Ireland has long prided itself on greeting visitors with warmth, styling itself the land of “a hundred thousand welcomes”, but now there is a new slogan: #IrelandIsFull.
It appears on placards and on social media and is chanted at rallies alongside other exhortations such as #IrelandForTheIrish and #IrishLivesMatter.
They are the cry of an anti-immigrant backlash that has spread across Dublin and other towns in recent weeks, earning praise from far-right allies abroad.
“Unlike the English, who say very little, the Irish are speaking out – and protesting on the streets – about the huge number of young, male ‘asylum seekers’,” tweeted Nigel Farage.
Pickets and blockades of roads are often held outside refugee centres in working-class neighbourhoods but on Saturday activists marched in the heart of the capital.
“It’s not about racism. There is no room for them,” said Gavin Pepper, 37, as he and about 350 others denounced the increasing number of asylum seekers. “Why should migrants skip Irish people on the housing list? I won’t accept it.”
An acute housing and homelessness crisis has collided with the state’s struggle to accommodate Ukrainians and asylum seekers, fuelling accusations that foreigners receive preferential treatment.
Protesters also say centres with “unvetted” young male refugees make them feel unsafe. “I have five girls and two boys and the girls are afraid to go out at night,” said one man, who declined to give his name.
Holding Irish tricolours and banners, the rally marched from Stephens Green through the Grafton Street shopping district to the General Post Office on O’Connell Street, a landmark in the Easter 1916 rebellion.
Malachy Steenson, an organiser, told the crowd such protests had shattered a taboo about questioning the welcome for migrants and refugees. “We have moved the political ground in this country. This was the great unspoken.”
For a movement that claims to represent 90% of Irish people, it was not an impressive show of support – organisers had hoped for a bigger turnout. But marching through the city centre galvanised participants who previously had protested only in Drimnagh, East Wall, Ballymun and other deprived areas that host refugee centres.
Ireland is facing a dual crisis. Many Irish people cannot afford to rent or buy homes, leading to overcrowding, homelessness and anger. Simultaneously, the system to accommodate asylum seekers and refugees is near collapse.
The state is housing about 73,000 migrants, comprising 54,000 Ukrainians and 19,000 international protection applicants. A year ago the total number was 7,500. Hotels, emergency shelters and other improvised accommodation centres are full. Last week the minister for integration, Roderic O’Gorman, said in effect there was no room for fresh influxes. The UN refugee agency said Ireland’s asylum system appeared to be “unravelling”.
The protesters on Saturday claimed vindication for their claim that Ireland is full. “I’ve a housing crisis – there are six of us in a two-room maisonette,” said Lisa O’Neill, 40. “Shame on the government. Look after your own first.”
The crowd was just as vehement in criticising Sinn Féin, an opposition party with working-class roots, for welcoming refugees. A poster called its leader, Mary Lou McDonald, a “traitor”.
Across the street, with police standing in the middle, a counter-protest with about 300 people held up placards saying “diversity not division” and “yes to solidarity”. The rival groups exchanged taunts.
Owen McCormack, 57, a counter-protest organiser, said far-right activists were harnessing legitimate grievances for xenophobia. “It’s not a solution to turn on refugees.”
Rohana Perera, 32, a veterinary student from England, said migrants were feeling scared. “They feel victimised and alone. The far right is making street harassment acceptable.”
Fiona Smith, 50, expressed dismay at the anti-immigrant rally. “It’s shocking that there’s so many of them. It’s full of hate. Complete ignorance.” Valerie Hughes, who works with Syrian refugees, worried the backlash would add to their trauma.
Hostility to refugee centres in Ireland has surged before, notably in 2019 when there were arson attacks, only to fade. This time, with the economy slowing and the housing crunch expected to worsen, both sides expect tensions to escalate.
Speakers at the anti-immigrant rally warned of “criminals and rapists” being dumped in working-class areas. Michael Leahy, chairman of the Irish Freedom party, a fringe group with ties to British Brexiters, drew cheers when he claimed Irish people were being “replaced” by low-skilled foreigners. “Your government hates you,” he said.