The Lidl looting was a symptom of a working class community that is strained to breaking point, suggests Brian O'Flynn.
ON Friday night, in the midst of the worst blizzard to hit Ireland in decades, the world’s attention swivelled to the snow-covered suburb of Tallaght in Dublin.
Snow had confined virtually the whole country to their houses and somewhere in the heat of cabin fever, law and order broke down. A surreal spectacle unfolded as we watched a mechanical digger caving in the roof of a Lidl supermarket while looters made off with bagfuls of goods.
Universal condemnation swiftly followed, with a heated class debate at its core.
The use of loaded terms like “scumbags” and “thugs” were applied with suspicious uniformity to an incident which occurred in a largely working class area.
An equally vociferous contingent of online commentators defended their right to use the words, with one Twitter user stating: “Looters are scumbags, its [sic] not a classist term … If it happened in a wealthy Dub suburb, they’d be scumbags.”
Consensus was quickly consolidated around this neoliberal framing online, with the incident largely being characterised as a spontaneous eruption of senseless violence perpetrated by a few bad eggs, driven wild with cabin fever.
But the idea that this is a classless news story about mob violence is so naive as to be comical. This did not occur in a vacuum. Several other smaller stores around the area were looted on the same night, all in the Jobstown area of Tallaght, which notably was the site of protests in 2014 where then Tanaiste Joan Burton was trapped in a car by a large mob.
Uncoincidentally, those who attended that protest were also dubbed “scumbags” and “thugs”.
The protestors were rallying against the introduction of water charges, a distinctly working class issue. Once again, the government at that time were determined to frame the protests as individualised, classless and "disorganised".
Now, the looting of the Lidl was not a political protest (it will only hurt other working class people), and only a fantasist or anarchist would claim it was. But it was an event driven by class.
The idea that a looting of Lidl would ever occur in the wealthy postcodes of Dublin 2 or Dublin 4 is risible - the looting of an M&S would be more likely.
If this was really about gratuitous violence or material gain, why choose a budget supermarket?
What wealthy person would ever look at such an event unfolding and, after a quick cost-benefit analysis, make the assessment that the free groceries were worth the risk of criminal conviction? The answer is none.
But a large group of working class people made precisely that call Friday night. We’re supposed to feign consensus that there is no explanatory variable here, but there is - it’s deprivation; it’s need.
The collective desire for this attack to be classless reveals a disturbing neoliberal urge to bury our heads in the sand, to deny that Dublin is a city of devastating class inequality, and that we are currently in the midst of the worst homelessness crisis the country has ever seen.
The statistics are there to prove it, but you don’t need to look at graphs - it slaps you in the face.
On a freezing night this Christmas, I walked the length of the main street in my hometown of Cork and saw every single shop doorway filled with makeshift cardboard dwellings, blankets and shelters.
When I sit on the Luas heading into the suburbs, I see tents pitched at regular intervals along the tramline - commuters have slowly learned to look through them, to make them transparent. For a working class person like me, they are not so easy to dematerialise. They seem terrifyingly real.
In Ireland, homelessness is now inextricably linked with being working class.
It is a spectre which haunts our lives, a terrifyingly close possibility. The luxuriant morality of the middle class wonders: gosh, why would a simple snow day drive people to frenzied violence? Where did this explosion come from?
For working class people, the pressure is always there, bubbling below the surface, ready to ignite. The loss of one’s home is now an anxiety which shadows us everywhere, a thought which surely would fill the mind of a person living on the breadline who’s suddenly been forced to take two or three days unpaid leave, trapped, staring at the four walls of a house they have only precarious claims to (landlords suddenly imposing exorbitant rent hikes and then evicting long-time tenants has become common practice in the city).
I remember the crisis of 2008, when my factory labourer father was put on a three-day week in the strained economy. I remember the dark cloud that loomed over the house, the constant sense of dread, of insecurity. Losing a day of work is a worry that doesn’t even occur to the salaried elite of Dublin’s affluent suburbs. Their snow days were free of such gnawing anxieties.
To be able to sit in quiet judgement and look with disdain at the loud vulgarity of Friday’s violence is a luxury. Quietness is a privilege.
It is the privilege to be able to stay quiet about class inequality, to not mention it, to hush it up. It is the privilege of powerful men who left our country economically destitute with their quiet meetings, their quiet movement of funds, their quiet exploitation.
Their legacy of quietness lingers in the deafening silence of the uninhabited ghost estates that litter the country since the housing bubble burst, estates which stand empty while tents line our streets.
Words like “scumbag” and “thug” are unevenly applied; much like language, prison sentences too privilege the quiet, white collar criminal.
Fraudster bankers and tax defaulting businessmen serve prison sentences that are short, if at all.
How long will any persons convicted of looting serve?
Ireland continually attempts to silence the pain of working class people. On Friday, the sound of metal screeching on metal broke that enforced silence. The simmering anger of a working class stretched to breaking point bubbled over in a brief, destructive outburst.
While the violence achieved nothing, it lifted the lid on a class-torn Ireland - it ripped the roof off it.
* Brian O'Flynn writes on culture and social issues, and has been featured in such publications as the Guardian, the Independent and VICE. Follow him on Twitter @brianxflynn