When far-right protests against asylum seekers housed in the former ESB building started in Dublin’s East Wall, Molly Hennessy felt she had to do something. So she went down on her own with a cardboard sign that said, “Refugees Welcome”.
She says some of the protesters there on November 21st, 2022, were chanting “Refugees out” and “Ireland is full”. A man started shouting at her, she says. “He said he was going to follow me and burn my house down. And I was like, ‘okay, that’s mad, seeing as you’re here saying, ‘protect our women and children’…He was up in my face. I’m not even going to say some of the things he was saying about the people in the building...I was crying walking away.”
It turned out a lot of local people were as upset by the protests as Hennessy and were making contact with one another. Soon East Wall Here for All was born. It’s one of a number of groups springing up across the city - Ballymun for All, Clondalkin for All, Tallaght for All, Drimnagh for All – that seek to show solidarity with asylum seekers and refugees. (The Eastwall group is ‘Here for All’ because the name East Wall for All was already in use by a local history and events website.)
The groundwork was partly laid in the local Starbucks, where I meet some volunteers. “This place is to us what Liberty Hall was to James Connolly,” laughs Roxanna Nic Liam. “My family all live here and I work in a café in here…I saw the protests and I was mortified. I texted people in the area I knew… and a few of us met up here in these very seats.”
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“I was really shocked,” says her neighbour Paddy O’Dea. “I thought, ‘is this where I live now?’ I’ve a two-year-old and seeing parents at the protests with kids, I was like, ‘are these the views that are going to be passed on to my little man’?”
He began contacting elected representatives and community groups. People began to find each other. Hennessy contacted Nic Liam after seeing her tweet pro-refugee sentiments. People were talking to neighbours. “You’d say, ‘do you see what’s happening’?” says Nic Liam. “And they’d say, ‘isn’t it horrible?’ And then you’d say [nervously]: ‘Do you mean it’s horrible there’s a protest? Or it’s horrible there are refugees living there’?”
The group went door-to-door and were heartened to find most people were horrified by the protests. Kate Bedford, another volunteer, says: “The more you talk about it the more people say…‘chanting ‘get them out’ to some of the most vulnerable people in the country, what does that achieve?’”
“The frustrating thing is that some of the points the protesters make I 100 per cent agree with,” says Nic Liam. “There should be more housing. Irish people shouldn’t be living on the streets. But if they want to march for that I’ll march with them to the Dáil. This is a case of misplaced anger.”
An organisation called the Far Right Observatory (FRO), a network of activists, has been warning about the danger of far-right groups since it formed in 2019. Many communities caught off guard by protests have sought its advice. FRO co-ordinator Niamh McDonald says that there is a pattern to these protests. They’re typically stirred-up by people from outside local communities, and feature parties such as the National Party, the Freedom Party or a growing number of far-right influencers, who mobilise quickly.
Nell, another resident of the centre, was helping to tidy the playroom one day when a little boy asked: ‘Are they going to shoot us?’ He was traumatised’— Nell
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“The far-right use disinformation and false stories designed to generate a moral panic. This has been accelerated hugely by Facebook, especially in local communities…Facebook respond to the vast majority of reporting of hate content by saying it doesn’t break their community standards.” A spokesperson for Facebook parent company Meta said: “We have clear policies that prohibits hate speech and incitement to violence. We remove this content when it is reported to us and found to violate our policies. We invest heavily in teams and technology to find and remove violating content quickly, and work with 90 independent fact checking organisations around the world - including TheJournal.ie in Ireland - who review, rate and debunk misinformation on our platforms.”
The FRO advocates a “community de-escalation response”. Its guidelines suggest avoiding repeating what it describes as fear-based narratives, avoiding dismissing all protesters as racist and affirming “positive solidarity values”.
“Bring your community leaders together,” says McDonald. “Community workers, councillors, youth workers, activists, the media, the clergy if they’re on side…The Tidy Towns are amazing on this. Groups are now appearing in lots of different spaces, supporting the refugees.”
She encourages “face-to-face conversations with people...It’s about separating the far-right from the local community.”
