A political analysis of the Dublin riots and why nobody saw them coming
I, like almost everybody I know, didn't predict the events of Saturday. In fact the only person I know who did predict a major riot was a friend of mine who happens to hail from the wee North - in retrospect I should have realised that he had his finger on the pulse, for not only does he have much more experience of sectarian marches, but through his job he knows many of the people who were involved and has an unusual insight and sympathy for those people who most Dubliners write off as 'scumbags' and 'knackers'. This article is an analysis of what happened and why almost everybody got it so wrong. This article is a companion piece to the photo essay which I published yesterday.
A 13 minute video of the rioting in Dublin is now available on the global indymedia video site. You can download it by clicking here or by visiting the global indymedia website at video.indymedia.org. The file is made with the xvid codec and mp3 audio. It is approximately 100 MB in size, you will require a broadband connection to view it.
I have a lot of experience of protesting and policing, having attended many of the most hyped and heavily policed events that Dublin has seen in the last decade as well as some of the biggest and most volatile international protests that have occurred around the world, both as a participant and a cameraman. From this it is obvious to me that the police were similarly completely surprised by the events of Saturday February 25th in central Dublin.
I also know that the Gardai are more than capable of policing contentious and potentially volatile protests in what would be regarded as a way that is in line with international policing norms. I was there on the Navan road when 3,000 anti-capitalist protestors made the march to Farmleigh on Mayday 2004. On that day there were thousands of police deployed and although the protestors managed to get much closer to the location of the summit than the police would have liked, the state was never in any danger of losing control of the situation. They had deployed thousands of police in riot gear, backed up by water cannon and a massive deployment of surveillance technology and they successfully contained the protestors much as their international colleagues routinely do. Therefore, I do not think that it is conceivable that the complete under-preparedness of the gardai could possibly be a result of incompetence in terms of their ability to police events - they have proved very successful at containing much bigger protests in the past....
There have been some suggestions that our power-crazed minister for justice or other sinister forces within the 26 country state may have deliberately failed to prepare adequately to police this event in order to further some security or anti-republican agenda. While I'm sure the minister for justice would love to have the power to do this, I'm also certain that he doesn't and that this theory is entirely implausible. Gardai are generally not happy to be sent out under prepared to face rioters and if there had been any inkling that a riot was likely to ensue, the guards would have been extremely unwilling - to say the least - to be used as target practice in such a scheme, pawns in the minister's power game. As it is the gardai on the ground were extremely angry and remain so that they were sent out to police a situation without anything like the resources that they would have needed to contain the situation. Furthermore, I talked to the Superintendent who appeared to be in charge of operations on the day and several ordinary gardai and they all expressed the same opinion - that they had anticipated some 'trouble' but nothing like the rioting that happened and while it is a foolish person who believes anything just because the Gardai say it is so (I remember the stream of lies and smears that the Garda press office came out with in the run up to Mayday 2004) - these reactions seemed genuine and unscripted.
Therefore, I think it is clear that the guards were genuinely taken completely by surprise by the events of the day and I think that the reasons for them being surprised were exactly the same as the reasons that I and almost all of the other political activists whom I know were similarly taken by surprise.
Essentially, our mistake was to assume that political protests need to be organised by somebody. In general this is true and I don't know of any other event that has taken place in Dublin in the last 20 years which happened without being organised or planned by some organisation or other. The riots of central Dublin were an exception to this rule, no organisation planned them and almost nobody saw them coming.
The Garda intelligence reports in advance of the march would have told them that Sinn Fein were trying as hard as they could to keep their members away from the protest - I believe that they announced that anybody who was seen in the city centre on the day would be banned from their functions for 6 months and this largely worked, I only saw a single shinner in the city throughout the day and he was obviously there as a sanctioned observer and remained behind police lines (where I also inadvertently found myself). Similarly, the Gardai know that the 32CSM had called off their protest and were not interested in provoking a confrontation. While Republican Sinn Fein did organise a counter protest, the gardai pretty much know what their membership has for breakfast and are well aware that they are a tiny organisation based around a small number of traditional republican families who are completely incapable of mobilising more than a few dozen die-hards. The 4th significant Republican group, the IRSP, are virtually non-existant in the south and are incapable of organising anything. Besides the Gardai were well aware of the fact that the march was intended as a provocation, a trap for republicans to fall into and that the various republican groups were intelligent enough to recognise this and avoid falling into it.
