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Ireland is not full. Neither does it have to be full of fear

While many Irish people have reservations about the Coalition’s immigration policy, this unease is not the same as racism


Breda O'Brien

Sun Feb 4 2024 - 06:45


The graphic representing voter sentiment in Snapshot polls conducted by Irish Times/Ipsos B&A surveys is intriguing. Concerns flicker in and out of public awareness as the months pass.

For example, worries about crime and Garda presence did not even feature in the top 10 in July 2023 but by early December had jumped to 15 per cent. By January, it had virtually disappeared again, back down to 3 per cent.


Respondents were asked: “What have you come across in what the Government has said or done recently that has made you think the country is going in the right or wrong direction?”

Unsurprisingly, housing features in every poll from July 2023 but in the latest poll, immigration has surged ahead, mentioned by 24 per cent of respondents. It is important to note that the poll measures attitudes to what the Government has said or done, rather than attitudes to immigrants themselves. The response to Government policy is overwhelmingly negative.


Recent research by Dr Barry Cannon and Dr Shane Murphy with support from Maynooth University Social Science Institute (MUSSI) analysed quotes from newspaper articles by people protesting either in support of or opposition to housing asylum seekers in their community. While acknowledging the existence of far-right agitators with their catchy, emotive slogans, the researchers found that most people were more nuanced. Both pro- and anti-accommodation protesters worried about the lack of consultation with the host community, inadequate support and resources and “even the unsuitability of sites”.


Some pro-immigrant responses are contributing to, rather than calming, unrest. Reservations can also be turned into fears when they are ignored and belittled

There are many Irish people with reservations about the Government’s immigration policy. Reservations are a different thing to fear and a far different thing to racism. Legitimate reservations about our overstretched public services’ ability to cope are easily seized upon by bad actors seeking to stoke them into fears that can then be manipulated into racism.

However, some pro-immigrant responses are contributing to, rather than calming, unrest.


Reservations can also be turned into fears when they are ignored and belittled. Without wishing to create a false equivalence between those who burn hotels and those who comment publicly for a living, decrying every reservation as proto-fascistic is truncating discussion in a profoundly unhelpful way. In fact, all those who label every reservation as dog whistles to the far right accomplish is further division. There is no better way to nudge people in the wrong direction than to accuse them unfairly of already being there.


Dr Kevin Hargaden, who works for the Jesuit Centre for Faith and Justice, points out that a 2019 survey in St Francis Xavier parish in Gardiner Street in Dublin using 2016 census data found that 45 per cent of the congregants did not give their birthplace as Ireland. If a parishioner who has lived there all her life says she feels that she knows no one in her community anymore, is that racism, or just a reflection of her experience?

Hargaden says that politicians in the area have told him that some successful applicants for international protection who have been housed in Dublin’s north inner city are acutely aware of the neglect and poverty that has plagued the area. He is aware of journalists who have had to flee from dictatorships, who see the disadvantage all around them and worry about being a burden on an already impoverished community. He situates the fundamental problem not in racism or proto-fascism, but in 15 years of underfunding since the global economic crash that has left our social fabric thin to the point of being threadbare.

Neither are politicians the monsters they are sometimes painted. They, too, are invariably overstretched, uneasily keeping an eye on Snaphot polls and the next election


As someone from a rural background, I see areas being stripped of everything that makes a village or small town viable, including post offices and medical services. For example, last weekend worries were expressed that parts of south Kerry could end up with no GPs at all. And to whom are we turning to fill the gaps? Doctors outside the EU.

My gut feeling is that most people are fundamentally decent. It does not take too much emotional processing to realise that if Russian tanks rolled on to the Curragh, people would pack up their families and flee, seeking sanctuary elsewhere. Neither are politicians the monsters they are sometimes painted. They, too, are invariably overstretched, uneasily keeping an eye on Snaphot polls and the next election when their livelihood will be on the line.


Maybe it is the lack of time, even the time to think, that prevents politicians from providing a thoughtful vision of the kind of society where it is easier to be good. The majority of us want the kind of Republic where newcomers are welcome, provided they are committed to the common good and willing to integrate. We cannot get there by hyperindividualism or leaving essential services like housing to the vicious currents of the market. Neither can we get there by demonising those who do not fully conform to a narrow ideological spectrum. That’s just another kind of fear of the other.


Ireland is not full. Neither does it have to be full of fear

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