‘Feeling of fear and hatred’: immigration dominates agenda as Ireland votes in local and EU polls

The Shannon Key West hotel sits silent and derelict in the village of Roosky, its windows boarded up, the grounds colonised by weeds. Birds nest in the roof and occasionally swoop out, breaking the stillness.

The hotel closed in 2011 and was to reopen in 2019 as a home for 80 refugees – but it was damaged in an arson attack in January of that year. In case the message wasn’t clear enough, weeks later came a second arson attack.

The government abandoned the refugee plan and five years later the hotel in Roosky, which straddles the counties of Leitrim and Roscommon, remains empty, a symbol of a backlash that has transformed Ireland’s politics and framed Friday’s local and European elections.

Gardaí and Leitrim fire service at the fire at the hotel in Roosky in 2019. Photograph: An Garda Síochána Sligo/Leitrim/Facebook

The blazes augured a dramatic shift in a country that once prided itself on welcoming refugees – a shift that has unfolded through copycat arson attacks, street protests, social media trolling, far-right candidacies and government sweeps of refugee encampments.

The contest for votes on 7 June has pitted mainstream parties against far-right newcomers with slogans such as “Ireland is full” and “Ireland for the Irish” that link a housing shortage with migrants and asylum seekers. “House the Irish, not the world!” say leaflets for the National party, one of several tiny, far-right parties that are vying to win their first seats. Agitators seek to link foreign men with sexual assaults, and protests against proposed refugee accommodation sites occur almost weekly.

The dynamic has damaged Sinn Féin, the leftwing opposition party which has a working-class base and a progressive record on asylum seekers. From 37% voter support in October 2022 it now has about 22%, according to recent polls. Anti-immigrant rallies sport posters of Sinn Féin’s leader, Mary Lou McDonald, with the word “traitor”.

An election poster for the National party on the road into Roosky. Photograph: Patrick Bolger

Support for the centrist ruling coalition of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens has nudged upwards to 43% while support for small opposition parties and independents has surged to 23%.

The hardening public mood on immigration and asylum policy – almost two-thirds want tougher controls – is most pronounced among young, urban, low-income voters. It rivals housing as voters’ priority, with healthcare, climate change and the cost of living lagging far behind.

Agitators have stirred hostility to foreigners, said Martin Kenny, a Sinn Féin Dáil deputy who represents Sligo and Leitrim. “They have generated this feeling of fear and hatred towards migrants and anyone who supports migrants. This is a tiny minority of people that fire up another minority. It has become a trend.”

In October 2019, months after the Roosky fires, Kenny supported a fresh effort to settle refugees in a nearby town. He awoke at home up one night to find his car in the driveway turned into a fireball, the heat so intense it cracked the house’s windows.

Intimidation of elected representatives has spread, creating a perilous environment for candidates and canvassers. Two men in the street quizzed Tania Doyle, a Dublin councillor, about her views on migration before launching a violent assault. A man shouting far-right sentiments lunged at Janet Horner, a Green party councillor, as she erected posters in the capital.

A video shared on social media showed men ordering Linkwinstar Mattathil Mathew, a Fine Gael local election candidate originally from India, to take down his posters. “Fuck off back from where you came from, this is our country,” said one of them. Last weekend hecklers followed and filmed the taoiseach, Simon Harris, on a walkabout in County Mayo.

Such incidents are sporadic and widely condemned. Contests for 949 council seats in 31 local government authorities, 14 seats in the European parliament and a directly elected mayor of Limerick have been overwhelmingly peaceful, even low key.

For decades, seismic societal change – a monocultural, white population became one where a fifth of the population was born abroad – caused barely a political ripple. That changed after a rise in arrivals of refugees from Ukraine and other countries was perceived by some to have overwhelmed a rickety asylum system, which ran out of accommodation.

The National party is one of several tiny, far-right parties that are vying to win their first seats. Photograph: Patrick Bolger

Intermittent protests spread and gained traction by linking refugee shelters and encampments to the housing shortage. Agitators also sought to link arrivals to crime, leading to a riot in Dublin last November.

Far-right candidates may struggle to get elected – there are so many they could split the vote, and they lack the vote-mobilising machinery of established parties.

But they have set the agenda. The government has tightened rules, reduced welfare supports and expanded enforcement to deter fresh asylum seekers. The taoiseach has insisted Ireland will apply “common sense” while retaining compassion: “The reason we apply the rules is not because we wish to be nasty, is not because we wish to learn from other countries whom I wouldn’t frankly wish to learn from.”

Ireland’s edging towards policies common across Europe is traceable to the arson in Roosky and an earlier attack on a hotel earmarked for asylum seekers in Moville, County Donegal, in November 2018.

Those incidents set a template for about 25 subsequent arson attacks, said Paul Healy, editor of the Roscommon People newspaper. “Donegal and Roosky were the beginning but it could have been anywhere. There was a sense of the issue being hijacked. It’s a campaign orchestrated by small groups of people that seem to move around the country.”

It is now a familiar pattern: locals complain about lack of consultation and amenities, outside agitators arrive, protests escalate, then arson is committed. Leftwing activists say far-right elements surfaced a decade ago in a campaign against water charges and moved to migration, mimicking rhetoric and methods from the US. They infiltrate neighbourhood Facebook groups, radicalise discourse and seek a domino effect, said one activist.

Josephine Stroker, a manager at the Leitrim Volunteer Centre, said refugees contributed to the community, for instance by bolstering Tidy Town clean-up teams, but that public sentiment was cooling towards non-Ukrainians. “The welcome is not as warm for those from Africa and the Middle East. Sadly the colour of skin makes a difference.”

Kenny, the Sinn Féin legislator, said the election was an opportunity to debunk the link between refugees and the housing crisis and to remind voters that migrant workers sustained the health service and construction and hospitality industries. “We have to be patient and to explain that problems are caused by bad government. Ireland has an obligation to receive people and make them feel welcome.”

Roosky, meanwhile, has welcomed at least one immigrant: its new parish priest, Father Willie Sakwe, from Cameroon. “The people here have been very good,” he said. “I have had no problems. Maybe because I’m a priest.”

The Guardian

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