, the unemployed, precarious workers, and those paying sky-high rents and mortgages. Successive governments, dominated by the traditional capitalist parties of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, facilitate profiteering at every turn and have filled up a deep reservoir of pain and rage in society.
From below, ordinary people have campaigned against austerity and homelessness. In 2014-15 we rallied hundreds of thousands against water charges (without smashing any windows, torching any buses or scapegoating minority groups). We also achieved Marriage Equality and Repeal and abortion rights. All these showed a way forward, and in that way, we could give a lead and propose an alternative to the way things are, which helped cut across the development of division and racist ideas.
Unfortunately, the same fighting approach has not been on display from most leaders of the trade union movement (who actually cooperated with austerity), and have taken no action on issues like the Israeli State’s genocidal war on Gaza. They have enormous resources and power at their disposal and their refusal to organise and mobilise a challenge to this capitalist system in decay is giving a space for the false alternative of the far right to get an echo.
‘Law and order’ response
Notwithstanding all the clear warnings about the danger the far right pose, the establishment media, the state and the government have refused to reckon with reality. A conscious ‘hands off’, ‘softly, softly’ policy has been adopted towards the activities of the far right by the government and the Gardaí. Only when those activities targeted establishment TDs did the media begin to wake up to the threat – but this was combined with a disgraceful and contrived attempt to conflate the far right with the radical left. However, the failure of the approach towards the far-right threat has been utterly exposed now. To its shame and embarrassment, the state lost control of the city to a relatively small group of rioters. Pressure is mounting on the Minister for Justice and the already deeply unpopular Garda Commissioner.
Now the same political parties who put refugees in tents through the winter months and who have caused mass homelessness will call for a ‘law and order’ response to this riot. There was already a strong push to expand and arm the Gardaí. But Garda resources are not the issue. There was no shortage of public order vans filled with riot police to break up the picket lines of Debenhams workers in 2020-21. What we need is not more power for state repression, but more anti-racist organising and protest by workers, unions and communities – the only thing that has ever and will ever challenge the far right at its roots. Monday’s trade union demonstration is an important start.
A system in decay
The rioters did a lot of damage in Dublin City, but not as much damage as the housing profiteers and corporate developers, who are tearing the heart and soul out of the city in their drive for profit. The rioters caused a lot of fear and anxiety, but this system also induced distress amongst tens of thousands of homeless people and victims of the housing crisis.
That’s why the fight against the far right and racism more generally needs to take a twofold approach: first, to organise against them directly. Any form of racism or racist violence cannot be left unchallenged or space for anyone with pre-existing racist attitudes to feel free to act on those will only continue to grow. Library workers and TDs from the socialist left have also faced harassment and intimidation in their workplaces and homes, and this must also be strongly opposed.
Second, to eliminate the conditions in which their forces can grow. Capitalism today is a system in decay, turmoil and perennial crises – a system whose destructive drive for profit creates a false scarcity where working-class people are pitted in competition with one another for the meagre resources we are provided. With the injection of rotten and divisive racist, misogynistic and LBGTQphobic ideas via social media platforms that big tech controls and profits from, and the media and the right-wing politicians, the system is creating the perfect storm for the far-right to emerge.
The recent elections in Argentina and the Netherlands are examples of this. Any notion that ‘it can’t happen here’ is proved wrong by the events of Thursday night. We need to get active now to end the rule of this system and build a socialist alternative. This means uniting working-class people of all countries and genders in a struggle to take economic and political power from the billionaires and big business and placing their vast resources into democratic public ownership so the needs of all can be met.