The events in Dublin city centre on Thursday evening will cause a juddering change in our politics. Law and public order, keeping the streets safe, whatever you call it, will now shoot to the top of the political agenda and, I suspect, stay there until the next election. The Government will be judged not just by the way it responds to the attack on the schoolchildren and the riot that followed, but by the obvious political and policing failures that allowed the events to happen. How that judgment lands will have a very significant bearing on the outcome of the next election. This is an important moment.
Even before the stabbing and the riots, the law and order question was humming below the surface as an urgent issue. Before any news of the disorder had broken on Thursday I spoke to a Fine Gael TD who told me that every single question bar one at a recent public meeting had been about law and order/crime/public safety. People are growing more and more afraid, the TD said. Is there a single person who doesn’t want to see more gardaí on the streets?
A series of high-profile street attacks in Dublin during the summer led to the announcement of more funding for an enhanced on-street Garda presence. But the announcement of more funding is not the same thing as delivering palpable results on the ground. This is the perennial political error of this Government, and it may be the one it founders on: mistaking the application of resources for the achievement of results. On housing, on health, on the cost of living – how many times have you heard ministers say, “It’s not a question of resources”? They’re right, but not in the way they think. Anyone can spend money; having the desired effect from it is quite another thing. It is the latter that matters.
Even the Government acknowledges that there are not enough gardaí, though it promises that it is recruiting as quickly as it can. But it has also failed to utilise the gardaí that it has to the optimum. Garda rosters appear to be organised as much for the convenience of the gardaí as they are for effective policing. The Commissioner and the Minister for Justice are still struggling to get to grips with that issue.
Outside the stadium, Irish fans sang ‘Come on Ye Boys in Blue’. The general national consensus was that this was exactly the way to deal with In-ger-land’s finest
But there is also a political and, I suspect, a public appetite for a more forceful approach on the street. TDs were outraged when a far-right protest outside Leinster House two months ago led to them being blockaded into the campus; since then, any protest (and there have been several pro-Palestinian events) has been thoroughly and numerously policed. There will now likely be a demand that this approach is applied more widely.
One of the great moments of national unity in the 1990s occurred in response to the Ireland-England soccer match at Lansdowne Road, when rioting by English football hooligans led to the abandonment of the match and provoked a, ah, muscular response from the gardaí. After Irish fans had left the stadium, the English contingent, who had been corralled in a section of the old West Stand, were baton-charged by gardaí. There was particular attention on the approach from one helmeted garda who, television pictures showed, was especially proficient in the use of his baton.
Outside the stadium, Irish fans sang “Come on Ye Boys in Blue”. The general national consensus was that this was exactly the way to deal with In-ger-land’s finest. My guess is that there is a strong national appetite for a similar approach when the far right makes its next foray into street politics. This might not be pretty.
This is another aspect of the change that the events of this week will have on Irish politics: it will force the political establishment to face up to the threat from the far right. Of course, much of the disorder was generated by opportunist hooligans, for whom the prospect of a free new pair of runners is much more exciting than discussing Ireland’s obligations under international asylum law. But the far right’s skilful manipulation of alienated young men has given their destructive energy a harsh political edge that is clearly perceived by members of Ireland’s immigrant communities. This is a policing and a political challenge: we know now that neither has been remotely smart or energetic enough to date.
In every country in Europe, immigration is topping the agenda. One old Government hand texts: ‘So we’re officially a mainstream European country now’
There is a sort of piety abroad that “this is not us”; I am afraid it very much is a part of us. These people are Irish. This is now an Irish social and political problem. Pretending that this isn’t us is like pretending that the city is adequately policed or that the streets aren’t frequently filthy. If you want to solve a problem, you have to face up to it.
This includes facing up to the fact that immigration has now become an issue in Irish politics. Every week now independent TDs use Dáil time to complain about the proposed accommodation of asylum seekers in their constituencies. Government TDs tend to raise their concerns in private, but they also see the public meetings in their constituencies and they hear the public concerns.
Whether you think these concerns are legitimate or not, they are real, and they are now part of our politics. In every country in Europe, immigration is topping the agenda. One old Government hand texts: “So we’re officially a mainstream European country now.”
On the awful day in 1996 that the reporter Veronica Guerin was murdered, Bertie Ahern – who was a personal friend – was called out of the Dáil and told the grim news. He fell silent as he walked to his office with an aide. Then he turned and said, this changes everything. I think this may be such a moment.