When the war in Ukraine broke out the Western powers rushed to supply weapons to the Ukrainian state, which became the purported bearer of freedom for the whole of Europe, if not the rest of the world because much of the rest of the world understood that the United States and Europe were not defenders of freedom.
In Ireland the government parties floated the idea of the state joining NATO so it too could supply weapons, but the rapid response by the Irish people showed that this idea was very unpopular and would require a lot more work to force through. After an apparent slight from Volodymyr Zelensky about the Irish contribution to the Ukrainian cause the government parties proclaimed that their contribution would be to provide a refuge for Ukrainians fleeing the war.
Very quickly government ministers were predicting that as many as 200,000 Ukrainian refugees were to be supplied with accommodation, which on the face of it seemed incredible. This was a government and state that had proved incapable of solving a homelessness problem of around 10,000, while massive house price increases had made buying one impossible for many, rents were astronomical, and much of the newly built housing stock was dangerous or becoming rapidly uninhabitable.
However an unprecedented propaganda campaign ensured that the cause of the Ukrainian state received much sympathy, and did so in Ireland, so much so that a state notorious for corruption and reactionary nationalism was embraced by almost everyone from right-wing governments to much of the left. Ironically this left has just recalled thirty years since the massive anti-war demonstrations against the imminent invasion of Iraq by the US and Britain etc. Today this left not only supports war but supports the US and Britain etc. supplying arms to ensure that the war continues to be fought, by a country that itself provided soldiers to occupy Iraq following the invasion.
Opposition to war has become support for war and opposition to western imperialism has become defence of western imperialism in its support for a state that wants to join its imperialist alliance. From the cause of death and destruction and oppression, these powers are accepted as defenders against these calamities, and the massive drive to rearmament has left this left trailing behind, endorsing the supply of weapons to its new ally while stuck with a past politics that recognises western imperialism as a prime source of war and oppression in the world. Of course, something will have to give here.
This is the first context to the refugee crisis in Ireland but one that was all but ignored by the demonstration in support of refugees in Dublin on Saturday, even though the massive increase in refugee numbers is mainly accounted for by Ukrainians. Not one of the left leaflets distributed at the demonstration mentioned the war, or so much as mentioned Ukraine, and I saw only one makeshift flag in Ukrainian colours, with no identifiable Ukrainian contingent on the demonstration.
The second context is the crises in housing and health services and stress on the provision of state services more generally. There is a valid argument that younger immigration will provide greater services than they will consume, but this will not immediately be the case and especially with so many Ukrainians being women with young children. Childcare costs can be extortionate in Ireland. When we also consider that refugee provision has been placed in mainly working class areas or in small rural towns, but not in more affluent and middle class areas, we can see why it would cause resentment Opinion polls have shown both support for refugees but also concern that the country has taken too many. There are also widespread complaints of lack of consultation with local communities before placing refugees in accommodation. Behind all this lies both valid complaints that there are inadequate services but also racism.
One reason why ‘war’ and ‘Ukraine’ was unmentioned at the demonstration is that the target of much racist invective, protest and attacks has been against non-Ukrainian asylum seekers. This includes men from Georgia and Albania, who have been particularly targeted. One can’t help but believe that were Georgia invaded by Russia or Albania by Serbia the Irish state would be proclaiming their needs and absolute requirement for emergency assistance.
The state and its governing parties have led the way into a crisis in which the far right and racist forces have mobilised in local areas to attack refugees and turn local people against them, with lurid stories of sexual harassment by refugees against Irish women and other racist tropes learnt from abroad. Irish people and existing asylum seekers have seen their demand for accommodation grow, and their needs be unmet, only to witness the government parties proclaim emergency measures to accommodate Ukrainian refugees.
The prioritisation of Ukrainians and creation of double standards when it comes to treatment of those seeking refuge in Ireland has not prevented the state’s efforts to assist Ukrainians from staggering from crisis to crisis with no evidence of the ability to create the required capacity in the short term or existence of a longer-term plan. This is not in the least surprising. The Irish state has failed to provide adequate housing for the pre-existing population and its health services have continually been in crisis. It has been silent on complaints that large numbers of refugees will not help this situation while it has all but ignored the full needs it has created.
