Much of the political reaction to last week’s Dublin riots smacks of performative outrage. It has been widely asserted that the events have pushed law and order to the top of the political agenda, and that these will become key electoral issues. Politicians scrambling to own the law and order mantle is inevitable, but making a political football of policing has hardly served either politicians or policing well, evidenced by the litany of policing scandals that run through the force’s history and its relationship with governments. These are not things we should forget amid the understandable fear and distress created by last week’s horrors.
From the establishment of the State, playing the law and order card was an understandable preoccupation due to Civil War and the contested legitimacy and security of the State. Later, the Troubles profoundly affected policing attitudes and practices and the conflation of security concerns with “ordinary” policing created complications and disrepute. In the midst of it all, rank and file gardaí often felt like pawns. It is striking how a claim made in the Garda Review exactly 50 years ago still resonates today: the author complained that politicians had “no concept of the gardaí as a group with a changing role in a society whose horizons change and merge and resettle themselves again”.
Even those with pacifist instincts can find themselves yearning for violent bullies to be walloped. Some of us watching the Lansdowne Road riots in February 1995, when English football hooligans wreaked havoc on Irish soil, were delighted to see them get their just deserts when the gardaí went hard at them with batons and frogmarched them off to their boats. Many would have been happy with a similar response last week, but as we have been reminded, 20th century policing responses and practices are not seen as options today.
During the peace process era the attention shifted to drugs, gang violence and organised crime with promises of more gardaí, more prison spaces and “zero tolerance”. The ground has now shifted again, with a focus on immigration and racism. In May, amid demands for stronger moves against anti-immigration protests and roadblocks, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris asserted that the far right was not growing in Ireland and that an aggressive policing response to their tactics would play into the hands of those orchestrating the protests and attacks. Any response from gardaí, Harris suggested, needed to be “in keeping with a community policing model and graduated policing response”, taking into consideration public safety, legislation and human rights. As regards the far right, Harris asserted: “Confrontation… is a trap we’re not falling into.”
The far right is not strong in Ireland, and has fared dismally in elections, which is why it resorts to social media orchestration of violence
These were hardly unreasonable assertions, and we should not be dismissive of the idea of “community policing” as some kind of lesser-tier irrelevance; it is vital, central to addressing economic and social tensions, and something that has often been done well here. The late legal scholar Vicky Conway, who devoted much of her academic career to the history of Irish policing, while often critical of policing oversight and a force too ready to resort to violence, was also able to highlight the broad level of trust in gardaí, which was much higher than that for other pillars of the establishment.
The far right is not strong in Ireland, and has fared dismally in elections, which is why it resorts to social media orchestration of violence. Amid politicians trying to outdo each other in ways redolent of the past – Fine Gael insisting it would “save the state” or Fianna Fáil in 1997 promising to “give the streets of this country back to the Irish people” – this very 21st century problem does not get the attention it needs.
There certainly needs to be a focus on policing in relation to the number of gardaí, physical presence as a deterrent, proper equipment and speed of mobilisation, but also a much sharper spotlight on the manipulation of social media by small numbers who can do damage way out of proportion to their numbers. Why are they so readily facilitated and who can or will be made do something to change that? In May 2016, the European Commission unveiled a “code of conduct on countering illegal hate speech online”. How is that project faring? Will the new EU Digital Services Act have the necessary teeth, especially given the increased toxicity of X (formerly Twitter)?
This week the Irish Media Commission told the Government that social media platforms had activated their “incident response plans” when the riots kicked off. The promise now is that “new codes” will be published next year with the potential to hit these companies financially if they do not counteract the abuse of social media. “Robust” engagement with these platforms has been promised, but we need a lot more proof that they can be reined in.