Thoughts on migration and the recent ‘anti-foreigner’ riots in Ireland 

By a friend in Ireland 

At around 1:30pm on the 23rd of November a 49-year-old naturalised Irish citizen of Algerian origin, who has lived in Ireland for the last twenty years, stabbed three children at an Irishlanguage medium primary school in Dublin city centre. The assailant was stopped by a group of three people that included one Irish person, and two immigrants. It was one of the immigrants, a 42-year-old Brazilian Deliveroo worker that used his helmet to knock the assailant to the ground while he was being restrained. In the chaos that ensued a group of bystanders formed a guard around the assailant to stop him being attacked because, in the words of one of them, “we are not savages”. 

A demonstration at the boundary of the crime scene cordon ensued and escalated as afternoon turned into evening. The impromptu demonstration was initially verbally abusive toward the police, with people holding tricolours (the Irish flag) and “Irish Lives Matter” signs. 

As more and more people gathered the irrationality of the racist mob set in. They were mobilised through far-right networks on social messaging applications and undoubtedly by word of mouth. At around 7pm a police car near the crime scene was set light and flares and fireworks were directed at the police.  This then spread to looting and destroying retail premises, thirteen in total, and burning out a light rail tram and three buses. The police and media have described this as the most violent riot in recent memory. 

The riot did not come from nowhere though. There has been a slow but steady growth of far right and anti-immigrant sentiment and activism in the country.  The far-right is composed of old school Catholic reactionaries, nationalists, and more extreme right tendencies found elsewhere. They are united, for now, by their opposition to immigration.  According to the Irish police there were three hundred and seven anti-immigrant protests in 2022, and one hundred and sixty-nine (up to August) in 2023. These include the full spectrum of anti-immigrant protests, ranging from the lack of resources in local communities to absorb the new arrivals to the explicitly xenophobic.  

The reaction to these events has been predictable and follows the pattern we have seen elsewhere.  It is said that rapid demographic change merits a national conversation on what kind of immigration policy is needed. This normally presents the question in terms of packaged solutions that have been implemented in other countries. For instance, in Britain minority communities can retain their own culture and practices when participating in the wider society.  There has obviously been a drift away from this over time with the constant shift to the right and reactionary politics around these issues. In France there is less freedom for minority communities to negotiate their relationship with the dominant culture. Integration occurs upon on the ‘unifying’ basis of the French language and national identity.  There is no codified law on the Irishapproach to integrating immigrants. The Irishapproach resembles more the ‘community of communities’ approach in Britain. Asylum seekers and refugee are placed in accommodation facilities until their applications have been processed and approved.   

We should reject any attempt to depoliticise the question by transforming it into a technical and cultural matter. Migration has been a part of the human story from its inception. Humans have always migrated. Whether that is for mere survival, war, natural disaster, famine, or preference. The imposition of limitations upon this freedom to move is a relatively recent development connected with the need to manage and control labour. Take the example of the United States of America, most of the people there that now complain about immigration from South America and the Middle East are themselves the descendants of European immigrants. It was only in the 1920s that the United States introduced rules placing limitations on migration from outside. 

Ireland is a particularly strong case study of this phenomena. Up until the turn of the millennium it was a country of emigration, not immigration.  Due to the economic backwardness generation after generation of Irish people pursued a better life in Britain or the United States mostly, with lesser numbers going to Australia, Canada, and other places.  This has now changed, and Ireland is a country of immigration due to its economic prosperity. To illustrate the changed state of the country it is worth considering the following. The population was approximately 2.8 million in 1960 and it is 5.05 million in 2023; the percentage of the country that resided in urban areas in 1960 was 45.4% and it is now 63.7%; the percentage of the population born outside the states stands at 17%-20%.

These demographic changes have collided with a severe housing crisis to create fertile ground for anti-immigrant reactionaries. The housing crisis is the driving force behind anti-immigrant sentiment.  This crisis touches all segments of Irish society.  The number of people in homeless accommodation reached a record high of 11,754 in January of this year, after climbing for seven consecutive months. This included 1,609 families and 3,431 of them were children. Almost 55% of them are single parent families; two thirds are Irish, 22% originate from other European Union backgrounds, and the remainder are from other countries. The lack of necessary social and affordable housing units’ forces everyone into the private rental market. This has led to the unsustainable spike in the cost of rent, where up to 90% of renters are reported as being anxious about their future as they could be asked to look for somewhere else at any moment.  Dublin is one of the most expensive cities in the world to rent in. The average rental price in Dublin, according to the property market report compiled on a quarterly basis by, is €2,300, representing 60% of the national median monthly income. The ripple effects of this are manifold: students can’t afford to study in Dublin so commute long distances; newly qualified professionals chose to work abroad; people are forced to move back in with their parents, people have to put off life goals like starting a family or buying a home (as there is no such thing as security of tenure in the Irish rental market), businesses have trouble recruiting and maintaining employees, public services becoming increasing dependent on immigrant labour as new qualified teachers, doctors, nurses choose to leave. 

In this context debates focused on concepts like the nation, citizenship, ‘nationality by blood’ vs ‘nationality by birth’, ‘integration’ vs ‘separation’, ‘assimilation’ vs ‘difference’ , tolerance, identity, and civil rights conceal more than they illuminate. The real foundation of the movement of humans is the reality that most humans need to work to survive and prosper.  This is why communists defend the principle of the freedom movement of humans and oppose any attempt to impose restrictions in it. The contradiction between the global organisation of work and the national regulation of labour is what gives rise to xenophobia and prejudice. The struggle against this begins in the workplace. It is only when workers unify in defence of their common interests and build their collective power in the workplace that they can overcome the divisions that exist in society and the working class itself. It is not through endless discussion and chatter in the ‘public sphere’ that issues of prejudices and bigotry can be resolved. The unity of workers in struggle holds the key to progress on this front.