It has therefore opened the door to racist and xenophobic arguments and agitation and has now started to row in behind them. It has promised to clamp down harder on asylum seekers while it proclaims the necessity to support more Ukrainian refugees, with the threat of more deportations of the former. It makes claims of their cheating to be here in the first place as a result ”criminal gangs”’ and human “traffickers”; makes statements denying that single men are being placed in accommodation, as if they were indeed the threat proclaimed by racists, and the new Taoiseach Varadkar has now declared that immigration policy must become “firm and hard”.
The real failure of the state and government parties to provide adequate state services is being blamed on refugees by the far right, which has not targeted the largest group of arrivals–Ukrainians fleeing war–but instead refugees who are not so obviously white and ‘deserving’. The state, on the other hand, has also declared these refugees uniquely deserving while it supports a war that has caused them to flee their homes in the first place, with continued support only promising more to follow. This combination is one more reactionary consequence of a reactionary war.
The demonstration on Saturday was called after increasing anti-immigrant protests by the far right that have grown in number, particularly noticeable because of their previous absence and the naive and stupid notion that the Irish (of all people!) were immune from the racism that has grown across Europe. I went down to it from Belfast to support it, see its size and its composition and because it was important to rebuff the mobilisations of the far right for whom control of the streets is a strategic objective. A large demonstration would signal where it stood in terms of such mobilisation and the terms on which the whole argument could be waged. A large demonstration of the left would not be enough to meet these requirements.
In the event the demonstration was larger than such a mobilisation, consisting of a wide cross-section of the population, from outside of the left or who it would normally be able to mobilise. In this it was impressive and just about achieved its purpose. It was not however, in my estimate and those of a couple of comrades, 50,000 strong, but perhaps just more than half that number. It was largely Dublin-based and did not have the predominantly working class composition of the water charges demonstrations or of the very large demonstration against austerity that followed the crash of the Celtic Tiger. It did however contain a significant number from ethnic minorities and from the left and some trade unions. These were predominantly its activists and not significant numbers from the trade union membership, which would have made it much larger.
The left has built itself an electoral base in Dublin and Cork and its grass-roots organisation should be well placed to defeat attempts by the far right to organise in local areas, but it is not quite as simple as that. Building an electoral base is not the same as building a movement. People before Profit seemed to be aware of this, as it faces defeat by Sinn Fein in the next elections, and its main message on the demonstration was for people to join it. Unfortunately, it is not an organisation with the capacity to contain a mass membership and an electoral base is not an organisational one. Its leaflet called for a left government and for everyone to support its legislative motion in the Dáil on housing, proposals that are hardly adequate.
Any left government will require a Sinn Fein leadership and its left credentials are threadbare, even if it may have the capacity and scope for some social-democratic measures. What such a government could not be is a working class one – but then a ‘left’ government does not have to be working class, the term ‘left’ in an Irish context does not imply very much. An organisation that thinks the role of working class activity is to support votes in parliament has got it arse about face. Other left leaflets pointed to the need for working class unity and for it to organise and mobilise, but this requires challenging the bureaucratic character and leadership of the trade unions and these left organisations neither prioritise this nor have the capacity to be exemplars of healthy democratic organisation themselves.
It also requires the correct political approach, and too much of the demonstration was an expression of liberalism and not socialist politics. Not so long ago the left exposed the inane character of abstract nouns, such as the ‘war on terror’ but now it appears not to object to the demand to oppose ‘hate’ or support ‘diversity’, as if there are not some things, such as racism, that should be hated. Supporting ‘diversity’ is a bit like declaring your support for gravity, it doesn’t matter if you do or you don’t, it will still exist. To paraphrase Terry Eagleton, a diverse number of racists would not be a step forward. If you want the opposite of division it is called unity, and then you need to say who should unite and for what purpose.
The rise of the far right has been prepared by the failure for years of the Irish State and government parties to provide adequate state services for the majority of the Irish people, and for its similar failure in relation to those refugees it has, and has not, encouraged to come to Ireland. Its policies have sewn the division between natives and refugees and between first class refugees who are white–and victims of a war it has supported–and those second class others seeking refuge who it has determined are a problem.
The crucial issues facing Irish workers, Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers are therefore the same with the same guilty forces responsible for their plight. Their common need should be clear, as is the need for working class unity and for working class organisation to express it. Many organisations supported the demonstration in Dublin on Saturday. Those with a commitment to the interests of the working class, including Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers, should form a united organisation that can provide a programme for further action at national and local level that offers not only opposition to the far right but an alternative.