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Understanding Ireland’s Intense Reaction on Ukraine
"We finally have the reorientation of national political priorities onto the single issue of housing that the country has been screaming for, for a decade - but it’s about Ukraine. How can that be?"
Every country in western Europe has rearranged their politics in the face the Ukraine crisis, but nowhere has done so with the wild intensity of Ireland. We’ve gone all in on the situation in a way that seems is a little out of step with everyone else, especially since Ukraine is a country 3000km away which we have no strong historic connection to. In this piece I wanted to document that reaction, the implications of it, and also think about what’s driving it.
There are a couple of indicators of how strong the response has been - the immediate and aggressive repudiation of the idea of neutrality, physical and linguistic attacks on the Russian embassy, the terrible poetry. But the number one change is the change to our immigration rules and how it’s been implemented.
All normal visa requirements were lifted for Ukrainians coming to Ireland during February and we’ve indicated that we may take up to as many as 100,000 people. Equivalent figures for the UK, Germany and the United States would be 1.3 Million, 1.6 Million and 6.6 Million respectively.
Accommodation is currently via private homes, hotels and B&Bs, but the Taoiseach has spoken of investigating empty properties and building temporary modular ones as housing, with some of these expenses being paid for using a contingency fund originally earmarked for Covid.
Gardaí have said that minimal security checks will be completed on people offering accommodation, and the Taoiseach has said that none will be completed on people travelling from Ukraine, some of whom will be fast-tracked through the registration system to enable them to serve as teachers.
The UK government has expressed concerns at the lack of vetting, given the obvious room for exploitation by people-traffickers, criminals, terrorists etc. Additionally all this has to be viewed in the context of Ireland’s historic record on the safe-guarding of vulnerable people, which is not good.
While these are understood as temporary measures, our approach to this situation also means an implicit decision to massively and permanently increase immigration. The context here is the commitment to provide own-door accommodation to people in the asylum system, and the recent immigration amnesty which will be availed of by an unknown number of people.
All of the above becomes even more remarkable when you factor in our existing generational homelessness and housing crisis. Here’s a sample of how our existing problems were being reported before Ukraine took over the news:
In January the Irish Times reported that “rising rents and surging prices have triggered a collapse in home ownership”: the report noted that house prices in Ireland have surged by 77% in the last decade (wages have gone up by 23% in the equivalent period); “making home ownership unachievable (and) pushing potential buyers out of the market and into rental accommodation, social housing or emigration”.
In February the same newspaper reported that “Homelessness was rising at an alarming rate since Covid restrictions were eased”. The restrictions aren’t mentioned, but a ban on evictions from private rented property was lifted in October last year. At the time of the report there were 9000 people in emergency accommodation.
A homeless man living in a tent died in Dublin yesterday.
The housing and homelessness situation isn’t new. It has driven the rise of Sinn Fein to become Ireland’s most popular party, an epochal and previously unthinkable change. Housing is consistently the number one concern of voters to an extent that dwarfs all others. The inability or unwillingness of legacy parties to address the situation is a constant source of rage.
It’s not an exaggeration to say everyone in Ireland knows someone whose life has been derailed or ruined by the unaffordability of housing. We finally have the complete reorientation of national political priorities onto this single issue that the country has been screaming for, for a decade - but it’s about Ukraine. How can that be?
The “benefit of the doubt” answer: there’s a real push from Irish people themselves to do something about Ukraine to the limited extent we can, because feeling of historical similarities between our national situation and Ukraine’s; and because of a true Christian desire to help others.
In relation to the latter part, it’s definitely inconsistent and hypocritical - why feel this way about Ukrainians and not homeless Irish people? - but humans are like that. Many aspects of this crisis are media creations, but the kindness of Irish people isn’t, it’s one of the best things about us and we shouldn’t allow ourselves to be tricked into being scornful of it, even though it can be manipulated.
What are politician’s motivations? Notwithstanding the above, I’ve written in the past about their tendency to latch on to whatever everyone else is doing, out of both an insecurity-driven need for validation and a lack of intellectual elbow-room needed to develop our own ideas.
The realpolitik answer is that Ireland’s Powers That Be have decided the best way to advance our interests is to be the most extreme exponents of whatever the current beliefs of upwardly mobile people in our cultural sphere are. We’re not strong enough to survive without the gang, or big enough to be in charge of the gang, but we can be the most committed member of the gang. I don’t think this pans out a power strategy but I think it explains a lot.
The final explanation is the conspiratorial one; that Ireland’s housing crisis is an insoluble disaster, so maybe politicians prefer to have a new, noble excuse to wrap around it than to settle for the mundane and longstanding practical ones. This seems to also be a factor in the US, where fuel price rises from last year are being blamed on an invasion that happened this year, so that politicians can retcon a cost of living increase as a moral choice.
None of those reasons change any of the moral factors associated with the Ukraine situation, but Ireland does seem to be an outlier in terms of the strength of our reaction to the crisis. That reaction is driven on one hand by kindness, and the other by politics, so in that way it displays much of what’s best and worst about our country. And, as always, the limited options for cultural and political expression in Ireland mean other more restrained reactions to the crisis are structurally impossible.