What are anti-immigration protesters demanding? It’s more complex than you think

Not all protesters hold far-right beliefs. But far-right agitators are skilled at exploiting the complexities of immigration to further their own agenda

Migration-related protests in Ireland have increased substantially since the arrival here of tens of thousands of refugees due to the Russian invasion of Ukraine almost two years ago. Gardaí reported that, by the end of 2023, 231 protests in the Dublin metropolitan region alone were related to anti-migration themes, one-third of all protests in the capital last year. But what are protesters actually demanding?

While anecdotal evidence abounds, with the support of Maynooth University Social Science Institute (MUSSI) we took a more systematic approach, identifying and analysing quotes cited in the media from people protesting in support of and against asylum-seeker accommodation. Over a research period from November 2022 to June 2023, we identified 144 media articles on such protests, covering 14 protest events throughout the country, in urban and rural locations.

The main reasons people cited for protesting against asylum-seeker accommodation were, in descending order: security concerns; resource and service scarcity; lack of government consultation with local communities; and concern about the suitability of identified accommodation sites.

More needs to be done to ensure communities, which in many cases have been neglected for a long time, receive sufficient, tangible support that will help them view immigration as beneficial for their localities

We found that while many of these protesters sought to distance themselves from the far right, some simultaneously engaged with xenophobic and racist far-right tropes, such as the so-called “great replacement” theory (which holds that the native population is deliberately being replaced by an elite-led immigration policy), and a fear of “unvetted”, “military age”, male asylum seekers coming into their community.


Those who expressed support for asylum seekers were in many cases found to be protesting against what they saw as government mishandling of asylum accommodation, within the broader context of its perceived failures on housing. Some said they were prompted by wider humanitarian concerns and also felt it was important to represent the “real” Ireland, showing solidarity to asylum seekers, while facing up to far-right “outside agitators”. Notably, however, many expressed similar concern for issues raised by anti-asylum-seeker protesters – around lack of consultation, stretched resources and even the unsuitability of sites.

Four key takeaways emerge from our research.

First, the research shows a remarkable consistency in motivations among protesters in the cases we studied in Ireland and those found in studies from other parts of Europe. This suggests that the motivations expressed by demonstrators opposing and supporting asylum-seeker accommodation in Ireland are not exceptional within the wider European context.

Second, previous research we reviewed shows similar patterns of far-right involvement, including the circulation of far-right tropes almost identical to those we are seeing in Ireland today. Some of this earlier research was carried out before the emergence of social media. This suggests that although social media can supercharge the circulation of far-right myths, it is not the chief culprit for these ideas gaining currency. Any meaningful intervention will need to go beyond increased surveillance and censorship of online spaces.

Third, it was found that different motivations can be expressed by the same speaker, on either side of the debate. For example, those protesting against asylum-seeker accommodation could also express concern for asylum seekers’ welfare, while those supporting asylum seekers were also worried about stretched services and lack of consultation raised by anti-asylum-seeker protesters. This is demonstrative not of ideological inconsistency, but rather the complex nature of these debates, which is exacerbated by a discursive vacuum that exists around immigration in Ireland. This is easily exploited by a small number of far-right agitators who are eager to set the terms of this debate in polarising terms – you are either for immigration or against it.

Finally, this shared concern about scarcity of resources raises questions about how resources generated by immigration are distributed. Politicians, including the Taoiseach, as well as business leaders, frequently point to the benefits that immigration brings to the Irish economy. However, research shows immigration tends to benefit elites far more than the less well-off. Yet it is overwhelmingly the latter who host new immigrant communities, usually in a context of scarce, consistently underfunded services and severe housing shortages, issues which began long before the arrival of these asylum seekers.

These findings show that while anti-asylum-seeker protests may be hijacked by, or even provoked by the far right, they are also symptomatic of deeper concerns about the not-inconsiderable changes – some positive, some difficult – brought by immigration to local communities. While it would be unwise to assume all who participate in anti-immigration protests hold consistent far-right beliefs, there is no doubt that far-right agitators have become particularly skilled at exploiting the complexities of immigration to further their own agenda.

A discursive vacuum exists around immigration in the Irish context. This is easily exploited by a small number of far-right agitators

Our research suggests that protesters on all sides are concerned with ensuring the benefits and costs of immigration are distributed in an equitable and sustainable manner. It is this issue which needs to be at the centre of public debate on immigration, rather than the toxic, polarising and racist frames favoured by the far right and, increasingly, some mainstream politicians. More needs to be done to ensure these communities, which in many cases have been neglected for a long time, receive sufficient, tangible support that will help them view immigration as beneficial for their localities, rather than negative.

Although the time-frame covered in our research ends in July 2023, recent events suggest this issue is not going away. Arson attacks, coverage of anti-immigrant demonstrations, and the upcoming local and European elections will all provide opportunities for the far right to continue filling the information vacuum and setting the discursive parameters of this issue. Substantive investment in these communities will remove one of the most persuasive and commonplace talking points the far right exploit and will help them to become more resilient to far-right messaging. Immigration has brought phenomenal changes to our society in recent decades, but these changes, and their sometimes difficult impacts, are rarely articulated by politicians or the media in any great depth. This needs to change.

Dr Barry Cannon is an assistant professor in the Centre for the Study of Politics at Maynooth University. Dr Shane Murphy is a former researcher at Maynooth University with a PhD in communications from Dublin City University