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The former St Joseph's Convent, Fermoy Digi Quarter Ltd

Fermoy latest town to be visited by anti-immigration campaigners and misinformation

Analysis: Activists exploiting the war and accommodation shortages by whipping up local community sentiment against asylum seekers.

IN THE PAST month, Cork man Derek Blighe has spoken at anti-immigration rallies in Kerry, Dublin and Wicklow. 

This week, he remained in his native county, taking aim with his megaphone at a number of asylum seekers arriving in Fermoy. 

The 42-year-old leads a group called Ireland First, which describes itself as a nationalist party (though it is not a registered political party). It espouses right-wing ethnopluralism theories and campaigns for Ireland to leave the European Union. 

Online on Wednesday, Blighe urged people to meet him at the St Joseph’s Convent in Fermoy at 5pm to protest outside the facility where the asylum seekers who had recently arrived were being housed.

Blighe regularly travels to areas where asylum seekers and refugees are being housed to stage protests, claiming that Ireland is “under a sustained assault with unvettable fake refugees”. 

Over the past few weeks, he has posted videos online from Killarney, Wicklow town and East Wall in Dublin city centre, where he has decried Irish immigration policy, demanded the deportation of asylum seekers and called the Russian invasion of Ukraine a ‘fake war’.

On 12 November in Killarney, standing on top of a bench in the town with a megaphone, he claimed that crime rates, sexual assaults and rapes increase in Irish localities when people fleeing persecution are taken in.

And speaking from Fitzwilliam Square in Wicklow town last week, Blighe told a poorly attended event that future elections are “in jeopardy” because the government has put in place “a policy to fill this country up with refugees” who he said have voting rights. (Refugees and asylum seekers can vote in local elections, but not in general elections or referendums.)

At the same demonstration, he said that Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is a “smokescreen” and a “fake war publicised to encourage economic migrants to come to this country and benefit from our liberal housing policy”.

It was only a few hours later that he appeared at a protest in Dublin against asylum seekers being moved into the former ESB building in the East Wall area.

“East Wall, I have to commend you, you have put this issue in the spotlight,” he said, before going on to claim that in Wicklow, after women and children refugees were integrated into the community before “more single men were moved in”.

As he addressed the group of about 70 people in Fermoy on Wednesday, he told them that the government is moving in “fake asylum seekers”. 

Blighe’s tour of the country comes as the government deals with a chronic shortage of accommodation options for people coming from Ukraine, as well as those from other countries seeking safety and refuge, in high numbers.

As predicted earlier this year by the Taoiseach, he and others are using the war and accommodation shortages to whip up local community sentiment against asylum seekers and spreading misinformation and conspiracy theories about refugees.

However, following those events in Cork, where videos of the asylum seekers were posted on Facebook, local group ‘Fermoy and Mallow against Racism’ said they are planning an event to welcome newcomers to the town. Members who are organising today’s event say they are “in shock at protests targeting refugee children and their families”.

“We are a town that has welcomed refugees and continues to welcome refugees,” organisers told The Journal

They are calling on locals to come to a photocall to show the town’s support, and are inviting people to make homemade banners sharing messages of solidarity and positivity.

PastedImage-8023 Children in the local area have been getting ready for the showing of support by creating posters

“We shouldn’t have to do this but we cannot let hate and division take root in our town. We are many; they are few,” the organisers added.  

Accommodation crisis 

The incidents in communities around the country come months after the government announced it had run out of accommodation options for new Ukrainian refugees and other asylum seekers entering the State.

In the summer, the Department of Children told Irish NGOs who were dealing with Ukrainians entering the country that it had to temporarily stop arrivals into the country due to a lack of places to house them.

Although asylum seekers were subsequently allowed to enter Ireland, further issues arose in October when spaces ran out again and some arrivals had to make do with sleeping in Dublin Airport.

At the time, Taoiseach Micheál Martin raised concerns that far-right groups would seek to exploit the situation by claiming that Ireland is “full”.

The phrase “Ireland is full” has regularly trended on Twitter over recent months, particularly after its use by advocates of the white nationalist Great Replacement conspiracy theory.

“[There] would be a concern that certain groups will exploit this to sort of boost a political agenda around migration and that would be very, very regrettable,” Martin said in October.

Rather than preventing asylum seekers from entering the country, the Government has responded to shortages by seeking out further options to house them.

The government told local councillors, in a briefing document seen by The Journal that was sent the day before 63 asylum seekers arrived, that they were being housed in the converted convent in Fermoy because it has “no option but to consider all offers of accommodation as access to suitable facilities is currently “severely constrained”. 

The asylum seekers who arrived this week include 19 families – comprised 25 children and eight adult females.

St. Joseph’s Convent can house 77 people in 19 bedrooms but the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth believes “additional capacity will be brought on in phases over a number of weeks to the year end, bringing the full capacity to 150 people”.

