Ireland Is Full… Of Berts

Election poster for The Irish People party showing a rather uncanny valley-type photograph supposedly of an Irish person and a shamrock logo that’s trying hard to resemble a swastika.

What is a bert?

I have no clue. But recently I saw it written on a wall in Derry City where I live. To be exact, this is what was on the wall:



It was obvious that this graffiti was actually in two separate pieces because the writing in the top line was different from the lower line. “Ireland is Full” had been written first. Afterwards, someone else had come along and added “of berts”. I returned to the wall a week later, intending to take a photo, but another someone been and gone and had erased the “Ireland is Full” part – which on porous red brick was no mean feat.

The whole thing seems like harmless urban graffiti until you realise that “Ireland is Full” has a very disturbing meaning. “Ireland is Full”, it turns out, is both a slogan and an anti-immigrant protest group.

I was shocked to discover that such a group existed in Ireland. How could this be? On an island that endured English and then British colonial rule for 800 years? On an island that was their first colony, that suffered the worst of their savagery, that they used as a lab to test out the tools of empire? And how could “Ireland is Full” have support in Derry, of all places, birthplace of the Irish civil rights movement and which to this day remains under British occupation [1].

The origins of anti-refugee sentiment

“Ireland is Full” has its origins in a series of rallies that took place in the south of Ireland in late 2022, a year when the number of refugees to the country totalled 65,000. Rally locations mapped to places where the Irish government had set up temporary shelters for refugees arriving from places such as Ukraine, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Nigeria. Many of these locations were rural towns and villages and refugees began arriving, unannounced, in large numbers.

Not surprisingly, locals were incensed. Out of the blue, here they had crowds of strangers coming to their locality without any prior notice or consultation. This approach to managing the influx of refugees was entirely wrong. Blame lies solely with the Irish government who seemed to have no refugee strategy, and who excluded residents from the process and made unilateral decisions that would have significant implications for the communities in question. How did they ever think this was going to work? As an aside, the Irish government continues to remain clueless in this regard. Today, not only are refugees packed into inadequate shelters around the country, they’re also being made to live in tents – yes that’s right, tents – along the streets of Dublin while they wait to be granted refugee status. It’s hard to imagine how the situation can get any worse.

Prior to 2022, anti-immigrant sentiment had been on the rise in Ireland. From 2018, greater numbers of refugees began coming into the country and refugee shelters were becoming more widespread. Many of these shelters were hotels used to warehouse refugees in large numbers, enforcing strict living and eating arrangements and providing little or no amenities such as play areas for children. Back then, a few demonstrations were held and two of the shelters were firebombed before anybody could move in. The protests and violence against refugees escalated in 2022, and November 2023 saw riots break out in Dublin. The city centre was left in disarray following arson attacks, vandalism and looting. The Gardaí (Irish police) were violently attacked too. In the days subsequent to the riots, the Gardaí were condemned by political and civic spokespeople for being ill-prepared and ill-trained, while the protestors criticised them for taking the side of the refugees.

In response to the anti-immigrant violence and hostility, a solidarity rally, Ireland for All, was held in Dublin in February 2024 and attended by 50,000 supporters. The rally was organised by a new island-wide collective called Le Chéile (roughly meaning ‘togetherness’ in Irish), made up of 50 organisations from more progressive political parties, trade unions, and community and voluntary groups.

The problem is wider than refugees

But it’s worth taking a step or two back to look at the bigger picture because the underlying problem started long before refugees became a concern and is much wider and more complex than the refugee issue alone.

Driving the anti-immigrant sentiment is profound resentment and betrayal at the economic situation in the country. While Ireland tries hard to portray an image of a thriving, modern economy with a high standard of living and benefiting from that great white saviour, foreign direct investment, the reality is not so shiny.

Five percent of children living in Ireland are in poverty and 13% are at risk of poverty. More generally, 14% of the overall population is at risk of poverty. Rates of pay are relatively higher than in many other European countries but so is the cost of living; the cost of essential goods and services is 40% higher than the EU average, and Ireland is officially the most expensive country in the EU. Ireland also ranks 32 out of 34 among OECD members for income inequality before taxes and transfers, and after taxes and transfers it ranks 15 out of 34, making it one of the worst places in the EU for income inequality. Wealth inequality is also high: the richest 10% own about 40% of the country’s wealth.

