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'T stands for 'traitor to the Irish'' - Immigration remains a silent but divisive topic in the towns earmarked for asylum seekers

Amy Molloy


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A defaced poster belonging to Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny. Photo: Lorraine Teevan

A defaced poster belonging to Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny. Photo: Lorraine Teevan

A defaced poster belonging to Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny. Photo: Lorraine Teevan

When Taoiseach Leo Varadkar announced the date of the General Election, it was predicted the issue of immigration would arise on doorsteps, particularly in towns marred by controversy over direct provision.

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But from visiting Oughterard, Co Galway, and Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, it is apparent some locals don't want to ask questions. They have already made their minds up who they will be voting for on February 8.

There were round-the-clock protests last year when it was revealed the Department of Justice had approved for vacant properties in the two towns to be used for accommodating asylum seekers.

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Labour candidate for Galway West Cllr. Niall McNelis canvassing for votes at Vera Morrison's door step in Moycullen, Co. Galway
Photo: Hany Marzouk

Labour candidate for Galway West Cllr. Niall McNelis canvassing for votes at Vera Morrison's door step in Moycullen, Co. Galway Photo: Hany Marzouk

While some locals were concerned about the lack of facilities in the area and upset at the lack of consultation, a small faction used this as an excuse to mask what was an apparent dislike of foreigners.

And those small few will not be giving their votes to candidates who spoke out publicly in favour of asylum seekers.

As you drive into Ballinamore from the Longford side of town, this becomes immediately clear when the first election poster which greets you is a defaced picture of candidate Martin Kenny.

A giant 'T' spray-painted in red covers the smiling face of the Sinn Féin TD. The 'T', I'm told by one local, stands for "traitor to the Irish".

"He'll have lost a few votes around here after what went on," says the man, who wishes to remain anonymous. "It's not that we don't want people coming here, but look around, the main street is full of vacant shops and there's no facilities."

Another local, speaking outside the Rock Quarter complex which 27 asylum seekers now call home, said she will be giving him her vote.

"I think he was very brave to do what he did, and I think this investment is great," she says while pointing at the planning application by the owners of the complex for a new café and pharmacy.

Mr Kenny received death threats and his car was set alight outside his home after he said Ballinamore should welcome those who were fleeing difficult circumstances abroad.

"Most people have been very genuine and welcoming and I find the vast majority of people I speak to are supportive of me and support the position I took," Mr Kenny told the Irish Independent.

"For every vote I lost in Ballinamore, I'll gain 10 elsewhere.

"It has been a very difficult time for my family and the abuse is continuing on Facebook. I expect in time to come the next generation will be apologising for them."

In Oughterard, there is no sign of an imminent election. The town is decked in the local club colours of green and white and the only election poster on show reads 'Tommy Finnerty for Taoiseach'.

They recently defeated Monaghan kingpins Magheracloone in the All-Ireland intermediate club football final and candidates agreed to take down posters ahead of the big game.

Locals were in jovial spirits, but the mood changed when asked about the unrest.

The word "traitor" is also dished out here to describe Government chief whip Seán Kyne, who was heckled at a public meeting in the town when he said Ireland was obliged under EU law to accept anyone who could prove they had fled persecution.

"Seán Kyne will be in a heap of bother, the fecker," remarks one man as he sips a pint in Powers pub on the main street at 10.45am on a Tuesday.

The tender was eventually withdrawn for the centre at the former Connemara Gateway Hotel "in the interest of the safety of all stakeholders".

Fears over small-town infrastructure and a lack of services were also raised by Oughterard locals.

There is only one doctor, one garda and one superintendent. But like Ballinamore, while many had genuine concerns, there's a dark undercurrent flowing among a small few.

Comments by Independent TD Noel Grealish, who described African immigrants as "spongers", were welcomed by some and criticised by others.

"I won't be voting for him after that," said local woman Niamh.

"What was it like here during the protests? Uncomfortable...It was hard to express opinions if you weren't in the majority."

Another local man, who wished to remain anonymous, compared Mr Grealish to Donald Trump. "He says what people are thinking and he's not afraid to attack the vultures of the welfare state.

"Nigeria is one of the richest countries in the world, sure why are they coming here?"

The Irish Independent asked to join a canvass with Mr Grealish, but he did not respond to texts or calls.

On a canvass with Labour candidate Niall McNelis in the neighbouring town of Moycullen, he says he was "hurt" by some of the comments surrounding asylum seekers.

"Galway is the city of tribes, and if you gave out to me about immigration, I wouldn't want your vote.

"The problem with Oughterard was no consultation and understandably people were angry."

Some candidates have been accused of playing the anti-immigrant card to win votes.

In Longford-Westmeath, James Reynolds of the newly founded National Party is basing his campaign around the slogan: "There are too many immigrants. Enough is enough." But as was seen with Peter Casey's quick rise in popularity and equally as quick fall, controversy doesn't equal success.

A recent election poll by TG4 predicts Mr Grealish, a TD for Galway-West since 2002, may be in trouble, while Mr Kyne is predicted to win the fifth and final seat.

Irish Independent