Ireland’s migration politics: ‘It feels as if we’re scrambling and other people are setting the agenda’

Both Government and Opposition parties have become the target of anti-immigrant protests as the challenge continues to accommodate refugees

“The only way to f**kin’ deal with these c**ts is to burn them out of the f**kin’ place right now. There’s no point standing here outside the Garda station,” a masked speaker told a crowd of about 200 in Finglas on Wednesday evening.

“You have to go to where they’re f**king staying and burn them f**king out!”

The heavily policed protest had heard what might be described as a range of views. One speaker told the crowd about how “behind our backs, they’re negotiating a treaty for the EU-UK crown establishment to rule our land for another 100 years”, imploring attendees to demand that “any law or statute or act” invoked by a Garda be demanded in the “Cló Gaelic” or Irish script.

One protester grumbled that this was “chemtrails sh*te” – equating it to a conspiracy theory that aircraft covertly spray the population with dangerous chemicals. Another wondered aloud: “I thought we were coming over here to run amok in the police station?”


Over time, some in the crowd grew impatient – as one speaker held forth on the “blue book constitution, which is not the Irish Constitution”, someone in the crowd shouted: “Here, nobody knows half about that s**t, we’re here for the f**kin’ immigrants!”

Some speakers urged dialogue with the Garda and negotiations, or peaceful protest. But some in the crowd pushed back, angrily dismissing the idea of “liaison with the enemy” or shouting that “words will get you nowhere”.

The crowd included children and women with prams, although many protesters were younger men who covered their faces. A speaker claimed this was due to intimidation by the Garda. During the hour that The Irish Times attended, anti-immigration sentiments were among those that got the loudest cheers from the crowd.

“It’s very simple,” Philip Dwyer, a former National Party candidate, told the crowd. “You stop all the free stuff, the free accommodation, you lease 10 jet airplanes out there in Dublin Airport and you begin to fly them back to wherever the hell they come from.”

A masked speaker told the crowd: “They’re bringing in foreigners to take all of our jobs, they’re taking our houses, leaving us on the streets with our kids living in cars. We’re desperately on the breadline, it’s like going back to the Famine.”

Garda presence

The Garda presence was impossible to miss. At one end of Mellowes Road, where the station is located, 12 uniformed gardaí were stationed alongside four Garda vehicles, with blue lights flashing. Members of the public order unit were visible in the courtyard behind the station in riot gear. The Garda helicopter hovered overhead. Four Garda vans with more public order officers inside and an Armed Support Unit vehicle were parked nearby.

Gardaí filmed protesters from within the station, who filmed them back, in some instances insulting them. Sources suggested this was the first time specialist units had backed up local officers.

We have to be aware that there are a group here manipulating these issues to try and create cleavages in our society

—  Roderic O’Gorman

The protest never felt like it was going to turn violent but it was one of a growing number that are stretching Garda resources.

The biggest issue is the sheer number of protests taking place. “Policing a protest takes a lot of people power. When it’s multiplied on a daily or weekly basis, it does have an impact on resources,” a security source said. An element is “trying to adopt the far-right playbook we’ve seen in the US, eastern Europe and other European countries”, says the source. “Trying to piggyback on legitimate concerns communities have and turn it from legitimate concerns into the far-right agenda.”

There was also significant criticism of Sinn Féin from some speakers – one Government Minister believes that, unlike the water protests, for example, “this is not public against Government, but an element protesting against democratic structures”.

Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman described the increase in protests as “really concerning”, pointing out that people had allegedly been beaten up and buildings set on fire based on misinformation that had circulated online.

“People are entitled to protest, people are entitled to differ in their opinion from the views and policies of Government,” he said, but he called recent trends “deeply, deeply disturbing”. “We have to be aware that there are a group here manipulating these issues to try and create cleavages in our society,” he said.

But others worry that the protests can’t be neatly blamed on a fringe group. “It feels like it’s going mainstream,” says Dublin Bay North TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin of Labour, who has seen protests in his constituency. “They are local people. We can’t pretend they’re outsiders. We can’t pretend they’re all politically motivated people from a far-right, racist agenda,” he says.

“I just feel as if we’re scrambling and other people are setting the agenda.”

Accommodation crisis

Earlier in the week, senior Ministers and Coalition leaders met to discuss the crisis of accommodation for refugees. “It was quite frustrating,” one person present said. “We’re having the same conversation about the need to move from emergency to medium- to long-term strategy.”

The Cabinet committee, called “Accommodation and supports for Ukrainian Refugees”, acts as a clearing house not just for the crisis in accommodating Ukrainians but also housing International Protection (IP) applicants, who come from elsewhere. For now this is a much more pressing challenge, with 142 mostly single men turned away since January 24th as no bed could be found. Some 61 of these are still without a bed.

Committee papers seen by The Irish Times describe a 330 per cent increase in the number of IP applicants, with more than 15,000 coming to Ireland in 2022. Ministers were told that based on current trends, the shortfall of beds in the next four weeks could be as much as 600, and 2,000 by the end of March. But documents given to ministers show that even in optimistic scenarios, where several large-scale buildings are made ready to house IP applicants, the problem could get drastically worse: a shortfall of 2,034 becomes 6,552 by June; 10,416 by September; and 14,322 by December.

