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Sinn Féin

Mary Lou McDonald: 'Government has not handled the immigration question well'

The Sinn Féin leader said that if she was in power her party would make the system “more efficient”.

SINN FEIN LEADER Mary Lou McDonald has said that the Government has “not handled the immigration question well” and that her party would make the system for processing asylum applications “more efficient”.

In a wide-ranging interview on RTÉ’s This Week programme, McDonald criticised the Government’s handling of the recent upsurge in people claiming asylum and International Protection in Ireland.

Last year, close to 13,000 people sought protection in Ireland, a small drop on 2022, but more than triple the number in 2019. This is coupled with the over 100,000 Ukrainians who have sought protection in Ireland since the Russian invasion of their country in 2022, though some have since left.

The increased numbers has put huge strain on the Ireland’s system for accommodating new arrivals as they wait to have their applications processed, leading to a large number of vacant and private buildings – such as hotels – being used.

This has in turn led to protests over the use of such buildings and the housing of people in certain communities. There are also increasing numbers of asylum seekers without shelter in Ireland.

The issue has also led to hardline anti-immigration rhetoric from right-wing and far right elements, who piggy back on local protests to increase their visibility. There have also been a number of arson attacks on buildings earmarked for use as asylum seeker accommodation. 

Commenting on all this, McDonald said that the Government “has not handled the immigration question well”.

“I think it has been disorganised, it has been short-sighted. And as I referred to earlier, it has left whole sections of the community very much feeling powerless as big changes happen in their neighbourhoods.

I understand where that anxiety comes from. But I have to say we live in a society in which we will get the best, achieve the best for ourselves, for our families, when we embrace each other and we operate with each other on the basis of respect.

She said that communities “had a right to full information” with regards to whether buildings in their communities might be used as accommodation.

“People have a right to full information. You see, we all have a right to a level of respect being afforded to us,” she said.

“When you’re a new person coming to this country, sometimes from very traumatic circumstances, but equally people who live in communities here.

And I have said this consistently… from the get go, and I experienced it in my own constituency, where government made an absolute mess of this and demonstrated utter disrespect for local communities.

No ‘Veto’

Asked whether this meant that people should be allowed a “veto” over accepting asylum seekers into their area, McDonald said:

“No, it does not [mean a veto]. Consultation means what it says on the tin. Consultation means conversations with people living in communities.

To explain. Not to leave speculation in the air because… we now know that such speculation is seized on [by] some to build up concern and anxiety and now we know some will take it to the extreme and carry out criminal actions and actually burn down buildings which is despicable. 

Asked whether if Sinn Féin got into power it would mean an increase in deportations, McDonald said her party would make the system “more efficient”.

“I believe that what we need is a system that is fair, that is efficient,” she said.

“What it means is that when when a person presents and makes an application, that that application is dealt with efficiently. It means not leaving people in limbo for months and years on end.

That’s what efficiency means. And then enforcement means that in the event that an application is unsuccessful, well then the person concerned leaves the jurisdiction.

McDonald was interviewed after a new Sunday Independent/Ireland Thinks poll found that 35% of people said they would consider voting for a party or candidate who holds strong anti-immigrant views. 

The interview came after her deputy leader Michelle O’Neill made history yesterday by becoming the first nationalist First Minister in Northern Ireland. McDonald said she expected a border poll on Irish unity to be held in the next decade.