When five-and-six-year-old schoolchildren were stabbed on a Dublin street on 23 November 2023—allegedly by an Algerian immigrant—the resulting riots made headlines around the world. Those riots, however, were the result of tensions over immigration that had been building under the surface for years. In a recent survey, 75 percent of Irish people stated that they believe that the country has let in too many immigrants.
Immigrants began flooding into Ireland for the first time with the economic boom of the 1990s; 1996 was the first year in which more people immigrated than emigrated. The first waves were mostly people from other European countries, who could assimilate easily, and their arrival met with little protest. The Irish prime minister, Leo Varadkar, is himself the son of an Indian immigrant. I’m an immigrant myself: an Irish American with longstanding family ties to this island.
Following a quarter-century of immigration, however, more than 20 percent of Ireland’s population is now foreign-born, and the immigrants keep coming; the number of asylum-seekers increased by 415 percent last year. According to Ireland’s Newstalk programme, 70 percent of those immigrants were male, and almost 40 percent had false or no passports. On the rare occasions on which an immigrant is ordered to be deported, only around one out of every seven deportation orders are actually carried out.
There has been a surge in murder, rape, sexual assault, and domestic violence, as well as a few shocking and previously unknown crimes—as when, in April 2022, a Muslim immigrant murdered two men, one of them by beheading, and stabbed a third man in the eye, after using a gay dating app to target his victims. Gauging how many of these crimes are committed by immigrants is difficult, however, as the media initially report only the perpetrators’ place of residence—a reticence that does nothing to allay suspicion.
When the national media do discuss such crimes, they generally blame Irish culture, rather than the assailants’ own cultures. After the beheading, for example, former president Mary McAleese blamed Christian churches for being “conduits of homophobia,” even though the assailant was from a Muslim country. When 23-year-old schoolteacher Ashling Murphy was stabbed 11 times by a Roma migrant in 2022, the Guardian ran an article on Ireland’s “culture of misogyny.”
The anti-immigrant protests in Irish villages and neighbourhoods have likewise received little coverage outside of small independent media sites, although Irish social media is full of videos of immigrants fighting in the streets or harassing women. Social media, of course, is a turbo-charged rumour mill and the videos purportedly showing immigrant violence in Ireland could be years old, staged, or filmed in another country entirely. Community Notes is unable to keep up with the constant stream of such material. A Twitter feed is a poor substitute for public disclosure and real journalism—yet better public reporting is largely missing.
When Murphy’s murderer was sentenced in November, her boyfriend made an impassioned speech in which he pointed out that her killer had lived entirely off Irish welfare payments for 10 years. His comments were largely ignored by the mainstream media—reporter Kitty Holland later called them an “incitement to hatred”—but circulated widely on social media. Only one day before the stabbings, on 22 November, popular MMA fighter and anti-immigrant firebrand Conor McGregor tweeted that Ireland was “at war.”
Most previous attacks have taken place in poor or rural areas, such as Sligo, Tullamore, and Killarney. The 23 November attack happened in the heart of the nation’s capital, in the main shopping district during the Christmas rush, in a square named for a national hero, in the neighbourhood where the Irish Revolution began a century ago. The school was situated next door to the house where Irish icon Oliver St. John Gogarty once lived and just around the corner from a memorial to the innocents killed by an IRA bomb in 1974. It was an Irish-language school, an institution designed to preserve the country’s linguistic heritage, situated in a neighbourhood now heavily populated by immigrants.
Within a few hours of the attack, local families began to assemble in the adjoining square. When police tried to disperse them, some of the crowd turned violent. Then looters descended on the neighbourhood, smashing windows in the shopping district and burning police cars, a double-decker bus, and the city’s light rail train. A force of more than 400 riot police was called in from all over the country to clear the streets. International news agencies descended on the city, wanting to know what happened. The police commissioner had a culprit ready: the riots were the work of a “hooligan faction driven by far-right ideology,” he claimed—a line repeated by the media around the world that night.