The other political current that regularly causes the Gardai security worries in Dublin is the anarchists and the Gardai would have been well aware that the anarchist organisations were not at all interested in stoking the flames of sectarianism. The Gardai read indymedia for their intelligence like the rest of us and they would have been aware that the anarchists were not planning trouble for this march - being more interested in taking the piss out of the bigots than getting into a ruck with them. They knew that neither the WSM nor Organise! the two formal anarchist organisations in the country were simply not going to get involved in organising a protest that would be seen as nationalist and sectarian. Thus the Gardai came to the same assesment that I did - no political organisations who were capable of causing trouble were mobilising to oppose the loyalist march and they were right. From the long years that I have spent attending and covering protests I recognise a lot of faces from these various groups and they simply weren't involved in the confrontation - those whom I saw were bemusedly observing the whole thing from the sidelines. The people who are claiming that the events were orchestrated by this or that political group are simply liars who are pursuing various agendas and cynically using the riot to attack their political opponents. From the fantasist pathological liars of the Sunday Independent to the PDs, every reactionary in the country will use any such event as this to smear their opponents and they can be safely ignored by anybody who is seeking to understand these events.
So, if it wasn't organised by political groups, how did it happen?
The people who took part in the rioting were largely drawn from the urban poor, mostly disenfranchised young men from impoverished estates around Dublin, people who normally have no political voice whatsoever, people who rarely vote, who are disorganised, who live in communities that have been ravaged by poverty and drug and alcohol abuse, people who many of those who live lives of privilege and relative comfort write off as 'scumbags' or whom the Marxists describe as 'lumpen'. Although these people are generally seen as apolitical and disinterested in politics, this is not entirely true. Many of them have a deep and abiding sense of identity which is derived from their nationalism or patriotism. As my friend said to me, he is constantly amazed at the number of young men from impoverished communities who sport tricolour or pro-IRA tattoos, despite the fact that they have no political involvement in any of the Republican or Nationalist organizations.
This sense of identity is expressed in various ways in addition to the tattoos - from the houses and flats decked out in green bunting during the world cup, to the well known 'bar stool republicanism' and popularity of nationalist songs in the bars where the poor drink, to the widespread and passionate support for Glasgow Celtic Football Club among the poor and disenfranchised. An instinctive nationalism and a strong sense of identity for their own community is the real political expression of the urban poor in Dublin. The idea that the loyalist paramilitaries could come and march through their city, by the GPO - ground zero of Irish republicanism - was sufficiently provocative to enrage these people on a much deeper level than any of the habitual attacks on their living conditions or economic lives could possibly do. They are used to being at the bottom, to being shat upon by the rest of society, but their nationalism and sense of community identity is one thing that gives them pride in themselves - allowing the loyalists to march through their city and to disrespect their identity would be a full frontal assault on their pride and pride is all they have.
Therefore, despite the lack of mobilisation by any of the political groups and in some cases (as with Sinn Fein) the active efforts to stop their supporters attending, groups of youth from all over the city headed into town to oppose the loyalist march. Many of them obviously prepared themselves with projectiles and fireworks, presumably intending to hurl them at the loyalists. From my position behind the police lines I witnessed several golf balls and ball bearings (one of which struck me on the leg) being thrown over the lines of the riot police and bangers and rockets continuously exploded on the ranks of the riot police. Therefore, I think it is clear that a fair number of those who took part in the riots were prepared to throw projectiles at the loyalist march. However, it is also clear that none of this was coordinated, it didn't have to be. It doesn't take any coordination or organisation for a bunch of mates to head into town together with a few projectiles and since the anti-loyalist sentiment is widespread, it doesn't take any great leap of imagination to picture groups of youths from all over the city arriving at the idea independently and that's what happened.
