“This is not,” said Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, “about the streets being safe.”
Half a mile away, Garda cars were in flames and mobs bashed their way through the front doors of shops to loot their contents. It is hard to see what else it might be about.
McEntee is very much in the spotlight now, in her first major crisis as Minister for Justice since her appointment to the role in 2020.
She has weathered a few difficult periods, including when an American tourist was attacked in Dublin earlier this year, and, in the first days of her tenure, when she had to explain the controversial appointment of the former attorney general Séamus Woulfe to the Supreme Court.
Neither was remotely as serious, or as threatening to her, as the current crisis.
She has company, of course. The Garda Commissioner Drew Harris is having to explain why his force was so unprepared for the events that kicked off explosively yesterday evening – leaving individual gardaí in what looked at times to be mortal danger – and also to defend his previous “hands-off” approach to policing the far-right protests.
The strong Garda and political consensus appears now to be that a change in approach is needed, which is pretty much the same thing as admitting the previous approach was a mistake. There will have to be some sort of a reckoning for that.
With the focus on Friday turning from shock and bewilderment to wondering about the political and security fallout, Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald put a quick end to the initial cross-political consensus of Thursday.
Addressing reporters in the city centre on Friday afternoon, she opened up a political front: “I do not say the following lightly, but it must be said: I have no confidence in how Dublin is being policed,” she said.
“The people of this city have the right to be safe on their streets, in their homes and in their communities. The gardaí have my full support but given the catastrophic operational failures last night, I have no confidence in the Justice Minister, and no confidence in the Garda Commissioner.”
The Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon, who represents the Dublin Central constituency, said the position of both Harris and McEntee was “untenable”.
The Taoiseach is already having to declare confidence in his Minister for Justice – never a good look. The Minister for Public Expenditure Paschal Donohoe followed suit.
Cabinet support for McEntee and Harris is strong, though; Ministers, mindful of their own political mortality, are always opposed to the idea that their colleagues should have to resign.
Everyone remembers that two of McEntee’s recent predecessors, Alan Shatter and Frances Fitzgerald, were forced to resign on grounds that subsequently appeared to many to be unjustified once the fuss had died down. But they also know that when the political blood is up, rash decisions can be made under pressure. And the temperature is certainly rising; there will surely be Dáil questions on this next week.
Besides, some colleagues admit to misgivings about how the events were handled, both by McEntee and Harris, and say that backbenchers and constituents have been demanding more assertive policing of Dublin’s streets for months and longer.
Fianna Fáil TDs felt unconstrained about pointing out precisely this.
“Fianna Fáil has been saying for 18 months that the city centre is becoming a threatening and unsafe place,” said Dublin Bay South TD Jim O’Callaghan. “Yesterday’s stabbings and riots confirmed this.”
Senator Malcolm Byrne added: “The ‘softly softly’ approach of the Minister and the Commissioner to dealing with thugs who show no respect for the law has to end. Decent people are fed up that people who make no contribution to society seem to be able to get away with criminal and antisocial behaviour. There is a lot of real anger about not just last night but what has been going on over last few years.”
A senior Government figure observed: “Helen has been saying for the last few months – everything is grand. But it’s clearly not.”
Other sources expressed frustration with Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s promise of quick legislation about hate speech, with one pointing out that it is already illegal to set garda cars on fire and break into shops to steal runners.
As the shock wears off this weekend, the public and the political system will start to demand answers, and a way forward. McEntee and Harris need to come with some – and fast.