In early 2006, a group of northern unionist victims of the Troubles, “Love Ulster”, decided to march down O’Connell street in central Dublin to protest at what they thought was the Irish government’s collusion with the IRA.
They included a loyalist activist named Willie Frazer, who had lost several members of his family – UDR farmer types – to the IRA.
Their’s was the kind of low-rent political activism in which the symbolic was all important. In the same way as football hooligans like to “take” the opposition “end” or drink in an “enemy” pub, Frazer wanted to march with a loyalist band and banners down Irish republicanism’s holy of holies – the street where The Republic had been proclaimed in 1916.
The mystery to me was that Bertie Ahern’s government agreed to let the march go ahead. Consider for a moment the symbolism; a uniformed loyalist band assembling beside the Garden of Remembrance, that grey monument to, “Those who died for Irish Freedom” and proceeding to march down O’Connell Street, past the GPO, where the 1916 rebels had based themselves, and then right through the heart of Dublin.
These were post-Good Friday Agreement days, when reconciliation was the word on all the parties’ lips. Bertie appeared to think that allowing the march would be a broad- minded gesture of tolerance. Sinn Fein voiced their reservations about the idea but told their supporters not to protest.
But to a kind of gut republicanism, that is in large part to do with alienation from the southern Irish state as well as the northern one, and equally obsessed with symbolism as any Orangeman, this was an absolutely clear case. The “Orangemen”, who were clearly enemies, were being allowed to walk down “our” streets. They were being allowed to march because the Guards and the government were cowards and/or Free State bastards and traitors.
I also like symbolism, it simplifies the world in a very satisfying way. I had to see this confrontation. So on a cold and cloudy February morning, I found myself on O’Connell street, heading up to Parnell Square. While there weren’t hordes of people around, there was a sizable group of protestors gathered around the top of O’Connell Street.
At the foot of the Parnell monument was a small group of “dissident” republicans from Belfast – mini-bused in by the IRSP and Republican Sinn Fein – wearing beards, jeans and boots. They seemed experienced at this kind of game, trading insults with the Gardai and laughing among themselves. Around them was a swelling crowd of local youths from the north inner city, Celtic and Ireland scarves tied over their mouths and noses like Mexican bandits.
Walking up the gentle hill on Parnell Square, I drifted by more crowds, loosely assembled. Most of them seemed to be merely curious, well dressed middle class types who could have gone for a stroll on the pier or come here to see the novelty of an Orange march. I heard a woman with a northern accent remark in disgust, “they don’t know what they’re looking at”. In her world, no doubt, Orange marches meant riot police, RUC cordons, petrol bombs in the night, burning buses and well-scrubbed, swaggering hate-filled young men flinging coins and marking, herd-like, their supposed dominance.
At the corner of the Square, perched on the steps of the Georgian porches were knots of “republican” protesters. I use the quotation marks because they didn’t look like the political activists I’d passed earlier. In their tracksuits and Celtic shirts and spray-painted banner, “Remember Bloody Sunday”, what they looked like was the people who hung around the barn-like, three storey pub on O’Connell Street where Celtic fans drank. It occurred to me snobbishly that they hadn’t even the wit to use the more relevant case of the loyalist Dublin bombings of 1974, which just two streets away had killed 27 people.
Turning the corner around the Garden of Remembrance, there they were. The loyalists. It’s one of the phenomena of living in the early 21st century that you are much more likely to see something on TV before you see it in the flesh. On TV I’d seen the uniformed bands, red-coated like 19th century British soldiers, the Union Jacks and the huge drums; but this was the first time I’d actually seen them with my own eyes. It was a strange feeling.
Their appearance aroused a certain hostility – the young bandsmen in their quasi-military dress, like the counterparts at the bottom of the square, looked familiar with the scenario. And yet in truth, they were a small and vulnerable group. Bused into the heart of Dublin – an alien city for them no doubt – they were hemmed into a small street, surrounded by Gardai (who for all they knew may or may not have been friendly) and were being slowly surrounded by hostile groups of young men. You could see the bandsmen start to look at each other nervously.
In the crowd of onlookers, even among the well-heeled, you could sense a certain disapproval. “What they forget, I heard one young woman say, “is that they’re not the only victims”. A quick word about this; Willie Fraser had a habit of equating “victim” with “Protestant”. He was quoted as saying that loyalist paramilitaries should never have been sent to prison, which would mean that the Catholics they killed had had it coming. Including ,by inference, those who had died in Dublin in 1974. So it was reasonable to question what vision of “justice for victims” he was in Dublin to promote.
