A number of TDs have quietly warned of what they believe was an increase in anti-immigrant views among some voters, even before the incendiary remarks made by Noel Grealish at a recent meeting in Oughterard, Co Galway.
Prominent deputies – Independents, frontbenchers in the main Opposition parties and Ministers in government – have worried for months about a trend in voter sentiment they see in their constituencies.
In telling the Oughterard meeting that African asylum seekers were economic migrants sponging off the system, many believed Grealish was tapping into that body of opinion.
“There is a huge appetite for that kind of language,” said one rural Fianna Fáil TD. “It is worse than anything I have seen in my time as a public representative.”
One Minister, who has been a councillor or TD for three decades, struggled to explain what he was experiencing. “It was never this bad. Is it a breakdown in society, what is it?”
Few of the scores of TDs who spoke to The Irish Times will go on the record to air their concerns and their views are not shared by all TDs. Those representing urban areas and constituencies which have not housed direct provision centres do not seem to have had the same experience.
Others detect nothing more than the same latent, anti-immigrant, right-wing sentiment that has existed among a minority for decades. “It’s a bit like those people who’d say: ‘What about those f**kers on the dole?’” said a Fine Gael TD. “That core is always going to be there, a right-wing core.”
Locals in Oughterard, which has a population of about 1,300, called a meeting over concerns about the Connemara Gateway Hotel, just north of the town, possibly becoming a direct provision centre.
Grealish, who was not seen in Leinster House last week as the Dáil returned after its summer recess, was applauded for his comments at the meeting although others attending it, such as Independent TD Catherine Connolly, objected to his language.
‘Our own people’
Another Independent TD, Cork South West’s Michael Collins, offered Grealish support last week, asking: “Why are our own people hungry in the street? Look after our own people first and then when that issue is sorted, let’s start looking at people from across the world. We’re losing our culture here.”
But the overwhelming majority of Grealish’s colleagues strongly condemned his statement, even as they objected to the low level of information provided by the Department of Justice on where new centres will be located, as well as the direct provision system itself.
Donegal Independent Thomas Pringle bluntly called Grealish and Collins “a disgrace”.
“It is a negligent statement for TDs to be making, putting people at risk and apart from anything it is just plain wrong.”
“I disagree with him strongly,” said Carlow Kilkenny’s Bobby Aylward of Grealish. “I don’t have a racist bone in my body. He is tarring everyone with the one brush, although there may be a few of them in it.”
However, Aylward, a Fianna Fáil TD, said “people need to be brought along” and it is unacceptable not to consult residents of a town where a direct provision centre may be located.
After a period in which locals in Oughterard were told little of what was being planned at the Connemara Gateway Hotel, the Department of Justice has since only confirmed that it is being evaluated as a possible direct provision centre.
This approach is defended by some Fine Gaelers, with a rural TD saying: “It’s a bit like the chicken and egg. You can’t consult because if you consult then it is not going to happen.”
Aylward also said he disagreed with the direct provision system itself, saying it is wrong that people can be kept within it for 10 years.
One Minister, who called the Grealish comments “shocking”, nevertheless predicted the former Progressive Democrat, would benefit electorally, claiming: “It will have a positive impact on his vote.”
Those who say anti-immigrant views are on the rise offer various explanations. One Sinn Féin deputy argued that public services were adequate in the mid-2000s, even in towns and areas that took in asylum seekers. Consequently, it is argued, there was less friction.
‘Pressure on services’
“There were no issues in those areas at the time,” the TD said. “What’s the difference? Fifteen years ago there was less pressure on services. That’s the difference. There is a tendency when there is pressure on services to blame those on the lowest rung.
“There is a genuine fear in terms of services: in terms of school places, in terms of GPs, even in terms of childcare.”
Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has said there is a group of people who seek to exploit concerns about the local impact of direct provision centres “to whip up anti-immigrant, anti-asylum seeker sentiment”. “This is insidious and dangerous behaviour,” he said.
Another Fianna Fáil frontbencher said the success of Donald Trump and the rise of anti-immigrant views in the UK and across Europe had encouraged some Irish people to say things they may have felt were publicly unacceptable a decade ago.
“There is a fear after what they have seen in the Mediterranean. There is a fear, an unwarranted fear.”
Two TDs – one from Fianna Fáil and one from Fine Gael – also told The Irish Times they had heard anti-immigrant views expressed during the recent beef protests. In posts on Facebook and comments elsewhere, some protesters encouraged the closure of beef plants because it would deprive immigrant workers of employment and thus force them to leave Ireland.
Tommy Broughan, an Independent TD for Dublin Bay North, is one of those who cites pressure on public services as a problem, and says such difficulties make it harder to achieve “good, integrated communities”.
“Most people would expect there is a structured immigration policy in this country so we can provide services for everyone,” Broughan said, adding that the coming years would see an increase in climate-change-influenced migration. “The EU hasn’t worked out a structured immigration policy.”
Nevertheless, Broughan said Irish people, due to a history of emigration during the Famine and periods of economic hardship, were generally welcoming.
That fabled welcome was exaggerated, claimed others, who also said ill-feeling towards immigrants had been consistent among a section of society. “It has always been there,” said a Fine Gael TD. “And a lot bigger than people think.”
But this feeling, this TD argued, was “close to the surface” following the EU’s enlargement into eastern Europe in 2004, which led to in influx of immigrants from the accession countries.
But a significant number of TDs disagree and are privately troubled by what they see as a rising tide of ill-feeling towards some immigrants.