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Kathy Sheridan: An acquaintance believes Ireland is full. When facts are scarce, it’s no wonder

If people are unsure what to think about immigration, it’s hardly surprising. It’s a pity we don’t have Varadkar’s strategic communications unit now

The news, reported this week by Conor Lally, that far-right numbers here remain small and stable was cheering if counter-intuitive. The number of protests in Dublin may be down, but anti-immigrant sentiment feels like a fattening incubus. Last week when the kindest of acquaintances suddenly blurted, “we can’t take any more of them”, I asked her why. GP surgeries full, hospitals full, schools full, she said as if reciting a shopping list. How can “they” be handed accommodation, “taking up” hotel rooms that are needed for local tourism when “our own” are homeless on the streets. It was almost the full deck of far-right playing cards.

A distracted carer, my kind-but-sceptical acquaintance gets her news mainly from social media – but all her friends feel the same as she does, she said. They “feel terrible” about the protests and road blockages, but they “understand the frustration” of the locals. To her, the “facts” are self-evident.

So a group of hard-working, good-natured women in their early 60s living in a small town with no visible international protection applicants firmly believe that Ireland is full and that the politicians and do-gooding dupes are refusing to acknowledge it, still less act on it. And once again, the intricacies behind a vast, complex global crisis and our country’s responsibilities seem hopelessly lost.

The situation was further confused by the Taoiseach’s suggestion that Garda resources were not enough to match the requirements of far-right protests, which failed to chime with the Minister for Justice’s view. Simon Harris cited the Garda Commissioner’s assurance that indeed he had the resources he needed for “operational integrity”.


But in those same remarks, the Taoiseach also stated the inarguable. “Probably the best thing we can do is for those of us in positions of responsibility to speak up and to explain what’s happening here, to talk to communities to give them reassurance, because the best way to counter disinformation is information. The best way to counter hate is with facts and positive feeling and reassurance.”

And that’s precisely the problem.

That there is such an information void in an era when political communications were never more sophisticated is baffling. The lost potential of some kind of trustworthy strategic communications unit hovers in the ether. The fully-formed SCU that died five years ago under the weight of hundreds of parliamentary questions and press queries might be handy now.

The Guardian newspaper recently reported on “Ireland’s newest refugee camp” which “starts with a row of tents on the pavement at Mount Street and curves round an alleyway into a car park – about 60 tents in total in the heart of Dublin’s business district . . . The Mount Street encampment has no facilities – people urinate into bottles – but offers safety in numbers, a police presence and ready access to the IPO [International Protection Office], which processes asylum paperwork”.

If people are unsure what to think, it’s hardly surprising.

When people such as my kind-but-sceptical acquaintance believe the truth is being hidden from them, they will second-guess everything

Most politicians are doing their best to hold the moral and responsible line – as are the hapless frontline gardaí, even while being casually reviled and accused of averting their gaze from protests-turned-hate crimes. Harris’s comment that it is “not for us to second-guess” decisions by frontline gardaí was hardly helpful to them or anyone else.

When people such as my kind-but-sceptical acquaintance believe the truth is being hidden from them, they will second-guess everything. There is a time for playing one’s cards close to one’s chest and this is not it. Clear, timely information is the first requirement in the shaping of good, informed choices.

Most rational people understand why many decisions are being made on the hoof, but who in Government will explain to them why Ireland is not full? Why did it take so long to address public confusion about egregious, unlawful behaviour without appropriate action by gardaí?

Until yesterday, it would have been difficult to find anything other than comments from anonymous sources to shore up any defence of frontline gardaí. Even before these latest protests, Lally had quoted several serving, anonymous gardaí who believed the policing of aggressive, far-right, anti-immigration protests was too soft against a cohort who for months had been openly committing public order crimes.

Others argued that the Garda’s “passive” approach was the main reason anti-immigration events almost always passed off without violence or Garda-protester clashes, which they believe had stymied the far right’s recruitment efforts.

If this debate is live within the Garda, how much more puzzling must it be for onlookers who don’t have the necessary insights into European trends or Drew Harris’s thinking?

The commissioner’s explanation, when it came, was delivered at a policing event rather than a press conference, which was unfortunate. But it had the virtue of clarity.

He described Garda strategy in terms of the two-part playbook of far-right protesters: the first to exploit local fears and gather up a crowd, at which they’ve been successful on occasion, he admitted. The second, “classic” part is to provoke an over-response by the authorities. Garda strategy, he said, is to take the long view; they will not fall into the far-right trap of confrontation. He was able to tell his audience that far-right numbers here remain small and are not growing, bucking trends seen in other European countries. In other words, the strategy appears to be working.

The commissioner also suggested that the situation on the ground in Co Clare had been “overstated” by the media and said that in reality, solutions were already being reached locally about dismantling of the roadblock within 24 hours of its erection.

This may well be so. But it happened and there were signs of it becoming part of a larger and growing sinister trend – in which case the media will pay attention, and rightly so. And challenging as it may be, the Government – to quote Leo Varadkar – has a duty to speak up and tell people the facts.