Piaras MacEinrí: Anti-migrant sentiment is nothing new, but xenophobes are a tiny minority

There is understandable if ill-informed resentment among disadvantaged Irish because of the Government’s failure to address wider issues, writes Piaras MacEinrí
Piaras MacEinrí: Anti-migrant sentiment is nothing new, but xenophobes are a tiny minority

28/11/2022 Protestors pictured this evening on East Wall Road, where they marched to Dublin Port and blocked traffic in both directions for about 45 minutes. The group are protesting about Government policy on housing refugees in an unused in an usused office building.on East Wall Road.... Picture Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

It didn’t start yesterday.

The year: 1938. The constituency: Meath East. The migrants were not, however, Ukrainian, Afghan, Syrian, or African. They were Irish. 

The West of Ireland was a poor place when the Free State came into being. An early official initiative involved the purchase of land from wealthy British landlords by the Land Commission, typically in places like Meath, and the resettlement of families from impoverished small farms from the western seaboard, many but not all of Gaeltacht origin.

It was not, of course, without local and party-political significance. The supporters of the migrants from the West included the Fianna Fáil party, then seen as largely a party of small farmers and workers, while those opposed to them locally included some in Fine Gael. 

One of them, Patrick Giles, was also a well-known antisemite, telling the Dáil in 1937: “Who owns the wealth of Dublin? Is it the Irish volunteers or the Irish people? No, it is not, but the rotten old Jews."

The migrants made this journey in the face of fierce and, at times, vitriolic opposition. Slogans painted on roads and rooftops proclaimed: “No migrants here”, “Meath land for Meath men”, and “Migrants not welcome”. 

My own father, from East Mayo himself and living in Meath at the time, used to talk about the regular weekend brawls between young men from the two camps, while one person born to a transplanted Gaeltacht family as recently as 1979 remembers being told: ‘Oh, ye were one of the families that got the free land’. It wasn’t said kindly either.

Rural Resettlement

One would wish that this example from the 1930s of a cold and hostile reception for strangers was an exception, but sadly this was not the case, nor was it confined to the migratory rural poor. 

Jim Connolly’s Rural Resettlement scheme started in Clare in 1990 with the intention of enabling urban Dubliners experiencing hard times to relocate to rural regions where housing was more readily available and life was more affordable. 

After the initial culture shock, it was, by and large, a success. But I am aware of at least one remote rural parish — I will not mention its name or county — which made it clear that these urban blow-ins would not be welcome.

As for Travellers, one veteran campaigner used to say that the last asylum seekers would be housed before some Irish people would accept Travellers as neighbours.

There was little welcome for Jews in Ireland either, even after the events of the Second World War and the Holocaust were known. 

After the 1956 Hungarian Uprising against the communist government of the day and their Soviet backers, Ireland was one of 37 countries to accept refugees from that country. A modest number of 541 arrived with strong indications of government and public support. 

The majority were accommodated by the Irish Red Cross in a disused army barracks at Knockalisheen in Clare — ironically, the site of a direct provision centre for asylum seekers today. Yet the circumstances under which they were accommodated, the treatment they received, and the lack of freedom of movement were so oppressive that within a year, most left for Canada.

Subsequently, from the 1970s on, Ireland received further numbers of asylum seekers and refugees from countries as varied as Chile and Vietnam. Again, the path to integration was not a smooth one, and few dedicated services were put in place. In large part this was probably because Ireland was still, to all intents and purposes, a monocultural country.

Celtic Tiger

However, change was to come, and rapidly, from the 1990s onwards with the advent of the Celtic Tiger period of rapid economic development, increasing foreign investment and job growth. Large-scale labour immigration became the norm, while Ireland, along with other European countries, also began to experience a rising trend in asylum numbers. 

It must be said that, by and large, these radical changes came about without a huge degree of opposition, as the country gradually adjusted to being a more mixed, multicultural society. That was not always the case, however, for asylum seekers; many groups opposed the housing of asylum seekers in their localities, while options proposed for wealthier suburbs in Dublin and Cork did not, mysteriously, progress at all.

Today, over 15% of the population here was born outside Ireland. Earlier this year, the 2022 Census was distributed in a total of 22 languages, as well as English and Irish. We have experienced three decades of momentous change — cultural and economic, but also demographic.

The arrival of modern, large-scale migration has had repercussions all over Europe and beyond. One clear reaction, seen in virtually every country, has been the rise of ethnonationalist political parties concerned with what they see as the dilution of national identity within a more porous, globalised world economy and society. 

Parties of the right are now in government in countries as varied as Sweden (with its strong social democratic traditions), Italy, and Spain. The government of Hungary is unabashedly xenophobic, while that of Poland is not far behind. Much of this thinking is defensive, inward-looking, and ineffective.

Failure of the Irish far right

One question which may be posed in the case of Ireland, then, is not so much whether such opinions also exist here, but why they are not stronger than seems to be the case. 

Those parties which label themselves as strongly nationalist or which oppose such policies as EU membership and continuing immigration have very little political traction. They constitute a poorly organised, highly fractured group almost entirely lacking in effective leadership.

