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29 November 2023

Anti-migrant protests are tearing Ireland apart

As hostility towards foreigners rises, the feted land of a thousand welcomes has slowly become an unhappy isle.

By Finn McRedmond

The day before St Patrick’s Day in 2017, the then Irish prime minister Enda Kenny spoke to the world from the White House. Flanked by an American flag and the Irish Tricolour, with Donald Trump to his right, the taoiseach spoke of the Irish diaspora and the home it had found in the US. “We believed in the shelter of America, in the compassion of America, in the opportunity of America,” he said. And then, wearing a Kelly-green tie with a bushel of shamrocks pinned on his lapel, Kenny delivered a line that typified the liberal disposition of Ireland’s political class: St Patrick himself “was an immigrant”.

What a handy parable. Establishment Ireland tells itself a simple story: because the patron saint was a non-native (he arrived in 432 AD) it has been encoded in the Irish psyche to welcome outsiders. But now the nation is gripped by an identity crisis. After near-record immigration to the republic (net migration stood at 77,600 in the year to April 2023), this romantic vision of an open-armed nation faces its greatest challenge yet.

[See also: Suella Braverman’s mask is coming off]

On the evening of 23 November, a riot broke out in Dublin city centre, with arson, looting and assaults on the Gardaí. The unrest was triggered by a knife attack outside a primary school on Parnell Square, in the north of Dublin, earlier that day. (The suspect is an Algerian-born naturalised citizen.) Three young children were stabbed and a care assistant was seriously wounded as she tried to shield them from the attacker.

Only days earlier, on 17 November, a Slovakian immigrant was sentenced for the murder of Ashling Murphy, a 23-year-old primary school teacher, in January 2022. She was stabbed 11 times while jogging in her home town of Tullamore in central Ireland. The following April, two gay men were murdered in their homes in Sligo in the north of the country – and their bodies mutilated – by an Iraqi man who had emigrated to Ireland as a child.

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The severe depth of Ireland’s housing crisis – the Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has put the shortage of homes at 250,000 – has further inflamed tensions. In 2019 a hotel in County Leitrim, which was due to host asylum seekers, was set ablaze twice. Hundreds recently protested a similar plan for a hotel in County Wexford. Since late last year, Dublin’s East Wall has attracted regular anti-refugee protests. Soaring rents and housing shortages are already a source of antagonism across the country.

An incoherent coalition of protesters – in part led by the far-right Irish Freedom Party and National Party – suggests that the government’s policy to accommodate asylum seekers adds needless strain to a system already at breaking point. “Ireland is full” is their clarion call. A rather different message to céad míle fáilte – one thousand welcomes – the country’s preferred slogan on the international stage.

The stabbing of the schoolchildren on 23 November transformed the unease in Ireland into unfettered wrath. Within hours of the attack, far-right agitators made a call to arms over social media – “any foreigner, just kill them” read one message – and Dublin was engulfed by a riot as 500 people  torched buses and a tram, and fought with police. Meanwhile, the other Ireland spoke: “Today I call on us to remember who we really are,” said Varadkar.

Was a backlash against the liberal narrative on immigration inevitable? In the year to April 2023, immigration reached a 16-year high of 141,600, including 42,000 Ukrainians. On a per capita basis, Ireland has accepted six times more refugees from Ukraine than Britain. A fifth of the country’s five million population was born overseas. One opinion poll conducted in March by the Business Post/Red C, found that 75 per cent of people believed Ireland was accepting too many refugees. The country has long considered itself immune to the worst excesses of national populism but the current levels of immigration, combined with the profound housing crisis, mean Ireland has become a tinderbox.

Yet the coalition government continues to inhabit a parallel universe. As huge shifts in Ireland’s demography have taken place, little space has been afforded for national discussion. As in the UK – recall Gordon Brown’s description of the Rochdale voter Gillian Duffy as a “bigoted woman” in 2010 – immigration has been a taboo subject. To question government policy is to invite the label of “far right” or “racist”.

But this good nation – the self-styled final stronghold against the tidal wave of populism sweeping Europe, the antithesis of Brexit Britain – is struggling to maintain the facade. As far-right parties surge in Germany, Sweden and the Netherlands, in part through exploiting anti-immigration sentiment, Ireland may prove no exception. The most potent electoral challenger would be a sensibly run, immigration-sceptic party that responds to the polling and channels the disquiet. That party is not the left-populist Sinn Féin, which while leading opinion polls on both sides of the border avoids challenging the consensus on immigration.

At the very least, Ireland’s political centre can no longer maintain the pretence that radical changes in a country’s demography are of no cause for concern among the general population. In recent years, Ireland has cleaved closer and closer to the European continent, distancing itself from the uncivil Brexitland next door. But something darker has emerged on the streets of Dublin: the feted land of a thousand welcomes has slowly, inexorably, become an unhappy isle. National mythology can only stretch so far.

[See also: Sinn Féin sees false equivalence in Palestine]

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This article appears in the 29 Nov 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Being Jewish Now