On Saturday 19 November, Mohamed Tienti was helping his friend settle into a room in a converted office block on East Wall Road.
“I was just carrying the suitcases and the bags,” said Tienti, last week sitting on a bench on Trinity College Dublin campus, where he is learning English.
They’d spent 45 days at the transit hub for asylum seekers in Citywest, he says. “Me and my friend were one of the longest to stay there.”
Soon after they arrived, he says, a wave of panic washed through the old ESB head office, where the government plans to shelter 380 people who are seeking asylum.
“They were trying to grab their stuff, like maybe they come now, maybe we have to run,” says Tienti.
Outside, a group had gathered to protest their stay in the emergency shelter.
When Tienti finally stepped out of the building, a few confronted him with questions, filming his responses.
He says he kept taking deep breaths to stay calm. “I was worried about what could I say, but the goal was to show them that I can face them,” he says, as he plays the video on his phone.
In the video, a man’s voice introduces himself to Tienti as Philip Dwyer, “a citizen journalist”, and asks him his country of birth and whether he was “fleeing war”.
Another voice asks him about his trainers and how much they cost. At one point towards the end, when they press Tienti about his birthplace again, he says, “I am from planet Earth.”
“I didn’t want to tell them because I knew if I said anything other than Ukrainian, they’re gonna say, ‘Go back to your country,’” says Tienti, looking at the video.
In the days since, some East Wall locals, and organised anti-immigration activists – some from outside Dublin – have continued to protest the presence of people seeking asylum in the building, calling for the building to be closed, with speeches and rallies, and blocking the Port Tunnel.
How did it come to this? Through a string of missteps by the government, say some locals and politicians.
A failure to ease the housing crisis. A series of measures that created an impression that people coming to Ireland to seek asylum is a problem that needs to be cracked down on. And a failure to respect and consult with a community that has for years felt ignored, disrespected and pushed around.
All of which created a fertile ground for anti-immigration activists to exploit.
On Saturday afternoon, outside the emergency accommodation in East Wall, a woman opened a kids’ snack bag, handing an apple to her restless toddler in a buggy.
Her older children and her partner circled the stroller. The woman said she was upset that the government had housed young single men in their neighbourhood, and its promise of bringing kids and families wasn’t good enough because they shouldn’t have them live with single men anyway.
“We happily welcome families in there,” said the woman, who said she didn’t want to give her name because Malachy Steenson, an Irish Republican lawyer – who was a guest speaker earlier this year at the Irish Freedom Party’s ard fheis – is their spokesperson.
Soon more people huddled outside the building and a few drivers passing by honked and showed a thumbs up to the crowd. Two gardaí hung back, and a few more camped further up the road.
Protestors had brought a green flag that read “Irish Republic” in white, and a man stood outside the building’s gate with a tricolour. A woman paced up and down, talking to her phone’s camera, saying that people from all over Ireland had come in solidarity.
The Saturday protest was advertised on the public Telegram channel and Facebook page of Cork man Derek Blighe, who promoted another vigil outside another accommodation for asylum seekers in Wicklow for the same day.
He’s been organising and calling for protests outside asylum-seeker and refugee accommodation centres across the country on his Telegram channel, which has a little over 3,100 subscribers.
Blighe has been encouraging protestors to join a group called Ireland First on his Telegram channel.
Ross Lahive, another Cork man, also appeared in the crowd on Saturday. He’s been to other protests, too, including one in January 2020 outside Cork City Council against proposed hate-speech legislation.
Blighe and Lahive hung out beside a banner with the group’s sign and slogan outside the emergency centre in East Wall.
Gestures of Welcome
Earlier that Saturday, on a cold and crisp morning, Fairview’s Sanctuary Runners – an initiative to help asylum seekers form a bond with locals through running – had gathered in Fairview Park for their weekly run, as usual.
Louise Power, an East Wall local who’d joined the run, said that when the protests started, she went over with a welcome sign for the new arrivals. “But I was too intimidated to take it out,” she said.
Power said she might try to go to the afternoon protest to try to welcome the asylum seekers again. “I think a lot of us have been taken by surprise, so we couldn’t link up,” she said.
Anna Pringle, another local Sanctuary Runner, said there should be ways to introduce newcomers to locals and help them fit in, but locals don’t need to be consulted as some had suggested.
“I don’t have the right to decide who lives next door to me. If I’m moving into an area, I don’t need my neighbours to approve of me,” she said.
But local leadership is vital, said Pringle. The council could involve sports clubs and plan ways to get locals to know the new neighbours, she says.
“There are so many positive sports and community organisations that can actually engage and give them a good introduction to the area,” said Pringle.
Pringle mentions some of the arguments against housing young single men and how it can be a little unfair.
