Many observers have expressed surprise at the recent outbreak of rioting in Amsterdam and other Dutch cities in the wake of similar, ongoing outbursts across Europe. Perhaps they shouldn’t be: after all, pandemics and rioting have gone hand in hand all through European history from the Black Death in London in 1666 to the Cholera Riots in Russia in 1830. The Netherlands, however, has always seemed such a model of civic order, ruled by consensus and dialogue. But to anyone who has lived there, it’s nothing new.
When I went to live in Amsterdam in the early 1980s, I was shocked by the level of violence on the streets during the regularly occurring riots, where well-organised squatters battled tens of thousands of soldiers and riot police. Interestingly, in the Irish context, the civic unrest was provoked by a housing crisis, as people were enraged by the widespread practice of allowing accommodation to remain empty.
This time round, the Dutch riots were sparked by the government’s attempt to impose a night-time curfew, the first in Holland since the Nazi occupation, a historical fact which was certainly a trigger for some of the people involved.
Conformity and consensus
When I tuned in to Dutch TV, I saw articulate, middle-class, young people on the streets after curfew, arguing politely and emphatically that the government had no right to restrict their individual freedom – even to protect the lives of the elderly. They were not a lunatic fringe. After living there for 20 years, I am certainly aware the Dutch have an extreme attachment to individual liberty and choice, stemming from the country’s origins in militant Protestant, non-conformist revolt and its sturdy self-reliance. Perhaps the high levels of conformity and consensus found there are a necessary counterweight to this. But what always strikes me there and in other countries such as France is, in contrast with Ireland, the lack of deference to the government. When Emmanuel Macron came to power some years ago with a large majority, I pointed out in these pages that in France, the opposition would not be in the legislative chambers but on the streets. As it happened, the gilets jaunes would soon clip his reformist wings. But if you have to keep a nation of liberty-inclined individuals under control, you will need a paramilitary police force capable of extreme state violence in order to preserve order, as epitomised by the CRS in France, and the ME in the Netherlands.
The Dutch have an attachment to liberty and choice, stemming from origins in militant Protestant, non-conformist revolt and its sturdy self-reliance
To me, the interesting question is not why the Dutch or the French are rioting, it’s why the Irish are not rioting. We quite rightly pride ourselves on the way that communal solidarity and co-operation has helped Ireland weather the Covid storm. It has been jokingly said that the Irish tend not to riot as the policeman facing them might well be their mother’s neighbour’s nephew, and there is some truth to this. Two incidents I witnessed last year illustrate Ireland’s difference. During the summer, the canal near my home was the site of large groups of young people enjoying the sun, the air and a few drinks, testing the limitations of the lockdown. A burly, middle-aged garda in shirtsleeves approached one group of sheepish hipsters and said: “Lads, would you not go home and make your paninis?”
A few months later, I found myself on a work trip in Paris when Macron unexpectedly imposed the 9pm curfew. As we drove home on the first night through a chic Paris neighbourhood, a little after 9pm, I witnessed an elderly French lady in a fur coat walking her Pekinese down the boulevard, standing in the middle of a circle of six heavily armed soldiers in combat gear, with whom she was arguing vehemently as they berated her for breaking the curfew. It was quite the contrast.
This inability to see the State as our occasional enemy and the deference shown to government have a very dark side. During Ireland’s not-so-distant economic collapse and bailout, soon to be a decade ago, one of the most striking aspects was the lack of civic unrest. Here was a people who had been completely betrayed, left with a disgraced government, massive debt, an underfunded health service and a housing crisis, and, unlike those the similarly affected Greece and Spain, no one took to the streets. Why?
During Ireland's economic collapse and bailout, one of the most striking aspects was the lack of civic unrest
The problem is that communal solidarity can easily become communal control. We have witnessed this recently in the terrible history of the mother and child homes, where deference, an unwillingness to question the rule of the church and State, led to horrific consequences.
I am not in any way advocating mass resistance to government measures at the moment – in this extreme case, our seemingly inbuilt deference to authority has had a positive result. But somehow I can’t help thinking that we don’t need a paramilitary police force on the streets of Dublin, because we already have them in our heads. This is government not by diktat through a loudspeaker, but by the whisper over the garden hedge. When this is all over, we might want to re-examine our culture of obedience and deference, and question its origins in our past.
Michael O’Loughlin is a writer and poet