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Saturday 2 December 2023 Dublin: 2°C
Pictured is a burned damaged Luas carriage on O'Connell Street in Dublin after the riots.

Larry Donnelly The Dublin riots triggered middle Ireland and its voters - politicians take heed

Our columnist says last week’s ‘Black Thursday’ means voters will now be placing immigration and law and order back on the political agenda.

HAVING COME INTO the city centre for a panel discussion on what it means to be an American in Ireland on Thanksgiving on Andrea Gilligan’s Newstalk programme, I was travelling home when I discovered that young children and a member of staff had been stabbed outside their Gaelscoil in Dublin 1.

Like virtually everyone in this country, my thoughts immediately focused to the victims of such a horrific incident that we didn’t imagine would take place on Irish soil. The collective sense of shock startled my brother who was visiting from Boston. Sadly, this kind of thing happens so routinely in the United States that he was surprised at our natural human reaction.

While rumours as to the identity of the attacker flew around social media, my transatlantic family sought to enjoy the quintessential American holiday 3,000 miles away. But as the afternoon turned to evening, it was impossible to avert our eyes from the dreadful scenes of violence and rioting that were unfolding first on our phones, then on our radio and television.

‘This is not us’

My brother was stunned at the apparent impotence of the Gardaí, seemingly unable to stop despicable deeds. This has been the subject of much commentary and criticism. On the other hand, I cannot help but feel that if these events had transpired in the country of my birth, the police would have shot numerous offenders, who had varying degrees of culpability.

Whatever the accuracy of the mantra, “this is not us,” which has been oft-employed when describing what occurred, police officers opening fire on a mob in Dublin – as unruly, menacing and destructive as they were – is definitely not us.

It has been said since that the repercussions of this bleak moment in the history of the capital city and of this country will be felt for the foreseeable future, and in countless ways. There has been plenty of debate in the media about what caused such tumult in the north inner city.

The insidious forces of the far right have been named as most blameworthy by some, especially those on the left, for the campaign of hatred they have been waging just beneath the surface targeting all who are not sufficiently Irish in their eyes. Others have asserted that the failure of successive governments to engage with and invest in disadvantaged communities in Dublin has denied prospects and purpose to generations of residents. Accordingly, this infamous Thursday was an inevitability.

And some posit it is primarily attributable to hooliganism, pure and simple. They do not believe the disaffected young men who intimidate and attack tourists and passers-by, sell and use drugs openly and commit petty theft are deserving of compassion. Many in this latter camp have stressed their own humble roots and the fact that it did not drive them to criminality.

To an extent, they all have a point. No one, though, has a monopoly on the whole truth when it comes to trying to explain comprehensively why all hell broke loose, initially around O’Connell Street and subsequently more broadly, as word of the stabbing and the ethnic origin of the alleged perpetrator spread.

Who are the voters?

Looking ahead, it is evident that 23 November will have a considerable effect on our politics. Please bear with me as I hypothesise about what it could translate into, at one level and without specific regard, for once, to Sinn Féin, which is facing renewed pressure from discordant elements within its base. My guess is that two issues have joined housing, health and the economy on voters’ priority list: immigration and law and order. The latter probably surpassed the former as Dublin heaved.

I suspect that these two topics are also moving to the fore for a substantial segment of the electorate who, whether urban or rural, are fortunate to own their own dwelling, who have private health insurance plans and who are financially comfortable enough that the increased cost of living is irritating, not crippling. This cohort is absolutely not homogenous in their disposition, yet based on abundant personal experience and some polling data, what follows are pretty prevalent sentiments. And there is one crucial political certainty: they vote.

They recoil at the mere mention of the far right; they lament the chaos ushered in by Brexit in the United Kingdom; they abhor Donald Trump and what has become of the US.

But simultaneously, they are among the majority who think that Ireland has admitted too many people over the past few years.

“Where are they going to live? We can’t even house our own?” They do not ask these questions out of actual malice, lots of them having emigrated to the four corners of the globe in the past. They see housing as an intractable problem. To them, allowing in more immigrants is both exacerbating the difficulty and unfair to the foreigners pursuing an opportunity, as they themselves had.

They are generally on the side of An Garda Síochána and favour the concept of law and order. They are sympathetic to the claims made by Gardaí with whom they are acquainted, no matter their veracity, that their hands are tied and that they can’t do “real policing”.

The Gardaí tell them they are stuck in a station doing paperwork or risk destroying their careers if they crack the whip when on duty.

They deem sections of cities and big towns “no go” areas and remember wistfully the great times they had in spots they now would not dream of venturing to after dark. They want more, better-equipped cops on the streets. They contend that the criminal justice system is broken – that those convicted are regularly let off with light sentences; that, for instance, life should mean life.

The most significant political impact of “Black Thursday” may prove the cementing of these already firm opinions in their hearts and minds. My hunch is that these typically centrist voters, many of whom identify with Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil, are going to pose tough questions to and demand detailed answers from elected officials and aspirants who knock on their doors whenever the next general election is called, as well as in the 2024 local and European contests. If they don’t appreciate the content of the replies they receive, they will find it elsewhere.

The need for law and order and a societal “conversation” on immigration will feature prominently in the messaging of independent candidates in every constituency.

Consequently – and because, as several in their ranks have indicated to me, they have been hearing concerns about and “getting it in the neck” over law and order and immigration for months – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael politicians will be responsive, at least rhetorically, to those on whose support they depend.

In this milieu, and without taking into account Sinn Féin’s current position and the fashion in which the popular party might pivot, Irish politics could be pushed rightward by a terrible day that no one is thankful for.

Larry Donnelly is a Boston lawyer, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway and a political columnist with