Juliana Sassi, a member of the Community Action Tenants Union (CATU), looks beyond simplistic explanations of the recent riots in Dublin to deeper causes, and explains how anti-racists and community campaigners have responded.
On 23 November hundreds of people, mobilised through anti-migrant narratives on social media, took over Dublin’s city centre, burning public transport and police cars and looting shops. They claimed to be protesting for the safety of their city and their kids, following a horrible incident in the afternoon, where a naturalised Irish citizen stabbed children in front of a school. How the rioters knew that the attacker was not born in Ireland has not been officially revealed. However, social media in Ireland was infested with racist propaganda, which was followed by a march to the capital to ‘hunt migrants’ in the evening.
Since then, two questions have been haunting social movements and political parties in Ireland. 1) How to make sense of what happened, and 2) How to respond to it. Understanding that the former informs the latter, I will summarise here the main points and look at whether they contribute to a socialist strategy which can overcome divisions among the working class. From a rational perspective, as a migrant mother from the Global South, it is hard to be optimistic. However, I want to look beyond a moralising perspective which condemns riots as an attack on society, while not reducing them to purely an expression of the far-right’s intentions to create scapegoats for capitalism’s inequalities.
The state response has been a law-and-order approach, with the Minister of Justice Helen McEntee repeatedly referring to the Dublin rioters as ‘scumbags’ and ‘thugs’. Fine Gael and Fianna Fail have taken the opportunity to demand more gardaí (Irish police), weapons, and surveillance technology such as facial recognition technology. However, this is controversial even for some government coalition members, as a tool that is invasive, often inaccurate and likely to reproduce racial bias.
Exactly who the ‘thugs’ are is something that progressive voices and the left are trying to (re) define, to make sense of the deeper problem we are facing. For many community organisers and community workers, those whom the minister and her party call thugs could be themselves, their friends and family who dress in a certain way or speak with a Dublin working-class accent. This stereotype is embedded in a process of the brutalisation of working-class communities over decades, which has led to their marginalisation. In this context, when services and opportunities are taken away from them no one cares to oppose it because ‘the thugs’ do not deserve better.
However, the ruling class division between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ also finds an echo among the working class, including migrant workers. Many anti-racists who have condemned the rioters have highlighted the fact that migrants are important to keep Ireland economically, working and paying taxes. The rioters, by contrast, were seen as ‘spongers’, people who live on social welfare and do not contribute to society, a marginalising stereotype which is both harmful and divisive.
On the other hand, some try to humanise the rioters by saying that they are not racist or far-right elements, just men and teenagers who were angry and frustrated due to state neglect, and just went out to vent their frustrations and get free stuff as a bonus. In one meeting, I heard that the rioters were not wrong but frustrated because they have no place in the community, and that men respond aggressively as a matter of biology. Unfortunately, this ends up simply justifying male violence, which does not help us address the crude reality that many working-class men have no place in our society.
Nevertheless, even if they are members of the working class, the rioters do not defend working-class interests. There was a clear fascist element present in the riots, which also goes beyond the riot itself. There have been numerous attacks on migrants, asylum seekers and refugees in Ireland lately, and protests led by the far-right have surged since the pandemic with the typical far-right anti-scientific, homophobic, transphobic and racist discourses.
Racism, fascism and poverty – a toxic mix
Fascism has also been identified by commentators in Ireland as the main factor leading to the riots, because there has long been a reactionary defence of an ‘Irish identity’ which is mobilised against those perceived to threaten it. However, I do not agree with those who claim that the problem is simply fascism, and that the riots had nothing to do with poverty or migration. If we just state that fascism has long existed in Irish society, we miss its specificity today. I do agree, however, that poverty in itself does not automatically lead to the rise of the far right.
This is firstly because the main far-right agitators are from the upper class. American and British far-right activists such as Tommy Robinson have also been fuelling anti-immigrant sentiments in Ireland.
Secondly because poverty is a social phenomenon, a result of the class struggle. This is both an economic and political factor, because the appropriation and distribution of resources is contested as social resources are constantly privatised. This understanding is crucial to any class analysis. The rise of the far-right worldwide follows the global financial crisis, from which the Western working class did not recover.
This poverty is material but also subjective in the sense that access to food or clothing matters as much as life expectations in contemporary society. What can you do and achieve as a person in society? What is your role? So instead of justifying white male anger as biological, we must find the roots of the matter.
Racial divisions among the working class are a feature of capitalism that emerges from the colonial division and exploitation of the world, creating the concept of ‘race’. The ruling class in late capitalism still explores such division. One day before the riot, the popular martial arts fighter Conor McGregor wrote on X, formerly Twitter, ‘Ireland, we are at war’, in response to a report that non-nationals could vote in local elections, and the post was liked by the owner of X himself, the far-right celebrity billionaire Elon Musk.
