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Racist rhetoric and misinformation are on the rise after two years of struggles to find living space and social services for newcomers in need

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Members of the group Save Our Nursing Home protest outside the Great Southern Hotel in Rosslare Harbour, Ireland, which is being refurbished to house asylum seekers.

They’ve been called racists and far-right fanatics. But the small band of senior citizens dressed in high-visibility vests and marching in front of a makeshift barricade outside Rosslare Harbour’s vacant Great Southern Hotel hardly looked like extremists.

Tony McCormack, 71, joined the protest on his mobility scooter. Breda Haughton, 86, smiled warmly as she carried a sign that read “Listen to the People,” while Bernie Mullen, a 65-year-old former school-bus driver, stopped by with homemade soup and waved to honking motorists as they drove past offering support.

They are just a few of the dozens of people in this port town on Ireland’s southeast coast who have been picketing the hotel around the clock for the past month. They’ve succeeded in stopping the refurbishment of the building, which is supposed to be transformed into a shelter for about 400 asylum seekers, mainly from the Middle East and Africa.

People here say they were promised that the Great Southern, which closed years ago, would be converted into a 94-bed nursing home, something this aging community of roughly 2,000 people badly needs. Instead, the government quietly changed the plans last November, leaving residents fuming.

Ms. Mullen started Save Our Nursing Home with a few friends, and the protest group has swollen to about 1,000 members.

Many take regular shifts on the picket line, including on Christmas Day, while others provide food or wood for barrel fires. One resident donated a mobile home that serves as an onsite headquarters for the group.

“These are ordinary, decent people who are not racist and are being accused of being far right because people outside the area don’t understand the problems,” Ms. Mullen said. “There’s panic, there’s upset, there’s fear, there’s anger.”

Like a number of towns, cities and villages across Ireland, Rosslare Harbour opened its arms to Ukrainian refugees after Russia’s invasion in 2022. Ms. Mullen was part of the town’s Friends of Ukraine effort and spent countless hours gathering donations of food and clothing and helping people settle into the community.

But as Rosslare Harbour and the country grapple with an acute housing shortage, overburdened social services and soaring immigration, a backlash is building.

Ireland has taken in almost 100,000 Ukrainians, one of the highest totals on a per capita basis in the European Union. Overall immigration reached a 16-year high last year of 142,000, and the number of asylum seekers arriving annually has more than tripled in the past five years to around 13,000.

People in Rosslare Harbour pass one of the local buildings housing Ukrainian refugees. Since 2022, Ireland has welcomed almost 100,000 people fleeing the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
A Ukrainian flag flies on a signpost in Rossland Harbour. Attitudes to the newcomers have soured as local tourism has declined.
Bernie Mullen waves to fellow supporters of Save Our Nursing Home at the Dock Boutique Hotel, one of two hotels remaining in the area.
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Across from the protest at the Great Southern Hotel, a sign to the sea port includes the Gaelic greeting Céad míle fáilte, or 'a hundred thousand welcomes,' which embodies Ireland's traditional reputation as an accepting place for outsiders.

In Rosslare Harbour, more than 400 Ukrainians and refugees from other countries have been crammed into the town’s only two hotels, and nearly every bed and breakfast in the area is also full of asylum seekers.

Ms. Mullen says the influx has strained the region’s already stretched services. There’s only one doctor in town, a single part-time police officer, an elementary school that’s packed and no community centre.

Travellers disembarking from the ferries that arrive in the port from Britain and Europe no longer stop in town because there’s nowhere to stay and few amenities left. “When I came down in 1997 we had four hotels and we subsequently got another two,” said Aedan MacFadden, 71, who sold his bed and breakfast two years ago. “Today there is no hotel open to the public in Rosslare Harbour.”

Frustration here and elsewhere is growing and sometimes turning violent.

Last month someone threw a Molotov cocktail into the Great Southern building site, damaging some equipment. In Dublin the vacant Shipwright pub was firebombed on New Year’s Eve when a rumour spread that the building was going to house dozens of male asylum seekers. Three properties in Dublin, Longford and Tipperary were also recently torched, and there have been 11 other arson attacks across the country in the past year, all aimed at housing for asylum seekers.

The tensions boiled over in November when Dublin’s city centre was rocked by looting and rioting after an Algerian-born man stabbed three children and a woman outside a school on Parnell Square.

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Construction fences block off the Shipwright pub in Dublin, weeks after arsonists attacked it amid rumours that Middle Eastern and African asylum seekers would come to stay there.

On Nov. 23, Dublin was a chaotic scene of fires and confrontations with riot police. Earlier that day, an Algerian-born man was involved in a stabbing that galvanized right-wing groups. Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters
Housing shortages in Dublin have left more people living on the streets in tents, or relying on volunteer-run food programs. Far-right groups have blamed asylum seekers for making the problem worse.