Current plans suggest the residents will continue to be made up of families, couples and single females. The department could not say how long the asylum seekers would live at the accommodation, which was arranged through a “12-month emergency contract”, due to the numbers of IP applicants and the “scarcity of alternative accommodation”.

The convent, once owned by the church, had been lying derelict in Fermoy for almost 50 years. It was bought a number of years ago by a company called Digi Quarter Ltd which carried out extensive refurbishment. 

The protests began after several people put videos of the asylum seekers arriving online - similar to the tactics used ahead of protests in East Wall last month.

One video posted by the owner of a local football team purported to show asylum seekers getting off buses near the Presentation School in Fermoy on Tuesday 29 November.

Children, women and families were visible in the video posted by Anthony Cody, the owner of a local soccer team. 

He said he had seen “black families, apparently from Ukraine”, arriving and urged people to “get up here asap” in the live video that has been viewed over 10,000 times. He added that he was not saying black families could not be from Ukraine, but that he would leave it up to viewers “to judge”. 

Cody has since written a Facebook post claiming that he does not have any issues with families arriving in Ireland from “war-torn countries” but maintained that the people of Fermoy are being “fed lies” about where asylum seekers have come from.

Commenting on the video, one follower wrote, “people should have blocked the entrance” while another claimed that the asylum seekers had their passports “torn up” and were told to say they are Ukrainian.

However, others in the area distanced themselves from Cody, as one person said, “My kids are going to school there next week and I would be so happy for them to befriend these beautiful children”, and another said “shame on you”.  

Piet du Toit, the co-owner of Brew Boys Coffee told The Journal that while his company sponsors the local football team owned by Cody, they have nothing to do with his video or the statements he has made. 

“I am an immigrant to Ireland from South Africa, I would not be against other people coming into the country, and these people have gone through enough,” he said.

Asked to comment on the protests, Cody told The Journal: “I am not left or right, I am just a concerned citizen and parent of Fermoy.” He also said that he left the protest early on Wednesday night and has not attended one since. 

“Once I heard what was being said, I pulled away,” he said of the speakers.

He said he was “relieved” when he realised that he was incorrect about who was occupying the complex but went on to say that he remains concerned that the people who have arrived are a “decoy for more single men coming”. 

Though no protests occurred on Thursday night, in a statement made on Friday to The Journal, Blighe’s group claimed that they are in talks with “many locals” and that that they intend to “escalate our protests in due course unless these people are removed”.

b6b6fa03-2e27-4b75-bb2f-643a10db1658 People attending an event in support of refugees in Fermoy today Eimer McAuley / TheJournal Eimer McAuley / TheJournal / TheJournal

Local government reaction

Several local councillors in the area have said that they are reluctant to speak on the issue until they get more information, noting the short notice period they received from the department and the International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS).

Councillor Noel McCarthy called for calm from the local community until more information is provided, and noted that Fermoy has always been a welcoming place to people coming from difficult circumstances, and that many people have taken Ukrainian refugees into their homes in the area.

East Cork councillor Liam Quade said that the protest scenes that took place in Fermoy last night were “very disturbing” and must have been “very frightening for the people who were arriving”. 

Quade also said that there was a “dismaying ugliness” to the protest that took place outside of the convent in Fermoy, and urged people to not give a platform to the “need for public attention” of those ‘leading’ it. 

However, one councillor was more supportive of the protest. Independent Frank Roche said that he shares some of the concerns of the people protesting.

“We have been kept in the dark as a council on this, there has been no public consultation,” he said, echoing the message that emanated out of East Wall last month. 

“We have concerns about our safety,” he added.

“And lots of decent local people looking for housing, we should look after those people,” the councillor, who was convicted of a 2020 assault on his brother and nephew earlier this year, continued.   

Standards of accommodation

A number of councillors also told The Journal that they have been reassured by the government that the standard of accommodation at the convent is “high”.

Residents will get three meals a day, and have access to a tea and coffee facility. They will share six washing machines and dryers, while their bed linen will be changed and rooms will be cleaned once a week.

The site will be manned by six to ten people every day, including a security presence by day and night.

The 19 bedrooms people will live in consists of “mainly triple bedrooms”, as well as family rooms with four to six beds. Each room with have an individual key.

Asylum seekers living there will be able to work after six months. The government says it will “work closely” with the HSE to provide them with health services through GPs and emergency services.

While IPAS is to have a team working to provide vulnerability assessments for the people who have arrived in Fermoy, the department notes that this team is working under “considerable pressure already” due to the high number of new emergency locations opened.

The department told councillors that while the government is aware that types of accommodation including office buildings and tented solutions are “less than ideal”, it is “working hard” to find solutions through the use of facilities management companies to offer “emergency food, shelter and sanitation to both Ukrainians and other international asylum seekers.

The number of people arriving from both cohorts is expected to remain at “elevated levels”.

