Dublin’s Riot Was Not a Surprise to Those Who Watch the Far Right

On a bright, cold afternoon on O’Connell Street in central Dublin, Memet Uludag, a businessman and activist, was rolling up an antiracism banner.

It had been four days since the worst riot Ireland had seen in decades, and Mr. Uludag and hundreds of others had gathered to denounce the anti-immigrant sentiment that had fueled the violence.

“I am out here to say that whatever problems people experience in this country, and there are plenty — housing, health care — it’s nothing to do with people of color, migrant workers, or indeed refugees or asylum seekers,” said Mr. Uludag, 51, who is originally from Turkey and has lived in Ireland for years.

As he spoke, another Dubliner, Joe McGoldrick, stopped in the street to disagree.

Every house given to an asylum seeker was one “taken away” from an Irish person, argued Mr. McGoldrick, 60. “I didn’t agree with the rioting, of course, but this has been building up — and it will start again, too,” he warned.

The exchange highlighted a growing fault line in Irish society over immigration that experts say has been weaponized by the far right to drive discontent, and that spilled into the light last month when disorder and looting gripped the capital.

Ireland is only beginning to reckon with how extremist politics gained a toe hold here, erupting into violence that shattered images of the country’s welcoming spirit and spotlighted underlying grievances that experts say have been building for some time.

“This was not a surprise,” said Niamh McDonald, a coordinator for the Hope and Courage Collective, a group focused on countering far-right extremism. “The depth of the rioting and the violence and destruction, yes — but it’s no surprise that it happened.”

The Nov. 23 riot followed a stabbing attack outside a school that left three young children and two adults injured. Xenophobic rumors immediately swirled online about the nationality of the suspect, who was taken into custody after being tackled by bystanders.

Later that afternoon, a mob gathered at the scene and broke the police cordon. About 500 people took part in the ensuing disorder. Shops were looted, buses burned, and police attacked.

While the violence flared up within hours, it reflected long-running social pressures, Ms. McDonald said. Ireland’s economy boomed in the late 1990s and early 2000s, but the 2008 financial crash hit the country hard. The austerity that followed included steep cuts to social support.

“That devastated so many ordinary, working communities and beyond,” Ms. McDonald said. “It devastated youth work, it devastated community work, that kind of on-the-ground work in communities that supports people.”

In recent years, tech giants have flocked to the Irish capital thanks to attractive tax breaks, but the economic growth they brought has had uneven benefits. A housing crisis, felt acutely in Dublin where surging demand has overwhelmed limited rental stock, has driven discontent.

At the same time, immigration has risen sharply, according to a recent analysis by the Economic and Social Research Institute, an independent Irish research institute.

In the year ending in April 2023, net migration to Ireland — a country of 5.2 million people — was 77,600, second only to a record of 104,800 in 2007.

Asylum seekers make up a relatively small portion of that overall number, with fewer than 14,000 people applying for asylum in 2022, but they have often been the focus of far-right vitriol.

In 2018, groups of people set fire to hotels planning to host asylum seekers. Xenophobic demonstrations have been staged in small towns and villages, and a makeshift camp for refugees was set alight in Dublin this year.

Anti-immigrant conversations have proliferated online and in the right-wing press, including the website Gript, which is described by the Institute for Strategic Dialogue as “a prominent entity within the Irish mis- and disinformation ecosystem.”

Ireland was long viewed as a country without a significant far right, said Shane O’Curry, director of the Irish Network Against Racism, which monitors hate crimes and racism in the country.

That was partly because of its history of colonization, a large diaspora, and the fact that popular nationalism here has been more often associated with left-wing politics.

But extremism has proliferated in recent years on social media, as it has in the United States and much of Europe. Experts such as Mr. O’Curry say that far-right activists, emboldened by Donald J. Trump’s presidency and the openly anti-immigrant campaigning around Brexit, have popularized language portraying migrants as a threat in Ireland.

As word of the knife attack on Nov. 23 spread online, there were calls for a rally on social media platforms like Twitter and YouTube using hashtags like #IrelandIsFull, #EnoughIsEnough and #IrelandFirst, and on messaging apps like Telegram.

“We knew something horrible was coming,” Mr. O’Curry said. He likened ardent far-right supporters to generals, while “the foot soldier is the disenfranchised youth.”

“I think that it’s important to distinguish between very marginalized people who were venting about the frustrations in their lives,” he said, “and the far-right generals.”

The far right is still a fringe movement in Ireland and has no real political representation in the way it does in some European countries. Some of those who took part in the riots and looting were less adherents to a political movement than petty criminals capitalizing on the chaos, officials said.

But many politicians and civil society groups criticized the conditions that led to the moment.

Mary Lou McDonald, leader of the main opposition party, Sinn Féin, and one of the lawmakers representing the area where the riot began, said it was a tipping point for Dublin.

“The pressure will be on the government for accountability,” she said, speaking to The New York Times on the sidelines of the antiracism rally, “but also for a total step change in terms of resourcing for policing and resourcing for communities.”

Gary Gannon, another lawmaker representing the central Dublin constituency, agreed that the government needed to step up policing, but also argued it must strive to understand the social issues that had allowed toxic narratives to thrive.

“This was inevitable and an awful reflection of the environment that we’re in,” he said. “I’m terrified about what comes next. This is going to fester.”

Back on O’Connell Street, Mr. McGoldrick and Mr. Uludag argued back and forth.

Mr. Uludag shook his head, listening with a look of resignation on his face, occasionally trying to reason with Mr. McGoldrick.

Neither could persuade the other. So they went their separate ways, returning to their lives as the city returned to its ordinary bustle, the broken glass swept away, the shop windows nearby boarded up, the torched police vehicles and tram cars nowhere to be seen.