Sunday March 5th 2006
By Eilis O'Hanlon
SO FAR, so predictable. The aftermath of any wide-scale disorder is
invariably more troubling than the event itself, and so it's proving to
be following the trouble in Dublin last weekend.
The riot itself isn't so hard to understand. As long as there's a
degree of prior organisation, and as long as the police don't get wind
of what's being planned, or stamp down on the trouble quickly enough
once it gets under way, the whole affair generally becomes
There are always enough louts around to throw bricks at the police, and
these days they all have
'The people up in court couldn't have organised a chimps' tea party,
let alone full-scale civil disorder such as Dublin experienced'
mobile phones, which helps. Flash mobs are the Martini of the world of
street politics: they can happen anytime, any place, anywhere. And it
should never be forgotten that riots are fun. Not if you're on the
fringe of it, fearing the arrival of a flying stray brick, but right in
the middle, with the adrenalin pumping, oh yes, there's nothing like
It's the post-riot dissection which is the worrying part. Initially,
there's (almost) universal disgust and condemnation and praise for the
police without whose efforts, even if flawed, things could have been so
But then the truth starts being chipped away . . . First up are the 'it
was the police's fault for being too heavy-handed' brigade. Within
hours of the riot last weekend, dissident republican demonstrators were
putting out their version of what happened - namely, that the arrival
of gardai in riot gear kicked the whole thing off, and without that
spark all would have been hunky dory. It's the same old story.
If the police come out in force, they're blamed for provoking trouble.
If they don't come out in force, they're blamed for being complacent
and unprepared. Emboldened by how easily the porkies were accepted,
they then started saying that actually it wasn't so bad where they
were, the trouble was all happening further down the road, or in
another street altogether, and why are the media being so horrible to
us, boo hoo.
Before long, the 'it was society's fault for not being perfect' brigade
have stepped up to provide reinforcements. Noticing that few of the
rioters had Victorian townhouses in Rathgar, the usual suspects started
making whimpering little noises about poverty and disaffection and bad
housing. Fr Peter McVerry last week was soon citing the death of a man
in Garda custody last year for causing resentment amongst jobless,
uneducated youth, and telling Live-line how he'd never identify any of
them to the police. Slowly the waters are muddied, and the initial
sense of disgust starts to be dissipated by the flood of 'buts' and 'on
the other hands' and 'yeah, but what abouts'.
And to be fair, political opportunists always follow in the wake of
But this was no ordinary riot. This one was provoked by our beloved
national question and hence any dissipation of the sense of outrage was
always going to benefit those with the most to hide in regard to their
own interactions down the years with that issue. It was astonishing,
actually, how so many rushed so quickly to reduce republican
culpability for the riots in Dublin, a process of moral equivocation
given added impetus by a dispiritingly woolly-headed edition of
Questions & Answers, in which the ritual condemnations moved seamlessly
into some bitter wallowing in the apparently manifold failings of
Orange-leaning Northerners. This wasn't the time to ponder what was
wrong with Them. It was the time to ask what was wrong with Us.
Interweaving all that was an unseemly scramble to prod Unionism, in the
shape of Jeffrey Donaldson MP, into being grateful to Gerry Adams for
rustling up a few words of condemnation of the riots. Adams may have
called the disorder 'reprehensible', but Sinn Fein's general attitude
to the whole business was far from unequivocal. Sinn Fein MEP, Bairbre
de Bruin, writing in Daily Ireland, only managed to squeeze a brief
comment about the riot on to the end of some interminable waffle about
her EU work. She called the riots "disgraceful", but added spitefully:
"This was a victory for Willie Frazer who came to Dublin looking for a
negative reaction - and he got just that."
He got what he was looking for, eh? There's a two-edged remark if ever
there was one. It certainly doesn't sound like the sort of wholehearted
repudiation of troublemaking for which Unionists should all be
genuflecting before them in awed gratitude. For every republican
condemnation of what happened, there was an immediate proviso about the
"provocation" caused by the Love Ulster march. When expressing a
separate identity and counter point of view to the accepted mainstream
one in nationalist Ireland is deemed to be provocative, you have to ask
how far the modern, pluralistic Irish Republic really has come.
It was all part of the same effort to distance republicans from what
happened, and it wasn't just republicans who were trying to get
themselves off the hook either. The Government couldn't reassure Sinn
Fein enough how much they accepted their protestations of innocence.
This wasn't nothing, we were smugly assured, but a ragtag of gurriers
and football hooligans and bored young people.
"A glance through the names of those arrested," as the Irish Echo put
it, "reveals not political but criminal motivation."
This won't wash at all. Of course, the people who appear in court are
the Great Unwashed whose primary thought is whether they can lift a
free pair of runners out of the nearest broken window. It's exactly the
same in Belfast. Republicans of all hues don't do their own dirty work
on the streets. They urge drunken idiots on to do it for them. The
point is that it takes organisation to get the cannon fodder out on to
the streets in the first place and then to move them around the city
like chess pieces.
The people up in court couldn't have organised a chimps' tea party, let
alone full-scale civil disorder such as Dublin experienced. Someone
else was doing that for them, and from the evidence on the streets they
seemed to have considerable experience of it. Mmm, wonder where they
got it, eh?
"I'm sure that there wasn't anything political in it," said Fr McVerry,
but that statement flies in the face of everything we know about Irish
life and society. Everything in Ireland is political, and last weekend
the politics weren't even subliminal but in your face. The bricks were
thrown by gurriers, but it can't be ignored that when these gurriers
went bad they wrapped themselves in the tricolour. They chanted "I, I,
IRA" and "Up the 'RA" and "Go home, you Huns". They even called Charlie
Bird an "Orange b*****d". When the equivalent social class rioted in
Paris, they didn't wrap themselves in the French flag. In Dublin, they
did. The first thing to emerge when the mood turned sour was a
particularly poisonous brand of sectarian nationalism. If that's going
to set a precedent for future disorder, then we have a very serious
problem on our hands, and pretending that what happened was all just
sociologically explainable criminality is short-sighted and
What happened "shouldn't" interfere with preparations for the 1916
centenary celebrations, Dermot Ahern still insists. Well, "shouldn't"
is a nice word. There are lots of things that shouldn't happen. Just
because they shouldn't doesn't mean they don't. Stopping 1916 becoming
a call to action, a cause around which disaffection with the state of
modern Ireland can be fomented and exploited, may be harder than the
Foreign Minister thinks.
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