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Aoife Barry I didn’t recognise the Dublin I witnessed yesterday - it was terrifying

The journalist and author was witness to much of the violence and disorder in Dublin last night.

I DIDN’T RECOGNISE the Dublin I witnessed yesterday. Around the country, people will wake up this morning already reeling over the horrific attack on schoolchildren and an adult on Parnell Square East; already wondering how we can attempt to comprehend the incomprehensible.

Those of us in Dublin will also be faced with the aftermath of the subsequent protest, rioting, fires and looting that broke out as the capital slipped into darkness. The morning sun will reveal the shattered windows and smashed bottles. We’ll sniff the air for the lingering scent of smoke; stare at the carcasses of the destroyed bus and Luas tram.

There are many dark things to grapple with today. People will have heard the shouts yesterday about ‘getting them out’ and ‘closing borders’ and Ireland being ‘full’. Some will ask themselves: am I not welcome in Ireland anymore? How at risk am I now? How bad could things get if there’s a ‘next time’?

Shouts and sirens

Just after 6.30 pm last night, I was in the city centre, walking to Temple Bar. Rounding the corner of North Great George’s St onto Parnell St, a street I’ve walked hundreds of times since I moved to the city over a decade ago, I heard fireworks, shouts, and sirens.

Parnell St itself was a haze of smoke, much of it billowing out from what I later learned was a garda car on fire.

Fireworks popped nearby – on the news later that night, I discovered they had been thrown at gardaí. Some people watched on, phones in their hands, filming the flames. Others were rushing away from the scene. It was surreal and horrible, and a confluence of events, online and offline, that came together in a way that Ireland has never seen, nor expected to see, in the 21st century.

Away from the scene, things were eerily normal, as if what was happening was a little bubble of violence. Yet ten minutes after I arrived in Temple Bar, I saw on Twitter a video of a bus on flames on O’Connell St. Next video: a Luas on fire. The building I was in was evacuated an hour later, as we were told the rioters were coming nearer to us. Temple Bar became a soup of confused tourists and locals who were turfed out into a city that was on edge, and as my friend drove us away I turned back to see a group of rioters clumped together on Aston Quay.

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More updates on our phones: Arnotts had been looted. Foot Locker too. Footage of a hostel having its windows smashed. People leaving sports shops through broken doors, arms full of products. People watching flames lick the inside of a Luas that was supposed to be bringing commuters home or to a night out. Garda cars being kicked at and rocked.

Complexity

Dublin isn’t a perfect city. It is a city where, depending on your address, you could be more at risk of poverty or social exclusion. It is a place where certain areas have been riven by drug use and neglect. To understand why some people riot and why some people have no trust in the gardaí and government, we have to understand these factors.

It’s difficult to think of this complexity when you witness what happened last night. But it can’t be left out of the conversation.

What makes it even more complex is that the roots of the protesting were undoubtedly in far-right ideals, even if by the end not every participant held them. Questions about the nationality of the alleged perpetrator of yesterday’s knife attack emerged online almost immediately. Presumptions were made about the motives for the attack and the ethnicity of a perpetrator, and that was swiftly linked to far-right beliefs about the ‘dangers’ of immigration.

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Warnings have been flashing for years about the role of social media in the spread of the far-right. In the past year alone, we’ve seen protests outside refugee accommodation livestreamed online and shared by far-right agitators in an attempt to gather more supporters.

Twitter yesterday was a hotbed of racist speculation about the attack on Parnell Square East, which isn’t a surprise given the platform’s more lax approach to moderation since Elon Musk took over.

Meanwhile, people shared screengrabs of a Telegram group where one member urged people to gather and riot, and encouraged the killing of immigrants to prove a point. The protest did not just emerge out of nothing. It was encouraged and fomented online, and it sucked in others as the hours passed on the Dublin streets.

We’ve watched rioting of this scale take place in other countries over the years, but perhaps assumed Ireland was immune to similar behaviour. Yet for anyone watching what’s been happening online over the last few years – especially since Covid showed the power of misinformation and online radicalisation – yesterday feels, if not predictable, then unsurprising. The canary is tired of singing.

Questions and solutions

Questions keep emerging in my mind as I go back over what I saw yesterday: where do you even begin trying to understand why some people call for immigrants to be killed in order to prove that Ireland should not allow more people ‘in’? Where do you find the logic in setting fire to public transport as part of a quest to keep Ireland ‘safe’? How can you understand people attacking emergency services and trapping workers in shops?

More questions: What happens next? What does An Garda Síochána – already under pressure from within its own ranks – make of its own policing response yesterday?

These questions and more will be hashed out by the nation at length over the coming weeks. The answers don’t just lie in one corner: they are spread out amongst the tech companies who run online spaces, the government, and the gardaí for starters.

But between the rioting and the grasping for a solution lies a gap which is filled with emotions. People will be feeling angry, despondent, hurt, fearful, and exhausted this morning. To cope, they will tell each other that it’s only a minority of people who are willing to take part in the violence that was wreaked on Dublin last night.

But the impact of that minority’s actions feels as huge and heavy as the universe. We’ll have to remind ourselves of what is needed to bring people back together: community, solidarity, respect, tolerance. We’ll find solace in thanking the Brazilian man and Irish woman who helped stop the Parnell Square attacker.

It’s difficult, but necessary, to do this when – like me – you are furious and aghast over what happened yesterday, and desperately worried about a rise in racism and violence. But I also know that we can’t let what happened yesterday divide us even further. Things can’t be allowed to deteriorate – just as there can’t be denial over the far-right’s impact on Ireland and how social media plays a role in its spread.

I didn’t recognise the Dublin I witnessed yesterday. But it was Dublin. And that’s the most terrifying part of it all.

Aoife Barry is a journalist and author.