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Fintan O’Toole: Fascism lurks beneath the surface of Irish society

Avoiding hatred is not about being nice to Travellers but about preserving democracy

‘Hysteria can turn moral decency into hatred, and hatred can make monsters of us all.’ File photograph: David Sleator

“The first thing that strikes anyone driving around the Tallaght area or the people who live in Tallaght is the barricades, the barrels and the watches which have sprung up at the entrances to estates. Five roads have either been completely blocked off, or blocked off in such a manner that you can only enter or leave if you are allowed to do so by the people who are manning the barricades. What is evident is there is a breakdown of the rule of law and that power and command have been taken over by self-appointed residents in the various estates.”

This is not some dystopian novel. It is Mary Robinson, speaking in the Seanad of which she was then still a member, on June 24th, 1984. She was describing the reality of daily life in the burgeoning suburb of Dublin: roadblocks, barricades, whole estates taken over by vigilantes. At this time, a part of the capital city seemed to be slipping out of the control of the State. The Garda had effectively given up trying up trying to assert any authority over what was happening. The atmosphere was tense, ominous and heavy with threat.

What on earth could have caused this? Hysteria about Travellers. At the beginning of that decade, a large number of Traveller families moved on to the unopened Tallaght bypass and the adjacent land that now contains The Square and Tallaght hospital. Families that were being displaced from other places around Ireland ended up here – at the height of the crisis, there were about 200 caravans and perhaps 150 families. This was not by any means an enormous encampment but, without even the most basic facilities, it was dirty, chaotic and unpleasant. As a standoff developed, it became the focus of violent hostility.

Counting begins in this year's presidential election at the Dublin city count centre on Saturday. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Mary Cummins reported for The Irish Times: "At one meeting, I saw people's faces distorted, ugly and mean, and heard hatred in their voices. One man from the Travellers' Rights group tried to address them. He pleaded for their children. 'Burn them,' shouted a voice in the crowd to laughter and clapping." Talking to the people manning the barricades and roadblocks, she was told that the council should "clear the knackers off". That word was repeated over and over – the only variant being the rhyming slang "cream crackers" or the older term "tinkers".


‘We’ll burn them’

One of the vigilantes told Cummins that the “knackers” were “spoiling for a fight” and warned of the consequences: “If it does start, we’ll all be Hitlers. We’ll burn them out and, if there’s kids there, we’ll burn them too. They may be a minority, but they’ll end up like the bleeding Jews.”

In this atmosphere, local leaders who tried to argue for humane and rational solutions themselves became objects of hatred. The parish priest, Fr Travers, was denounced as a “knacker lover” and one of the vigilantes told Cummins: “See that tree over there. If someone brings him up, I’ll hold the rope.” Less dramatically, there was a big drop in the amount of money being put into the church collection.

Hysteria can easily turn to hatred and hatred can make monsters of us all

The Fianna Fáil TD Chris Flood, who behaved with impeccable decency, later recalled for Vincent Browne that "at 2 o'clock in the morning, there were 200 people meeting in my own estate. The suggestion was that they should march on my house and stone it . . . There was one particular meeting at which one of the organisers proposed if your neighbour supports a Traveller, you were to black them."

This dragged on for a decade, until eventually the council did what it always should have done, which is to provide small serviced halting sites for the Travellers so they had somewhere to go and could move off the bypass. But in retrospect we need to ask: who were these people with their mean, distorted faces talking of burning children like Hitler burned the Jews and of hanging the parish priest for disloyalty?

Broken decency

They were us: ordinary, decent Irish people. They were under pressure from a bad economy and trying to make lives for their families in a raw and badly planned new part of Ireland. They found themselves in an ugly situation and as civility and decency broke down, they allowed the ugliness to inhabit them. And I would bet that, when this awful time was over, the vast majority went back to being decent and moral. Perhaps sometimes they look back and remember how fragile those qualities are, how easily hysteria can turn to hatred and hatred can make monsters of us all.

And that's why most people in public life have tried not to let this happen again. Politicians in Tallaght like Flood and Mervyn Taylor and Pat Rabbitte looked into this abyss and knew they had to try to lead people away from it. They took the abuse and held their nerve. Not primarily for the sake of the Travellers (though of course their needs mattered) but for the sake of mainstream Irish society. There is a capacity for fascism that lurks beneath the surface of every society. If opportunistic politicians dig down into it, it can emerge. So they shouldn't. This is not political correctness. It is the condition for the survival of democracy.