I talked to several people from different areas of the city who reported groups of youth from impoverished areas of the city travelling into town on buses talking loudly about their plans to pelt the loyalists. It was probably the one political issue in Dublin which was certain to lead to such a decentralised mobilisation. Anybody who is familiar with the patterns of sectarian rioting in the North knows that although the rioting is normally controlled, to a greater or lesser extent, by paramilitary groups, the vast majority of the participants are local youths who are not members of any political organisation - exactly the same section of society as those who rioted in Dublin and indeed the same section of society who are almost always the ones to riot - from Paris to Argentina it is the impoverished youth on the margins of society who riot, having nothing to lose and little fear of authority.
How did the situation escalate?
However, what eventually occurred in central Dublin was much more than a few bunches of youths pelting the marchers with small projectiles and fireworks, it turned into a full scale riot. How did this come about?
The RSF counter demonstration provided a rallying point for all of these disenfranchised people who made their way into Dublin early on Saturday morning. By the time that the march was due to begin at 12.30, the handful of RSF supporters taking part in the demonstration had been joined by a few hundred of these unaffiliated anti-loyalist youth. The Gardai had corralled the RSF demonstration behind barriers in the middle of the road, but this was not a crowd that was going to accept the right of the Gardai to tell them where to stand. As I approached the Parnell monument from Parnell Square shortly after 12.30 with an indymedia videographer and saw the counter-demonstration, it was immediately clear to us that the loyalist march was not going to be able to leave Parnell Square at all. The protestors were utterly enraged. People were screaming at the guards "call yourself fucking Irish, you'll let them march and you won't let us march up to them", "orange bastards" and "free state scum" and other similar epithets.
There were also large numbers of working class youth amassing at the junction of Parnell Street and O'Connell Street and the crowd was growing all the time. O'Connell street is flanked on its East side by a large concentration of impoverished flat complexes and council houses - an area that has housed some of Dublin’s poorest communities for over a century. Many of the people who were arriving at the flash point were locals who may not even have known about the march, but when they learned that the Gardai were cordoning off their communities to allow a loyalist march through, they became similarly enraged and heaped abuse upon the Gardai 'traitors' who were holding back the crowds.
The crowd from the counter demonstration surged through the barriers into the road and the Gardai responded in the standard way that they do when a demonstration breaks through a barrier, they called up the riot squad who launched a baton charge into the crowd to clear the way for the loyalist march. However, they were not dealing with a normal political demonstration, they were dealing with the most disenfranchised sector of society, a group with very different characteristics from your normal political demonstrators, the anti-loyalist demonstration was immediately transformed into an anti-Garda riot that led to the forces of order completely losing control of central Dublin for the next few hours.
In general, people who attend political demonstrations are people who have some type of long-term goal that they are aiming towards. Their political acts are part of some strategy and crucially they have something to lose. Not so with this crowd. These are people whose communities are completely ignored by the Gardai and the state, whose only interactions with the Gardai are to receive beatings and general persecution from them. In this self same community, only a few hundred yards away from the flash-point, a local man by the name of Terrence Wheelock died in highly dubious circumstances while in custody and it is widely believed that he was beaten to death by the Gardai. Indeed beatings in custody have become so common for local youths that they are hardly remarked upon and almost accepted within 'polite society'. These are people who have little or nothing to lose, who take pride in the fact that they have no fear, who are accustomed to being powerless and trodden upon by the state and who have a deep rage about this state of affairs, a rage which is generally expressed in a self-destructive way. Many of them are known to the Gardai. For once they found a large number of people with a similar experience gathered together in the one spot and for once they massively outnumbered the Gardai.
