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As the Luas went up in flames, so did the fantasy that Ireland is different

‘It couldn’t happen here’ was the comfort blanket we wrapped around ourselves. But that has never been true

It was the day the illusions we hold about ourselves went up like a burning wheelie bin.

It could never happen here. This is one of the safest countries in the world in which to be a child. The far right will never get a foothold in Ireland, because Irish people are too compassionate/too aware of our history/too clever/too laid-back ... insert self-congratulatory delusion of your choice.

Evil crashing into schoolyards or classrooms only happened in other parts of the world. Thank God this isn’t the United States, we would shudder in relief. Riots and looting were things that happened somewhere else: thank God this isn’t Paris, London or Belfast.

It couldn’t happen here was the comfort blanket we wrapped around ourselves. But that has never been true. The fantasy was incinerated as the Luas went up in flames and the buses burned. The windows of shopfronts along O’Connell Street and Henry Street were shattered by thugs seizing the chance to rob themselves a puffa jacket or some designer trainers – and so was our smug exceptionalism.


Let’s be clear, though. The act of unspeakable violence visited on those small children and their minder at lunchtime on a busy street on a sunny winter afternoon was not the catalyst for anything. To refer to it as such suggests there is something inevitable, unstoppable or even logical about the events of Thursday. The agitators who turned that horrifying attack into a riot have been waiting for an excuse. The breathless glee in the messages that flew around the Telegram groups on Thursday afternoon was not even disguised. Here was their chance to show the rest of us who really runs Ireland.

There will be debates about whether the riots were orchestrated by a far-right group or just the product of opportunistic, mindless thuggery, but really that’s semantics. It is not as though the far right in this country has a manifesto, or a leader, or a clear ideology, or even owns the label “far right”. The differences between a far-right thug and a criminal thug is that one carries a phone, a sense of burning resentment and a placard; the other carries a phone, a spirit of opportunistic savagery and armloads of looted trainers.

One of those placards – darkly funny if it wasn’t so bitterly depressing – reads “Irish Lives Matter”. Which Irish lives? The lives of the staff who were trapped inside city centre businesses? The lives of the commuters plunged into chaos and danger? The lives of the gardaí who were abused and cornered and threatened? The lives of Dubliners who couldn’t access their own city? The life of the childcare worker who courageously put herself in harm’s way to protect her small, terrified charges, whose heroism was temporarily overshadowed by the thuggery? The lives of the children recovering from horrendous injuries and abject terror, who risk being forgotten in the focus on the criminality that followed?

There are far more urgent questions to be asked than how to label what happened. One is why the Gardaí were so taken by surprise, why there weren’t more of them on the streets, and why those who were there appeared to be so outflanked and vulnerable. Questions should be asked, too, of the social media companies, who give the agitators a platform to spread disinformation and foment hate. How can big tech – which has the tools to identify when a song is used without copyright on an Instagram reel – not be able to alert anyone that a riot is about to unfold?

Social media has become an actor in these events. It is there at their inception. It is a key tool in their construction and organisation. It will form a crucial part of the Garda investigation. It has to take some responsibility.

Social media also ensures the sights and sounds of the day will be branded on to all our brains: the heart-rending image of a new, pink Paw Patrol backpack abandoned on the street. The photograph of a father, his face contorted with unimaginable depths of grief and relief, lifting a little girl high in his arms, as though he can raise her above all this. The nightmarish sound of someone chanting “olé” as a Luas burns. The garda using his bike as an impromptu shield, as a febrile, baying gang rounds on him. The bike thrown into the Liffey. The burning buses. The faceless, hooded goons patrolling the city on their motorised scooters, high on their Braveheart fantasies.

Those things are all real. But other things are real too – including the hunch we all cling to that most people are basically good. “Look for the helpers” was what the American television presenter Fred Rogers used to tell his preschool audiences. It has become a mindless, infantilising cliche trotted out whenever a senseless calamity happens anywhere. But in this case, it is meaningful. Look for the childcare worker who stood in the way of a long knife. Look for Caio Benicio, the Deliveroo driver – Brazilian by nationality, but don’t expect the Ireland for the Irish thugs to focus on that – who stopped to intervene. Look for Siobhán Kearney, who came out of the Stardust inquiry, saw what was happening, and formed a barrier around the attacker with an American lady to prevent further violence. Look for the gardaí who stayed on the streets even after they had been injured. Look for the handful of young men who were out on the streets trying to calm the situation. Look for the ordinary citizens who abhor it. Now we know the truth: it can happen here. It will probably happen again. But it’s how we respond that will decide who we really are.