Analysis: Ireland waved goodbye to its world-famous welcome last year as anti-immigrant rhetoric gained foothold

Disinformation and fear-mongering around immigration have seeped into public consciousness on a scale like never before

Ireland waved goodbye to its world-famous welcome last year.

For many years, this nation appeared to distance itself from the xenophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric that now plagues political and societal discourse across much of mainland Europe. A housing crisis, the rampant spread of disinformation and one night in November changed all that.

Jump back 12 months, and already the mood around asylum seekers in this country was shifting. In Dublin’s East Wall, protesters objecting to the housing of international protection applicants (IPs) in local buildings continued their blockade of traffic, causing disruption around the city centre. The protests attracted far-right and anti-immigration campaigners from around the country, with some local residents saying those taking part did not represent the beliefs of the area as a whole.

Also in late January, the Government announced it was closing its Citywest transit hub as an emergency shelter. As a result, any single men arriving into the country seeking asylum would no longer be offered accommodation. The State said it would prioritise helping people from Ukraine and women and children seeking asylum. “There is no lack of compassion from the Government or the Irish people but there is a lack of capacity and we are doing all we can at the moment to source more accommodation,” said Taoiseach Leo Varadkar at the time.


By the end of January there were 27 homeless IPs on the streets. By late March, this had risen to about 400. By May, there were more than 550 IPs without accommodation. Research later revealed almost 1,400 people seeking international protection experienced homelessness for up to 10 weeks between January and May, including three pregnant women and four unaccompanied children.

In May, confrontations between anti- and pro-immigrant protesters on Upper Sandwith Street in the south inner city resulted in an arson attack on the makeshift refugee encampment outside Dublin’s International Protection Office. While there were no injuries, the incident sparked concerns among Government officials regarding the safety of homeless IPs. Within days, the Department of Integration and Equality said it would make emergency accommodation available to homeless asylum seekers and by June, the number of people without housing had dropped to about 50.

Things quietened down during the summer months, or so it seemed to the general public. However, staff within the Department of Integration continued to work to avoid another cohort of asylum seekers, or Ukrainians, arriving into the country without access to accommodation. They were also concerned by a High Court ruling in April that found the Government had breached EU law by not accommodating all asylum seekers.

The Government also faced criticism for creating a two-tier system between how Ukrainians and asylum seekers were supported. In April, Dr Niall Muldoon, the Ombudsman for Children, said these differences were “unacceptable”.

This was echoed by a report in July from the Government-appointed external advisory group on ending direct provision. “All refugees who have ‘suffered trauma and danger and been forced to flee from their homelands’ should be treated equally,” wrote the authors of the report, who also said the practice of relying on the private sector to house IPs was unreliable and had reached its limits.

Immigration experts continued to highlight the need for Ireland to change its approach to the crisis – moving away from emergency mechanisms and towards a system capable of dealing with immigration in the long term. We live in a world of climate change, war and persecution, one expert said. While the numbers of asylum seekers arriving here will ebb and flow, this is going to be an ongoing problem.

In September, the Department of Children appointed a national lead on civic engagement to figure out a substantive, longer-term system of communication with communities where accommodation centres for IPs or Ukrainians were set to open.

By October, the number of Ukrainians and IPs being directly accommodated by the State surpassed 100,000. Proposals brought to Cabinet by Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman that Ukrainians only be housed for 90 days caused strong pushback within Government, particularly from Tánaiste Micheál Martin and Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien who argued this would transfer responsibility to the Department of Housing, which would have no choice but to provide housing or homelessness services.

Two months later, following weeks of heated debate, the Government agreed on the 90-day accommodation system for Ukrainians along with a reduced rate of social welfare equivalent to the amount paid to other asylum seekers. The Government says the changes, which will come into effect once legislation is passed by the Oireachtas in the new year, will bring the Irish system more in line with those in other western European countries. Ministers also believe the measures are necessary to discourage the secondary movement of Ukrainian refugees to Ireland from other safe countries.

On November 23rd, an attack on children and their carer at Parnell Square was followed by rioting in Dublin city centre on a scale not seen for many years. Amid this violence, rioters targeted at least two accommodation centres for asylum seekers and refugees. Just more than three weeks later, a historic Galway hotel, earmarked for asylum seeker accommodation, was set ablaze. Gardaí later said they believed the attack on Ross Lake House hotel was the work of a local person but also acknowledged members of the far right, including some from the National Party, had been campaigning in the area in opposition to immigration in the months leading up to the fire. Debate on the airwaves leading up to Christmas included comments from local Galway councillors criticising the Government for continuing to accept people looking for asylum when “the inn is full”.

Another fire at a disused pub in Ringsend that had been earmarked to house homeless families was also confirmed to be an arson attack, with gardaí believing it was prompted by false claims by anti-immigrant campaigners that the building was to be used to house asylum seekers. Some local councillors subsequently argued the attack might not have happened if there had been “clear communication” about its planned use by the Dublin Regional Homeless Executive.

At time of writing, there are more than 102,500 Ukrainians and 26,000 international protection applicants in Ireland. Of these, more than 250 were homeless in the days leading up to Christmas. The debate around those fleeing war and persecution is now mainstream. Disinformation and fear-mongering around immigration have seeped into the public consciousness on a scale never before seen in this country. And with local elections and a potential general election coming down the tracks, immigration is on course to become one of the main issues on people’s minds when heading to the ballot box in 2024.

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