26 February 2006

Under siege from 'madmen'

Sunday Times

Dearbhail McDonald and Enda Leahy
February 26, 2006

ONE Welshman, visiting the city for today’s rugby clash, wondered aloud if they were shooting a movie at Trinity College. But for those who witnessed yesterday’s protests, the action was all too real.

“For God’s sake lads, stay together, hold the f*****g line.” The panic was real, but nobody knew who the battle cry was aimed at. The instruction came from a senior officer leading columns of gardai clad in riot gear as they inched their way down Nassau Street.

Saturday afternoon shoppers and tourists cowered in shop doorways and laneways off the pavement, searching for safe havens as they sought to escape the mayhem erupting just yards from Leinster House.

It was shortly after midday when the violence erupted. It started at the Parnell Monument at the top of O’Connell Street, just yards from where the Love Ulster marchers were waiting patiently to begin their march from Parnell Square to Leinster House.

Growing concerned at the size of the crowd, gardai in O’Connell Street stalled the parade, scheduled to begin at 12:30pm.

“Most of the crowd were peaceful,” said a sergeant on the line, “but one or two started throwing stones, then others joined in and it suddenly got out of hand. It wouldn’t have happened if the street wasn’t like a building site and material wasn’t there.”

After 20 minutes the gardai managed to separate the crowd, but as the atmosphere became more tense it was clear the parade might not happen.

Des Dalton, the vice-president of Republican Sinn Fein, was surrounded by a group of men waving banners and chanting IRA slogans.

“This is a city that lost 34 people at the hands of a loyalist death squad in the last 30 years,” said Dalton, “Our fellow citizens in the six counties live with this daily and at times feel besieged in their own community.”

Minutes later shouts of “we won” went up from the crowd as word spread that the Love Ulster paraders had boarded their buses to leave.

As rumours began to circulate that a delegation from the parade was to speak at Leinster House, the crowd turned from Parnell Square back down O’Connell Street.

Hundreds of protesters, forced into side streets by garda lines around the initial riot scene at the Parnell Monument, began racing towards the city centre, searching for ways to avoid the garda barriers onto O’Connell Street.

Screams echoed across Abbey Street as shoppers and protesters broke into a panicked run. Fireworks exploded, setting bins alight outside Easons. Gardai in riot gear began advancing down the street but stopped to re-establish their lines as masonry and bottles rained down on them from a hard core of protesters.

O’Connell Street, the birthplace of the 1916 rising, was ransacked. The updated version had an international flair: at least three Lithuanians were arrested for looting after lending their support to the Irish insurgents.

“This is what Bertie gets for letting them march in our city,” hollered one rioter, wielding canisters of petrol, as he swaggered towards the Millennium wing of the National Gallery on Nassau Street. One, two, three then four cars were set alight. Panic erupted as shouts went up that someone had been shot. It wasn’t gunfire, just the sound of petrol tanks exploding.

“We were under siege from a bunch of madmen,” said one manager of a Nassau Street cafe. “One guy with a 4ft metal pole came tearing toward the window and smashed the front glass. I called 999 but the operator couldn’t get me in touch with a station. We were about to take everyone downstairs and lock ourselves in the cellar but the crowd moved up the street. Afterwards we broke out an emergency bottle of Baileys and some cigarettes, but don’t tell the health inspectors.”

It was the same story a few doors away in Kilkenny Design, where customers were locked in for 40 minutes. “Customers hit the ground when the window broke, they didn’t know what was happening,” said one witness. “Then we saw guards coming down the street with alsatians but the mob started taking steel bars and concrete out of a skip and throwing it at them. The guards did nothing — they were completely outnumbered.”

For more than four hours hordes of youths chanting “up the ra” led gardai on a cat-and-mouse chase across the capital. It was the worst rioting in 30 years and they were making up for lost time. As soon as the gardai put down one pocket of disturbance another replaced it.

“This mob is not fighting in my name,” said John Molloy, who was injured in the Dublin bombing of 1974. “I just feel disgust. There were banners calling for people to remember the Dublin-Monaghan bombings, but not one victim was there. I just feel so angry at the whole anger and bitterness that has spilled out onto the streets.”

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