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Q&A: Are the East Wall protests a sign of more rows to come?

Amid a growing surge in asylum seekers arriving in Ireland and an immigration system already under strain, tensions are rising among communities with a far-right element causing concern.

So why have tensions been running high in Dublin’s East Wall this week?

Because the north inner city is where Ireland’s migrant accommodation crisis has come to a head. Last Saturday and Monday, protests took place near a building on North Richmond Street which is due to house around 380 asylum seekers.

Some residents say they have justifiable concerns about the lack of consultation and want more information on their new neighbours. While the Government is promising more engagement in future, it and opposition parties are also warning that the demonstrations have been infiltrated by far-right groups intent on stirring up racial divisions.

“It’s a terrible situation,” Fine Gael councillor Ray McAdam told Independent.ie. “It’s the worst of Donald Trump-type politics and unfortunately it’s rearing its ugly head here.”

Who exactly are East Wall’s new arrivals and what is their accommodation like?

According to the Department of Integration, they come from troubled countries such as Afghanistan, Somalia and Nigeria. Their new home was once an ESB office block, but has now been converted into an emergency shelter with a mixture of twin and family bedrooms, plus some dormitories. Residents are being supplied with three meals a day, as well as cleaning and security staff.

Why would anyone object to putting a roof over these people’s heads?

For most East Wall residents, the main problem is a lack of transparency. The first they knew about any new accommodation centre was when around 80 single men were bussed in there last Friday.

“Right from the start of this PR disaster for the Government, [people] just wanted communication, contact and conversation to get answers to their legitimate concerns,” the independent councillor Nial Ring said in a statement last Tuesday.

If a vox pop for Newstalk radio is anything to go by, however, some protesters’ demands go well beyond information. To quote just a few of their comments: “How can they do this for refugees and they can’t do it for the homeless on the streets?”

“The Government are traitors… we’re like second-class citizens in our own country.” “There’s a bit of fear going around between all the ladies with regards to their children.” “The place is destroyed with foreigners.”

How big is the far-right element in this?

Some East Wall protesters have made it crystal clear their concerns have nothing to do with race. “I don’t have any anger towards [asylum seekers],”  one told the gathered crowd last Monday. “They’re just pawns in a game.”

However, there’s also no doubt anti-immigration groups are trying to exploit the situation. At both protests, the main speakers were interrupted by fringe elements who carried on shouting after residents had dispersed. Those chants included provocative language such as: “Get them out… this is our country… stop the new plantation of Ireland.”

But isn’t East Wall already a highly multi-cultural area?

Yes. Around 40pc of people there were born outside Ireland, making it among the country’s most diverse communities. However, the inner city also has severe social problems such as crime, addiction and a lack of affordable housing – which, according to some politicians, makes it fertile territory for racist rabble-rousers.

“This is not reflective of the community as a whole,” Social Democrats TD Gary Gannon told RTÉ radio last Tuesday. “[With] a gap not being filled by the State, that space was filled by more nefarious movements who were able to take advantage and whip up a sense that the Government was once again mistreating the people of the inner city.”

So what is the Government doing to calm things down?

Integration Minister Roderic O’Gorman has ordered a leaflet drop around East Wall, explaining more about the asylum seekers and their living conditions. He and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe (a local TD) are also due to meet with residents today.

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Minister Roderic O’Gorman has ordered a leaflet drop in the area

At the same time, Mr O’Gorman is pushing back against some of the more provocative suggestions being made. A few protesters have called for asylum seekers to be vetted by gardaí, but the minister firmly rejects this.

“You get vetted if you are working or volunteering with children or adults who are vulnerable,” he told an Oireachtas committee last Tuesday. “It doesn’t take place anywhere else.”

Tánaiste Leo Varadkar has also rebuked the East Wall protesters by saying that while communities deserve more consultation, nobody “can have a veto on who gets to live in their area”.

Can all this be traced back to the war in Ukraine?

Yes. While none of the East Wall asylum seekers are Ukrainian, the Government estimates that 55,000 people from that country will need State accommodation by the end of December. The knock-on effect is obvious.

Even if the Russian invasion of Ukraine had never happened, however, Ireland’s immigration system would still be under strain. There has also been a surge in applications for international protection this year, with over 15,000 coming here since January compared to an annual average of 3,500 between 2010 and 2020.

As the National Coordinator of the Ukraine Civil Society Forum Emma Lane-Spollen pointed out this week, we are now “scraping the bottom of the barrel” in terms of accommodation – with some new arrivals reduced to sleeping in tents or at Dublin Airport.

If the system reaches breaking point, what impact will that have on public opinion?

While this is a rapidly evolving situation, it’s clear the East Wall protesters are not alone. According to a poll last month, 61pc of us are concerned there may be “too many refugees coming here”, while 56pc do not think we should continue to accept Ukrainians “no matter how many arrive”.

Meanwhile, immigrant support groups say they are starting to see a disturbing trend of Irish people turning against them. “It’s certainly deteriorated since the summer,” says the Irish Refugee Council CEO Nick Henderson, who warns that in particular we are “drifting into very dangerous territory” around “stigmatising single males”.

Finally, could this week’s East Wall controversy be just a taster for bigger rows to come?

That’s the fear. Almost 30pc of Ireland’s hotels are currently looking after immigrants, but they will want those rooms back again when the tourist season begins next spring.

This is why the Government’s advisory group on ending direct provision has recommended emergency measures such as quickly building reception centres on State-owned land.

Most worryingly of all, there are signs that stirring up tensions over migration throughout Europe is exactly what Vladimir Putin wants. Russia has recently been bombing Ukrainian power stations, forcing even more people to flee as the harsh winter sets in.

“As a society, I would appeal that we hold this together,” Taoiseach Micheál Martin said last Monday. The East Wall protests show just how difficult that is going to be.

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