At the same time, Ireland is suffering the deepest housing crisis in its history. Social and affordable housing are practically non-existent and house prices are eight times the average annual wage; in Dublin they can be ten times the average wage. Private renting is as unattainable as owning a home and 90% of earners find rent unaffordable. Rents in Dublin hover around €2,000 per month (the average monthly wage is €3,683) and in 2021, Dublin ranked the sixth most expensive capital city in the world to rent in. Homeless is rife and even people in relatively well-paid jobs are evicted by landlords and finding themselves and their families homeless. This crisis is a decade or more in the making and was created by deliberate government policy which has left housing in the hands of the free market, such that tax breaks and incentives have been given to private developers and investors while social housing has been outsourced to the private sector, and social housing stock sold off to tenants without being proportionately replenished.

Feelings of frustration and acrimony are commonplace among ordinary people. These feelings are understandable and legitimate. But instead of going after the culprits – the private profiteers and the government with its neoliberal policies – to demand radical change, people are instead targeting the most vulnerable and most blameless in all of this: refugees and migrants.

As you might imagine, anti-immigrant propaganda proliferates and grows in the telling. ‘Foreigners’, we’re told, are coming to our country in their hundreds of thousands. They’re taking Irish jobs; they’re being set up in social housing while locals remain homeless; they’re getting €100 a-day living expenses, in addition to free accommodation and food; they’re using up all our public services; they’re taking over the country. Bus loads of dangerous military-age men are arriving in our towns and villages, but without women folk or children. That can only mean one thing: these men are rapists, paedophiles, and thieves, here to take advantage of the easy life on offer. They’re raping Irish women, attacking and threatening Irish men, and hanging out near play parks because they want to sexually abuse Irish children.

One story I heard came from a person I’ve known and loved all my life, who is decent and kind but who is hearing the nonsense and believing it. She heard (from a friend of a friend) that the council allocated a social house to a local family but when they tried to move in they found the house was occupied by ‘foreigners’. The council gave the ‘foreigners’ the house over the heads of the local family. This of course is rubbish, it’s simply not true. But even if it were, at worst it’s an administrative error and not an alien takeover. Was I able to convince my loved one of this? No. I was told that I just didn’t understand the suffering and pain of the Irish people. Another story I heard, again from someone close to me, who again heard it from a friend of a friend, that a ‘foreigner’ was in the GP surgery and making demands about when she wanted an appointment; the nerve! This is another improbable tale but these anecdotes abound, serving to justify racism and xenophobia.

Cutting through the lies, the truth is that the socio-economic polycrisis unfolding in Ireland has nothing whatsoever to do with refugees or migrants. However, the anger of the people is fertile ground for those who would exploit it to advance their own agendas. The forces of the far right are stepping up as the voice of the people, echoing and fuelling their fears, giving them the answers and solutions they looking for. This pattern is a familiar one and has played out in many countries with Trump in the US, Milei in Argentina, UKIP and the Tories in Britain, to name a few.

Growth of the far right

In Ireland, several new far right political parties have emerged from the shadows, including the National Party, the Irish Freedom PartyIreland FirstThe Irish People and Independent Ireland. All are sketchy on substance. Equally, all are big on rhetoric. They share similar values and principles. Rather than discuss each of them in detail, I’ll highlight just two here to give a flavour. Neither will be anything you haven’t tasted before.

The National Party is essentially a carbon copy of other European national front parties and its favourite drum to beat is anti-immigration. It uses archaic and emotive language that wouldn’t be out of place in 1930s Germany e.g. knaves, deceivers, mother-country, rebirth of destiny, sacred soil. They see diversity, inclusion and international rights as subversive threats being used to dissolve the bonds of Irish nationality. They don’t have polices as such but they have a hodgepodge of ‘principles’: anti-abortion, extreme localism, anti-immigration and pro-remigration, Euro-scepticism, and a tough approach to crime, including bringing back capital punishment (ye Gads). And as you’d suspect, their leaders are white and male – their candidates in the upcoming local and EU elections are all white males, apart from one white female. Their website shows photos of some fine specimens of Irish macho men standing on mountain tops overlooking picturesque valleys.

As for the Irish Freedom Party, it has policies of a sort that reflect the real problems people are experiencing but that offer largely regressive solutions. So, they support Irexit, an Irish exit from the EU which plays to disillusionment about the EU; although further complicated by the Irish unity debate where they want a united Ireland separated from Britain and Europe and under Irish-only control. They reject carbon taxes and the climate agenda which they put down to climate alarmism and they promise to leave climate action up to the people themselves. They want to lower taxes for middle and higher earners and will fund that by cutting funding to unnecessary NGOs. They blame low pay on immigration and promise to put an end to that by shaking up the immigration system. They want tougher prison sentences and better use of the army to back up the Gardaí. They want to solve the housing and homelessness problem by relaxing building standards and pushing through planning permission, prioritising Irish nationals on the social housing list over non-nationals, and introducing intergenerational mortgages. They promote freedom of speech and oppose ‘hate crime’ legislation which categorises speaking your mind as a hate crime against minorities.