The department stated that a republished tender process for IPAS to provide more “own-door accommodation” closed on 8 November, and that officials will begin site visits to potential locations shortly, with successful tenderers will to be added to accommodation provider panels at the start of 2023.

In the meantime, an exempted development regulation for the change of use of a wide range of buildings has been drafted by the department alongside the department of housing, and will be put before the houses of government shortly, while IPAS continue to source vacant office buildings and vacant state-owned buildings to house refugees.

The briefing to local councillors, sent on 28 November, said that as of 27 November the most recent 7-day average number of Ukrainians arriving in Ireland who are fleeing war was 109 people per day, while the 7-day average for International Protection applicants arriving was 48 people per day, as of 13 November.

As of 27 November, 59,787 Ukrainians fleeing war had arrived in Ireland, 47,910 of those people are being housed by the state through the Ukraine Crisis Temporary Accommodation Team, according to figures sent to councillors.

The department said 66,000 Ukrainians escaping the invasion will have arrived in Ireland by the end of this year.

As of 13 November, 17,192 International Protection applicants are being accommodated by IPAS, with 13,111 of those asylum seekers arriving in 2022. That number is estimated to rise to 14,500 by the year end.

Far-right activity?

The make-up of groups attending and organising recent anti-immigration protests has been the subject of intense speculation online and in the media.

Local councillor Nial Ring previously told The Journal this week that a group in East Wall that first blocked the Dublin Port Tunnel on 28 November was made up of “99% residents”, and that smaller groups who attended previous protests didn’t “seem to be around” at that stage.

But although protests have been attended by concerned locals whose political affiliations are unknown, demonstrations have also been supported and encouraged by parties and non-local individuals associated with the far-right from an early stage.

Ahead of one of the first protests on 19 November, the Irish Freedom Party posted a video on social media of refugees moving into the former ESB headquarters and describing it as a “plantation”, another term used by Irish advocates of the white nationalist Great Replacement conspiracy theory.

The Irish Freedom Party has regularly encouraged people to attend protests that have taken place, and its president Hermann Kelly repeated the claim that Ireland was “full” in an interview about East Wall on the UK-based channel GB News.

One of the most outspoken locals during the recent protests, Malachy Steenson, an activist and former councillor for the Workers’ Party, previously spoke as a guest at the Irish Freedom Party’s Árd Fheis.

On 29 November, Steenson signed a letter headed by a protest group calling itself the East Wall Committee, in which it said it intends to block the Dublin Port Tunnel three times a week until the asylum seeker accommodation centre is closed.

Blighe has also been seen at East Wall, in one instance filming men delivering furniture to the former offices. In one of his initial videos in Fermoy, Anthony Cody can be heard calling on Blighe to come to the protest. 

“If any of you follow Derek Blighe, he’s given great coverage of what is going on here in the last few weeks, so, Derek, if you are around, get down here asap bud, because I’m just holding a camera here lost for words,” he is heard saying. 

The demonstrations have also been encouraged by far-right figures on Facebook, YouTube and the messaging app Telegram, where it has featured prominently in channels devoted to anti-Covid lockdown protests, ethno-nationalist discussions and conspiracy theories.

A local activist group, Mallow and Fermoy Against Racism, held an emergency meeting of community leaders to address misinformation being spread online about asylum seekers arriving in the town.

One of those who set up the group, Kate O’Connell, told The Journal how it formed over the summer in a response to outside agitators spreading disinformation when Ukrainian refugees were housed in a local hotel.

“We knew that disinformation was being spread and we wanted a working group to monitor the situation and be ready if something like this started up again,” she said.

O’Connell claims it was well known in the town that the convent was going to be offered to IPAS to house refugees, but that the claims being made about locals having been promised that it would be people from Ukraine who moved into the building are untrue.

“At no point did I ever read or hear any information stating that the refugees coming to the building would be from Ukraine; this is another attempt to twist the narrative and make it seem like there is a conspiracy at play, when there isn’t,” she said.

She added that many people in the town are “shocked” at the scenes that unfolded yesterday.

“This protest does not paint an accurate picture of Fermoy. We are a welcoming, multi-cultural community. I live in a housing estate here where there are families and children from all kind of backgrounds. The majority of people here are welcoming and open to newcomers,” she said.

However, since it has been organised, Anthony Cody wrote on Facebook urging people not to attend the event Mallow and Fermoy Against Racism have organised in support of refugees, falsely claiming that the organisers are not “people from Fermoy”. 

Ronan Condon, a local secondary school teacher, also said that while everyone has a right to protest, it is imperative that people are aware when false narratives are being circulated about vulnerable people.

“The truth is that Fermoy is a decent place, with a lot of very decent people, many of whom have in some way helped refugees, and some who have taken them into their homes,” he said.

“I very much doubt that these protests will gain a footing and continue in the town, as it seems that individuals are merely using them as a means for self promotion.”

Additional reporting by Stephen McDermott

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