Normally on a demonstration a single policeman can handle a dozen protestors or so since they have a huge arsenal of repressive measures at their disposal and demonstrators know it well and are afraid of the consequences of their actions. People who have nothing to lose are an entirely different proposition. Thus, as soon as the police charged the crowd to clear the way for the march, they were greeted with an avalanche of projectiles, bricks, rockets, crude home-made petrol bombs and so on. Intense fighting broke out around the junction of Parnell Street and O'Connell street. Lumps of masonry showered down all around. Many of the participants took no measures whatsoever to conceal their identities. In those cases where they did 'mask up', it seemed that they did so because that was how rioters were supposed to look rather than being an effective way to conceal their identities. These were the people who aren't afraid of the Gardai - who will fight back when they are arrested by a half dozen guards on a typical Saturday night, and for once they had the weight of numbers.
The Gardai were visibly shocked by the reaction to their attempt to clear the road. None of the yellow-jacketed guards had been issued with helmets and several went down with head injuries in the initial wave of fighting. Even the riot police looked shell shocked as a massive wave of projectiles beat down upon their shields. Fearless teenagers danced up to their lines taunting them and receiving batons across the head without seemingly caring for their own safety at all. This was an explosion of rage from the poorest and most marginalised in society and an explosion the likes of which had not been seen in Dublin for decades.
O'Connell street was a building site and bricks, paving stones, barricades and oil cans were neatly arranged all along it, almost like an ammunition dump for rioters. Combine that with the proximity of many of the poorest residential areas in the city where the Gardai are feared and hated and the reasonable number of destitute drug users who you will find around O'Connell street on an average Saturday and you had a ready supply of people and ammunition for a proper riot and that was what we saw. There were probably no more than 200 people who were involved in the initial onslaught, but hundreds more joined in as the fighting made its way down O'Connell Street. Local youths could be seen coming out of side streets phoning their mates and as the fighting progressed more and more people joined in. I'd estimate that over a thousand people took part in the events in one way or another. Every time that the riot squad managed to advance a few metres, they would have to leave a line of police to guard any of the side streets that they had passed as more and more locals came out to see what was happening. There were crowds massed all along the side streets and most of their sympathies appeared to lie with the rioters. At one stage some of the more political Republicans who had organised the counter-protest engaged in a sit down protest in front of the riot police advance. Presumably they had decided that they wanted to distance themselves from the rioters and mount a protest that was less liable to be associated with mindless violence. Predictably they were brutally beaten and promptly cleared from the road. Shortly afterwards, I witnessed a half dozen Gardai trying to arrest an individual who had become trapped behind police lines, a crowd of onlookers let out an enraged shout and started rushing over to intervene - causing the Gardai to relinquish their hold. The street was still thronged with shoppers and passers by many of whom seemed entirely nonplussed by the riot, simply standing towards the sides of the roads or wandering around behind police lines without taking part in the fighting, but clearly more sympathetic to the rioters than the Gardai.
The balance of forces and the fearlessness of the rioters left the Gardai in the impossible position of being unable to control the area. They only had a few dozen riot police and they were basically limited to keeping the rioters at bay as wave after wave of projectiles rained down upon them. On several occasions uniformed police tried to clear the area behind the line of riot police, but they failed completely as nobody was willing to cooperate. By the time the Gardai had driven the crowd back towards the junction of O'Connell Street and Abbey Street, the police operation had come to a complete standstill. Hundreds of people, many of them young teenagers, continued to fight the police and hurl missiles at them. There were only about 30 riot police thinly stretched across the road and barely able to keep the crowd at bay. All of the uniformed officers were tied up trying to prevent the crowds of onlookers from joining in from the side streets behind the front lines and many protestors and shoppers wandered around bemusedly behind the police lines, climbing on top of skips and building machinery to get a good look at the action.
Behind the lines of the rioters, looting broke out. Although I didn't observe it, witnesses report that several women from the inner city were seen filling bags full of shoes from the shops and engaging in a bit of 'discount shopping'. The police were not even nearly in a position to do anything about it. They had lost control of the city and were mostly just trying to protect themselves as the riot was now almost entirely an anti-police and anti-state affair. As they did their best to protect themselves, the looting continued and sections of the crowd also targeted various prominent symbols of capitalism - all the banks in the area had their windows broken as well as the nearby McDonalds.
