Once it was the totem pole of the Celtic Tiger where bedraggled debutantes ate breakfast at dawn and Seán Dunne, the era’s most ostentatious developer, proposed building a diamond-shaped skyscraper. Now the old Jurys hotel in Dublin 4 is a padlocked Sodom and Gomorrah. The lights went out about three years ago. A security company’s notices on the perimeter warn against trespass and all that is missing is the tumbleweed. As evening rush-hour traffic inched past its gates last week, the morality soap opera encapsulated by the former hotel took a new and disconcerting twist.
Homeward-bound in their bumper-to-bumper cars, many commuters would have been listening to live radio coverage of a protest that was under way outside the TraveLodge hotel in Ballymun, where some asylum seekers are residing temporarily. Much of what was said was vile. One demonstrator complained that “men of military age” were staying there without “Garda vetting” and that mothers were terrified for their children’s safety. Her words echoed the horrible presumption of criminal guilt being recited at other protests taking place simultaneously in various parts of Dublin. The reporter listed the locations as Drimnagh, East Wall and Clondalkin. Tallaght, Finglas and Ballyfermot have had their share of demonstrations too.
An asylum applicant who gave his name as Ahmed, talked about the fear inside the hotel, where women and children who have endured unthinkable vicissitudes were listening to chants of “get them out”. The protester denied racism was the objectors’ motivation, and claimed to be taking the action “for Ireland and the Irish people”.
Not in my name, many listeners might have thought, and rightly so. But how many motorists idling in the Ballsbridge traffic looked at the decanted Jurys hotel and thought “hold on a minute, there’s something not right here – why are the 404 en suite bedrooms in there not being used for emergency occupation?”
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The Dublin districts where protests are becoming regular events have a common denominator. They are what were traditionally called working class areas. Certainly none is as salubrious as Dublin 4, Ireland’s redbrick citadel of wealth. Its verdant roads are home to some of the country’s richest individuals and most of its embassies, as well as a disproportionate number of four- and five-star hotels and private schools. Yet Ballsbridge and similar Dublin enclaves of privilege do not house large numbers of people seeking asylum. Until you shoulder some of the responsibility do you even have a right to say “not in my name”?
The old Jurys, which Dunne bought in 2005 for €240 million, thus fuelling the property bubble that helped collapse the Irish economy three years later, would make an ideal location for refugees. There is a bus stop right outside the front gate, a Dart station behind it and the city centre is just a 15-minute walk away.
The property comprises double, twin and family rooms, bedroom suites, kitchens, 12 meeting rooms, a restaurant, a bar and a hair salon, all now defunct. After Dunne went bankrupt his lender, Ulster Bank, sold the place to Chartered Land, another property developer, which has agreed to reconstruct it as the new headquarters for the US embassy. According to media reports, it may be the best part of a decade before the embassy can move in.
Last year local Labour Party city councillor Dermot Lacey mooted that the hotel be used to accommodate Ukrainian refugees on a short-term basis. He argued that, as it had been functioning until relatively recently, the building should not require extensive refurbishment, but a spokesperson for Chartered Land said it was uninhabitable, and so the lights have stayed off.
Meanwhile, residents in Tallaght, where Dublin Bus has restricted services following attacks on its drivers, and in Ballymun, where the sole shopping centre was demolished two years ago, and in East Wall, which has been blighted by organised killings, are expected to put up and shut up. When resentment that has built up over decades of social deprivation in these areas erupts and is directed at people who have fled their own countries for their lives and their livelihoods, Official Ireland, comfortably ensconced in the leafy suburbs, tut-tuts with disapproval.
This double standard provides a fertile breeding ground for xenophobic provocateurs such as those on the far-right who have been mustering the protests. The current Government – and particularly Fine Gael, which has been in power for 12 consecutive years – has failed catastrophically to ensure that citizens can have homes. However, its commitment to continue receiving Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers from other countries is commendable.
The principle chimes with Ireland’s humanitarian record, the history of the Irish diaspora and a republic’s idealism. Where it errs is in the implementation. Yes, there are big numbers of people arriving on Ireland’s shores, and, yes, the demands on accommodation are formidable, and, yes, agitators with pernicious agendas are exploiting the situation, but the situation was not created by them.
To their immense credit many people in the areas where protests have been taking place have mounted counter-protests to demonstrate their revulsion at the hostile reception being given to those in refugee accommodation. If those areas have one advantage over affluent gated suburbs it is the strength of their community spirit.
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What they do not have is the wherewithal to make public protests unnecessary by engaging lawyers and taking their case to the High Court, as did a residents’ association on Pembroke Road, where Jurys stands, when they obtained an order stopping the State using a guesthouse in their midst as a reception centre for asylum seekers in 2000. A member of the residents’ association had argued that the area was “becoming saturated with unwanted elements who are a threat to the settled community”. There were no media reports of politicians denouncing the objectors as racists.
The hatred being shown by small numbers towards refugees and asylum seekers is stomach-churning but so too is the discrimination against non-privileged communities that underlies the provision of accommodation. Official Ireland revels in its self-image as egalitarian, frequently quoting taxation data as proof. But there are as many ways of measuring equality as there are euphemisms in the dictionary for apartheid.