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‘Concerned citizens’ protest about safety in their communities, yet are mute about arson

The people to worry about aren’t the ‘unvetted males’ from Syria or Albania, but those with placards and petrol cans

It used to be said that Americans don’t understand irony. Now that same deficiency is sweeping the Irish countryside faster than you can say “single unvetted male”.

In a country facing a severe housing crisis, at least 23 buildings or sites have been set on fire since 2018 because they were earmarked for accommodation for people fleeing war or unrest – or, sometimes, because an idiot with a Telegram account heard from someone who heard from someone that there was a rumour that they might be offered to international protection applicants.

Occasionally they are targeted because – as in the case of the fine seven-bed residential house in Leixlip this week – they’d been empty for a while, and someone put two and two together and got a busload of asylum seekers.

All these houses and hotels ablaze while, in polls, housing and immigration are vying to be the most crucial issues for voters. All those people standing with placards and Tricolours outside immigration centres shouting about safety in their communities, yet mute about the wave of arson sweeping the country. The irony is rich enough to give you dyspepsia.


We need to debunk the notion that what are euphemistically referred to as gatherings of “concerned citizens” who “just want to be consulted” are hapless stooges being exploited by a handful of highly manipulative far-right actors. As recently as this week, gardaí told RTÉ that the majority of protesters “are peaceful and their intent is peaceful” but that they “are being used by a small minority with extreme and potentially criminal and dangerous intent to spread misinformation.”

As Conor Gallagher reports elsewhere this weekend, gardaí are in fact working on the basis that most of these fires are not the work of criminal masterminds but local thugs, presumably spurred on by what they’ve seen elsewhere. It may only be a small handful responsible for starting the fires. But you don’t have to wield a petrol can to share culpability for stoking up an atmosphere of hatred.

Of the two dozen or so arson incidents since 2018, according to analysis by RTÉ, 10 were in the last three months of 2023, and four have been in 2024. Clearly, the softly-softly approach to policing is not working. In the case of the Leixlip house, gardaí told protesters several times that the building was not going to be used as asylum-seeker accommodation. A garda interviewed on RTÉ TV news on Thursday said: “We did engage, but the fears were there for people and they just weren’t satisfied.”

Gardaí, politicians and media need to be very careful not to legitimise the notion of these “fears”. Like the language of “single unvetted males”, it reinforces the idea that male refugees are by definition a threat to communities, and that the protests are an inevitable response to that fear. I recently heard a reporter refer to the “calm and dignified” protests in Roscrea in January. Three days later, the scenes at Racket Hall were reminiscent of those near the Holy Cross school in Ardoyne in 2001.

Protesters may not condone arson, but they are at the thin end of a wedge that culminates in a property in flames, and one day, inevitably, in tragedy

This island has a history of protests and riots and buildings being set on fire to make a political point. But this particular spate of arson draws its inspiration from elsewhere. From around 2015, proposed migrant accommodation centres were deliberately set on fire in countries across Europe, including in Sweden.

Sweden had been proud of its reputation as a “humanitarian superpower” which had taken in more migrants than any other EU country. It took nearly three years and 80 cars set alight in Gothenburg in a single night one month before the 2018 general election for prime minister Stefan Löfven to finally vow to “go in hard” against the arsonists.

That election saw the Sweden Democrats – a party with far right roots, which has rebranded itself as merely anti-immigrant and nativist – returned as the third largest grouping in government. Today it is in a confidence and supply arrangement with the centre-right coalition, something that would have been unthinkable a decade ago. The brushing away of protests outside accommodation centres as reasonable expressions of reasonable fears – and the insistence on seeing the wave of arson attacks almost as a separate phenomenon – was part of the normalisation of far-right language and tactics in Sweden, and now it’s happening here.

Tánaiste Micheál Martin said last week that there “is no escape from punishment” for those involved in the attacks – a message not exactly reinforced by the fact that there have only been a handful of arrests so far, although the policing response does seem to have at last stepped up.

You don’t need KGB-level intelligence-gathering to predict where they might strike next. A video of St Brigid’s nursing home in Crooksling was posted to a (subsequently banned) TikTok account on January 22nd with a voiceover which said: “This is where we hold them. This is where we fight. This is where they die.” It was subsequently shared on some far-right Telegram accounts. Gardaí had already secured the property, yet early on the morning of February 4th, it still went up in flames.

The arson attacks demand stronger policing and a much more forceful political response, but the solution lies within communities, who need to decide what kind of society they want to build. Protesters may not condone arson, but they are at the thin end of a wedge that culminates in a property in flames, and one day, inevitably, in tragedy. The people concerned citizens need to worry about aren’t the so-called “unvetted males” from Syria or Albania – but the ones already in their community, driving around with a bootload of placards, a neat line in far-right conspiracy theories and a can of petrol.