Ireland has an immigration problem. Almost a year after refugees started to arrive from Ukraine, leaving state capacity buckled and local communities unnerved, two very different expressions of civic disorder have emerged. In one, migrants are housed in cubicle dorms in office buildings or, even worse, in tents. In the other, grassroots anti-migrant protests are sweeping across the country, rallying around the slogan “Ireland is Full”. There were 307 anti-migrant protests in 2022, while 2023 has already seen 64. At the latest demonstration in Dublin, on Tuesday, more than 2,000 protestors took to the streets.
The focal point of the protests is Dublin’s East Wall, where, in November, after the government converted a state building into a migrant residence without consulting locals, hundreds of people started to gather week after week. By December, the demonstrations spread to other areas — Drimnagh, Finglas, Ballymun and Fermoy. Rather than losing steam as each month went by, the protests continued to intensify, sprouting across the country. And as they did, it became clear that they were different from other anti-migrant demonstrations in Europe.
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Last month, a group of 300 anti-migrant protestors clashed with a smaller counter-protest outside the Shelbourne Hotel in central Dublin. The demographic profile of each faction revealed something curious. As one might expect, the anti-migrant protesters were from the working-class areas where the migrants are being housed, while the counter-protesters were largely middle-class liberals. More surprising, however, was the significant proportion of women among the anti-migrant contingent.
One of the principal motivating factors behind Ireland’s anti-migrant protests concerns a number of reports of migrants mistreating women and even young children. Last week, for instance, a male migrant allegedly walked into Temple Street Children’s Hospital and announced that he wanted to rape children. This week, a migrant was charged by the Gardai with the sexual assault of a teenage girl.
A few days earlier, unfounded rumours circulated about a migrant from a camp in Finglas sexually assaulting a woman. The impact of such incidents is borne out in national polls: in one recent survey carried out by The Business Post, only 38% of women supported building new homes for migrants, compared to 55% of men. As The Irish Independent noted: “The view that Ireland has taken in too many refugees is notably stronger among women in working-class communities.”
If true, the government’s official depiction of Ukrainian women and children fleeing war and persecution doesn’t seem to be taking hold in the minds of voters. And the reason for this seems straightforward: it ignores a surge in non-Ukrainian asylum seekers piggybacking off Ukrainian sympathy. The Business Post recently reported that “the number of international protection applications in the first half of last year had gone up by 200% compared to an average increase of 25% in such applications across the EU”. Elsewhere, the government’s Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth reported that, of the roughly 20,000 non-Ukrainian asylum seekers, 50% are single males. In other words, there is a glaring dissonance between the Government’s official depiction of women and children fleeing the Ukrainian war and the observed reality of suspicious young single men from non-Ukrainian countries rapidly increasing.
In any other European country, such a scenario would be ripe for a Right-wing populist party to make electoral headway. But Ireland’s modern political landscape has no equivalent to Le Pen, Orbán, or Trump. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have ruled Ireland for a century. The former positions itself as more traditional and working-class, and the latter as more secular and pro-business — but, by and large, they govern identically. Over the past decade, as any legacy of Right-wing attitudes dissipated from the post-Celtic Tiger Ireland, anti-establishment angst had channelled itself into support for the rising Sinn Féin party — to great success. Under the slogan promising “time for change”, the party’s first-place position suggests it will take control of the government in the next election. Unless, that is, the anti-migrant protests overshadow Sinn Féin’s rising star.
These working-class protesters are the same demographic as Sinn Féin’s reliable voter base. As Dublin City University Professor Eoin O’Malley discovered after polling individual issues, “Sinn Féin support is correlated with anti-immigrant sentiment”. Meanwhile, The Business Post poll referenced above indicates that while 75% of Fine Gael and 71% Fianna Fáil supporters believe that only the far-Right oppose taking in refugees, that figure dropped to 45% among Sinn Féin supporters.
This anti-immigrant sentiment contrasts starkly with the Sinn Féin party leadership, which perhaps explains the three-point drop from its all-time high last June. It is noticeable, for instance, that the East Wall protests were actually located in Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald’s constituency. A number of placards showed a photo of McDonald with the words “Traitor” written across it. Similarly, protests in Finglas singled out the local Sinn Féin TD Dessie Ellis for condemnation.
Amid such a politically hostile climate, Sinn Féin’s detachment from its anti-migrant working-class base is starting to open the door to something modern Ireland has never experienced: Right-wing populist parties, the most prominent being the Irish Freedom Party (IFP). Led by Hermann Kelly, an ally of Nigel Farage, the IFP has primarily campaigned for an Irish exit from the EU since it was founded in 2018. It should be stressed that it remains on the margins of Irish politics and is yet to register any serious uptick in the polls. But Kelly and the IFP are starting to position themselves as the party of the protestors, and it seems unlikely that they won’t be listened to. At the recent Shelbourne Hotel protest, for example, IFP Chairman Michael Leahy gave a prominent speech, no doubt hoping to encourage former Sinn Féin voters to switch to his party.
For his part, Malachy Steenson, the anti-migrant protests’ unofficial leader, appears willing to give the IFP a chance. Steenson, a solicitor with a history of advocacy in the broad republican movement, has maintained neutrality on any specific party monopolising the protests but frequently speaks alongside IFP members at demonstrations. In 2021, he gave a speech at an IFP demonstration, while last June he attended the IFP Ard Fheis (annual party conference), where he was photographed next to Kelly and Leahy. While Steenson might not officially label himself as part of the IFP, and is always referred to as a “guest” when he appears at their events, he is certainly friendly with them.
Of course, whether this translates into meaningful change remains unclear. The IFP’s challenge will be to turn this spark of popularity into a political machine. Can the IFP recruit the popular Steenson to run on its behalf? Can the party field enough candidates across many localities? Does it have the bureaucratic nous to conduct a campaign and, eventually, state operations? Can it appeal to voters less persuaded by its core objective of leaving the EU to increase its numbers?
These questions are yet to be answered, but it is not inconceivable that the energy of the anti-migrant protests will converge around the IFP. Perhaps the next election won’t mark IFP’s ascendence — but if conditions stay the same or deteriorate, Sinn Féin could find itself staring at an exodus of voters for whom Right-wing populism is suddenly palatable.