Politicians and pundits spent the next few weeks promising to crack down on the alleged far-right perpetrators. Limerick councillor Azad Talukder—himself originally an immigrant from Bangladesh—declared that he wanted to see them “shot in the head.” But the nature of the group supposedly responsible remained poorly defined. Minister for Justice Helen McEntee called them “anti-government, anti-state, anti-immigration”—while conceding that it was important to be “honest” about the “high levels of immigration.” Irish talk show host Joe Brolly claimed that the “far right” were giving antisemitic speeches in the city but offered neither evidence nor examples. Virgin Media played an audio clip of an unknown voice calling for people to kill foreigners, superimposed over the image of activist and protest leader Gavin Pepper, who denies that the voice is his and is reportedly suing for libel.
On 6 December 2023, six members of parliament—mostly populists from rural places where unrest has been building—forced through a debate on immigration in Ireland’s lower house. It was the first debate on the subject in the country’s history, and only a few members showed up, but, even so, the discussion quickly grew heated.
Meanwhile, the protests have continued and so has the violence. On 16 December, a hotel in Galway scheduled to house asylum seekers burned to the ground, and the police suspect arson. A vacant former pub earmarked for emergency immigrant accommodation in Dublin, against which local families have been protesting for weeks, caught fire on New Year’s Eve.
The Irish government, meanwhile, have redoubled their push for a “hate speech” bill that goes beyond any other of its kind in the Western world. Under the bill, police can enter a person’s home, seize their computer or mobile phone, demand the user’s passwords, and hold onto their electronics “for so long as is necessary.” Refusal to cooperate is punishable by up to two years in prison.
The bill is based on EU directive Council Framework Decision 2008/913/JHA and prohibits “hatred” of anyone on the basis of “protected characteristics” such as “national or ethnic origin,” “religion,” or “sex characteristics.” Perhaps the most radical passage of the bill states that anyone found “in possession of material” contravening these ill-defined regulations “shall be presumed, until the contrary is proved, to have been in possession of the material in contravention” of rules against inciting hatred. The law therefore assumes Irish citizens to be guilty until proven innocent.
A recent government survey found that 73 percent of respondents were against the bill, according to reporters at the online publication Gript—yet all Ireland’s major parties support it. It has passed the Irish Parliament’s lower house and is currently being debated in the upper chamber. Elon Musk and Donald Trump Jr. have tweeted about it. Yet, mainstream Irish media has run few stories on the topic and many Irish people may not even be aware of its existence.
In the wake of the riots, armed guards have been stationed in front of the residences of Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar and Tánaiste (deputy prime minister) Micheál Martin, and the government has announced plans to use facial-recognition technology to track citizens. It seems apt that Irish author Paul Lynch has just won the Booker Prize for his dystopian science fiction novel Prophet Song, about a future Irish police state.
The recent convulsions in Ireland are just the latest manifestation of a wave of anti-immigrant populism in Europe, which was a factor in Brexit and in the rise of Viktor Orbán, Marine le Pen, Giorgia Meloni, and Geert Wilders. But Ireland’s immigration crisis has happened too quickly and recently for significant political opposition to begin to form in response. A number of very small anti-immigrant parties, such as the Irish Freedom Party, have appeared on the scene, but there hasn’t been a major election in Ireland since the issue has become more prominent.
Far from deterring the formation of a dangerous far-right faction in Ireland, the Irish government’s recent actions seem almost designed to encourage one. They have allowed unprecedented numbers of immigrants to enter Ireland—some of them hostile to Western values—and provided them with state benefits. They have ignored protestors and polling results and smeared all opponents of their policies as far right and white supremacist. Thanks to the new hate speech bill, they will soon be able to arrest people for their social media posts. Together, these actions may make the rise of a genuinely far-right movement a real and terrifying possibility.