Fergus Finlay: We must meet the needs of the disadvantaged to stop future riots

Forget all the talk about resignations, we must look into the reasons people feel anger
Fergus Finlay: We must meet the needs of the disadvantaged to stop future riots

A bus on fire on O'Connell Street in Dublin city centre last Thursday. Picture: Brian Lawless/PA 

Dear Government,

 I’m writing to you all in the hope that you’ll all take a moment to listen. Because there are four things you really need to hear. And as an ordinary citizen of this country of ours, albeit one with a bit of experience in these matters, I think you need to hear them loud and clear.

First off, all this resigning crack. Forget it, stop taking it seriously, stop huffing and puffing about it. It’s like an essential part of the Irish psyche by now. The minute anything goes wrong, the first reaction is “heads must roll”. It often doesn’t matter whose head rolls, or what head replaces it. We’d rather punish someone than fix the problem.

I’m going to take a lead from Sinn Féin instead. Not today’s Sinn Féin, of course. I’m old enough to remember the standard SF response whenever they or the IRA was criticised — usually after some atrocity. “I will not engage in the politics of denunciation,” Gerry Adams used to say (again and again). “Because they achieve nothing."

 That refrain served them well for years. You can be pretty certain that if they were in government today, the mantra would have been dusted down for regular use again.

So, please regard all this resignation stuff as just an unnecessary distraction. But having said that, there are lessons to be learned, and if you don’t learn them you will be punished — and deserve to be.

Secondly, you won’t learn them without really understanding what actually happened on Thursday night.

 I’ve read a lot that the gardaí were very slow to react to a riot that everyone else saw coming. But is that right? What I saw unfolding was all of the emergency services, including the gardaí, responding to a terrible incident in Parnell Square. They couldn’t have known immediately how bad that incident was, how many assailants there were, or what the nature of it was.

Gardaí in Dublin city centre. Picture: PA 
Gardaí in Dublin city centre. Picture: PA 

But after they dealt with that — and they seem to have responded to it magnificently — they had to deal with an increasingly charged crowd and eventually a whole scale riot.

I was in the city centre at the time, not near the scene, but I was keeping a close eye on X because (like so many others) I was shocked and horrified at what had happened to the children outside the school, and wanted to find out if they were ok. In real-time, an incredible number of vile messages of hate began to appear on X, all aimed at “foreigners” and asylum seekers.

And then other messages began appearing, including one from an organisation that describes itself as challenging the consensus and rejects “biased filters”, which “confirmed” that the attacker was Algerian. I think if you were still following X after that you’d really begin to wonder what poison has seeped into our collective bloodstream.

Were the gardaí late to arrive? Were they in sufficient numbers? Were they effective? Those questions need to be asked and answered fairly and honestly.

For what it’s worth though, I’ll tell you what made me proud. Individual gardaí in uniform were harassed and threatened. They didn’t flinch. Collectively, and quickly, they confronted gangs, and inch by inch they forced them back. There were no drawn batons, no charges, just a high degree of controlled pressure. If they, or anyone else, had lost control of the streets for an hour or so, they got it back in the most admirable and professional fashion I think I’ve ever seen.

So the third thing I believe the government needs to recognise is that Drew Harris runs a really good police service. He needs to listen to it much more than he seems to — and his political masters should tell him that. I don’t know him at all, but he seems to me far too committed to “doing things his way”. He needs to sit down with the representatives of the gardaí in the coming weeks, with an open agenda and an open mind, and start putting some of their grievances to right.

But there’s a fourth thing you have to come to terms with. Right now. It’s immigration. There’s a truth that has to be told.

Protestors clashing with gardaí. Picture: PA
Protestors clashing with gardaí. Picture: PA

The entire right-wing commentariat is calling for an “open and honest” debate about immigration. One of them has called it the defining political issue of our age. Another has said that any honest debate about the Dublin riots has to include immigration policy.

You could test this. Round up all these foreigners, every last one of them. Round up everyone with brown skin, everyone who wears different clothes, everyone who pays homage in a different church, everyone with a strange accent. Round them all up. And send them home. Don’t tolerate any guff about persecution or Russian invasions. Just send them home. Take our country back from all these foreigners. Ireland is full, right?

Then watch the businesses start to shut down. Watch the health and social care systems collapse. Watch the queues for essential life-saving operations get longer and longer. Watch the building industry grind to a halt. Watch every single public service start to struggle much more than they are now. Watch our economy start to tank and our society become lost and bewildered.

Or we could all begin to confront it. Immigrants are not the problem. Of course, some bad people have come here, but thousands of people from all sorts of backgrounds have transformed Ireland for the better and we need to recognise that. Anyone with first-hand experience in healthcare, for instance, knows how brilliant they are and how much they’re needed.

But they have become “the other” that we are told to target and hate. And that has happened in part because in all sorts of ways public policy is failing to meet the needs, especially of disadvantaged communities and families.

The scene in Dublin last Thursday. Picture:  PA
The scene in Dublin last Thursday. Picture:  PA

I know communities too well where good people feel angry and bitter over the failure of housing policy, over the inaccessibility of health services, over the lack of income support when their backs are to the wall. Immigration isn’t the cause of those things. An honest and open debate about the Dublin riots will — ultimately — have to address the breakdown of community and the alienation of people who are citizens from their own state. And it will have to rebuild public services that are under immense pressure.

They’re my four things you should know. Forget the resignation nonsense. Figure out — as independently as possible — what really happened on Thursday night. Rebuild trust between the gardaí and their leadership. But above all, start concentrating on the communities that are in trouble.

I’d need more space to give you a detailed plan. But trust me, it’s about investing in communities that have been neglected for too long. It’s about cutting through red tape and bureaucracy. It’s about respecting the struggles that too many families have. It’s about closing the gap — and it’s a huge gap — between you and them. Try to get that done and you might just stop future riots.

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