By Elaine Loughlin and Juno McEnroe
Fine Gael has been branded a “safe house for right-wing politics” after the Taoiseach continued to back a by-election candidate who claimed asylum seekers need to be deprogrammed when they come here.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has expressed “confidence” in Fine Gael’s Wexford by-election candidate Verona Murphy and will continue to campaign for her, even though he admits her remarks about migrants were “wrong” and “misinformed”.
Ms Murphy sparked outrage and was accused of “playing the race card” when she suggested that asylum seeker children as young as four years old need to be “deprogrammed” as they may have been manipulated by Islamic State, also known as Isis.
The Refugee Council of Ireland said Ms Murphy is an “inappropriate candidate for public office in modern Ireland” given her remarks, while the Immigrant Council of Ireland said such “cheap and nasty anti-migrant soundbites have no place in Irish politics”.
Pressure is also mounting on Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan, who organised for Ms Murphy to visit a direct provision centre on Monday in the wake of her controversial remarks.
The visit was dismissed as a cynical move, with opposition parties claiming Ms Murphy had used a vulnerable group of people to deflect from the failings of Government.
“Using the most vulnerable people who are in a place of safety as a sort of a shield to rehabilitate a candidate for a political purpose, that’s just not acceptable,” said Labour leader Brendan Howlin.
In the Dáil, the Taoiseach refused to address calls to deselect Ms Murphy as his party’s candidate but said he told her that what she said “was not on”.
Solidarity-PBP TD Bríd Smith pressed Mr Varadkar by asking: “How high does the Taoiseach’s bar go? When will he address this issue and deprogramme and deselect this candidate?
“If he does not, the increased use of the race card is on his shoulders as the leader of this country.
“Not only does she blame the poor for poverty, but she also blames migrants for every other crisis that exists.
“Her statements are absolutely incendiary and are not just made to get attention.”
Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin also raised Ms Murphy’s views about abolishing the Road Safety Authority, and told the Dáil “there is no doubt that Fine Gael is a safe house for right-wing politics”.
Speaking in Wicklow, Mr Varadkar described Ms Murphy as a very outspoken and very independent person, adding: “She’s not going to be the kind of person who tows the party line.
“I think, on some occasions, she has got it absolutely wrong.”
However, he went on to express full support in her as a Fine Gael candidate.
“She is the selected candidate,” he said. “And I will certainly be campaigning with her before polling day.”
Ms Murphy had been due appear on RTÉ’s Late Debate programme last night. However, Fine Gael pulled her from the show at the last minute.
There was also speculation last night that Ms Murphy had been called in for a meeting in Fine Gael headquarters in Dublin.
However, the party refused to make a comment on this.
Nick Henderson, CEO of the Irish Refugee Council, said there is a worrying trend of public representatives expressing anti-asylum seeker sentiment and called on politicians and those seeking public office to pause and reflect on what they say.
Speaking of Ms Murphy’s remarks, he said:
“I struggle to think of a comment as false or potentially dangerous as what she said. In our opinion, she would be an inappropriate candidate for public office in Ireland.”