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Migration narratives and conspiracies

‘We need to have a conversation about immigration.’

Since the November 2023 riot in Dublin, calls for an ‘honest’ national debate about Ireland’s immigration rules and system have been heard - on the airwaves and in front of accommodation centres for asylum seekers and refugees. 

As part of that continuing debate, people have tried to differentiate between ‘legitimate’ concerns about the movement of people around the globe and what are racist, far-right or xenophobic reactions to people seeking asylum on this island. 

The conversation has taken place in the context of an unprecedented number of refugees being given international protection by the Irish Government, mostly due to the war in Ukraine but also the result of other conflicts and humanitarian crises in Africa and the Middle East. 

Simultaneously, far-right movements have fed off the “migrant crisis” in the Mediterranean Sea where each week people try to make dangerous crossings in unsuitable rafts and boats. 

What we hear and read

As discussions heat up, misinformation and conspiracy theories have become more mainstream. 

A common hashtag used on many social posts about migration is #TheGreatReplacement with many people sharing those posts, perhaps with lesser knowledge about what message it is portraying than the original poster.

A talking point popular among those who participate in campaigns against immigration - the conspiracy theory known as the “Great Replacement” - posits that the native (white) people of Europe are being replaced by non-white immigrants, often Arab or Muslim people, and that this is orchestrated by a group of clandestine, powerful elites. 

The theory overlaps with, and is a slightly more palatable version of, the neo-Nazi “white genocide” conspiracy theory, which explicitly says Jews are behind the supposed plot. 

Replacement theory, which has taken root in far-right movements and parties around the world, comes in various forms depending on each national context. In Ireland, those who subscribe to it often use the term “plantation” and argue that “Ireland is full” and “Ireland belongs to the Irish”. 

This racist conspiracy theory is the subject of derision among academics but it has become popular among fringe far-right agitators and more mainstream political discourse in Ireland.

“Great Replacement” theory casts immigrants and their children as an existential threat to the native populations of their adopted home countries. 

History of the theory

For those who have heard of it, their first encounter with the term “Great Replacement” likely came in the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks of 15 October 2019 in Christchurch, New Zealand, when a lone gunman opened fire on worshippers at two different mosques during Friday prayers, killing 51 people and leaving another 40 injured. 

The shooter, Australian Brenton Harrison Tarrant, streamed the attack on Facebook after posting a manifesto titled “The Great Replacement”, in which he made references to a long list of white supremicist ideas including “white genocide”, as well as endorsing other explicitly fascist positions.  

Fascism is an oft-used term in history, but is also now often used as a slur. However, it can be quite hard to define it simply. Here is a good explanation though from Britannica: Experts disagree about the exact meaning of the term fascism. However, the governments that have been called fascist in the past (Nazi Germany, Mussolini’s Italy) had certain characteristics in common. Under these governments, the people had few freedoms. They had no voice in the government. Instead, a strong leader controlled everything and became a symbol of the country. The leader built up the police force to punish people who disobeyed. The leader also built up the army and threatened other countries. The leader blamed minority groups for the country’s problems.

Despite living on the other side of the world, Tarrant, who is now serving a life sentence without the possibility of parole, was intensely interested in far-right European politics. He made multiple visits to the continent where the white supremacist conspiracy theory was first articulated, and where it continues to find expression in fringe and mainstream political discourse today. 

The term “Great Replacement” was first popularised by French writer Renaud Camus in his book of the same name, Le Grand Remplacement. Camus’ theory is that the indigenous population of France is being replaced by “invaders” in the form of immigrants, mostly from majority Muslim countries. 

This colonisation project, he says, is an orchestrated effort by a group of nefarious elites who have the ultimate goal of wiping out the native people of France through a kind of demographic and cultural warfare, which explains why people who subscribe to the theory are particularly concerned with birth rates (among white Europeans) and the age and sex of refugees.   

The Christchurch shooter's manifesto began with the same line repeated three times: "It's the birth rates."

Camus refers to this as a “genocide by substitution”.

According to Dónal Hassett, a lecturer in the Department of French at University College Cork who specialises in colonial histories, the theory is the latest iteration of an ethnic nationalism that has its origins in France. 

“There has been a long history of this kind of xenophobic fear of replacement that haunts colonial projects, especially settler colonial projects. So in places like the US and America, where there is a fear, a quite concrete fear, that those early settler communities will be wiped out. And that kind of weaves its way into the political culture of those countries.”

An early strain of ethnic nationalism - with an antisemitic dimension - is commonly associated with French philosopher Maurice Barrès, whose political philosophy is now seen by many as a precursor to the kind of national socialism that took hold in Germany, Italy, Spain and other European states in the 20th century.

