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‘This is going in a bad direction’: Struggle to control narrative over asylum seeker protests in East Wall

Some locals, fearful of the presence of the far right, are urging the demonstrations to come to an end

The sequence of events surrounding the housing of asylum seekers in East Wall in recent weeks followed what has become a well-worn path, starting with rumours heard by locals that a building in their area is to be used to house migrants.

Some begin to protest and soon a semi-official group is formed to lead it. Their complaints are reasonable: locals were not consulted by Government, the accommodation is not suitable for asylum seekers and there are not enough facilities in the area.

Soon word of the protests spread and anti-immigration and far right activists flock to the area where they start making speeches and videos denouncing the “replacement” of Irish citizens with foreign-born people.

The original protesters are then faced with a choice; continue with the demonstrations, try to distance themselves from the interlopers or call the whole thing off.


This is the choice facing some residents of East Wall, who over the last month have held regular protests since learning the old ESB offices there are being used to temporarily house about 200 asylum seekers.

“This is not about not wanting asylum seekers in our community, it’s purely about housing them in appropriate accommodation and not in old office blocks,” protest organiser Nigel Murphy told a crowd last Monday.

It was a stark contrast to another speaker, Graham Carey, a veteran anti-immigration activist with a history of making anti-Semitic and homophobic comments, who last week told the crowd, “Youse are being replaced.”

For Louise, a local resident who asked that her second name not be used, that was when she decided she did not want to be a part of the demonstrations. “That’s when I thought this is going in a bad direction,’ she said. “I still don’t think [asylum seekers] should be put in the building but I didn’t want my kids in that type of situation.”

Similar scenes have played out in Oughterard, Achill and Rooskey in recent years after the Government opened emergency accommodation centres for asylum seekers at short notice. This year 60,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Ireland as well as a record 10,000 asylum seekers, stretching the Government’s accommodation systems to breaking point. Almost every week a new emergency centre is opened and invariably protests follow soon after.

“The problem is facilities are mostly willing to house Ukrainian refugees and to a lesser extent family units of asylum seekers from other countries. But when it comes to single male people, there is no interest in taking them in, meaning we have to source accommodation at very short notice,” one official said. “The alternative is these men sleep on the streets.”

He said this means the accommodation is sometimes “far less than ideal” and that there is little time for public consultations. Some Government officials fear all of this has been a boon to the message of far right. It’s a message which is common to similar movements over Europe, that “nefarious” forces such as the European Union, or the United Nations are replacing white people with migrants from developing countries. It used to be called white genocide before being rebranded as replacement theory or “the great replacement”. In Ireland, anti-immigration activists have sought to put a local spin on the theory by claiming the Government is involved in the “plantation” of migrants here.

In recent weeks far right activists have travelled to Carlingford, Wicklow town and Fermoy to take part in protests against emergency accommodation. In Kill, Co Kildare last month an equestrian centre earmarked for asylum seekers was set on fire.

Ultimately, it is the migrants themselves who suffer. In August, 50 asylum seekers had to be moved from an emergency accommodation centre in Finglas after a group of people forced their way into the building and broke windows. Last month, a hotel in Wicklow town being used as emergency accommodation was threatened with arson.

In East Wall, multiple videos have been posted online of people harassing residents in the centre. “Where are you from? You won’t be here for long because we are going to get you out. Out, out, out,” one woman was filmed telling new arrivals.

“It’s not very pleasant listening to chants of ‘go home, go home’ by a few hundred people outside the front door,” one resident in the centre said.

Gardaí said they have yet to receive a criminal complaint regarding activity at the protests but that the situation is being monitored. Officers have been assigned to the building “on an almost permanent basis” one source said.

Asked about the protests last week, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris said some groups operate a “Trojan horse” strategy, to “infect themselves” into protest movements. “So we watch it very carefully and obviously if a policing response is necessary then we will do that.”

This week, protesters in East Wall started blocking the Port Tunnel during the evenings to highlight their concerns.

Malachy Steenson, a local resident and one of the leaders of the East Wall Protest Committee, said politicians have attempted to “brand us as something as we’re not in order to stop the debate”. He said the protests have nothing to do with race and that the north inner city has taken in more than its fair share of asylum seekers.

He told The Irish Times said there have been attempts to infiltrate the movement from the left and the right “but that nobody will be hijacking anything I’m involved in”.

Steenson, a practising solicitor, has a history of association with anti-immigration activists including Irish Freedom Party leader Hermann Kelly. A former public relations official for Nigel Farage, Kelly spoke at an East Wall protest last week, shouting “get them out” in relation to the asylum seekers.

Steenson has shared social media posts referencing the “plantation” of migrants into Ireland as well as a video of an asylum seeker being told to “get your stuff and f**k off out”.

A lifelong republican, Steenson was expelled from the Workers Party more than a decade ago for attending an anti-abortion rally. He has a conviction from the Special Criminal Court for republican activities dating to 30 years ago.

Asked if he thought asylum seekers were being “planted” in Ireland, Steenson declined to discuss the topic “but there is certainly something sinister going on when the Government is so emphatic in its policies saying we have to do this”.

He said “of course” he condemns the abuse of asylum seekers. He said they are being used as “pawns” by the Government. Asked why he doesn’t protest outside Government offices in charge of asylum policy instead of near the East Wall building, he said if such protests worked “they would have been banned long ago”.

Steenson said the protests are no longer taking place outside the ESB building but that they reserved the right to return there in future.

People like Graham Carey are not part of the protest movement. “But I’m not going to tell other people whether they protest. Either we live in a democracy or we don’t,” Carey said.

Other far right activists who travelled to East Wall include Philip Dwyer, who left the anti-immigration National Party earlier this year following an internal quarrel. He received widespread criticism in February after making a speech at the graveside of Ashling Murphy who was murdered in Co Offaly last year. The speech was later posted online.

The former postman, who styles himself as a citizen journalist, is a frequent presence at asylum centres where he films himself questioning asylum seekers about their backgrounds. His videos receive thousands of views.

Also present was Derek Blighe, a rising figure in the anti-immigration movement who has set up a new group called Ireland First. Earlier this year the Cork man filmed himself taking items from a store which provided donated essentials to Ukrainian refugees. The store closed temporarily shortly afterwards due to online abuse it received.

This week alone, Blighe appeared at protests in East Wall, Wicklow town and Fermoy. In Fermoy, he demanded a group of 63 asylum seekers, including 25 children, be deported immediately

“There’s a lot of stuff happening all over the country. We’re trying to cover all of it. We’re spread fairly thin,” he told his followers last week.

The presence of far right activists in East Wall, along the abuse of migrants and the blocking of the Port Tunnel has caused some local representatives to privately distance themselves from the protest this week.

It is understood a group of representatives plan to ask Steenson this week to call off the protests as it is clear the centre will not be closed.

On the other hand, Steenson has also been criticised on the extreme right for adopting what some see as too conciliatory an attitude. One far right account posted he sounded like a “regime asset” as he was trying to de-escalate the situation.

Steenson said he has been under pressure from various quarters to abandon the demonstrations, but that they will continue until they achieve their goal. In a video posted online, he said, there will be a series of events over the coming weeks “which will bring this city to a standstill”.

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime and Security Correspondent of The Irish Times