On the other hand, assembled there on the north side of Parnell Square were, without doubt, many genuine victims of republican violence. Many had pictures of dead relatives. One man with floppy grey hair was disabled. Many were women. As the events of the day developed they looked increasingly frightened and disorientated. Seeing these people sent a little spasm of shame through me for the hostility I’d been feeling. I was now standing close to them and heard the Garda in charge say, “we’ll get you moving soon”. But at the bottom of the Square, you could already hear fireworks exploding and answering cheers from the protesters.
Before the march could move, the Gardai would have to clear a path for the marchers down O’Connell Street. This didn’t turn out to be as easy as they had thought.
Things fall apart
Demonstrations in Dublin are rarely ferocious. On the odd occasion when the Gardai have to disperse protestors, they usually go about it in the manner of someone who was roused from a nap to do some irritating, unwanted chore. Irritable and cranky, they usually have to do no more than throw their weight around a little bit. On the odd occasion they lose their heads and throw a little too much weight around. In 2002, they beat up a left wing student May Day protest who were making a nuisance of themselves, creating a small scandal.
What the Gardai were not used to though, was meeting large groups of people willing to fight them back. And this is what they found at the bottom of Parnell Square. The first thing the Guards tried to shift the ever-swelling crowd of protesters was to drive a squad car at them at full speed. The mob didn’t budge. I suppose the intention was to intimidate them. The first move in such situations is usually crucial and round one had gone to the protesters.
At this point, missiles started to fly. O’Connell Street was one big building site at the time – in the middle of a re-building that would eventually widen and re-pave its walkways. In February 2006 the pavement running down the centre of the street was railed off and pile of paving slabs lay around. The paving slabs were soon being broken up into manageable chunks and flung towards the Guards. The railings were ripped down and made into makeshift barricades.
I slipped down North Great George’s Street and onto Cathal Brugha Street – behind the protestors who were quickly becoming rioters. At or around this time, the Gardai deployed the riot squad who had been waiting in their vans. They charged the rioters, who scattered and re-grouped further down O’Connell Street. I had just locked my bike to a signpost when the helmeted, baton-wielding police appeared at the top of Cathal Brugha Street. A flurry of track suited figures came running past me and suddenly I realised I was being baton-charged.
Being on the receiving end of such a charge is not necessarily that dangerous – I’d seen it often enough at football matches. Normally, the police don’t actually want to batter the targets, just to shift them and usually those charged will scatter. My problem was that I had just locked my bike right in front of the oncoming Guards. I fumbled over unlocking it as the Gardai advanced down the street – having visions of getting bashed over the back of the head as I tried to get the key in the lock. Without checking how close this was to actually happening, I slung my big lock over my shoulder and cycled away – circling around the side streets and back out Talbot Street, again emerging behind the rioters.
Crowds of young men and teenagers milled about looking for ammunition. Someone had set a scooter on fire. At the front, a few were throwing stones and jibes at the riot police, who were standing there and taking them. There was less evidence now of political activists – many of them seem to have called it a day at this stage – and much more of working class Dublin kids – eager to have a go at the police. Later reports said that the rioters were attacking people at random, but no one took any notice of me. One African man walked calmly through the crowd, observing the madness with a puzzled expression.
Every so often there would be a panic and dozens of kids would flee back down the street. The first few times I assumed that this meant that the Guards had charged again. After a while you learnt to ignore the little rushes backwards – like flocks of birds, set off by small movements in the crowd.
While this desultory stalemate went on O’Connell Street, I made my way back to Parnell Square in time to see the loyalists – the ostensible reason for the riot, being bused away – I later learned to perform a truncated march outside the Dail. A couple of men waved sarcastically at them. The bandsmen waved ironically back.
Clearing O’Connell Street
It was time for the Gardai to get on with the business of clearing O’Connell Street. I was watching from Henry Street as they charged the rioters, using their batons freely. Several of the braver rioters got bloody heads. I was standing with a group of shoppers, as the rioters streamed past, re-grouping again outside the GPO. One of them approached us, “come out and help us please”, he said, “look at what they’re after doing to me”, proffering a bloodied scalp. He seemed to think he was a kind of Soldier of the People, but the crowd looked back at him with a kind of amusement.