“He’s the man who actually came up with the idea of National Socialism, which of course the Nazis will take on,” Hassett explains. 

“And he was part of this political movement that was deeply antisemitic, but also deeply critical of the arrival of immigrants. At that time, most of the immigrants came from Italy, or from Belgium, or Poland. So we're talking about white European immigrants that were seen as potentially threatening the native population.”

“Great Replacement” theory builds on this original line of political thought and other iterations that have come since, Hassett says. 

“So in France, you would have had ideas of reverse colonisation, this notion promoted by the far right in France in the '70s and '80s in particular, that migration from North Africa constituted a form of reverse colonisation, in which the revenge of the Algerians was through taking over France, and through populating France with people from North Africa, so there is a clear connection to that idea.”

Mattias Ekman, an associate professor at the Department of Media Studies in Stockholm University who specialises in racist and xenophobic political discourse, believes the focus on demography in replacement theory makes it harder to argue against and more palatable in mainstream political discourse than the more explicitly racist “White Genocide” theory.

Despite this, proponents of the theory tend to direct their attention at a certain group. In the case of Sweden, that group is Muslims.  

“Demography is sort of boiled down to ethnicity or race or religion. It's not immigration per se. It's not immigration from European countries and not even I would say from Latin America or other Christian nations, but it's immigration from Muslim countries. 

“And it doesn't really matter if the immigrants perceive themselves as believing Muslims or not. I mean, a lot of these people don't recognise themselves as believers. They are Muslims because they are born in a Muslim country with Muslim parents, but they are no more faithful to their religion than the Western Europeans are faithful to their Christianity background. 

“So it becomes sort of messy and much more of a grey area where you can use demographic arguments to say that oh, look at the population. You can't say that it hasn't changed. Just look outside, it has changed. But it's not those kinds of demographic factors that they look at.

“You can't propagate an idea of white genocide if you're in mainstream politics. That's impossible, obviously. But you can actually draw on replacement claims within mainstream politics because it's much more nuanced and the grey areas are much more visible.

“You need to be very nuanced when criticising this argument, but when demography becomes a question of only one particular group's gradual growth and importance in society, then you should be very wary about that kind of argumentation.”

Hassett and Ekman both see flexibility as a characteristic of replacement theory that makes it adaptable to different historical contexts. 

“What's kind of interesting about this great replacement idea is how it folds into existing political conceptions," says Dónal Hassett. "So in France we see it is almost always iterated around something to do with Algeria or Africa. In Spain, we've seen recently with Vox, the far-right party there, they have used the language of the Reconquista, the conquest of Muslim Spain, which is kind of the origin of modern Spain, which also of course involved expulsion of the Jewish population.

“And then in Ireland which is a different case, you have this really weird and problematic use of the notion of Plantation. So, we can see how different countries, different far-right movements are folding the idea of great replacement into their own particular historical narratives, and often those would be contradictory with each other. But they do hold certain power, you know, within the political culture of each of those countries.”

The words, hashtags and phrases used

Replacement theory has captured the imagination of many far-right political actors across Europe and found expression in anglophone countries, in online communities, on signs at anti-immigrant protests, marches and riots, and in the manifestos of mass murderers. 

The use of words like “invasion” and “hordes” in descriptions of migration into Europe can be found across the continent, including in Ireland.

We have seen real-life concerns that people have about housing, healthcare and public services being referenced as protesters and politicians turn those frustrations towards refugees and immigrants by declaring “Ireland is full”. 

The riots on O’Connell Street in November 2023 saw this language used as gardaí were attacked, fires were set and shops were looted. Before that, similar rhetoric was heard at a protest that took place outside Leinster House upon the return of TDs to the Dáil in September 2023. Among the crowd that day were signs emblazoned with anti-immigrant slogans.

The same agitators show up at refugee accommodation centres and attempt to incite fear in the people who live nearby. They declare that the government is importing “unvetted” men of “military age” and say the people in these centres pose a danger to local communities. In fact, they often refer to these men as “males”. 

A common myth promoted by this group is that the Irish Government is advertising “free houses” in an effort to actively attract asylum seekers to Ireland. It has been amplified by fringe media outlets. 

Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth Roderic O’Gorman, whose department deals with refugees, is usually cast as the villain in this story. 

These incidents are often organised online by the same small group of racist activists, in posts accompanied by familiar far-right, anti-immigrant and conspiracy theory-derived hashtags. 

#IrelandisFull usually appears alongside other hashtags like #IrelandBelongsToTheIrish and #Plantation on social media posts. 

