Politics of Grealish and Collins cannot be allowed to extinguish our céad míle fáilte

Politics of Grealish and Collins cannot be allowed to extinguish our céad míle fáilte
Protesters outside the Connemara Gateway Hotel. Picture: Hany Marzouk.

The comments about the accommodation of asylum seekers made this week by independent TDs Noel Grealish (Galway West) and Michael Collins (Cork South West) were spectacularly ignorant.

Grealish’s depiction of “genuine refugees” as Syrian Christians persecuted by IS is not only inaccurate because nearly all of our Syrian refugees are Muslims, it is bigoted in pitting mythical Christians against Muslim aggressors.

Then Collins waded in to defend him on C103 radio saying we should look after our own people who are “hungry in the street” before providing “hotel rooms and everything” to thousands of asylum seekers.

He added that they should have to “learn our culture” before they are allowed to live here, “like they do in Australia”.

We are one of the richest countries in the world and though we are laggards in our reception of asylum seekers, we shouldn’t take lessons from Australia, which has marooned thousands of asylum seekers on the remote islands of Nauru and Manus, off Papua New Guinea.

The conditions on these “open air prisons” are so bad that 1,250 inmates were granted asylum in the US by the Obama administration.

Grealish and Collins would do well to remember that the comments made in the Dáil by the Fine Gael TD Oliver J Flanagan about Jews fleeing persecution in 1943 have lived after him. Calling for emergency powers against Jews who “crucified our Savour 1,900 years ago”, he added:

“There is one thing that Germany did and that was rid the Jews out of their country.” How many of us now believe we made the right choice in failing to open our doors to those persecuted Jews?

Sadly Flanagan had a mandate for these views at the time. Grealish and Collins are clearly after a mandate for theirs.

Personally, I will vote in order of preference for candidates presenting intelligent, strategic plans as to how we are going to accommodate the growing numbers of refugees and asylum seekers who will come to our shores.

The two Independents, as well as the crowd of people currently protesting outside the Connemara Gateway Hotel, which might possibly become a reception centre for asylum seekers in Oughterard, Co Galway, are speaking and acting in a policy vacuum.

This country has not to-date produced any coherent strategy for the integration of refugees and asylum seekers.

All we have done is comply, reluctantly and a decade late, with the EU Directive on asylum accommodation provision. We recently ranked 19th out of 38 developed countries for our record on integration.

The Department of Justice still treats asylum seekers and even refugees as somehow guilty until proven innocent. Every attempt is made to isolate them from the local community, as if they had some terrible virus which had to be contained.

The message transmitted to these people is like a warning given to bold children made to stand in the corner: “You’re here on sufferance. You can watch but you can’t participate. We’re watching you. One move and you’re out.”

It is impossible to condone, yet impossible to express surprise, at the on-going protests in Oughterard.

The Connemara Gateway Hotel, once the pride of the town and a provider of employment, is sitting empty.

When contractors arrived perhaps some dared to hope the hotel was being renovated to open again.

Then the word got out that the hotel was being inspected for possible use as an emergency accommodation for up to 250 asylum seekers.

There was no planning process. There was no consultation.

The potential new inhabitants were given no names and no faces.

This so-called “process” is a gross insult both to the local community and to those eligible to be placed among them.

When Minister for the Gaeltacht Seán Kyne came out and said he would try to facilitate a meeting between the local community and the Minister of State for Equality, Immigration and Integration, David Stanton, I was left shouting: “The meeting happens before the contractors arrive, not after!” It doesn’t have to be like this.

A conference organised by NASC, the organisation working for rights for refugees and asylum seekers with UCC’s Centre for Criminal Justice and Human Rights last year heard about Scotland’s New Scots Refugee Integration Strategy 2018-22 which emphasises integration from the day they arrive.

The strategy emphasises that integration is “a two-way process involving positive change in both individuals and host communities which leads to cohesive, diverse communities”.

Refugees and asylum seekers have the right to work immediately. Refugees and asylum seekers can go onto the housing list straight away. Kids can go right into school where the strategy is to teach them “1 + 2”: the children’s mother tongue plus two other languages.

It is noted Scotland’s economy has targeted the acquisition of certain languages present in the asylum-seeking community, including Arabic, French, Mandarin and Turkish. It must be admitted that Scotland has an advantage here because it does not have a housing crisis. Then neither does Oughterard.

Ballaghadereen, Co Roscommon, where opposition to the accommodation of refugees in the Abbeyfield Hotel outside the village was initially felt in 2016, is depopulated.

If the reception centre were to close now, says James Gannon of the local support group, Friends of the Centre, locals would be disappointed. The newcomers have brought life to the village and the local people have defied the odds and welcomed them.

Gannon would love to see the hotel’s inhabitants getting to live in refurbished apartments along the village’s uninhabited main street for a period of time after orientation. As things stand, once they leave the Abbeyfield, they are given little guidance.

Simple supports, such as a conversion course for engineering qualifications from the newcomers’ home countries, do not exist.

He puts the Department of Justice’s culture of “secrecy” down to their experience during the Troubles and says we need an entirely new system, outside Justice, which works across all the relevant departments, from Health to Education to Social Protection.

“Look at the situation we’re in now,” he warns, “and we haven’t even taken the 4,000 Syrians we promised to take yet.”

He guesses that 80% to 90% of the local people in Oughterard would, in fact, be welcoming towards the newcomers, but that the people who oppose them “shout loudest”.

The truth is that those who shout loudest can very quickly change the culture of a place. The Italian village of Riace, which had famously rebooted its economy by welcoming refugees, voted for Matteo Salvini of the racist Northern League in the recent elections.

If the politics of Grealish and Collins extinguishes the Irish welcoming nature it will signal their triumph less than it will signal the Government’s abdication of its responsibility to those who come to this country to seek asylum.

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