How did we get here? We compromised on violence
This State has long been characterised by an ambivalence to violence, hence machine guns on the street now, writes Brendan O'Connor
Published 14/02/2016 | 02:30
Two shocking images in the past 10 days. Both with machine guns. First, two men entering a hotel in Dublin dressed as gardai, toting modified AK47s. They were, of course, only there to get their own. But still, it was a little too close to our lives for comfort. Most of us, if we are to be honest, don't worry overly when these guys hit each other in the Costa del Sol or in gangster pubs. Whether it's right or wrong, there can be a sense that these guys chose a lifestyle. They knew what they were getting into. Life seems to be that bit cheaper for these guys. Many of them have murdereded themselves, ordered people killed. It almost feels like another world to the rest of us, like something happening on Love/Hate.
But what happened at the Regency Hotel last Friday week was a bit too close to our lives. This wasn't some gang-banger pub we know to stay away from. This was a hotel where people like us could be having a cup of coffee, a business meeting, a weekend in Dublin.
And then, during the week, it came closer. This time the guys with the machine guns were the good guys. Again dressed as cops, and this time on the streets of Dublin, apparently for our protection. And somehow this was more shocking. When did Dublin become the kind of place where cops in assault gear with machine guns need to patrol the streets?
But maybe this is the logical next step. Dublin is already somewhere you can openly deal heroin on the streets. I saw a guy stopped in mid-air nodding off in a supermarket near work recently. Just standing there. The joys of heroin.
It is also a place where international drug dealers drop in and out on private jets to do business, where gang members fly in to promote very public sporting events, where everyone knows who these guys are, but the law seems powerless to do anything. And while most of us can ignore it much of the time, these guys do occupy the same city as us. And bear in mind, too, it is their cheap cigarettes you buy, their pills our teens take, their coke the chattering classes snort. They occupy the same world in which we live more than we like to imagine. But perhaps it takes the symbolism of them bursting into a well-known hotel with machine guns to wake us up to that.
Another surreal image from that day was that of the other two attackers making their way out of the Regency Hotel, one in "drag". The surreal thing about it was that the one dressed as a woman was not wearing a dress, or the kind of exaggerated female clothing that most of us would associate with drag queens. He wore instead the standard uniform of Dublin women right now, from Northsiders to the so-called yummy mummies of South Dublin, the full-length, duvet-style puffa jacket that women default to when they are going out shopping or collecting the kids. As if he was just popping out to do some mundane task.
Of course, we probably shouldn't be too surprised that we have ended up with cops with machine guns protecting the streets, given our history. Violence and guns have never been far from the mainstream in Ireland. Just look at our glorious celebrations this year, a year of militaristic displays, digging up and reburying men, the Army coming into schools, and the lionisation of ordinary men who took up guns for political aim. Whatever we think about the celebration of the Rising, it's undeniable that violence and the notion of blood sacrifice are central to the creation myth of our State, a myth we teach in our schools and celebrate regularly. These men of violence then brought their ambivalence about guns into mainstream politics, and indeed, up until quite recently, we saw mainstream politicians involved in stuff like gun-running.
This blurring of lines continues to impact on the State. For example, this is a country where the police force is politicised, where cops are told they must turn a blind eye to criminality in whole areas of the country for the sake of the peace process. This is a country where violence is the price we must pay for peace, where men of violence are good republicans. This is a country where the whole genesis of law and order is bound up in grey areas about the legitimacy and the glorification of violence. This context helps to bring us to a place where we need men with guns on the streets to protect us.
The truth is most of us probably still think it won't be us, that these gangsters, if they continue to pick each other off, won't bother most of us. But it trickles down. When violence and criminality can seem to exist openly and with impunity, it can tend to create an air of fear.
It also suggests some kind of breach in the natural order, whereby the poison of the compromises we made with violence down the years seeps into everything, just as the allegedly political men of violence seem to be bound up in the general criminality of the country. Sometimes it seems the only difference between the Kinahans and the Hutches and the various threads of Provos and dissidents who are still active in crime is the increasingly threadbare fig leaf of ideology.
And all this creates an atmosphere of a country that is soft on crime, that is in some way tolerant of men of violence. Take all this confusion and add it to the under-resourcing of the gardai and you get a general atmosphere of fear, an atmosphere where violence doesn't just happen in the underworld. You hear election candidates in Dublin 15 saying old people are afraid to open the door. Down the country they live in fear, too. And they worry that there will be no guard to protect them if anything does happen.
And even if there is a heroic garda manning the station and he arrives, will he suffer the fate of Tony Golden? And remember, too, that Tony Golden (inset) was a victim of one of those psychos who exist at the meeting point of republicanism and criminality.
This is how we have got to men on the streets with machine guns to protect us. It happens when you have a State that is ambivalent about violence, ambivalent about law and order, ambivalent about who the bad guys are. And who the good guys are.