These posts often feature videos taken at anti-immigration demonstrations that usually show people shouting abuse at refugees and gardaí. The same accounts tend to amplify news stories about crimes committed by foreign-born people in Ireland, particularly cases of sexual assault.

Buildings used to house refugees are often referred to as “plantations” by far-right actors on social media sites and by those who participate in harassing the residents of these accommodation centres. 

The fact that the word “plantation” has become popular among Irish anti-immigrant activists demonstrates how Camus’ conspiracy theory is appropriated and moulded to fit each national context, while retaining the core idea of an invading force replacing an indigenous population and culture. 

In Ireland, a European country that was in fact subjected to colonisation, the term plantation can strike a particularly resonant chord and call to mind the very real history of dispossession and cultural erasure perpetrated by English colonists like Oliver Cromwell.  

On the use of the term “plantation”, Hassett says the current system of accommodation for asylum seekers and the historical reality of the plantation of Ireland by the British bear no comparison whatsoever. 

“They're clearly just not comparable in the sense that plantation involves the confiscation of land and then its reassigning, which is obviously not comparable in any way to the state providing basic social services for asylum seekers or refugees. Because it doesn't require the expulsion of Irish people off their land,” he explains. 

Why is this happening?

It is common practice among those who wish to get racist ideas into the mainstream to exploit genuine, real-world problems that members of a given society face. Ireland is no exception. 

Those who promote replacement theory in Ireland often couple their racist attacks with criticism of the Government’s policies on housing, healthcare and the provision of public services. 

While laying some of the blame at the feet of political leaders, they also try to create a false dichotomy between white Irish people and immigrants, casting the two groups as being in competition with each other for the resources of the state.

This is partly why the term “traitor” is often used to describe government ministers and TDs, as was the case at the Dáil demonstration in September. 

It is also a trope of replacement theory to point the finger at NGOs, particularly international ones, as instruments of the conspiratorial elites. 

Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros is the most common figure invoked in this context due to his status as a philanthropist but also his Jewish ethnicity. 

Ireland’s far-right circles also buy into the NGO conspiracy and have managed to get the idea into the political mainstream.

Added to the tactic of pitting “Irish” people against non-white people is the massive increase in the number of refugees taken in by the state since Russia launched its full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022. The numbers coming from other parts of the world have also increased in recent years. 

All of this has been a godsend to those who wish to make immigration a core political issue in Irish politics. 

The far-right in Ireland and elsewhere see immigration as a kind of cultural pollutant. They believe that immigrants bring crime to the country and pose a threat to locals, especially women and children. 

In the 2022 French presidential elections, three of the four most prominent candidates made references to replacement theory either during or before their campaigns.

Chief among them was far-right media pundit-turned-politician Éric Zeymour, who made it a pillar of his political identity. The more established far-right candidate Marine Le Pen, despite statements to the contrary during the campaign, has made numerous references to the conspiracy theory.

Even the self-styled centre-right candidate for Les Republicans, Valerie Pecresse, used the term while running for the presidency. 

European demographics

The population and demographics have changed significantly in Ireland in the last two decades or so and the country consequently has a far more diverse society than it once did. Ireland has been slower to experience increased levels of inward migration than its former imperial European neighbours, which perhaps accounts for the recent trend of anti-immigrant sentiment here. But increased levels of immigration are not necessary for replacement theory and xenophobic politics to take hold, Ekman explains.

He points to the case of Poland as an example of anti-immigrant rhetoric and politics populating the mainstream despite the country not having high levels of immigration. 

“Does immigration cause racism or anti-immigration sentiment? Well, it can but it can also be bolstered politically by forces without high levels of immigration, that's also the case in the Czech Republic and Slovakia.”

Although it has not found its way into mainstream Irish politics, that doesn’t make Ireland immune. Sweden provides a cautionary tale in that regard.

A campaign video produced by the Sweden Democrats during the 2010 general election was banned from national television but published on Youtube. It showed a white pensioner losing a footrace with a group of burka-clad women pushing prams on the way to collect government funds.

Since then the Sweden Democrats have grown in popularity to become the country’s second most supported party. As of 2022, it is in a confidence and supply agreement with the sitting coalition government. 

The country’s sense of exceptionalism was punctured by the rise of the Sweden Democrats. This false sense came from comparisons with its Nordic neighbours, where there were already established far-right parties or even a history of fascism. 

“I think it took a lot of people in political power by surprise, both the sort of centre-left former government and the right-wing, traditional conservative liberal government. They didn’t see this coming actually.”

He says that the response from mainstream politicians and the media was uncoordinated. At first, the media didn’t speak to Swedish Democrats but after four years in parliament, they eventually did and the party’s popularity grew. 

