Letter from Wicklow: Will immigration unrest fuel the rise of the right?

WICKLOW – The widespread successes of conservative, populist politicians – some of whom are aptly described as “far right” – at the ballot box has been the subject of much reportage and academic study, with plenty to consider on this front in the United States, the United Kingdom and across continental Europe.  In Ireland, we have bucked the trend to date.  Broadly speaking, the political centre, which most Americans would regard as left of centre, has held.

There are myriad factors behind this.  Ireland has historically been a country of emigrants; this island is outward facing.  Those who have endeavoured to exploit an emerging sentiment against immigrants they perceive among the citizenry have flopped.  And in contrast to the US and the UK, technology and globalisation, the intertwined change agents, have actually benefitted workers from the top to the bottom of the income scale, mainly owing to foreign direct investment.  Moreover, the platform of the avowedly nationalist party, Sinn Féin, is unapologetically leftist – even if many of the supporters of the former political branch of the IRA espouse right-wing views on certain contentious matters.

In short, the territory is not as fertile here as elsewhere. Still, though, the question has been put: Is Ireland immune to the rise of the right?  Unfolding events may tell the tale.  Ireland has accepted tens of thousands of Ukrainians fleeing their war-ravaged land.  This is to its great credit, especially given a grave, pre-existing housing crisis that is the most pressing and vexing issue now.  Finding homes for so many women and children of Ukraine has placed enormous strain on the system.

At the same time, pursuant to obligations of international law, numerous asylum seekers fleeing trouble spots, such as Afghanistan, Somalia, and Syria, have been taken in.  Recently, approximately 380 single male asylum seekers were suddenly bused into East Wall, a north inner city Dublin neighbourhood.  Many residents of the working class area, which is already ethnically and racially diverse, were outraged.  Noisy, crowded protests have occurred in the vicinity of the building the men are staying in.

“My children can’t get a house where they were born and reared.  Thousands of Irish are living on the streets of this city.  And these foreigners are living in East Wall for free.”… “The government didn’t consult us.”… “This wouldn’t happen in Donnybrook or Blackrock (very affluent sections of Dublin); they think they can do it to us in East Wall and we won’t fight back.”… “Get them out!”  These and other furious cries are featured in social media posts and on TV and radio reports.

The tiny band of fringe-dwelling, anti-immigration activists – “Ireland First” – sensed an opening in East Wall and swiftly arrived in an attempt to capitalise.  A clear majority of locals, thankfully, resented their presence and do not subscribe to their hateful ideology.  As one protester said about the newcomers, “I don’t have any anger toward them…they’re just pawns in a game.”  The issue is with a government they believe has failed them by granting no notice of impending disruption and not eliciting their input on the process.

East Wall is not the sole flash point.  A quick stroll from my home in Wicklow Town is the Grand Hotel, which has for several years been a direct provision centre that accommodated asylum seekers, primarily families, without incident.  Despite initial opposition, they were generally welcomed and assimilated seamlessly into schools, sports clubs, etc.

Yet in another instance in which it seemingly had to make a hasty, pressurised decision, the government replaced many of these families with hundreds of single males who were crammed into bunk beds with little to no privacy.  It wasn’t long before tensions bubbled over and there was a violent melee on the main street.  Women in town have reported being too nervous to walk by the premises after dark and suspicious activities are regularly recounted in the town’s hostelries.

Sure enough, the “Ireland First” brigade descended upon us with megaphones and placards.  It was heartening that the weather was horrendous that Saturday and only a few turned up to listen to them spew bile.  On Sunday, however, a much larger group of Wicklow Town residents met and vented a collective sense of frustration at the government, the elected representatives from our constituency, and the owner of the hotel.   

It all boils down to this.  Those who summarily dismiss the fears and concerns in East Wall or Wicklow Town, some of which are entirely legitimate, and instead label them bigots or are condescending in their assessment of the situation, are playing into the hands of the far right.  There are no easy answers to the questions that have been raised, but political leaders must engage constructively with affected communities.  This is a crucial cog in the way forward on immigration and integration.  And it is potentially vital to ensuring that the centre continues to hold in Ireland.


Every year, a dream about Thanksgiving

In response to annual queries from friends and family in the run-up to Thanksgiving, my mantra is that it’s the single day of the year I wish I were back in Boston.  The whole Thanksgiving weekend is wonderful.  In Ireland, while most are aware of this central element of Americana, and some even celebrate a feast they have become acquainted with, it passes largely unnoticed.  It is an indistinguishable, relatively grim Thursday in a month people are willing to pass by ahead of a December filled with Christmas cheer.

In 2021, Galway East TD Ciarán Cannon was attacked for daring to suggest that an “Irish Thanksgiving” might be adopted.  He was accused of embracing cultural imperialism and endorsing a holiday of dubious historical origin.  I don’t think it was a bad idea, but regrettably, it’s never going to happen.  Try as my family does to recreate the magic, it’s just not the same.  We really do need to spend it stateside one of these years.


RIP, Dr. Mauro, a man for others

Boston and Ireland lost a great friend and tireless advocate when Dr. Robert “Bob” Mauro, Director of the Global Leadership Institute at Boston College, passed away after an extended illness on Oct. 31.  He was 46.  Under his stewardship, the institute was an impactful force for good in both Northern Ireland and in the Republic, and beyond.

I was lucky to get to know Bob due to my involvement with the Kennedy Summer School, a festival of Irish and American culture, politics, and history held in New Ross, Co. Wexford, every September.  He was instrumental in bringing BC on board as a sponsor of the summer school and generously agreed to serve as a KSS co-director.  Bob was with us just weeks before he died.  We knew he wasn’t well, but as ever, he conducted a superb interview with Bertie Ahern and was his good-natured self throughout.  Bob was a terrific guy who will be hugely missed.  The thoughts of all of us on the KSS organising committee are with Bob’s wife, children, parents, sister, and close friends.


Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to Boston Irish readers!

Larry Donnelly is a Boston born and educated attorney, a Law Lecturer at the University of Galway, and a regular media contributor on politics, current affairs, and law in Ireland and the US.