As far as I could see there was virtually no presence among the rioters from anybody 'political' apart from a small number of the more youthful dissident Republican and anarchist sympathisers. The members of political parties that I recognised were generally behind police lines with attitudes that went from bewilderment to bemusement. This was a riot borne out of anger and disenfranchisement, an expression of rage that was almost without a political aim - the only common target was the state and the establishment, the loyalists were almost forgotten about by this stage.
At around this time, I observed a surge in the crowd and a man in a brown coat running towards the edges of the police lines. He was pursued by a dozen people or so who were raining down blows upon him. He reached the edge of the side street that runs along the South side of the GPO and a hail of bricks, bottles and stones rained down around his head. As he staggered through the police lines and into a side street a large metal poll - the type that typically supports a street sign - just missed his head and dealt him a side swipe. A foot or so to the right and it would have killed him. At the time I wondered what had led the crowd to turn their anger upon this individual and I guessed that he had been identified as a member of the police special branch.
It seems that this was in fact RTE's Charlie Bird who had been fingered by the crowd as an 'orange bastard' and set upon. This was most unfair to Charlie, who is most certainly not an orangeman and it seems that he was utterly confused about why this had happened. Although this is just my own speculation, I assume that what happened went something like the following. Somebody recognised him as Charlie Bird from RTE and thus a member of the establishment. RTE is generally felt by republicans to be anti-republican (with some justification) and thus whoever recognised him saw him as a representative of both the establishment and of RTE's anti-republican stance and called him an 'orange bastard'. In such a situation being fingered publicly as an infiltrator is only likely to lead to one thing. He was very lucky to get away with his life. Throughout the day several other journalists were similarly shocked to be targeted by rioters, few of them seemed to realise that this was a consequence of the rioters simply not 'giving a fuck' how they were represented in the media - they weren't making a political point, they were expressing the rage of the excluded. Even this indymedia photographer had a similar experience later in the day with an angry young man who told me that he didn't give a fuck what indy-fucking media I was working for and might have easily decided to take it further was it not for the fact that I was obviously known to the group of protestors around me.
After the standoff had been reached and the attendant constant barrage of debris had lasted for about an hour at the junction of O'Connell Street and Abbey Street, a large section of the crowd - those who had been most heavily engaged in the fighting - suddenly turned on their heels and took off south across O'Connell bridge at a run. I heard various theories that might have sparked this. Some said that a rumour had gone around that the loyalists had made their way around O'Connell Street and had arrived at the Dail, however, I think it is just as likely that the rioters realised that they had won control of the city centre and had decided to take the riot to the wealthy south side of the city. In any case, I remained trapped behind the line of riot police and was not able to follow them. Then, some 15 minutes later, myself and the indymedia videographer with me found our way out down a lane linking the side of the GPO to Abbey Street and followed the crowd towards the south side of the city. Bizzarelly, it appeared that there were no police around whatsoever. Traffic was still running south along Westmoreland Street directly into the riot on Lower O'Connell Street. As I reached College Green, the first police van tore by heading for Nassau Street, this being a full twenty minutes after the crowd had arrived. As I reached Nassau Street I witnessed an incredibly bizzare and disconcerting sight. On my left a mob was torching cars, on my right Grafton Street shopping continued very much like any ordinary Saturday afternoon. I wandered down towards the crowd to find a thin line of Gardai protecting the bottom of Kildare Street utterly powerless to intervene as the crowd smashed and burned expensive cars and broke shop windows. Most of this destruction appeared almost entirely aimless - there were even people throwing bottles back into the crowd, although there were some exceptions. A group set about thrashing the headquarters of the Progressive Democrats, which was surely the best choice of targets available and must have been explicitly chosen since its location is not obvious or well known.
Eventually more and more Gardai arrived and drove the crowd backwards towards College Green, prompting several panicked stampedes as people sought to escape their batons. At this stage I decided to call it a day. The rioters were breaking up and headed into Temple Bar and elsewhere in smaller groups. Small groups of riot police tried to contain them here and there, but they had yet to establish any sort of control over the city as groups of youths wandered around casually looting and destroying property without much distinction. This was over 3 hours after the riots had started and I was tired, so I walked back along O'Connell Street to view the destruction. One thing that struck me as odd was that there were a huge numbers of council workers deployed already to clean up the mess - almost as if the state had been expecting it. Now, as I said above, I don't think that this conspiratorial explanation is plausible, but it did seem to be most unusual that the state could be so ill prepared for policing this demonstration and so well prepared to tidy up after a riot.
