November 25, 2023 - 3:00pm

Dublin has stealthily become a tinderbox on issues of immigration. When news began to filter through on Thursday that a five-year-old girl (now in a stable but critical condition) had been stabbed, allegedly by a man originally from Algeria, the whole city braced. Many saw images of young men in the area pushing back against police and hoped that was as bad as the reaction would get.

Instead, the severity of the riots accelerated hourly, as pictures of burning buses and trams flooded social media alongside 28 Days Later-style footage of a lawless city centre. Riot police were deployed and some businesses were looted; public transport in the city was shut down, much of it still suspended the next morning. Garda Commissioner Drew Harris described the rioters as “a hooligan faction driven by far-Right ideology”.

There was some sense that this was coming. Earlier this month Jozef Puska was sentenced for the murder of Aishling Murphy, an event which rocked Ireland in much the same way that the murder of Sarah Everard did the UK. In court her bereaved boyfriend read a statement which explicitly noted that Puska had “come to this country, [to] be fully supported in terms of social housing, social welfare, and free medical care for over 10 years [but could] never hold down a legitimate job and never once contributed to society in any way, shape, or form”.

This commentary was passed over by much of the press but electrified social media. One of those who amplified it most viscerally was the mixed martial artist Conor McGregor, who continued to post animated tweets about crime and the failures of Irish immigration policy even as the riots took hold. In retrospect, the statement and the reaction to it were a tremor to the riots’ earthquake.

Now that the earthquake has struck, how will mainstream society react? Branding the rioters as scumbags and scroungers is a quick win for the Government — this will be a popular stance and reflects the feeling of the great majority of the country.

What political action can be taken to stop this from happening again is a deeper question, and not so easy to resolve. Ireland has adopted a cordon sanitaire approach to migration policy and cultural change, with previously common restrictionist perspectives pushed into the background. On its own terms, that policy has been a total success: critical assessment of these issues does not really exist in the mainstream. But the effect of that success is that mainstream figures cannot influence these currents when they need to.

The “safe” buckets into which the Government, press and activists have sought to divert reactionary sentiment on immigration — framing it as a debate about public services, warning about the spectre of an omnipotent far-Right — are already at maximum capacity. Ireland has elected no dedicated anti-immigration parties or politicians who can be unseated. There are no significant mainstream press outlets with an immigration-sceptic angle whose advertisers can be pressured. 

The only move left is increased Government interference in social media, public conversation and a revival of the delayed hate speech laws. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has already signalled intent on the latter. It will likely have the desired effect in the medium term but is fundamentally based on the same premise as the tactics that have failed thus far. That is to say, if we can stop people talking about certain ideas in public, the salience of those ideas will be neutralised.

In the meantime, Ireland is in a holding pattern, with journalists and commentators chanting their rote catchphrases at one end, and the spectre of McGregorite stormtroopers at the other. Everyone in the middle should expect more riots of this type, for a variety of reasons. The most troubling of these is that Ireland has designed a system to ensure the energy they represent has nowhere else to go.

Conor Fitzgerald is a writer from Dublin. His Substack is TheFitzstack.