Ireland and the Dilemma of Right-Wing Violence in a Liberal Democracy
Seán Golden 6 December 2023

On 20 September, 2023, a motley crowd of some 200 people protested the opening of Autumn sessions in the Dáil (Parliament) of the Republic of Ireland. They blocked entrances and interfered with the free movements of elected representatives and workers. Insults and jostling occurred. Placards making a diversity of demands and complaints, some contradictory, ranging from lack of housing to rejection of refugees, evidenced a general feeling of frustration and anger, without a specified target. For many it was a protest against “the system”, but a hard core of right-wing agitators using social media took control. A mock gallows was erected with photos of government ministers. Racist and homophobic insults were hurled, as well as objects. The police had not anticipated such an unprecedented event and seemed unclear about how to respond. The press and opposition parties predictably placed blame on the government and police commissioner as well as offering diverse and commonplace analyses of the causes.

Since the crash of 2008 that ended the “Celtic Tiger” years, Ireland has had a major housing crisis, despite an economic recovery that has brought about low unemployment and large budget surpluses. Ireland has a long history of emigration and might be expected to be open to immigration. There are probably more than 50,000 undocumented Irish emigrants in the United States. Both the people and the government are defending them and trying to regularize their status there. Ireland has seen an influx of asylum seekers and refugees in recent years, putting additional pressure on the availability of housing. After agreeing to take in 40,000 Ukrainian refugees, Ireland has received more than 100,000. The latest census figures show that the population has grown significantly, much more than previous strategic planning for housing had envisaged.

Lack of access to affordable housing is a major cause of frustration and anger. Another is the strain on local services resulting from the distribution of refugees. Over the past few months, there have been protests in various parts of the country against the government’s distribution policy, partly justified by the strain on services, partly the result of xenophobia. Hard right elements have been taking advantage of this social unease to infiltrate and hijack the protests, culminating in the blockade of the Dáil.

Ireland is a prosperous member of the European Union. Ireland’s population was halved by the Great Famine of the mid-nineteenth century and has still not fully recovered. The referendum that changed the Constitution to recognize same-sex marriages showed an overwhelming majority in favor of tolerance. Census figures show that 20 percent of the people resident in Ireland today were not born in Ireland. In the case of the working population, 25 percent were not born in Ireland. Polish is now the second most spoken language in Ireland. There are many civil society organizations dedicated to assisting refugees and immigrants. By all accounts, the hardcore right-wing elements are a small minority.

On 23 November, 2023, a man stabbed three children and one of their carers as they were leaving a school on a main street in the center of Dublin. One child remains in hospital in serious condition. The man was subdued by passers-by and is also hospitalized. Shortly thereafter, rioting broke out in the city center, organized through social media by known hard-core right-wing elements, leading to clashes with the police and the burning of police cars and buses as well as wholesale looting of shops. Police detained 39 people and some 60 police officers were injured, three of them seriously. The police seemed unsure of how to respond. The press and opposition parties predictably again blamed the government and police commissioner and offered diverse and commonplace analyses of the causes.

On December 1, a group of vigilantes in the village of Dromahair in western Ireland set up roadblocks and demanded the identification of drivers and passengers because of a rumor that the government was planning to house 150 refugees in the town. For months there have been sporadic protests, organized through social media, against sex education in schools and the presence of LGBT books in public libraries. What may have started as spontaneous local actions were also quickly infiltrated by hardcore right-wing elements. What is clear is that there is a sense of unease and frustration among people who are neither hardcore right-wingers nor prone to violence, but neither the government nor the opposition parties have found a way to address this unease and frustration, leaving the field open for organized right-wing agitators to fill the void.

Ireland’s independence came about in large part as a result of violent unilateral action by a group that claimed to represent “the people” and to be entitled to speak and act on their behalf. Subsequent events gave legitimacy to this independence movement. Over previous centuries, British colonial misrule had provoked many guerrilla and vigilante movements that took the law into their own hands in the name of the people. Ireland has such a tradition, and it persists among splinter groups of republicans and loyalists, as well as vigilantes, but not all such groups have achieved legitimacy.