For those fleeing Ukraine, there could be a shortfall of between 7,555 and 16,978 beds by the end of March, depending on how many come and how many beds are retained in the system

The problem is exacerbated by the difficulty of sourcing accommodation for single men in particular. “DCEDIY [Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth] is meeting significant resistance (from providers, communities and others) when trying to accommodate IPs,” the briefing states, citing the “emergence of significant protest and local opposition to proposed and recently opened accommodation”, which is “contributing to provider reluctance”.

As for those fleeing Ukraine, there could be a shortfall of between 7,555 and 16,978 beds by the end of March, depending on how many come and how many beds are retained in the system. In December, modelling suggested the shortfall could be 14,000. Based on last week’s briefing that could be, in a worst-case scenario, up to 19,000: 17,000 Ukrainians and 2,000 from elsewhere.

Solutions have been found before, however. Last April, the Cabinet was warned that there would be no accommodation for as many as 8,300 Ukrainians by the end of May, but beds were found.

But one Coalition source said: “There is an element of people wishfully thinking what happened in the past will happen again.” Contracts covering thousands of bed spaces are coming up for renewal. There are internal estimates that there is a risk of losing up to 8,000 of the 47,400 beds in serviced accommodation.

O’Gorman said there was now a greater danger of shortfalls becoming real. “We are not just focused on the number of arrivals, we are also focused on the potential loss of beds... that creates a second risk to our ability to accommodate everybody,” he told The Irish Times. Even if 10 per cent of hotels refused new contracts [only 30 per cent have agreed so far], it would have a “significant impact,” he said.

“There are other sources of accommodation coming online… [but] the real pinch point is going to be over the next number of months.”

Stark warning

Meanwhile, the Cabinet committee was starkly warned of wider challenges: “Public services in certain areas where there is a high concentration of IPs and BOTPs [Beneficiaries of Temporary Protection] are under strain.” (BOTPs is the technical name given to those fleeing the Ukraine war.) “Time is urgently required to plan in detail for integration, given rising community cohesion, tension and disruption concerns, and exploitation by the far-right,” the document stated. It warned there could be 137,000 people fleeing Ukraine in Ireland by the end of the year, “adding to existing housing and homeless challenges”.

This was the backdrop to a letter from O’Gorman’s to ministers on Thursday, seeking large buildings where “camp beds, mattresses, sleeping bags could be set up for people”.

There are ongoing questions over the quality of some accommodation. Following complaints from residents, one NGO visited an accommodation centre where more than 300 people were staying last month. Its report, seen by The Irish Times, outlined how parts “appeared unclean”, with an “overflowing bin” and “unclean smell”.

“The weather on the day was mild but the facility did not feel warm enough. Multiple residents in attendance had significant coughs and appeared unwell,” the report found.

The paper assessed welfare payments such as child benefit not being available in Sweden and Croatia, and an initiative in the Netherlands where people who have fled Ukraine but are not Ukrainian citizens are offered a plane ticket and €5,000 to leave

While Government is adamant it will meet its international obligations, Ireland’s stance has shifted. This goes back several months: last year, visa-free travel for refugees into the State was suspended, and in October, the conditions afforded to Ukrainians were tightened.

Deportations have resumed and there is a major push to deal rapidly with the asylum cases of people who are coming from countries deemed safe, resolving such cases within three months. Minister for Justice Simon Harris told last week’s meeting that there are more checks on aircraft for people who may have destroyed documents in transit, and gardaí have resumed travelling on some flights.

Discussions in Government are zeroing in on how other European countries are implementing the Temporary Protection directive – the EU law that allows those fleeing the war to live, work and claim benefits in the bloc.

A paper comparing Irish supports with other member states was drawn up for the meeting (although not discussed). While states are required to implement the Temporary Protection directive, it is being interpreted in different ways. It is understood the paper assessed (among other things) welfare payments such as child benefit not being available in Sweden and Croatia, and an initiative in the Netherlands where people who have fled Ukraine but are not Ukrainian citizens are offered a plane ticket and €5,000 to leave the jurisdiction.

Altering entitlements

There are no specific proposals on the table, but as The Irish Times reported last Monday, the idea of curtailing or altering entitlements is circulating in Government.

According to sources who have seen the document, it states that “research suggests reducing or limiting the scope of Ireland’s offering would more greatly align our position with the overall approach being taken in other member states.” The “overall offering,” it goes on, “has more elements and is unlimited – different to some other EU member states”.

More work is being done on this: one senior Government source said that a specific subgroup is being established to look at supports available in other countries – similar to what was done last week – but this time, to come back with specific recommendations. O’Gorman signalled openness, so long as it holds with other EU jurisdictions.

“We are always keeping a close eye on what other European countries are doing,” he told The Irish Times.

As to whether benefits or entitlements could change, he said: “If it was a measure that was being adopted on a European-wide basis I think we endeavour to keep ourselves consistent with a pan-member state approach” – agreeing that it would need to be “broadly consistent” with approaches seen elsewhere.

Government figures say it is, for now, the “status quo… but preparing in case it needs to be changed”. Some ministers believe the renewal of the Temporary Protection directive in the spring may present an opportunity, especially if it was co-ordinated at a European level.

In the meantime, they are hunkering down and preparing for migration politics to be bedded into the political mainstream. One Minister says: “I think in the general election, it’s highly likely to be a top-five election issue.”

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones

Jack Horgan-Jones is a political reporter with The Irish Times