Summary / Appraisal
Virtually all of the analysis that I have read about the Dublin riots in the short time since they happened has completely missed the point. Most commentators have focused on the apparent own-goal that the riots represent to Republicanism and the way that they have played into the hands of unionists. I don't think this is accurate at all. Anybody who thinks that a happy reception for a loyalist march in Dublin would bring unionist sentiment a centimetre closer to accepting unification of the island is blind to reality. The peace process has created an entrenched sectarian division of power in the wee north. Unionist parties compete with each other for protestant votes. Nationalist politicians compete with each other for catholic votes and there is no realistic prospect of this changing without a complete overhaul of the political system. Thus all the northern nationalists I have spoken to, mostly SDLP supporters, declare themselves very happy that the loyalists weren't allowed to get away with the travesty of marching by the GPO and are uniformly happy that the loyalists were sent back home on their buses without marching. I am far less acquainted with unionist opinion but I doubt that it makes much difference either way. If they had succeeded in marching it would presumably have bolstered the prestige of mr Frazer's paramilitary Love Ulster organisation and the fact that this didn't happen probably means little change to the balance of power within unionism. I also wonder if Love Ulster will be able to mobilise their supporters for a similar march in the future. Although the people who came to march have experienced far worse in terms of violence during the troubles (both as victims and perpetrators) they did not exude the normal triumphalism or defiance that one normally associates with loyalism, instead I got a sense of fear from them. It is one thing to be defiant in your own community, it is another thing to be dumped in the middle of a strange city where a large swathe of the population hates you and where you have no support amongst the working class and the experience of relying upon the security forces of the hated Republic to protect you from a lynching could not be a pleasant one.
In terms of the affects on southern politics, it is important to realise that the riots had almost nothing to do with republicanism. RSF are a fringe group with virtually no support and if any of them took part in the riots they were in an insignificant minority. The riots were an expression of the anger of the most marginalised sector of Dublin's urban poor, they had no real political point other than an expression of that rage. While those who are suspicious of Sinn Fein will use the riots as another weapon against them, they had zero involvement whatsoever. Their outright condemnation of the riots might even alienate some of their more disenfranchised support base and drive them towards the dissidents, but I doubt that this is likely to happen on any great scale.
Much more significantly, the riots represent the first time in living memory that the very poorest and most marginalised elements in Irish society expressed themselves politically, undirected as it may have been. The 'scumbags' will have experienced this as a great victory - they stopped the 'orange bastards' from marching, they took on the guards en masse and won - they controlled the city centre for several hours on a Saturday afternoon and many of them will have experienced this as an intensely empowering demonstration of their worth. In future the government may have to reckon with this sector as a political force - rioting is often empowering for the marginalised and can easily spread and the government will want to take great pains to discourage that. I think it is highly unlikely that the government will be at all keen to repeat the disaster of the loyalist march and risk providing a chance for this anger to express itself again. Unfortunately, however, it is very difficult to turn such destructive expressions of anger into constructive channels. While the most marginalised elements of the working class woke up on Sunday morning with a new appreciation of their collective power, they still lack any constructive way of expressing this and until that avenue presents itself, it is unlikely to lead to any political force that can lead towards lasting change.
All of the political groupings in the south bar some of the republican fringes and the anarchists will condemn these riots in the harshest terms. Indeed within hours, the state’s politicians were queuing up to express their outrage and ‘anger’ at the events. But what is the point of reacting to anger with anger? What use is anger against people who don’t give a fuck and who don’t have anything to lose? There is a French anarchist saying that goes “Qui sème la misère récolte la colère“ – “he who sows misery, harvests anger”. On Saturday February 25th 2006, we saw the first harvest of our Celtic Tiger and chances are that it won’t be the last.