Dublin riots, 23 November. Rolling News

Youth worker 'I could easily have been one of those rioting'

Glen Kearney says he is proof that intervention really works when helping young people make the right choices.

LAST UPDATE | Dec 3rd 2023, 1:05 PM

LAST THURSDAY WEEK, I joined the many spectators who stood to witness the events which were unfolding just metres away from us on O’Connell Street and Parnell Street in Dublin. Like many other people from the north inner city community, I was shocked, sad and angry at the attacks which had occurred earlier that day.

I attended the scene as I felt there was a leadership vacuum in our community as it processed the horrors of the day. More than that, I felt there too was a lack of acceptance of what was brewing in the area. I could tell from what I had been seeing and hearing that something was in the air. I hoped to encourage people to channel their anger elsewhere, but that point had long since passed.

There was nothing I could do, no one was listening to reason or common sense by then. We watched in frustration and disgust as the violence unfolded. Such a dark day for our city — seeing a street that we believed had long since been neglected burn was almost tragically poetic. 

Much of the reaction to the events of that day has advocated for punitive sanctions to prevent a reoccurrence. As someone who has been on the other side of these protests, let me tell you why this approach in a vacuum won’t work and why we need to simultaneously tackle marginalisation and inequality.

No simple response

In 2011, I was 16. At that age, I had already been a victim of police brutality on three separate occasions, including once when I was thrown to the ground and kicked repeatedly in the face for the horrific crime of underage drinking. I had dropped out of school before my Junior Cert.

My friends and I were seen as troublemakers in the community. We were regularly moved from one place to another and stopped and searched multiple times a day by Gardaí.

That year, when an opportunity came up to attend a protest against the British Queen’s visit to Dublin, I went along. Before I got to do any protesting, however, I ran home after having a random panic attack. This is something I laugh about now, but it probably saved me from getting into trouble.

It is, however, important to touch on why the protests appealed to me in the first place. At that age, I had little political awareness. I was of course aware of the complex historical Anglo-Irish relations.

But I wasn’t angry at the Queen, I wasn’t indignant over Northern Ireland or Bloody Sunday. I was angry at my own Irish State.

The protest offered a place for us to be welcomed and included. And if I got to throw a projectile at a representative of one of the State’s institutions, before ducking back into a crowd most likely never to be caught, then why not? And if the streets were damaged or infrastructure was destroyed? So what, they weren’t our streets. We were led to believe we didn’t belong there. If it wasn’t our community, then by extension it wasn’t our infrastructure.

The power of intervention

One of the constants in my life as an adolescent was my local youth club. I could contact my youth workers whenever I had an issue and could escape for a while, but most importantly I could be heard and included. Youth Services are more than just activity providers. They are unique places where young people can come, if and when they choose to, on their terms. This voluntary participation is crucial because it rarely exists anywhere else for a young person. It was through this youth club and the positive, trusting relationships with the youth workers that I developed the courage to return to education.

I eventually completed my undergraduate degree in the Department of Applied Social Studies in Maynooth University, where I continue to study my Masters Degree.

I am now lucky to work in my community with young people in a role which was once a positive influence in my life. Most importantly though, I feel welcome in my community, I value and participate in it and don’t want to see it damaged.

When we call for increased funding for youth services to tackle the issues which we witnessed this week, we are not advocating for a relinquishing of the responsibility from the individuals who engage in such acts. We, of course, need well-resourced Gardaí to protect our communities in the here and now.

We can also acknowledge the unacceptable acts of an individual engaged in antisocial behaviour, while simultaneously understanding the underlying root causes which influenced them.

It is young people and their community who will benefit from advocacy for the support to plant the seeds of change. If adequately funded, youth projects can reach more young people. They can offer them a place that is theirs and introduce them to members of other communities, whom they wouldn’t otherwise ever meet. This happens in inclusive environments where judgment-free dialogue can take place and assumptions and values are explored and teased out.

Youth work can create spaces for restorative processes, where young people can be empowered to engage with entities such as the Gardaí in something other than a negative context. Where they can both detail their mutual experiences and understand each other. We cannot forget just how decimated this sector was in recent years, due to austerity. Funding matters. This has consequences. If we invest in this, I am positive we will see a reduction in situations such as the night of 23 November.

Stoking the tensions

We as a society not only have to truly deal with the disenfranchisement of young people from all backgrounds but also with other darker, pervasive forces seeking to influence them.

The Far right is a serious threat in Ireland, and anyone who claimed to be surprised by what happened on that recent night in Dublin has not been paying attention.

The stoking of anger online, protests at accommodation centres and libraries and the harassment of minorities are just a few symptoms of a toxic and dangerous ideology spreading across the country. Couple that with a shocking incident, the spread of misinformation and dozens of disaffected youth, and you have what we witnessed last Thursday week.

However, in the public discourse since that night, we need to be mindful about our use of language. It’s important to be clear on whom we define as far right. It is easy to label everyone in a crowd as far-right, as ‘thugs’, ‘scumbags’ or to say they are just bad people who wanted to riot. However, the stark reality is that anti-social behaviour is more common in communities which share common characteristics in terms of the socioeconomic environment, where marginalisation is more prevalent.

In my experience, the far right figures rarely stand at the front at these protests. They incite, organise, whip up hysteria and slither away while the ones they’ve incited deal with the repercussions and face the consequences.

The reasons people attend these gatherings are multifaceted and complex. To reiterate, there is never an excuse for the level of violent disorder we witnessed in Dublin that night. I am not attempting to generalise or excuse the motivation of anyone. It is just an insight from someone with lived experience of these issues.

If we are to successfully seek solutions to any of the issues we face as a society, we need to facilitate meaningful participation of people with lived experience in the entirety of our social policy processes.

Glen Kearney is a Youth Diversion Worker with a charity in Dublin.