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The burn-them-out craze will end in tragedy unless the State quickly gets a grip

The effect of current policy is to strengthen the far-right talking point that ‘Ireland is full’ when it is nothing of the sort

When people tell you who they are, the saying goes, you should believe them.

For months and months, gangs of people have been gathering at venues that either house asylum seekers or are intended to house them. Some of the protesters have reasonable concerns. Some do not. And some of them chant: “Burn them out! Burn them out! Burn them out!”

Last weekend, as people prepared to celebrate the new year, arsonists set fire to a vacant pub premises in Ringsend, Dublin, which had been renovated to house homeless (Irish) families. Far-right activists had spread false stories online that the building was due to house asylum seekers and somebody torched the place.

We have a clear and present problem with the burn-them-out craze. As the Government struggles to deal with the influx of Ukrainian refugees and with a surge in the number of people arriving from other countries claiming international protection, opposition to individual sites is springing up all over the country. Not every centre, by any means. Some of the opposition is peaceful. Some of it is not.


Last year there were arson attacks in Dublin 1; Cork; Donegal; Sandwith Street in Dublin city centre – where asylum seekers’ tents were burned; Ballybrack in south Dublin; again in the city centre and in Finglas on the night of the riots; in Rosslare, Co Wexford; and in Rosscahill, near Oughterard, Co Galway, where a former hotel due to house asylum seekers was burned out in late December. In other words, the arson in Ringsend is part of a well-established trend. There is a clear playbook for far-right anti-immigrant activists who are prepared to resort to violence.

If we keep going like this, people are going to be killed. That’s what happens when you keep burning down buildings.

Three things are needed pretty urgently if this trajectory towards tragedy is to be altered.

First, the security and policing response needs to be dramatically improved. Asylum centres need their own significant security provision – which their owners can well afford to provide out of the small fortunes they are being paid by the State. Where protests occur, they need to be policed with perhaps a little less concern for not offending the protesters and a little more determination to demonstrate that there are lines whose crossing will not be tolerated. The chanting of “Burn them out!” should be well on the far side of the line. How is this not incitement to hatred and violence?

When attacks occur, the investigation should be rapid and robust. Nobody has been charged with any of the arson attacks last year. That’s not good enough. I doubt if many of the perpetrators are master criminals, schooled in the techniques of covering their tracks. The gardaí need to up their game.

Secondly, the State needs to get a lot better at consulting with and informing local communities about what’s going on. Leo Varadkar is right when he says that people cannot have a veto on who comes to live in their neighbourhood. But it is the neighbourly thing to do to let people know if a hundred new residents are about to arrive and what facilities will be made available to them.

There are many, many examples of communities around the country whose initial nervousness about the arrival of people from other countries has been transformed into a welcoming and co-operative atmosphere from which all benefit. But that can’t happen without open channels of communication between the authorities and local communities. The State must reserve the right to place migrants in emergency accommodation even when there are substantial local objections. But surely it should try to overcome or at least minimise those objections in advance?

Ireland is not full. But it is inefficient at processing asylum applications, queasy about turning people down and then deporting them, and slow at sourcing available accommodation options

Thirdly, we need better politics and policy around all this. The existing government policy is basically to dissuade people from coming here by disimproving their conditions. This applies both to Ukrainians, who have been told that new arrivals will no longer enjoy the same welfare and accommodation benefits, and to international protection applicants, who are learning that they may face several weeks on the streets before accommodation is found for them. In both cases, the expectation in government is that word on the international protection grapevine will get out that Ireland is no longer a comfortable destination, and that would-be applicants will go elsewhere.

Yes, this is not the official position. But it is, I am afraid, the effective policy. The problem with it is that it reinforces one of the key arguments of the far-right: that “Ireland is full”.

Ireland is not full; it is one of the least densely populated countries in Europe, with the capacity and resources to manage this problem. It is, however, inefficient at processing asylum applications, queasy about turning people down and then deporting them, and slow at sourcing available accommodation options.

Our asylum and immigration policy and processes need to be better and sharper. Our immigration policy needs to serve the needs of a growing economy at full employment. Our asylum policy needs to be mindful of our international obligations but ready to say to people: you don’t qualify and you must leave.

That is, I think, where all the main political parties are heading. The first responsibility, as ever, is that of the Government. It must show it has the essential quality of any administration – grip. And it must do so quickly.

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