A line of helmeted and armoured riot police followed close on his heels and sealed off the street, batons raised. You couldn’t see their faces but you could tell they were nervous, scared. They didn’t know who the rioters were and couldn’t really get a grip on what seemed more and more like a random outbreak of anarchy. Before them on Henry Street was a docile crowd of Saturday shoppers and, like me, gawkers. The crowd there weren’t about to join in the rioting but they weren’t on the Guards’ side either. “Shame on you”, protecting these loyalist murderers”, one woman told the riot police, in a voice intended to be heard by everyone present.
Over the police helmets I could see rocks serenely sailing through the air from the mob at the GPO towards the main body of Guards, both out of our sight. Following teenage gangs down Princes Street, who were trying to re-join the main riot, I fell into conversation with a young man with a country accent. He told me he’d known there’d be trouble and had come into town to see it. I couldn’t criticise – basically I’d done the same thing. It was as if we were disapproving but also a little proud of the mayhem.
An eastern European woman with broken English asked us what was going on. It was hard to explain. I took a deep breath and said that British people wanted to walk down the street and that some Irish people didn’t want them to. My new acquaintance nodded. I silently cursed myself at the vulgar simplification.
From the O’Connell monument I watched the tail end of the riot. A line of youths kept up a spasmodic fusillade of stones at the line of Gardai. Every now and then the crowd was scattered by baton charges but re-grouped a few hundred metres further down the street. Behind this confrontation, gangs of teenaged boys roamed up and down the street smashing shop windows. One such group, running away from the rather half hearted garda charges, stopped to put in the windows of Ulster Bank. Another group got busy looting the shoe shop, Footlocker.
The sky was a grey-white and a cold wind blew down the street. The riot petered out on O’Connell bridge when the mob got word on their mobile phones that the loyalists had made a token protest at Leinster House. Several hundred rioters followed them over the Liffey to smash up that area. A big, heavily built, spectacled man told them to “re-group behind the barricades”, but there were no final clashes with the police, who were left alone on the stone-littered street. A very thin man, with all the evidence of a serious drug problem, leaning on the bridge drawled, “fuckin’ Orange bastards were never gon’ta walk down here”.
It turned out that the rioters burned a few cars on the southside, sacked a McDonalds and attacked the Progressive Democrats’ office – a representative mixture of the day’s semi-political mayhem.
A story of Celtic Tiger Dublin
It was difficult in hindsight to work out quite what had provoked the day’s frenzy. Certainly a lot of Dubliners were quite happy that the “Orange bastards” were not walking down O’Connell Street. But there was more to it than that. This was also Celtic Tiger Dublin taking a pounding at the hands of its poorest and most alienated citizens. It was not only the Guards that got pelted, so did the city and all signs of its wealth. For an afternoon, the city’s world was picked up and shaken around for a while.
Those who took part, tough inner-city kids, football hooligans, petty criminals, the odd dissident republican, they enjoyed it immensely. In a rich city, it was always business as usual, there often seemed nothing to be part of, nothing to believe in. In one way, allowing the Orangemen to defile the symbolic seat of Irish republicanism – what the state was supposed to stand for – could be seen as yet another stage in this alienation. By taking on a symbolic communal enemy on behalf of the tribe, perhaps the rioters briefly re-discovered a sense of purpose and power that their lives normally lacked. Although the onlookers were not exactly approving – they weren’t, in my experience completely hostile to their ends either.
I didn’t share the exuberance of the rioters. There had been too much stupid sectarianism and mindless vandalism. I had no time for the kind of people who belted out “the Fields of Athenry”, including “IRA” and “Sinn Fein” when drunk. I felt a little ashamed of having been along for the ride.
In public I described the rioters as “scum”. But I didn’t feel too much sympathy for the Guards either, rightly or wrongly. They had tried to bully the protestors and ended up being humiliated themselves. They pursued the rioters for over three years after the event to avenge their humiliation.
Twenty six people, mostly young men and teenagers, were convicted in January 2009 for their part in the disturbances and given sentences of up to five years. Two were described as “alcoholics”. One of them and a teenage boy were “homeless”. Three were not Irish – one Georgian, a Romanian and a Moldovan were convicted of looting shops on O’Connell Street. Two had travelled from Offaly, one from Galway and one from Donegal for the riot. All the rest came from inner city Dublin or its working class suburban estates. (Sunday Tribune, 11 January 2009).
It’s easy to make light of the day’s events, but in the end this is a sad story, of a city whose youth took the opportunity provided by nationalist confrontation to smash up the main street of their own city. Clearly they expected nothing better from it.