“So, whatever strategy you imposed on the far right didn’t work. It started to increase no matter what. Exclusion didn’t work, inclusion didn’t work,” he says. 

“It can go quite fast and it’s not always easy to predict that development.

“I'm sceptical about ideas of how special we are or that we're definitely immune,” says Hassett about Ireland’s political landscape.

“On the other hand, I do think it is true that we don't have as far right parties represented in Parliament. And while we do have some politicians in Oireachtas who might flirt with far-right talking points, we don't have the kind of organised fire right movement that exists in other countries. So that does mark us out as different, for the moment.” 

At the same time though, Hassett doesn’t see the mainstreaming of these ideas as inevitable. 

“Nothing makes it inevitable either. If we are conscious of this and we organise politically to prevent it, then it’s not inevitable that we end up going down that road.” 

What are the facts?

Let’s take each trope and claim one by one. 

First, is Ireland “full”? 

This is, at surface level at least, a claim about the population level and density of the Republic of Ireland. The current population is roughly 5.1 million as of the 2022 census. With Northern Ireland’s 1.9 million people, the total on the island amounts to just over 7 million. 

While it has grown substantially in recent decades, due in no small part to immigration, the figure looks less impressive when compared to the island’s population before the famine of the 1840s, which stood at roughly 8.5 million. 

In terms of population density, Ireland is one of least densely populated countries in Europe. At 71.3/km2 , it places 43rd on the list of 60 European countries and dependencies. The Republic has a similar density of population to Scotland. 

Compare that to countries like France (105.5/km2), Portugal (113.9/km2) and Denmark (139.5/km2). 

Next, are white people in Ireland becoming a minority in Ireland? 

In the 2022 census, 3.89 million people (77%)  identified as “White Irish”. 

Is the government advertising free houses in order to attract refugees? 

International protection applicants are accommodated in Direct Provision centres, unless they are Ukrainian. In the immediate aftermath of Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine, the EU invoked a never-before-used Temporary Protection Directive, which allowed Ukrainians to bypass the regular asylum systems in EU countries. 

For both groups, Ukrainians and those in the traditional asylum system, housing is not guaranteed. In fact, there are many staying in tents and some have ended up homeless. Since March 2024, Ukrainians are only given accommodation for 90 days. 

Far-right, anti-immigrant agitators often point to Minister Roderic O’Gorman as the one apparently advertising Ireland as a place to get a free house. The supposed evidence for this is a series of tweets in foreign languages posted by O’Gorman in February 2021.

The tweets all said the same thing: “Today, we are making a new commitment to all asylum seekers in Ireland. 'Direct provision' will end. Read our plan here: https://t.co/ctM4Xmx242

The tweets link to the Government’s proposed plan to do away with the Direct Provision system and replace it with one that has a “not-for-profit approach”. Direct provision centres are staffed and run by for-profit companies like Allpro and Aramark. 

The line in the Government’s White Paper that supposedly led people to believe O’Gorman was offering free houses to people abroad was this one: 

“Accommodation in Reception and Integration Centres will be own-door for families and own-room for single people, with specific tailoring for people with identified vulnerabilities.”

Since that 2021 White Paper, the Direct Provision system has remained in place. The Government has since rolled back on its original timeline for ending it. 

Are international protection applicants responsible for more crime than Irish citizens? 

In a statement provided to The Journal, a Garda spokesperson said: “An Garda Síochána is acutely aware of the significant volume of misinformation, disinformation and fake news in circulation in relation to International Protection applicants.

“It is not just the responsibility of An Garda Síochána to challenge this misinformation circulating in society but also the responsibility of mainstream civic society and media.” 

When it comes to crime levels in and around international protection centres, the Gardaí said they have not seen any significant increase caused by residents. The spokesperson also said that gardaí maintain largely positive relationships with those staying and working in these centres. 

“Notwithstanding isolated local incidents, An Garda Síochána has not recorded any significant increase in criminal activity or public order issues directly caused by International Protection Applicants at any location where International Protection Applicants are being accommodated, at this time.

“An Garda Síochána has community Gardaí assigned to foster and maintain positive working relationships with the communities in which International Protection Applicants are being accommodated.

“An Garda Síochána also continues to assist and support International Protection Applicants and accommodation providers and continues to have predominately positive relationships with all those concerned.

“An Garda Síochána continues to reiterate to the public that if they have concerns or have information on any specific crime or incident that they should contact their local community Gardaí or nearest Garda station."


March 14, 2024



David MacRedmond

Journalist with The Journal

The Journal
Knowledge Bank

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