“There are men who are a threat to women everywhere,” she says. But it’s too early to judge them when they haven’t done anything wrong, Pringle says.
“These men came here to seek asylum; give them a chance,” she says.
Research by political scientists published in the journal Science suggests that factors like gender, religion and even ability to speak the language of host countries shape people’s acceptance and opinion of asylum seekers and refugees.
In particular, the researchers found that people are less likely to accept men seeking asylum.
Taking a Stand
As community responses have splintered, so too have responses from local politicians.
Last Wednesday, Kevin O’Farrell, who lives in Marino, said that when it comes to local leadership, he was deeply disappointed with independent Councillor Nial Ring, who’d joined in one of the protests in East Wall.
“He’s not really serving the community by turning up at the protest. I thought he would’ve known better,” said O’Farrell.
Ring has yet to respond to a request for an interview sent via WhatsApp on 21 November, or queries emailed on 25 November.
On Monday afternoon, a little girl kicked off the protest by reading the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.
When Steenson finally took the megaphone, he thanked Ring and another independent councillor, Christy Burke.
He said they couldn’t make it but sent well wishes; Ring was at a family wedding, he said, and Burke at a christening.
Burke did not respond to queries emailed and a phone call on Monday and did not return a voicemail request for an interview.
As for other local councillors and politicians, Steenson criticised them all.
He mocked Janet Horner, the Green Party councillor, “who apparently represents this constituency? Perhaps she’s out there somewhere because I certainly didn’t recognise her,” said Steenson.
When Steenson mentioned Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald TD and how they had met her – to disappointing results – the crowd booed, and a few chanted “Traitor!”
“Needless to say, they have no difficulty with this facility being here,” said Steenson.
Through the Sinn Féin press office, McDonald said she’s concerned about needless division and anxiety about refugees and asylum seekers.
“Being caused by the government’s lack of dialogue and a lack of basic planning in communities in respect of accommodating refugees and those seeking international protection,” she said.
She said the government has let down both East Wall locals and asylum seekers.
“Communities such as East Wall have been treated with utter disrespect and that, in fact, those seeking international protection have been treated with utter disrespect,” said McDonald.
Gary Gannon, Social Democrats TD for Dublin Central, said he couldn’t speak for other politicians, but he will speak up against racism, no matter what, even if it hurts his vote counts in the next election.
“I don’t see people as voters; I see people as people,” said Gannon on a phone call on Monday.
Like all other politicians, Gannon said, he hopes people will vote for him, but when it comes to sensitive issues like this, it’s inappropriate to keep quiet.
“I just feel if you have a position of leadership in an area where an issue arises, you shouldn’t be afraid to put your view out there,” he said.
Would More Info Help?
The plan to house refugees in the old ESB building in East Wall was mentioned in an article published in the Irish Mirror on 14 November, says Horner, the Green Party councillor, and as that news began to spread so too did rumours.
“And then people were looking for answers,” says Horner.
Horner had learned of the plans a little earlier, she says, as the Department of Children and Equality is led by the Green Party’s Roderic O’Gorman TD.
The Department of Children and Equality also emailed local councillors about the plans on 17 November, and gave them a briefing on 18 November, she says.
She posted that information on her website on 19 November, said Horner. “Just so that people have access to factual information.”
Early engagement with local councillors can be a good idea, Horner says, so that they can hold information sessions with locals and debunk misinformation.
“That there’s not going to be a massive influx of pressure on the health system nearby, that there’ll be health services onsite, and it’s not true that migrants are getting a better service than Irish people, or whatever else,” she says.
Otherwise, she says, organised nationalist groups take hold of the narrative and start recruiting locals.
“If we’re not talking, the void starts getting bigger and bigger, and it will be filled by anyone who is offering an explanation,” says Horner.
Joe Mooney, a long-time community activist, historian and East Wall local, says people in the area have historically felt overpowered and voiceless, so he understands some of the frustration.
Past economic crises devastated the Docklands, he said, and huge swathes of land in the port fell derelict.
When the government stepped in to rejuvenate the area, locals asked for consultation, he says. “No matter what the issue was, we always asked for a consultation,” says Mooney, sitting on the edge of his chair at a cafe on Dawson Street.
People knew they didn’t get to call the final shots, but it’s comforting to be heard and talked to, he says.
He says there was a consultation process about building a high-rise. “There would’ve been about building the new apartments; there would’ve been about building the Port Tunnel,” Mooney says.
Discussing things with people before they happen can go a long way, he says; it can bust myths, change minds and make people feel like their ideas matter.
That didn’t happen in this case, he says. “If a decision was made to turn the building into a refugee accommodation, the minister should’ve looked at the issues that might arise.”
A spokesperson for the Department of Children and Equality said it engages with local representatives before opening facilities as soon as it seals the deal on their use.
