How far right-sparked violence dominated the year in policing during 2023

The Dublin riots in November and the criminal trials of Jozef Puska and Gerry Hutch were among significant events in hectic year for Irish law and order

It was a sign of the dramatic events witnessed in policing and crime during 2023 that Garda Commissioner Drew Harris was forced to insist twice within a matter of weeks that he would not be resigning. Those two pushes to remove him arose from completely unrelated matters.

Having begun his initial five-year contract charged with reforming An Garda Síochána, simply staying in situ for long enough to see out his term – now extended by almost two years – has been the bigger challenge of late for Harris.

First he faced a very damaging no confidence vote by rank and file gardaí, insisting he would not be budged by that Garda Representative Association (GRA) ballot in September. Harris was clearly shaken – and damaged – by the 98.7 per cent majority that voted against him.

The GRA, which represents about 11,000 rank and file gardaí in a 14,000-strong force, called the ballot amid a deep-rooted dispute over rosters. Gardaí wanted to stay on 12-hour shifts introduced for the pandemic because those shifts were more lucrative and resulted in them having far more time off than normal working arrangements.

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However, GRA members were also annoyed about the number of gardaí being suspended from duty by Harris pending the investigation of allegations against them. There were also complaints about a lack of training and claims of an oppressive level of administration or record keeping now required in the Garda.

But mostly, the ballot was about rosters, with the GRA threatening a range of protest actions, including a strike in all but name, if Harris pressed ahead with his plan to end the pandemic rosters on November 6th.

However, the issue was resolved (sort of) when a large section of the Garda frontline members were permitted to remain on the 12-hour shifts and other personnel returned to pre-pandemic rosters. That concessionary arrangement is in place pending agreement on completely new rosters for the organisation.

But after the GRA ballot, Harris was forced to insist he would not resign, despite the overwhelming number of rank and file gardaí who voted no confidence in him.

The ballot was unprecedented in the history of the Garda. It was perhaps no coincidence that Harris, a former senior Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) officer, was the first to face such a vote and is also the first commissioner to be recruited into that post from outside the Garda.

Soon after the dust – and embarrassment – had settled on that episode, Harris was facing multiple calls for his resignation after Dublin city erupted into rioting on the night of November 23rd. And it was those riots that defined the year in policing in the Republic.

Many Garda officers do not accept the disturbances on the night were “far-right riots”, saying the event was more nuanced. They say the trouble was whipped up by a small far-right element before opportunists with no ideology seized the chance to go on a rampage, taking on gardaí and looting shops.

Whatever the precise complexion of the riotous mob, it was one of Dublin’s darkest days. Leader of the Opposition, Sinn Féin president Mary Lou McDonald, said she had “zero confidence” in Harris and called on him to go.

Her blunt assessment was significant because Sinn Féin have a very strong chance of being in office after the next general election. In that case, Harris would find himself as commissioner under the lead party in government that has “zero confidence” in him; the same party whose sister paramilitary organisation in 1989, the Provisional IRA, murdered his father, Royal Ulster Constabulary superintendent Alwyn Harris.

Harris was invited before the Oireachtas joint committee on justice to account for himself and the Garda during the riots. He put in a solid performance ensuring he survived, though he did not look truly at risk. However, the racist and xenophobic backdrop of the rioting remains a real concern.

The violence in Dublin on November 23rd followed the stabbing of children, aged five and six, and their carer, a woman in her 30s, outside Gaelscoil Choláiste Mhuire on Parnell Square East in the north inner city. When it emerged the suspect was originally from another country, a far-right crowd began to gather at the crime scene cordon.

Over a period of hours they hurled abuse at gardaí while highly motivated far-right social media users ramped up tensions online. The small group at the crime scene provoked a response from gardaí, resulting in clashes with Public Order Unit personnel. Once those clashes began, they spread across the north inner city.

Rioting and looting ensued, with a Luas tram, double-decker bus and Garda vehicles set on fire. Some gardaí were isolated and beaten by groups of rioters. A number of city centre shops were also looted.

At the height of the rioting, 450 Garda members were involved in policing the scene, including the biggest Public Order Unit deployed in the history of the State, against about 500 rioters.

Ironically, the running battles on the streets came in the middle of a special Garda operation to foster a sense of safety in central Dublin. Perceptions that city centre streets had deteriorated into public disorder took hold in the early stages of the pandemic.

A series of violent attacks during the summer left a number of victims seriously injured following muggings or random beatings. The Government responded by making available an additional €10 million for Garda overtime for the final quarter of the year in Dublin. It was clearly not enough to stop the worst rioting Dublin has witnessed in the modern era.

While the episode resulted in even deeper concerns about violence in the city centre, it also represented the Irish far right’s first success.

Despite media reports to the contrary, far-right events – usually anti-immigration protests – had become less frequent through the year. They fell off after a surge in that activity in late 2022 and early 2023. Crowds at those events remained small, reaching at most 200-300 and very often falling far short of that.

