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Will the Dublin riots and their fallout change Irish politics into 2024?

Pragmatists in SF have accepted privately that left-led government is unlikely and their most viable path to power is with Fianna Fáil

Irish politics swerved late in 2023 with the riot on the streets of Dublin.

After a group of far-right protesters attacked gardaí who were guarding the scene of a stabbing attack on schoolchildren, violence and disorder spread rapidly as young men with mayhem on their minds flocked into the city centre. It was several hours before the gardaí regained control of the city, and the following morning revealed burned-out cars, buses and trams and looted shops. Bewildered Dubliners surveyed the scene and wondered: how in the name of God did that happen?

The political fallout centred initially on the halting and unsure response of both the Minister for Justice Helen McEntee and the Garda Commissioner Drew Harris. They flooded the centre of Dublin with gardaí, terrified of a repeat performance, while promising extra resources, more gardaí, better equipment and plenty of encouragement to use it.

Sinn Féin did the obvious thing and immediately declared that it had “zero confidence” in the Minister and the commissioner. But its subsequent Dáil motion suggested that the party had misjudged the political mood – which was not all that impressed with McEntee, but rather disinclined to reward the rioters with the head of the Minister for Justice – and after Sinn Féin got kicked around the Dáil for the evening, to the great delight of Fine Gael, the Government actually grew its majority with the support of Independents.

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Will the Dublin riots and their fallout change Irish politics into 2024? There has certainly been a stutter for Sinn Féin in recent weeks, confirming one of the lessons from last year’s Hutch trial: that the whole area of law and order is not comfortable territory for the party. The alacrity with which the party sought to refocus political attention to the housing issue in the last week of the Dáil term – tabling a Bill to end evictions and hammering the Government at every opportunity in the House – suggests Sinn Féin understands this well. As do, presumably, their opponents.

In general, the riots have catapulted law and order and justice issues to the top of the political agenda. They have also drawn fresh focus on to immigration and asylum matters. Throughout the year there have been sporadic protests outside centres where asylum seekers have been accommodated or where there are plans to do so. Some of these are undoubtedly far right in character, based on antipathy for people of a different nationality, race or skin colour; others are expressions of local concern grounded more in a fear of the impact on small communities of a large number of foreign men suddenly arriving with nothing to do except wait for their asylum claims to be processed.

Either way, the year brought two things on to the agenda that were not really there 12 months ago – the threat from the far right, and the issue of immigration and asylum. The immediacy and combustibility of this was brought home in the week before Christmas when a hotel in Co Galway due to house asylum seekers was torched. There are reports that anti-immigration candidates will run in the local elections next summer. How the politics of all that plays out next year is unpredictable, but fascinating.

Ryan Tubridy

Before that it had been a year when the biggest domestic story fused politics, business, entertainment and celebrity. When Ryan Tubridy announced in March that he would retire as host of The Late Late Show, the nation (it seemed) united in telling him what a great fella he was, with Michael D Higgins – no mean judge of where politics meets celebrity – presiding over the festival of bonhomie on his final Late Late.

Poor Tubs. Within a couple of months he was being hauled before an Oireachtas committee to explain a series of secret payments made to him by RTÉ, and being blamed for the inexorable slide in RTÉ licence fee income which continues to this day and will require – it seems – a reimagining of RTÉ’s funding model.

The reality in Northern Ireland is changing. It changed last year when Michelle O’Neill became leader of the largest party at Stormont

There was no partisan political angle to the travails of RTÉ; the Government proclaimed itself every bit as shocked, et cetera, as the Opposition. But it quickly became apparent to the more clear-sighted members of Government that this would turn into a massive financial crisis for RTÉ, and therefore end up on the Government’s plate.

That is where it remains. In the new year, the Government will have to decide how it wants to fund RTÉ into the future; there is understandably little enthusiasm for a new broadcasting charge, but the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure remain fiercely opposed to direct exchequer funding. If you’re a Government preparing to try to be re-elected, none of the options is very attractive. If you’re in RTÉ, the future looks uncertain at best, and most likely lean.

Northern Ireland

Efforts were also under way in the week before Christmas to pull Northern Ireland’s political institutions out of their DUP-induced coma; it’s looking like negotiations over the size of the bribe from London. In any event, it won’t be done until January, at the earliest. Jeffrey Donaldson is involved in a not unfamiliar calculation for a unionist leader: how to agree the inevitable compromise from the strongest possible position. It’s an unenviable position to be sure, but you can’t negotiate a compromise with reality. You can only accommodate yourself to it. This is a lesson unionism remains slow to learn.

The reality in Northern Ireland is changing. It changed last year when Michelle O’Neill became leader of the largest party at Stormont and so First Minister-designate; that new reality was confirmed this year in local elections when Sinn Féin became the largest party of local government. Next year, the party will seek to supplant the DUP as the party with the largest number of Westminster MPs. It all looks like one-way traffic.