But time isn’t always on its side, they said, albeit they endeavour to let public representatives know as soon as possible.
“The emergency nature of the response required means that advance communications are not as comprehensive or as early as we would like,” the spokesperson said.
They said the pressure of housing 65,000 people has been mounting, pushing it to use office buildings like the one in East Wall at short notice.
“However, the Minister and the Department are cognisant of these issues and working toward improving advance communications for elected representatives, local authorities and local communities in this regard,” the spokesperson said.
Mooney is sceptical, though. “Because I presume the plans to take that building probably took a couple of months, you can’t just turn up one day and buy a building and use it the next day,” he says.
He is upset, he says, that lack of communications meant locals engaged with organised anti-immigration activists, people they may have never heard about before.
“Nobody was watching their videos; nobody was looking at their YouTube channels or looking at their Facebook pages,” says Mooney.
He points to the most recent Saturday protest, saying it was entirely planned by organised anti-immigration activists, who took turns to give speeches, one by one.
“It wasn’t about addressing locals’ concerns,” he says. It turned into a rally of organised anti-immigration activists who “were given free rein to say what they wanted”, says Mooney.
He says that doesn’t mean locals weren’t there. He doesn’t want to downplay their presence, he says, but they were there, and these organised actors had their attention, and for that, he blames the government.
“That’s on them,” says Mooney.
For some, the government’s blame in creating fertile ground for these events extends further.
Throughout his speech, Steenson blamed migration as the leading cause of the housing crisis.
Mooney, the community activist, says the idea that migrants have caused the housing crisis doesn’t make much sense.
Successive governments have failed to deliver on housing, he says. “Even given away state-owned lands to private property developers that could have been used in public housing,” Mooney says.
Take East Wall’s Docklands, he says. Instead of using the swathes of land it had to build sustainable housing, the government handed it to private property developers for profit, until the economy crashed.
“That failure was not the responsibility of any immigrant,” said Mooney.
If housing was a priority, the crisis would’ve been solved by now. “Ireland is a wealthy country, the problem isn’t that we are financially struggling nation but it’s about how little that wealth is shared,” he said.
Migrants are also among those most hurt by the affordable housing crisis. They are more likely to live in rentals and be pushed into homeless shelters than Irish nationals, according to a recent report by the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI).
Asylum seekers and non-EU women and children fleeing domestic violence who fall undocumented are especially vulnerable to homelessness, says the report.
Migrant homelessness is also likely higher than available data suggests as several factors, including language barriers and immigration status, stymie its accurate documentation, the research says.
Others point to further pre-existing drivers of mistrust and prejudice against immigrants and asylum seekers.
Media coverage of immigration hasn’t been useful, says Horner, the Green Party councillor. “I would like to consistently see media pieces saying, Oh hey, we noticed an uptick in the number of people coming from Georgia; let’s do a bit of deep dive into the circumstances behind it.”
Meanwhile, there is also the question of the government’s dual response to those fleeing the conflict in Ukraine, and those seeking asylum from elsewhere – and the narratives that can feed.
In July, the Department of Justice suspended visa-free travel for people who’d been granted refugee status elsewhere, in a move it said was meant to deter abuse of the system.
Anonymous government sources have also briefed the media in recent months about stricter asylum checks.
In November, it brought in another policy, requiring asylum seekers to give information about their cases faster, which lawyers say undermines their access to legal aid.
That all leaves an impression. Says Horner, the Green Party councillor: “Why is racism in the form of written policy okay? But in terms of shouting ‘Get them out’ bad?”
A spokesperson for the Department of Justice said it’s taking measures to manage the international protection process as efficiently and effectively as part of a government-wide response.
“While ensuring the integrity of the immigration system is maintained at all times,” they said.
The department directly denies any assertion that its policies have contributed towards forming a negative narrative about asylum seekers, said the spokesperson.
“The mission statement of this Department is to ensure a fair, safe and inclusive Ireland for all and our policies are guided by this,” they said.
Meanwhile, Tienti, the asylum seeker questioned by Dwyer outside the East Wall centre, says some of its residents had already gone back to Citywest, asking to sleep in its conference hall again.
“It’s not the point where we are from; the point is are we seeking asylum? Yes, all of us who are here,” he says.
Mooney, the community activist, says a friend told him how at one of the protests, someone from outside Dublin got into an argument with a long-standing East Wall local.
“Someone got to their face, shouting abuse at them,” he says.
But nobody helped in a protest about looking after our own, he says.
The community at East Wall needs time to process what has happened and heal, and for those who have tumbled down a rabbit hole of racist conspiracy theories, he hopes it’s not too late, he says.
“There are people who are angry who will probably not recover from the anger that has now been created,” he says.