However, there was a new air of menace from the small, but aggressive, far-right mob at a protest outside the Dáil when it returned from summer recess in September. They were clearly intent on making more noise and aggressively challenging politicians, to the point of assault. Independent TD for Kerry Michael Healy-Rae was pushed and verbally abused. He later said his intern was assaulted and had her mobile phone stolen as they left the Dáil during the protest.

While gardaí responded by escorting TDs as they made their way in and out of Leinster House on foot, those present continued with their aggressive jostling and hateful abuse. They recorded their actions for distribution on social media. Almost identical tactics were used to provoke the Garda, sparking rioting, in Dublin in late November.

It remains to be seen whether the numbers in attendance at far-right gatherings will grow, and if sporadic attacks – often arson – on refugee accommodation centres become even more common after increasing this year. There have been 16 high-profile incidents since 2018, with nine of those occurring in 2023. The most recent attack was the suspected arson attack on the Ross Lake Hotel in Rosscahill, Co Galway, days before it was due to house 70 asylum seekers. Increased attacks come as the number of international protection applicants and Ukrainians seeking refuge in Ireland has soared since early 2022.

For his part, Harris has repeatedly said the Garda would not be provoked by the far right as to do so would only act as a recruitment beacon. Those tactics worked for several years in ensuring far-right events were poorly supported. But the events of 2023 have shown they have become redundant.

Harris has already secured two water cannon from his old employer, the PSNI, and said more gardaí will get taser stun guns and powerful incapacitant sprays. A more frequent deployment of the Garda’s Public Order Unit and potentially more clashes look likely.

The Dublin rioting dominated the policing agenda and even overshadowed the violence outside the Dublin school that preceded the unrest.

As the end of year approaches, the five-year-old girl stabbed in the chest remains in Temple Street Hospital. The school carer, a Dublin woman who used her body as a shield in a bid to protect the children, remains in the Mater hospital after suffering multiple stab wounds.

The suspect, a 50-year-old naturalised Irish citizen originally from Algeria, was charged with the attempted murder of three children and with causing serious harm to a care worker at Dublin’s Parnell Square.

EOY Mag Pics 2023

Beyond the far right and immigration-related violence, gun crime remained at unprecedented low levels in 2023.

However, since the end of November, there have been three gun attacks relating to organised crime which resulted in fatalities, culminating in a brazen assassination attempt in a busy Dublin restaurant on Christmas Eve.

Gardaí believe crime gangs have made a conscious decision to avoid feuding for fear of attracting the kind of policing attention that has wiped out the Kinahans’ operation in Ireland, the “Byrne organised crime group”.

The leader of that group, Dubliner Liam Byrne (43) was arrested in June in Mallorca, after jetting in from his bolt-hole in Dubai. He was extradited to Britain in December and faces a series of gun trafficking charges there.

At home, veteran criminal Gerard Hutch (60) was acquitted of the murder of David Byrne (33), the brother of Liam Byrne, in the gang attack at the Regency Hotel, Dublin, in 2016. That attack escalated the Kinahan-Hutch feud, with 18 lives lost to date. Hutch was cleared in April of being one of the gunmen on the day. The verdict came following a 53-day trial that included evidence from former Sinn Féin councillor Jonathan Dowdall, who turned State’s witness.

The court ruling made it clear Hutch was for a time in control of the guns used in the attack, causing many to question why he was not also charged with possessing firearms.

The fallout from the verdict and judgment from the Special Criminal Court was still being assessed when allegations emerged that an investigator working for the Garda Síochána Ombudsman Commission (Gsoc) had been present at a party for Hutch on his release. That Gsoc investigator resigned immediately and was later placed under investigation and arrested by gardaí, though no charges have been brought against him to date.

In one of the most high-profile criminal trials of the year, in November Jozef Puska (33) was found guilty of the murder of Ashling Murphy along the Grand Canal towpath at Cappincur, Co Offaly, on January 12th, 2022. The killing of the 23-year-old national schoolteacher, who was stabbed 11 times as she went for a jog one afternoon, shocked the nation.

Puska’s conviction and mandatory life sentence were hijacked by the far right to promote its unfounded claims that foreign men in Ireland represent a bigger danger than the rest of society.

Puska, a married father from Slovakia, was sentenced on November 17th. The sentence came just six days before the Parnell Square East stabbing and subsequent riots.

While the guns in the underworld remained largely silent during the year, the drugs trade boomed, as evidenced by the multiple multimillion euro seizures of cocaine, heroin and cannabis.

In November the MV Matthew cargo ship was boarded by the Army Ranger Wing, who fast-roped on to the deck from helicopters. On board, 2,253kg of cocaine worth €157 million was discovered, the largest cocaine seizure by weight in Irish history.

While most of the haul discovered off the coast of Cork was believed to be intended for the international market, gardaí said a familiar group played a role in financing the operation: the Kinahans.

The Irish cartel leaders enter another year still at liberty in Dubai, but with the net closing in after talks between Irish and Emirati law enforcement took on a new urgency during the year.

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