By Fiachra Ó Cionnaith and Elaine Loughlin
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has urged Rural Independent TD Noel Grealish to "withdraw" or clarify his claims that African asylum seekers are in reality economic migrants coming to Ireland to "sponge" off taxpayers, amid growing calls for him to resign.
Mr Varadkar said Mr Grealish - who supports the Government on a case-by-case basis from the opposition benches - needed to "make a statement" on what he said.
On Wednesday night, almost 1,000 people attended a public meeting on Government proposals to use the former Connemara Gateway Hotel to house asylum seekers in the near future. The meeting was attended by a number of local politicians including Mr Grealish.
During this discussion, Mr Grealish said Ireland as a "Christian" country, should prioritise "good Christian families" and claimed most African asylum seekers are in reality economic migrants "sponging" off the system.
Mr Grealish did not respond to a number of voicemails and text messages from the Irish Examiner on Thursday or Friday.
However, asked about the furore at the end of Fine Gael's pre-Dáil think-in in Co Cork, Mr Varadkar said it is time for Mr Grealish to break his silence and clarify exactly what he meant.
"I haven't heard those comments, I haven't heard the audio myself, but if what's said is true I think he needs to withdraw those remarks and certainly issue a statement to clarify what he said. We don't have a formal arrangement with Noel Grealish in the Dáil. He is an Independent, [he] very often votes with the Government, [but] sometimes he doesn't."
Two of Mr Grealish's Rural Independents Dáil group colleagues - Cork South West TD Michael Collins and Tipperary TD Mattie McGrath - have refused to condemn the TD.
While accepting people in direct provision have been treated badly by the State, Mr Collins said "Noel knows best what suits his area", adding his colleague is "a mature politician and it would be wrong of me to tell him" to apologise.
Asked if he would make similar comments at any meeting in his area, Mr Collins said: "I've my own viewpoint on those things, I wouldn't bullshit. First and foremost we should look after our own homeless rather than someone a little worse off in Syria".
While similarly saying he has sympathy for people in direct provision, Mr McGrath described Mr Grealish as "astute" and claimed "this liberal elite just want you to put up and shut up".
"I'm sick and tired of this nanny state and being targeted in the media for being racist just for saying what you think. Having an alternative view now is impossible, it's a bad day for democracy.
"It's like this in Ireland, but I'm back from Hungary and it's a different situation there. If you're Catholic, conservative in Ireland, you're nobody, just told to get out of the way. It's all social bias," he said.
In a video of the meeting which surfaced on social media, Mr Grealish is heard to tell the crowd, the majority of whom appear to have applauded:
"Now I have worked with one or two Syrian families. These were genuine refugees who were persecuted in their homeland, because they were Christian, by ISIS. They were housed around Galway, put in houses, they were accepted by communities.
"These are economic migrants. These are people coming over here from Africa to sponge off the system here in Ireland."