'It's a matter of when, not if, asylum seekers go to Achill'
Achill Island has become the frontline of the heated national debate on housing asylum seekers, writes Wayne O'Connor
As you step on to Achill Island and the Atlantic Ocean kisses the shore, you are welcomed by wandering sheep grazing on the roadside next to a sign inviting visitors to the Achill Head Hotel.
It promises food and hospitality on the far side of the island, but in reality a much more hostile atmosphere awaits outside the hotel.
More than 40 people attended a meeting there yesterday in a make-shift camp outside the hotel. In recent days, this blue tarpaulin structure, a cattlebox and portaloo has been an epicentre for protesters concerned about the imminent arrival of 13 asylum seekers on the island. This number will eventually grow to 38 for a three-month stay sanctioned by the Department of Justice.
The protesters have maintained a silent around-the-clock vigil in spite of the department postponing the proposal last Friday.
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The protesters were not willing to speak yesterday, and those who made small talk about the miserable weather were warned to stop speaking to the media by other protesters.
We were invited to look at the hotel instead of speaking with them. They claim it is not suitable for prospective residents, but peering through the window it looks dry and clean, if a little dated.
The protesters point to around the back of the building where all that can be seen are pools of water on the ground outside and some black sacks filled with glass bottles from the bar.
During the protesters' meeting yesterday a man paces across the front perimeter of the hotel. Occasionally a passer-by beeps in a show of support, others slow down to see what is going on before driving off. A woman sitting in a car across the road waits for someone to leave the meeting. At one point she shouts "is the meeting still going on?" She then gives a thumbs up to TV cameras.
The media is asked to keep its distance so the meeting can take place in private but various voices can be heard from the road at different points followed by a round of applause.
At one point attendees are asked by a speaker not to "vilify" the media. "If we don't vilify them, hopefully they won't vilify us," a man tells those gathered.
Once the meeting breaks up, nobody is willing to speak publicly. They point to a statement issued on Friday. That statement, issued by the ''Achill Says No'' group on social media, points to a lack of services and amenities on the island and says the area is not suitable to house asylum seekers temporarily.
Before yesterday's meeting, one man on the way in said there are few services on the island for tourists when they visit and little transport links to big towns. He is then ushered away.
During the summer months Achill's population can double because of the number of visitors who come to the island.
According to the 2016 census, the population of Achill is 2,440 but this has been declining in recent years as young people leave the area in search of work. The most recent figures show the population of the Keel-Dooagh townland where the Achill Head Hotel is located fell by 41 (7pc) between 2011 and 2016.
Sources said part of this feeds in to the rationale for choosing Achill as a destination for the asylum seekers. They said the hotel would not normally be used in the off-peak tourist season and the area has demonstrated it can cope with vast visitor numbers. However, it is isolated and some distance from a bridge to the mainland.
One Government source told the Sunday Independent, "it is now a matter of when and not if the asylum seekers go to Achill".
"The 38 residents will be 13 single women (who it is intended to move to Achill in the first place) and the balance of 25 people will be made up of a small number of families due to arrive in the coming weeks. This is well within the normal number of people occupying this hotel in the tourist season," a Department of Justice spokesman said.
"We know that the community in Achill is welcoming and hospitable. They welcome thousands of tourists every year to their beautiful island. We are asking that they extend that welcome and hospitality to 38 single women and families for three months."
The decision to postpone moving the asylum seekers to Achill last week has been criticised by immigrant and women's rights groups.
Director of the National Women's Council of Ireland, Orla O'Connor said direct provision was not an ideal support for asylum seekers but insisted they must be helped.
"If we give in to protests about direct provision centres, like in the case of these 13 women, it is a very negative message to give out to people seeking asylum.
"It is important the Government presses ahead but also has conversations with communities."
Immigrant Council of Ireland spokeswoman Pippa Woolnough echoed these views and said the housing crisis also played a role.
"The housing crisis is complicating everything. There is an increase in the number of asylum cases this year but that was predicted and should have been expected. The housing situation has made a bad case worse because of the lack of available places for people to live."
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan has appealed to protesters to lift the "siege" as he said he believes the protest has been hijacked by "alt-right" groups not linked to the area who oppose immigration.
This has been denied by the protesters. While various Irish and non-national accents could be heard at the meeting outside the hotel yesterday, the group has previously insisted all participants in the vigil are local residents.
Colombian, Mexican, Welsh and Scottish flags flown outside a nearby school indicate this is usually a much more inviting place for visitors. A star spangled banner flies above a business across the road from the schools. The flags also represent a mix of nationalities living locally.
A second group of residents on the island said it will welcome the asylum seekers once they arrive.
The group, which includes Green Party politician Saoirse McHugh but states it has no figure head or organised structure, said it intends to "welcome all asylum seekers coming to Achill and hopes they will be made to feel at home".
This group is hosting a coffee morning today free for anyone on the island to attend regardless of their view on the issue. A local boxing club this weekend said it wanted to respond to claims asylum seekers will have nothing to do on the island. It has offered to run training evenings for children, proving not everyone in the area is opposed 38 people seeking asylum moving to Achill.