And yet, as research for the North and South series in The Irish Times made clear again this year, there remains a strong majority in favour of maintaining Northern Ireland’s place in the UK. So while the DUP may be in trouble it’s clear that – for the immediate future anyway – the union isn’t. Which makes the DUP’s political strategy all the more puzzling, especially given the widespread frustration with voters in the North at the continuing political stasis. Even Joe Biden’s visit in April – “to make sure the Brits didn’t screw around,” as he later described it – couldn’t shift the dial. It was the occasion for a massive hooley in Ballina, though.

In the Republic, Sinn Féin’s domination of the Opposition, and its position as the most popular party, remained unchallenged. In any foreseeable general election scenario, with housing dominating debates, it will be the unbackable favourite to be the largest party in the next Dáil. That does not, however, assure it of leadership of the next Government; it needs a working and consistent Dáil majority for that. And for that, in turn, it will almost certainly need a formal coalition pact with one or more other parties.

The hope of many on the left is that this can be done by Sinn Féin leading a coalition of the left, without either Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael. The year’s polling numbers, however, suggest what the pragmatists in Sinn Féin have accepted privately: that a left-led government is unlikely and their most viable path to power is in a coalition with Fianna Fáil. And that is a prospect fraught with uncertainty.

Mortal threat

For the smaller parties of the Opposition, labouring in the shadow of the Sinn Féin behemoth has been hard. Many TDs from small parties and the Independent benches face a mortal threat to their seats from Sinn Féin at the next election.

The Greens continue to get their way on climate policy but find it hard to make the politics of that work for them. Like all small parties they will approach the next election on a knife-edge.

Leo Varadkar was among the earliest and most vocal European Union leaders calling for a ceasefire, though with little apparent impact

The Social Democrats got a new leader when Holly Cairns was elected unopposed after founders and co-leaders Róisín Shortall and Catherine Murphy stepped down in March. The 34-year-old Cork South West deputy brought youth and a fresh appeal to younger voters to the role, and the party saw a brief uptick in its polling numbers. But the difficulty for a small party to find a way of elbowing its way into the centre of political attention hasn’t gone away and Cairns, like many others, faces a threat to her seat from Sinn Féin. She resolutely ruled out any merger with the Labour Party, whose horizons have shrunk to basic survival as a meaningful national political force. Having dumped Alan Kelly as leader last year, Labour has found that Ivana Bacik, for all her high media profile, has fared no better in the polls.

High-profile People Before Profit (PBP) TDs Richard Boyd Barrett, Paul Murphy and their colleagues turned up the volume even higher in their criticism of Israel’s response to the attacks by Hamas on October 7th – an issue that preoccupied the Dáil in a way that overseas affairs rarely do. Day after day the PBP TDs attacked Israel in the Dáil (and outside it, at frequent street demonstrations) as the missiles and bombs rained down on Gaza and the civilian death toll rose.

There was rarely, if ever, a mention of the Hamas attacks which started the latest round of violence, but there were frequent calls to expel the Israeli ambassador, including from people who were simultaneously demanding that the Irish Government do more to get Irish-Palestinian citizens out of Gaza.

The Government maintained a more even-handed position, taking care to emphasise Israel’s right to defend itself and to “go after” Hamas, but only within the confines of international law. Taoiseach Leo Varadkar was among the earliest and most vocal European Union leaders calling for a ceasefire, though with little apparent impact until the bigger countries sought to put pressure on Tel Aviv.

Many politicians were much more focused on the summer’s recommendations for new constituency boundaries from the new Electoral Commission, which will see the next Dáil increase by 14 to 174 TDs. The Labour TD Seán Sherlock was particularly disadvantaged by the revisions, and decided that he would not contest the next election.

Sherlock will be a loss for a Labour Party that desperately needs political heft; Alan Kelly’s future remains uncertain and now Aodhán Ó Ríordáin has said he will seek a European Parliament seat.

Several Fine Gael grandees also announced their retirements at the next election – Richard Bruton, Charlie Flanagan, Fergus O’Dowd, David Stanton, Michael Creed, MEPs Frances Fitzgerald and Deirdre Clune – joining younger TDs such as John Paul Phelan and Brendan Griffin in the Fine Gael departure lounge. Leo Varadkar maintains it’s just natural churn. But it hardly shouts optimism.

There was no sign, however, that Micheál Martin intends to leave Irish politics. The Fianna Fáil leader was assumed by many to be contemplating a move to Brussels next summer, but he looks more likely now to stay than go. Martin’s leadership is more secure now than it was when he was Taoiseach. One suspects he will bear the departure of Marc MacSharry and possibly Barry Cowen – standing for the European Parliament – with equanimity.

Less so, perhaps, the potential departure of Paschal Donohoe, who was reported – and did not convincingly deny – to be in the hunt for the job of managing the International Monetary Fund if that job comes vacant next year. The departure of Donohoe, along with possibly his Fianna Fáil collaborator and Minister for Finance Michael McGrath, who is among those tipped to be Ireland’s next European Commissioner, would be a titanic blow to the Government.

The two budget Ministers managed to deliver a huge surplus, institute new long-term savings funds, keep the public finances largely in check (despite criticisms from the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council) and preside over a giveaway budget. If they do go, they’ll be a difficult act to follow.

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