On a poster placed near three hotels in Dublin Ireland filled with asylum seekers and Ukrainian refugees, the residents of the small Irish town of Rosslare Harbour have a blunt message for the government: “Enough is Enough”.
Their peaceful, carefully calibrated campaign against using a fourth hotel to house hundreds more asylum seekers could not be more different from that of the anti-immigrant activists who helped incite a riot in Dublin in late November.
But both underline an uncomfortable truth for the Irish establishment: immigration is now firmly on the political agenda and for the first time is likely to play a significant role in national elections, due by early 2025.
“Will it cause anti-immigrant or far-right parties to gain traction? Yes, I do believe that will happen,” said local residents’ group chair Bernie Mullen of government policies around placing arrivals in small towns without consultation.
“There will be a backlash in the elections, and it’s their own fault.”
Ireland is almost unique in Europe in having no significant far-right political party, and pride at the country’s history of emigration has created a taboo around anti-immigrant rhetoric.
But that taboo has started to soften since the arrival of almost 100,000 Ukrainian refugees – the largest number per capita in Western Europe – joining record numbers of asylum seekers and a huge multinational workforce amid a crippling housing crisis.
The most dramatic sign of change was the Dublin riot, when a small group of far-right activists attacked police after the stabbing of three young children by a man Irish newspapers have identified as Algerian born, triggering a wave of violence and looting. Police have declined to comment on the suspect’s identity.
But there has also been a shift in political rhetoric. Prime Minister Leo Varadkar in October told parliament the country had reached “a limit on our capacity” to house asylum seekers and refugees.
Varadkar announced plans on Tuesday to slash allowances for newly arrived Ukrainian refugees using state accommodation to 38.80 euros ($41.90) per week from 220 euros and put a 90-day limit on the time they can remain housed by the state.
Ireland asylum seekers
News broke in Rosslare Harbour in early November that plans to turn the long-shuttered Great Southern Hotel into a nursing home were being scrapped in favour of accommodation for asylum seekers.
A WhatsApp group formed at 11 a.m. had 700 people by lunchtime, organisers say, with anger both at the loss of the nursing home and the impact of hundreds more asylum seekers on a town of around 1,200 already housing over 300.
“People just can’t cope with it … Where are they going to go to school, where are they going to go to get doctor services?” Mark Doyle, 47, said, standing near an oil drum fire at one of four 24-hour pickets being maintained around the hotel.
The government ministry responsible said it was “still considering” using the site for asylum seekers, but did not respond to a question on how many could be housed there. Wexford County Council has said 170 people will be housed in 44 rooms but not how many would be housed in the remaining 65 rooms and apartments.
Integration Minister Roderic O’Gorman is “not in a position to discount any offer of accommodation, given the acute shortage”, a spokesperson said.
Organisers repeatedly made the point that the town warmly welcomed the first refugees and asylum seekers and they insist they are not opposed to immigration.
“We’re doing everything in our power to ensure that we’re not drawing any negative attention to ourselves,” said Niamh Dennis, another organiser.
Similar campaigns in a number of communities across the country are starting to resonate in parliament, where a group of independent members last week put forward a motion calling for a limit on asylum seekers and to “put an end to … ‘unlimited’ inward migration”. The motion drew an angry rebuff from the centre-right coalition government and the main opposition parties.
A Less Liberal Ireland
Census data shows the foreign-born population of Ireland has doubled to 20% in 20 years without any significant anti-immigrant sentiment in opinion polls.
But over the past two years, immigration has surged to the third largest issue among voters, with 24% concerned, up from 4%. That leaves it behind only housing and cost of living concerns, according to a Dec. 3 Ireland Thinks poll.
Some 28% of respondents said they would consider supporting a party or candidate holding “strong anti-immigration views”, double the 2021 level.
Ireland is now “somewhat less liberal than it had been”, said Kevin Cunningham, lecturer in politics at TU Dublin, who helped compile the survey.
Shifts in the middle ground are likely to be more significant than the smaller far-right movement for upcoming elections.
The opposition Sinn Fein has steered clear of any criticism of immigration policy, but appear to be losing votes to parliament’s relatively large number of independent members — the main lightning rod for disaffection.
While Cunningham does not expect a collapse in Sinn Fein’s wide poll lead, a boost to the one-in-eight seats independents won at the last election could complicate the left wing party’s ambitions to lead government for the first time.
A local independent councillor who represents the area around Rosslare Harbour, Ger Carthy, said no one was representing local voters who were “very hurt … very angry.”
“No one has the political will to say we have to stop,” he said.