In the 1920s, the incipient democratic government of the newly independent Irish state managed to disarm the guerrilla forces that had fought the War of Independence by offering them the chance to become members of the new Irish police force in return for surrendering their weapons, thereby guaranteeing the state’s monopoly on violence. Ireland has a hallowed tradition of unarmed police. Organized crime and terrorism have required the creation of specialized armed units, but ordinary policing remains unarmed. Irish democracy is especially vigilant about individual rights, in the classical liberal tradition of liberal democracy. This means that Ireland is now faced with the dilemma of how to respond to right-wing violence while respecting the values of liberty.

The Dublin riots conceal a number of ironies. The attacker was identified as an Algerian immigrant. This gave agitators the opportunity to send out a call for a xenophobic response that included the instructions to “bring tools”. Of the six passers-by who subdued the attacker, four were immigrants, including a delivery driver from Brazil. In a speech to the Dáil, the Irish Taoiseach (Prime Minister), himself the son of a South Asian immigrant, said that “Europe is a paradise” and that “Ireland is one of the best parts of paradise,” as he urged people not to conflate crime with migration. Some migrants will commit crimes, just as Irish people commit crimes, he added, but “what I see is a suspect who was a migrant although a citizen, and somebody here for over 20 years… I see a five-year-old child in hospital today, both her parents coming from a migrant background and her born in Ireland … And of the five or six people who intervened to stop the attack, four of those are migrants to this country.” He concluded that “it is totally wrong to try and make out that there’s a connection between crime and migration… The alleged assailant, the victims, and those that stopped the attack are most of them from a migrant background.”

While the political debate focuses on what the police should have known or should have done, the social debate centers on the causes of this frustration. As the vandalism and looting demonstrated, not all of the rioters were motivated by ideology. There is a serious substratum of social problems that have been festering for a long time. Over the coming year or so, Ireland will have local, general, and European elections, along with a new enlarged map of constituencies that will accentuate political point scoring and allow populism to rear its head further, at a time when serious statesmanship and strategic thinking are sorely needed.

Perhaps what is most needed is an innovative strategic approach to bridging the gap between national and local policy, to understanding and responding to the unease and concerns of ordinary citizens that populists and agitators are trying to hijack. Liberal democracy is already being challenged for its failure to control the excesses of neoliberalism and to eliminate the ever-increasing levels of inequality it has generated.

A set of principles that might serve as a starting point for developing such a strategic approach has been outlined by Carles Riba in the context of political responses to the climate crisis through a proposal for “shared governance”. With economic powers making the big decisions, while public governments tend to remain fragmented between different levels and different territories, the sovereignty of the state responds more to oligarchies than to the defense of its citizens’ rights. Better collective decisions could be made in deliberations and agreements between governments of different levels and territories, based on four principles: a) hospitality, the moral duty to help people equally, b) sustainability, sizing populations and activities according to the resources of each place, c) subsidiarity, taking decisions at the levels closest to the citizens affected by them, and d) inviolability, the elected officials at each level must enjoy inviolability vis-à-vis other powers in the defence of the ideas and actions of their representatives. This would require the articulation of mediation and arbitration systems to resolve conflicts that arise between the parties, especially in the realms of fixing and controlling electoral processes; collecting and distributing fiscal resources; mediation and justice systems; regulation of the media; organizing and using public order forces.

Liberal democracy today is in crisis. Traditional ideologies of right and left have not evolved well to deal with 21st-century realities. Controlling social stability alone will not solve the crisis. There are no easy solutions to complex problems. The status quo is not responding well to new complexities. As problems persist, populism offers attractively simple and immediate solutions, that are bound to fail, raising the question: if populists take control and their solutions fail, what then? New thinking is needed.


Cover photo: CanalEnthusiast (Wikimedia Commons).

Follow us on FacebookTwitter and LinkedIn to see and interact with our latest contents.

If you like our stories, events, publications and dossiers, sign up for our newsletter (twice a month).  





Please consider giving a tax-free donation to Reset this year

Any amount will help show your support for our activities

In Europe and elsewhere
(Reset DOC)

In the US
(Reset Dialogues)