“Ireland is full at the moment,” Mark Fitzsimons said as he joined protesters outside St. Brigid’s Home, a former hospital in Carlow that’s slated to shelter asylum seekers. It’s the second building in this small town west of Dublin that’s been set aside for that purpose.

“We’re saying: No. No. We can’t cope with what’s here. We’ve done our fair bit.”

Mr. Fitzsimons, 40, has been blind since childhood and says skin colour is irrelevant to him. But he’s worried that rising immigration is changing Ireland’s culture. “It’s getting to where Irish people will be the minority.”

That view is becoming increasingly prevalent and is gaining a political voice in the form of the Irish Freedom Party, an anti-immigrant movement launched five years ago that’s making inroads in some communities.

The IFP has about 1,000 members, but founder and leader Hermann Kelly said membership has risen sharply since the November riot. The party plans to run a full slate of candidates in the next general election, and Mr. Kelly is standing as a candidate in the upcoming election for Irish seats in the European Parliament.

“There’s been a seismic change in the country in attitude to immigration, really over the last year and a half,” he said in an interview. “People are cheesed off and they’re willing to talk about it.” He cited a recent opinion poll by respected pollster Red C in which 62 per cent of respondents said they believed Ireland had taken in too many Ukrainians.

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In Carlow, a protester puts up signs outside St. Brigid’s Nursing Home, which is being repurposed as a shelter for asylum seekers in Ireland.

The growing anger directed at immigrants and the prevalence of far-right messaging online worries anti-racism campaigners who say this is a relatively new phenomenon in Ireland.

Unlike many countries in Western Europe, Ireland has never had a significant far-right movement along the lines of Alternative for Germany or France’s National Rally. That’s largely a function of Ireland’s recent history, which has been dominated by the struggle to break free from British colonial rule.

Decades of Irish emigration have also given the country a global outlook and broad sympathy for other independence movements. A current example has been Ireland’s strong support for Palestinians since the start of the war in Israel and Gaza in October. Even the country’s traditional Gaelic greeting, Céad míle fáilte, is open-hearted and means “a hundred thousand welcomes.”

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Dubliners pass a mural by artist Emmalene Blake showing solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.Clodagh Kilcoyne/Reuters

“Nationalism in Ireland never has had, and this is what’s trying to be changed, a dimension of whiteness. That has never been part of the conversation,” said Mark Malone, a lead researcher with the Hope and Courage Collective, an anti-racism organization based in Dublin. “The moment that we’re in, we’re seeing the deliberate attempt to construct whiteness as being authentically Irish.”

In the past two years, Mr. Malone said, far-right influencers have increasingly spread misinformation about the housing shortage and crime to stoke resentment toward outsiders. They often employ terms such as “plantation” as a way of claiming that migrants are threatening Irish identity in the same way the English did in the 16th and 17th centuries by confiscating land in an attempt to anglicize the country.

Mr. Malone said the groups’ tactics have changed. Last year, they concentrated on organizing protest marches. Now they’ve started targeting housing for asylum seekers with blockades. “We’ve seen multiple examples of people live-streaming intimidation, harassment, abuse and racism, specifically at the emergency accommodation settings,” he said.

Many local councillors have also begun to take up the anti-immigrant message. In early January, the members of Mayo County council in western Ireland unanimously adopted a motion calling on staff to cease co-operating with the Irish government department responsible for housing refugees.

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Asylum seekers are 'more than welcome' in Ireland, says James John Lambert at The Clink pub in Carlow.

There are plenty of people who recoil at the rise of hate speech in the country and say supporters of the far right represent a small minority.

“To me they are more than welcome. Everyone needs a little bit of help,” Paddy McGuinty said as he shared a pint of beer with his friend James John Lambert in the Clink pub in Carlow, just down the street from where the protesters were stationed outside St. Brigid’s. “The Irish migrated all over the world.”

Mr. Lambert nodded in agreement and added: “Yes, Ireland is changing. Tell me what other country isn’t changing?”

Many of those seeking refuge in Ireland have tried to shrug off the rising resentment or at least keep a low profile.

Abdula Zaheer, 22, left Afghanistan two years ago and made his way across Europe to Ireland. He’s found work as a security guard and a place to live. “I love these people. I love this country,” he said as he stood outside St Mary’s Home, a former nursing home in Dublin that is now a shelter for 200 refugees, including his aunt and her children. “We are just looking for peace.”

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Asylum seeker Abdula Zaheer says he loves Ireland and is not worried about a backlash against newcomers.

Editor’s note: A previous version of this article included a photo caption that incorrectly described Rosslare Europort. This version has been updated to clarify that it is a sea port.

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