As a CATU member and housing organiser in Ireland since 2017, I have long been dealing with racist statements during door knockings, stalls and meetings. From this experience, I am aware the majority of people who reproduce racist narratives are not what we would call far-right or convicted racists. Hilary Pilkington’s Loud and proud, on the English Defence League, is useful here. Her research found them mostly working-class people who did not perceive themselves as racist, but rather ‘warriors of the nation’ fighting ‘cultural Islamic invasion’.
Many of them could be considered ‘nice’ people who seemed concerned by how they were losing the little they had. Pilkington’s findings are illuminating in revealing the problem with nationalist discourses, as well as the need to overcome imagined communities to bring people together under common class interest by targeting who is gaining from the misery of migrants, ethnic minorities, people of colour and white working-class people.
Moreover, if we understand that racism is structural to capitalism, we cannot deny that Irish society and its institutions are racist. This does not mean that we should not work together on an anti-racist front to overcome racism along with capitalism – we must.
How we combat racism
However, we should fight racism by showing capital’s contradictions, which result in us making sense of the world through a racialised lens. In our work in CATU, we aim to combat racism through talking to people and actively listening to their concerns, and then asking why they think this or that. That way we aim to build a common understanding of the housing crisis – or the capitalist crisis more broadly – and get people together to build alternatives.
So while the far right offers the opportunity to shout at vulnerable (mostly traumatised) asylum seekers living in hotels or Direct Provision centres, or burning public transport, we offer the opportunity to get together to target the government and its pro-market policies; to mobilise, organise, construct and emancipate ourselves.
Other groups such as the Hope and Courage Collective have focused on producing research and material to inform civil society about the far-right and to engage with decision-makers. The Irish Congress of Trade Union called a demonstration after the riots in solidarity with all those impacted by the event. Other groups and parties have focused on mobilising people in anti-racist actions or planning to physically confront the far right.
There has also been a discussion about the efficacy of counter-demonstrations, with some activists asking whether the best moment to engage with people is when adrenaline and the ‘herd spirit’ are at their height. Others argue that we cannot engage with far-right extremists or fascists, but should ‘smash’ them.
Another initiative is the recently formed Dublin Communities Against Racism, aiming to work at the local level and let the communities make the decisions. Unfortunately, however, community ’consultations’ can be an issue when anti-migrant sentiments are in the rise and the community must decide in a public meeting if asylum seekers should be accommodated in the area. This is not a minor issue as we have seen many oppositions to house asylum seekers, including burning down their accommodations. So it remains important to organise among and educate our communities in an anti-racist/anti-capitalist perspective.
CATU has also been calling for a community approach through its door-knocking to engage with people in the areas where we live. This is CATU’s model of organising, so it is nothing new to its members. However, the need to address racism at the doors and how to do so is still up to each local branch member to decide – there is no structure in place to address this issue as a union. There is also not an all-island approach on how to counter the rise of the far right in our areas, as this is up to each branch to decide on. This means that anti-racist organising can vary considerably from one area to another, or even be neglected, as not all members see the far-right as a threat.
However, CATU’s work to organise around housing is crucial to defeat the far right, not only in Dublin but across the 32 counties, because housing is a central concern of people in Ireland. Housing unaffordability and deprivation are catalysers for unity, but we also need community-led political education to turn things to our side, rather than leaving a vacuum to be occupied by the far-right.
The next steps
What is to be done then? As a matter of urgency, we should set up a coalition with all left-wing parties and independent politicians, trade unions, community groups and progressive academics to stop the far right from growing – by sharing resources and building solidarity in practice. The coalition must be inclusive of a variety of organisations including migrant led groups fighting against racism and for asylum seekers rights such as MASI – The movement of asylum seekers and LGBTQI groups, also a target of the far right. We should not leave anyone behind.
We need to produce knowledge, political analysis, and research such as mapping the far right in our communities; pressure for more public investment in the volunteer and community sector; but also be on the streets systematically, in our neighbourhoods, engaging in conversations with people, and building direct action against the culprits of the crisis. Many of these things are already being done but we need a network among progressists and left-wing groups to share our resources and exchange solidarity more coherently and effectively.
We also need a theory and a practice which are anti-racist and anti-capitalist, moving beyond the non-reflective, pragmatic tactics and short-term responses which are all too common. Thus, while we cannot overlook how frustration and anger motivated the riots, we also need to understand that the problem we face is more complex. Racism is being instrumentalised by the far right to mobilise people.
Racism is not a minor matter in Ireland, as many claim through narrow comparisons with other contexts: I would argue that every person of colour in Ireland has encountered some form of racial discrimination here. It’s also the case that since the 2004 citizenship referendum Ireland has become a racial state, where blood not birth determines citizenship rights. Thus, considering race within a class analysis is crucial not only to attract migrants to the anti-capitalist camp by making them feel they belong, but also to combat negative stereotypes that racism is exclusive to working-class people.