Ireland should offer warm place of refuge and not replicate Oughterard scenes

What the country does not need replicated is the scenes that developed in Oughterard. Surely, even in the midst of various domestic problems, this country should offer a warm place of refuge, even if only temporarily, for some of the most vulnerable people on the planet,, writes Michael Clifford

Direct provision protesters outside the Gateway Hotel site in Oughetrard, Co Galway. Picture: Hany Marzouk
Direct provision protesters outside the Gateway Hotel site in Oughetrard, Co Galway. Picture: Hany Marzouk

THE whooping and hollering was in bad taste. Last Tuesday, protestors outside the former Connemara Gateway Hotel near the village of Oughterard were letting it rip. They were thrilled that their two-week protest had succeeded.

The owner of the premises had bowed to pressure and withdrawn his tender to house a direct provision centre there.

The protesters claimed their glee was directed at the Department of Justice, the Government, the system. But the reality is that the spontaneous joy also sent a message to some of the most vulnerable people on the planet. Any asylum seeker aware of the scenario would be compelled to conclude that they were not welcome in Oughterard.

There was also much cant at the scene of their victory. “We were here for the good of people who would have been crammed in here like cattle,” one local told RTÉ’s Drivetime programme on Tuesday. That misplaced concern is about as believable as the average Boris Johnson utterance.

Another said:

“We were concerned for the good of the town, for the good of asylum seekers.”

This sudden concern for the plight of asylum seekers lacks credibility. The people who protested were fearful of change within their community. There is no basis for a belief that the change would have been negative, but fear is driven by perception rather than reality.

None of this is to suggest that the protestors were inherently racist. If, for instance, the hotel had been earmarked to provide accommodation for 200 homeless people in Dublin without notice or detail, would they have been welcomed with open arms?

The thesis propagated in recent weeks that the protest was infiltrated by right-wing racists also has dubious merit. Sure, there is a small band of Irish racists who inhabit a dark echo chamber of cyberspace. And they would like nothing more than to spread their hate through a community feeling vulnerable. But did they really manage to exercise influence over the local community? The people of Oughterard are not dupes.

The only overt display of intolerance at Oughterard came from Independent TD Noel Grealish who branded asylum seekers “spongers”. He is not the first politician to descend to the gutter in search of a few votes and he won’t be the last. A good description of a sponger might be a so-called politician who seeks election not to legislate for a better Ireland, but to strive for perpetual re-election all the way to an inflated pension.

Oughterard will now fade from the headlines. It is the third small community to reject the location of a direct provision centre in controversial circumstances in recent years. Rooskey, Co Roscommon and Moville in Donegal did likewise.

In those two locations, the earmarked premises were maliciously set alight.

This is the quality of welcome that is on view in certain parts of Ireland.

Thankfully, the negative attitude to new centres is not widespread across the State. In August of this year a rumour went around Macroom, Co Cork, that a local hotel, the Riverside Park, would be taken over as an emergency centre for asylum seekers. Emergency centres might best be described as temporary direct provision centres. The temporary nature of the facility means that the residents don’t enjoy the same rights or privileges that they would in a direct provision centre. These transient centres are now required because the direct provision centres are full and there is difficulty finding new locations.

The people of Macroom were understandably a bit put out that there was a dearth of information about the new centre prior to its opening in August. But they put their ill feelings in perspective and realised that the people being placed among them were strangers in a strange land, many of whom were fleeing war in order to preserve life.

The centre now houses around 100 asylum seekers. A Macroom “friends of asylum seekers” group has been set up. The new people in town are being welcomed and accommodated and given hope that the lives ahead of them may well turn out a lot better than those they left behind.

The reception given by the people of Macroom is laudable but not unique.

There are 34 direct provision centres across 17 counties and most appear to be operating with a minimal of disruption for local communities. With a different approach, centres could be regarded in a far more positive light by expectant and host communities.

The system of direct provision system remains controversial. The quality of accommodation and social care at centres is uneven. Some of the restrictions imposed on residents are questionable. Improvements recommended in an expert report chaired by former judge Brian McMahon have not been fully implemented. But there is also an accommodation crisis in the country right now. A growing number of those who are granted refugee status continue living in direct provision centres because they have nowhere else to go. More than 1,000 asylum seekers are currently in emergency accommodation — an existence that is in most ways inferior to the experience of those in centres. In that context, thrusting the 6,500 or so asylum seekers in the 34 centres into the queue for B&B accommodation would hugely exacerbate the shortage of housing.

So for the foreseeable future, direct provision is here to stay. The approach to setting up the centres could, however, be radically changed.

Oughterard and the other towns which prompted protests or even arson attacks demonstrates that local communities are not buying into the strategy being deployed to house asylum seekers. Quietly identifying potential locations and then presenting the centre as a fait accompli elicits anger and heightens fears.

Perhaps the issue would be better dealt with by a department other than justice.

The Department of Justice is not the first arm of government to come to mind if one is concerned with humane treatment, sensitivity and community integration.

WHY not attempt to create a general atmosphere in which welcoming what is a relatively small number of asylum seekers to the country is a positive experience? Conduct a public awareness campaign about why a wealthy country like ours has an obligation to take in asylum seekers. Church leaders have been vocal in recent weeks about the perceptions around refugees as a result of Oughterard. Bring the Church on board. Engage Church leaders on joint ventures over accommodation and other contributions that can be made.

Engage directly with community groups. Address the possibility of fears. Deal with the facts and appeal to a better nature that still exists in the country.

What the country does not need replicated is the scenes that developed in Oughterard. Surely, even in the midst of various domestic problems, this country should offer a warm place of refuge, even if only temporarily, for some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

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