You can see how, on the surface, much of what these parties are saying speaks to where people are at. It’s only when the rhetoric is peeled back and studied a little more carefully that it’s possible to see what they’re really doing and how their solutions will not improve the socio-economic fortunes of the people.

Nationalism and private property

Throughout my life, the Irish flag has represented the fight against colonialism and oppression. I felt proud to be from a place that didn’t lie down under the jackboot. Now, when I see my national flag, I’m reminded of the ugly racist movement that has emerged. I no longer see a symbol of the underdog fighting the tyrant. I see a symbol of fascism. Historically, Ireland was a nation of beleaguered emigrants who scattered to the four corners of the world as a consequence of colonialism, exile, famine, and poverty. How short our memories are that we’ve forgotten our painful past and what was done to us. How tragic it is that we can’t hold that memory as a reminder to stand in solidarity with other oppressed people today.

Nationalism had a very different meaning not so long ago. In Irish history, nationalism was a noble aspiration that Irish men and women sacrificed their lives to attain. The struggle to become a nation state meant fighting the coloniser and gaining self-determination, freedom, equality, and solidarity. The nationalism of Ireland today couldn’t be further from those original ideals.

But maybe nationalism has always had the potential to turn sour. Nationalism is really an extension of capitalism’s principle of private property but on a grand scale where instead of owning property or the means of production, ownership is applied to whole expanses of land. Nationalism allows the citizens of a nation to say this island or this territory or this continent is ours; we have exclusive control over what happens here; we get to decide who is allowed to live here, who is allowed to belong here, who is allowed to work here, who is allowed to exercise rights and freedoms. Nations give citizens license to separate themselves from others, us and them, better and worse, good and bad. Nationalism is the opposite of internationalism and of solidarity, both of which the human race is desperately going to need if we’re to survive the climate crisis and create a sustainable and fair society.

There’s hope

Is it time to move away from the archaic idea of nation states and towards the idea of a unified global community governed by cooperation and mutual aid?

Is it time to find a way to speak to people as effectively as the far right is doing and to send the message loud and clear that instead of a zero-sum game a better way is possible?

Is it time to set out a vision and strategy for that better way?

Is it time to take housing out of the hands of private developers and put it into the hands of local authorities and housing co-operatives who will build social and affordable housing for all?

Is it time to implement a universal basic income so that everyone has financial security?

Is it time to have a universal health system, free at the point of use, so that no one has to worry if they’ll be able to afford healthcare when they need it?

Is it time to end the hierarchical dictatorial workplace and have in its place the worker-owned and self-managing workplace, with fair wages and decent conditions?

Is it time to implement a global progressive taxation regime that clamps down on tax breaks and loopholes for the wealthy and that is fairer to low and middle earners and small businesses?

Is it time to mutualise banking to ensure wealth is retained in the productive economy rather than being used to make the rich richer and to fund extractive industries and reckless financial trading?

Is it time to reject authoritarianism and fascism and embrace a participatory society and democracy?

Is it time to say no to all forms of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia and to start treating each other like we truly are equals?

Is it time for governments to embrace the global Green New Deal as a first step in taking the climate crisis seriously?

Is it time to throw open territorial borders and allow the free flow of people to protect migrants, refugees and future climate refugees and to attract those who can take on the enormous programmes of work that will be required to tackle the climate crisis, especially in countries with aging populations?

And let’s go for broke, is it time to rid ourselves of the scourge of capitalism once and for all, and replace it with a participatory economy where people and the ecology are treated like they actually matter?

I would like to believe, in fact I do believe, that the majority of people who are caught up in the “Ireland is Full” movement are not evil people who hate refugees. I believe that they’re decent human beings just trying to survive, as we all are, in the terrifying mess that is our modern world. I believe their anger is justified but also misplaced. And I believe with my whole heart that if they were shown another way, if they were shown a vision and strategy full of hope and opportunities and solutions, they would embrace it and never let go.

Ireland is not full… of berts or anything else. The Irish have the resources to welcome hundreds of thousands more to our shores. And we have the decency and humanity to do so too.


[1] Ireland was an English/British colony for 800 years before it won partial independence in 1921, at which time it was partitioned into two jurisdictions: 1) the North or “Northern Ireland”, made up of 6 counties that remained under British rule (and remains so today); and 2) the South or “Republic of Ireland”, made up of 26 counties that gained freedom from Britain.

This piece first appeared at Z.

Bridget Meehan is a writer and activist based in Ireland who is co-founder of the Northern Mutual bank campaign and member of Collaboration for Change, a grassroots activists’ network promoting collective activism. Bridget is also an advocate for a participatory society and is a member of Real Utopia, an organisation dedicated to advancing participatory society.