The National Union of Journalists (NUJ) has described the treatment of a TG4 cameraman at a public meeting on Achill island earlier this week as “deeply disturbing”.
Cameraman Fergus Sweeney was asked to leave the public meeting held on Wednesday night to discuss proposed emergency accommodation for asylum seekers at a hotel on the island, and was subjected to jeers and taunts of “out, out, out”.
Mr Sweeney, who had been assigned to cover the meeting for Nuacht TG4, was asked to leave by Fianna Fáil councillor Paul McNamara, who was chairing it, and was then escorted out by Mr McNamara.
Mr Sweeney said he felt “uncomfortable and threatened” and that members of the public “continued to shout, heckle and clap” as he left.
Cllr McNamara did not respond to requests for comment. An estimated 200 people attended the gathering in Cashel to discuss reports that the Achill Head Hotel at Pollagh near Keel was to be used for direct provision.
However, the Department of Justice has said there is no long term contract in place for a direct provision centre in Achill.
It said it was “offered” and “booked” available beds in the Achill Head Hotel during the current low season as emergency accommodation for those seeking international protection and said it is a short term measure.
NUJ Irish secretary Séamus Dooley said that Cllr McNamara, as a public representative, "had no right to challenge Mr Sweeney’s right to attend a meeting which was of enormous public interest”.
“Mr McNamara’s actions are deeply disturbing. No public representative should seek to limit media access to a public meeting in this fashion,” Mr Dooley said.
The issue of accommodating asylum seekers is “of national importance and we cannot tolerate a situation whereby local public representatives decide what journalists are allowed or not allowed to cover meetings of this type”, Mr Dooley said.
“Journalists are well used to dealing with sensitive situations. There does not seem to have been any reason why Mr Sweeney was excluded, other than a desire to manage the nature of media coverage,” Mr Dooley said.
“The presence of print and broadcast journalists at similar public meetings elsewhere has been extremely useful in helping to understand the context of local opinion and in at least one case, highlighted attempts from external forces to influence local opinion.”
Green Party European election candidate Saoirse McHugh has established a “welcome group” for asylum seekers if they are sent to Achill, while a former manager of Achill Tourism, Mr Seán Molloy, has called for compassion in the debate.
In a post on his Facebook page, Mr Molloy said that “for more than 150 years, Achill people have had to emigrate to find a better life for themselves and their immediate families.
“There are not many families from these parts who didn’t rely on the money that was sent back to Achill - myself included.
“Direct provision is a seriously flawed system but until something better is put in place this is the best available option for people fleeing war and death,” Mr Molloy said, adding that the root of the problem regarding services is due to depopulation and “a small number of refugees coming to Achill will not overwhelm the services that we have”.
The Department of Justice stressed the plans for Achill relates to a current shortage of accommodation in existing direct provision centres for asylum seekers, and hotels and guesthouses are being used as a temporary measure.
“The department is very conscious of community concerns about the possible impact of these centres on local services,”it said.
“It is important to say that supports for asylum seekers is not limited to accommodation - it refers to a suite of State services offered to applicants for international protection.”