When they stand for election, they attract a derisory number of votes. In recent years they have fruitlessly endeavoured to weaponise populist sentiment about a variety of issues, notably the pandemic (or ‘scamdemic’) and the public health measures to deal with it. But they have failed thus far to translate any such populist feelings into a viable political movement.

Perhaps the most noticeable feature of this loose group of conspiracy theorists, hate-speech broadcasters, and social-media activists is that almost all of their ideas are imported, many from American sources.

But while the USA is now a deeply divided country, with up to 70m Americans falsely believing that the last presidential election was ‘stolen’ from Donald Trump, Irish society remains, for the most part, more confident, more harmonious, more centrist, and less inclined to embrace the doctrines of hate, racism, and violence which have engulfed a significant part of the American mainstream.

All that said, signs of discontent, notably with the numbers and provenance of some immigrants, have not been entirely absent. 

Immigration Control Platform

If one discounts earlier movements such as the Blueshirts of the 1930s and the actively fascist organisation Ailtirí na hAiséirghe (Architects of the Resurrection) which came after them and leaving the particular circumstances of the Troubles and the activities of the Provisional IRA and their loyalist counterparts to one side, the first actively xenophobic party did not emerge until the 1990s, with the foundation in 1998, in Cork, of the Immigration Control Platform.

Their main target at the time appeared to be ‘blow-ins’ from the UK and Germany, including new age Travellers and other ‘counter-cultural’ escapees from the bustle of modern city life. 

Inconveniently for the ICP, such people had, of course, a perfect legal right to settle in Ireland. Moreover, the arrival of such persons sometimes meant the difference in the retention of a teacher in a local school or the creation of local craft employment. 

There were occasional misunderstandings — the decision of one German family to surround their fields and property with impenetrable barbed wire did not go down well in one case — but in general this quiet movement of people, often to depopulated and remote places, attracted little notice and was generally welcomed. The ICP switched to campaigning against asylum seekers within a few years, but again with little success.

Upsurge in street activism

In light of the above, how can we explain the recent upsurge in street activism in several parts of Ireland, often directed at the very community which was warmly welcomed here as recently as last February — people from Ukraine, who fled in their millions to escape Putin’s pitiless war?

One reason is the very ubiquity of those seeking refuge at present. Whereas most asylum seekers were previously housed in nearly 40 direct provision centres and constituted fewer than 7,000 people, this current year has seen an influx of more than 60,000 Ukrainians and a considerable further number of asylum seekers, so that there are now few cities, villages, small towns, and remote places which have not received a share.

The sheer numbers involved and the rapidity of their arrival from a country at war and other places has inevitably required an urgent scramble to provide a range of services as well as housing, often in less than satisfactory circumstances, as local authorities countrywide struggled to cope.

I have some knowledge of this myself, as a member of a committee which works with the city council here in Cork, and can testify to the enormous good work, goodwill, and effective co-ordination being achieved by a coalition of statutory and voluntary organisations. Moreover, by and large, an immense degree of goodwill is still present within the general population.

Nonetheless, mistakes have been made, both in the failure to provide a joined-up, whole-of-government approach and in the messaging which should accompany it. 

In part, this masks a bigger challenge facing Irish society and its constituent parts as a whole. The very effectiveness, rapidity, and scale of the services deployed to help Ukrainians have demonstrated one overriding fact: where there is a political will, a way will be found. 

Why, then, can we not do the same for indigenous homeless Irish? In plain words, why can we not provide a comparable range of supports and services for those already living here in difficult circumstances? What about the other asylum seekers and refugees, many of whom have fled similarly appalling circumstances as the Ukrainians, but who do not benefit from these accelerated measures and who now feel doubly disadvantaged?

Let us be clear. Most people are not opposed to Ukrainian refugees or others seeking refuge. That view is only to be found among a tiny minority of xenophobes, although that has not stopped such people from masquerading as ‘housing activists’, falsely claiming to have the broader interests of the community at heart while spreading the vilest forms of hate, racism, homophobia, and misogyny online. 

But there is a broader strand of understandable resentment among disadvantaged Irish and the Government has lamentably failed to address this wider picture.

In so doing, they have left the door open to the haters. Moreover, it is difficult not to conclude that one minister, Roderic O’Gorman, has largely been left to carry the can.

Do communities have the right to say no? I think the answer must be no — we do not have a ‘right’ to veto someone, on grounds of nationality, ethnicity, or status, from living in our midst. 

But we do need better information processes, we do need clearer messaging, and we do need a much more serious approach to long-integration and inclusion. We also need a long-term approach to community development more generally, infrastructural planning, and housing — our biggest current crisis.

Piaras Mac Éinrí is Lecturer in Migration Studies and Geography at the Department of Geography, School of the Human Environment, in University College Cork. [He was Director from 1997-2003 of the inter-disciplinary Irish Centre for Migration Studies, focusing on Irish and comparative international migration research and was co-founder of Irish immigrant support centre Nasc in 2000. He is also an active member of UCC’s Institute for Social Science in the 21st Century (ISS21)]. He served in the Department of Foreign Affairs from 1976 to 1987, with postings in Brussels, Beirut and Paris.

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