When Molly Hennessy was facing an angry man with her pro-refugee sign, an asylum seeker, Maxine*, was inside listening to protesters chanting “refugees must go”. She was terrified. “You’re coming from trauma and then you’re here facing another trauma. The next day I had to go to the chemist…and I wasn’t okay. I was scared. I didn’t know who was there last night. I worried they would see me…I kept on praying. ‘God, do you know I am here? I left my home and I am here’.”
The protests put everyone on edge. For asylum seekers it was hard not to feel everyone in the area hated them. Ali*, who left a war-torn country, says many were so scared they only went out in groups. “You can’t win then because you go with 10 people and they talk about ‘gangs’,” says Hennessy.
Nell*, another resident of the centre, was helping to tidy the playroom one day when a little boy asked: “‘Are they going to shoot us?’ He was traumatised.”
[Refugees] are here because they have to be, not because they want to be...Don’t believe that trash on Facebook... Give them a chance— Marian Keville
Those with no English are most frightened. Ali*, Maxine and Nell* spend a lot of time translating for others. “As soon as we met these wonderful people, we gathered the others and said, ‘listen guys, there are actually people looking out for us so don’t be scared’,” says Nell.
Last week’s Northside for All rally in support of migrants at nearby Fairview Footbridge was important to them. “I took all the guys who were frightened and said, ‘let’s see another protest, a welcome to refugees’,” says Ali. “That was maybe the best thing they’d seen in Ireland.”
“It’s still scary,” says Nell, and she smiles. “But these guys have our backs now.”
I meet Buzz O’Neill, who runs nightlife events, after he speaks at a Drimnagh for All rally in support of refugees and asylum seekers. A few hundred people have gathered to walk a loop along the canal to Inchicore Bridge and back. He calls it “a big love bomb for Drimnagh”.
There are banners and chants of “stand up, fight back, refugees are under attack”. As we walk O’Neill explains the group’s origins. Over Christmas protesters targeted Our Lady of Mercy School on the Mourne Road because they objected to its use to house Ukrainian refugees during the holidays. Much of what they believed was misinformation. They didn’t know they had been moved. Some mistakenly think there are still refugees at the school.
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O’Neill watched the protests in horror. He says he saw two people from his area there, “and I went for a chat with them. They said ‘my kids were in that school’ and I said ‘your kids weren’t in that school when those unfortunate people were there’.”
People began discussing the protests in local WhatsApp groups. “I’m in one for dog-walkers…and a conversation started there. Then you’re jumping to other people you know – residents associations, Dynamic Drimnagh…political reps. We had our first Zoom meeting last week.”
Marian Keville is walking with the help of a walking aid. She’s glad the distance is short. She heard of the rally through a dogwalkers’ WhatsApp group she still participates in even though her own dog died (“19 years old, a well-loved dog”). She was “heartbroken” by the school protests. “[Refugees] are here because they have to be, not because they want to be...Don’t believe that trash on Facebook... Give them a chance. [They’re] here because of a terrible war…Then to get an awful welcome from a small group of people…”
Susan Gilshinan works in the school lunch club. She didn’t recognise most protesters but was shocked to see some of her neighbours there. The refugees were gone. Instead staff were being intimidated, she says. In the first few days of term, she says, many people kept their children out of school either because they feared non-existent refugees or the protesters themselves. The refugees themselves “didn’t cause a bit of grief”.
Like East Wall Here for All, Drimnagh for All is a grassroots development, but there is increasingly communication across the groups. A march involving all the “For All” groups is being planned for February. Does O’Neill think what they’re doing is working? “Yes, because the second and third [anti-refugee] protest went from 300 people to 30 and they called one the other night in Bluebell and no one showed up.”
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In Ballymun just before Christmas news went out that asylum seekers were to be housed in the area. The anti-immigration National Party sent out leaflets and disinformation was spread across social media platforms. “Two weeks ago they called a protest and of course they had a crowd,” says local People Before Profit activist Conor Reddy. “Ballymun [has] been a deprived place going back to its construction in the 1960s, so there were people there for all sorts of reasons, serious housing issues of their own or issues with poverty and deprivation. That was the anger that brought people out. There have been four protests since, and they’ve been quite ugly.” In one video circulating online, he says, “the N word” was chanted by people outside a hotel.
Now there is also a Ballymun for All group. Reddy says he thinks it’s important to counter misinformation with outreach to help channel the rage away from vulnerable people and into a progressive form of politics. He’s concerned about the number of teenagers at the protests.
