Far-right yet to reach ‘critical mass’ in Ireland, says Taoiseach in warning over xenophobia

‘One always has to be careful of exploitation of situations,’ Martin says on Paris visit against backdrop of refugee and housing challenges

The racism and xenophobia that motivate far right-wing political parties elsewhere in Europe “have not achieved critical mass yet in Ireland,” Taoiseach Micheál Martin said on Thursday.

A report by an expert group warned this week that Ireland’s hitherto positive attitude could change in the face of the continuing influx of refugees and asylum seekers, combined with the housing crisis and economic challenges.

Mr Martin spoke in Paris, where Marine Le Pen’s far-right, ant-immigrant Rassemblement National is now the leading opposition party in the country.

“I think Ireland hasn’t had that far-right viewpoint in terms of being a critical mass,” Mr Martin said. “But one always has to be careful of exploitation of situations.”

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The arrival of more than 60,000 Ukrainian refugees “is unprecedented in scale. We have never experienced anything like this in Ireland before,” Mr Martin said.

On a per capita basis, the number of Ukrainians in Ireland is high, Mr Martin said. With a population more than 13 times that of Ireland, France has taken in 110,000 refugees.

The Taoiseach praised the generous response of the Irish. “Ukrainians coming into Ireland have access to our health services and schools. It is often heart-warming,” he said. When Ukrainian children are moved because of accommodation pressures, “the first people to protest are their Irish teachers.”

Ireland is also attracting record numbers of asylum seekers from Africa, the Middle East and elsewhere. “There is a challenge on international protection in terms of numbers far higher than we would have anticipated,” Mr Martin said. “They are nearly three times what we experienced pre-Covid in 2019. That is causing concern in terms of sheer capacity to manage those numbers. But I think we should look at the positives.”

The best solution, he added, was “rapid build, both for Ukrainians and in terms of social housing.”

The Taoiseach expressed shock at “appalling, horrific attacks on the people of Ukraine”, which he believes “represent war crimes in terms of the singular focus on the people”.

Mr Martin said Vladimir Putin is intensifying attacks on energy infrastructure to make life unlivable for people in Ukraine this winter. “Up to 40 per cent of Ukraine’s energy infrastructure is destroyed. That could create further migration from Ukraine. That is what he wants to do.”

Mr Martin said the Ukrainian government understands why Ireland cannot send lethal weapons “in terms of both not being a member of Nato and our military neutrality. But also in terms of our capacity. We don’t have a lot of military hardware, to be frank.”

Ireland has contributed up to €55 million worth of non-lethal material, he said. The Government wants to help Ukraine demine areas that have been under Russian occupation, where bomblets pose a particular hazard for children.

Ireland has promised €25 million in humanitarian aid for Ukraine before Christmas. It will be channelled through international institutions, to ensure that it goes to areas where it is most needed, Mr Martin said.

Ireland will also participate in a solidarity conference organised by French president Emmanuel Macron in Paris on December 13th. The conference will seek donations of electrical generators “and anything that Europe can do to provide heat and light to Ukrainians in very, very difficult circumstances,” Mr Martin said.

The French and Irish leaders “agreed today we have to stay solid,” Mr Martin said. “We have to hold our nerve, stay united across the EU against real challenges, migration being one, but energy pricing being another.”

Evoking a theme dear to Mr Macron, the Taoiseach said Europe must become “more coherent and unified if it is to stay strategically relevant and important and meet these challenges”.

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe

Lara Marlowe is Paris Correspondent of The Irish Times