Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan has called on residents of the Connemara town of Oughterard to “step back” and allow for the process of selecting new direct provision centre for asylum seekers to take place.
Speaking in Galway today, Mr Flanagan expressed regret about “heightened” tensions, and said no decision had been made as to whether a hotel in Oughterard would be used to accommodate asylum seekers.
Mr Flanagan’s intervention came as a 24-hour protest continued at the Connemara Gateway, still a registered hotel, outside Oughterard over fears that it is being converted into a direct provision centre.
Contractors due to return to work on the refurbishment did not pass the protest early this morning and there was a low key Garda presence throughout the day.
The demonstration began after a silent march attended by over 1500 people through Oughterard to the hotel on Saturday.
Former hotel owner John Nolan expressed distress that the protest had also been mounted outside his daughter’s home, up a side road adjoining the hotel grounds.
Protestors wearing yellow safety vests said they were outside as the hotel could be accessed from the property.
Mr Nolan, who bought the hotel for a reported 4 million euro in 2004, said there had been a lot of “misinformation”.
Mr Nolan said that he had no further financial interest in the premises, and said he had sold it “at a loss” to a group who had experience in running other “centres”.
He said he did not know what was planned, but believed that it was being refurbished to a “high standard” for a “four star hotel”, and that if a contract was signed for asylum accommodation, support services would be put in place.
“My 15-year old granddaughter had to pass this protest this morning outside her house to reach her school bus...this is not modern Ireland,”Mr Nolan said,adding that he had emigrated at the age of 18 and knew of the emigrant experience.
Mr Nolan said there should be greater consultation by Government, but said any comment on direct provision was a matter for “the Minister for Justice”.
Protest spokespeople publican Rory Clancy and retired special needs assistant Marian Earl, said the demonstration would be on a rota basis and would be peaceful.
Mr Clancy explained that the group had to close its Facebook page after comments, “some racist”, which the group did not have time to remove or respond to.
Ms Earl said that “hindsight was a great thing” in relation to her decision to read out a letter at last Wednesday’s meeting in Oughterard, written by a Polish man who said he had experienced negative aspects of direct provision when living in Bergen, Norway .
Galway Anti-Racism Network spokesman Joe Loughnane criticised her decision to read out unconfirmed claims about asylum seekers.
Ms Earl added that she did not condone remarks by Independent TD Noel Grealish, who had differentiated between what he described as “genuine” refugees from Syria, and “economic migrants” from Africa who came to “sponge”off the taxpayer.
However, she said that it was up to Mr Grealish to decide if he should apologise. Mr Grealish has made no comment since last Wednesday, but his remarks were defended at the weekend by Galway county councillor Tom Welby, who chaired last week’s public meeting.
Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said she felt Mr Grealish should think about comments he made last week, clarify them further and perhaps withdraw them.
Mr Flanagan said that the Government had to be mindful of national and international obligations to people fleeing persecution, and "hadn't got too many options here".
Mr Flanagan referred to the Government’s challenge to house 1,300 people who were currently in emergency accommodation.
Mr Flanagan said he did not want those seeking asylum to be sleeping rough, and, for this reason, more centres were planned.
However, he said when any such decisions to locate centres were made, there would be “engagement” by State agencies to ensure education and healthcare provision for residents.
The Department of Justice said no contracts have been signed into “specific locations or premises” under a public procurement process.
The department confirmed that it was accommodating 6,056 people in its 38 accommodation centres and 1,250 people in 33 emergency accommodation locations, as of September 8th.
The department said there are “positive relationships between residents and local communities in all cases” where centres are located, and “Friends of the Centre Groups are in place nationwide”, it noted.