“Last night we were talking to a group of young lads…They were maybe 14 or 15 and they were able to parrot back the talking points of the National Party word for word. When I asked them about politics generally, they had very little knowledge...People who were otherwise insulated and alienated from politics have all of a sudden taken on an intensely political argument from the far-right… I do worry about those types of attitudes remaining in the community.”
From the situation we have come from, sometimes what we expect is nothing. The priceless thing we don’t expect is kindness
East Wall Here for All believes it’s important for local community groups to connect with people in the asylum centres. They established a donation hub in the centre co-run with resident volunteers. Residents call it the “shop”. Asylum seekers have very little. Many have lost their bags. Some have no winter coats and are wearing flip-flops. Mothers need baby clothes and pushchairs. Some are applying for jobs so need presentable clothes and bicycles for their commute. Many are trying to do courses on small phones so need laptops.
The “shop” is also a source of information. The residents can be very isolated and not connected to the community. “One lady with two children didn’t even know the park was up the road,” says Hennessy. “Some don’t know the sea is just up the road.”
People without English suffer most. Nell, Maxine and Ali teach English and help navigate the system for those with no English. Delays in the PPS system is an issue. Nell says she just received her PPS number and she and Nic Liam high five each other.
When we’re discussing education Maxine bursts into tears. She’s a qualified nurse in her home country studying to be a care-worker but has been getting bad headaches that makes reading difficult. The doctor says she needs glasses. “I don’t know what to do.”
Nic Liam says she’ll help her get glasses.
Ali is moved by this. “From the situation we have come from, sometimes what we expect is nothing. The priceless thing we don’t expect is kindness.”
“Ah stop,” says Nic Liam. “Kindness costs nothing.”
Later she says: “My mam was a single mother bringing up four children in East Wall. It takes a village and we were reared by amazing neighbours…East Wall has always been under-resourced and fighting for scraps. The heroin epidemic in the 1980s and 1990s – nothing was done. It was the community came through. The community went marching...They did the O’Casey Centre, did the youth group…The flower boxes around the corner? That’s the Men’s Shed. The Government never think about us. We’re at the bottom. That’s why it’s so disappointing when vulnerable people who’ve been forgotten about come here, and rather than help them, this is what we do. It doesn’t cost anything to be kind.”
The far-right frequently dismiss those who disagree with them as plants for nefarious external forces. “They said [the Fairview rally] was made up of bussed-in arts students,” says Nic Liam. “There was a thing going around ‘you aren’t really [from] East Wall’. But since then, they’ve seen that ‘that’s Roxanna, Danielle’s daughter, and that’s Molly, she lives up the road’…They’ve realised all of [us] are from East Wall.”
Bedford was on a community Facebook group. “[Protesters] started posting photos of me online. ‘Who is she?’ and I was like ‘that’s me. I’m your neighbour’, and they said ‘oh’ and they stopped posting. They needed me to be not a real person and the minute I was real they stopped.”
There are even more worrying instances. James O’Toole, another People Before Profit activist, says he was accosted by a masked protester while leafleting in Drimnagh.
“He said he was going to run us over with his car,” says O’Toole. “I stood between him and some [older] people on the canvas…He pulled the clipboard out of one woman’s hands so forcefully she cut her chin…He threw a few punches at me, but I was able to defend myself.” The man was gone before the police arrived, O’ Toole says. O’Toole believes he wasn’t from the area. “He was using all the far-right jargon, ‘I’m a patriot! You’re all paedos!’”
People in the “For All” groups say they prefer to focus on the long-term benefits of community-building. Paddy O’Dea wishes they’d mobilised earlier. “You can see all the good coming out of it. And hopefully, without being corny about it, the community will emerge stronger. My message to other communities? Get out, get involved, and you will feel much more in control.”
Ali believes that the connection between East Wall Here for All and the refugees will benefit both. “These guys stand for something. My father said ‘wherever you are, your life should be meaningful. Stand for something.’ I grew up in crisis. In every crisis there is opportunity and at the end of the day without negative and positive dynamics in a country you will not grow. At the end of the day I believe there will be houses for everyone...If these [protesters] weren’t there I wouldn’t meet you guys [East Wall Here for All members]. In every situation you have to see what is positive.”
*Names have been changed