1,500 join march to block refugee centre
Galway county councillor Tom Welby has called on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan to "come west" to Oughterard and take questions over potential plans for a direct provision centre in the Connemara town.
The Independent councillor and former Progressive Democrat, has also defended controversial remarks made by Independent Galway West TD Noel Grealish at last week's public meeting in Oughterard on the issue. Mr Grealish is also a former member of the Progressive Democrats.
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More than 1,500 people participated in a silent demonstration through the town, expressing opposition to locating a direct provision centre at the former Connemara Gateway Hotel. In 2016 the town's population was 1,316.
Mr Welby was the only politician to attend the event, which began at the village's Catholic church and finished at the former hotel a mile outside the town.
The participants, including a number of young families, and wearing yellow safety vests, carried banners stating 'Oughterard says no to inhumane direct provision centre'.
Before it began, one of the organisers, retired special needs assistant Marian Flaherty Earl, acknowledged there was "tension" but asked anyone who felt they could not remain silent to "walk away from the group".
The march took place a day after Taoiseach Leo Varadkar urged Mr Grealish to "withdraw" and clarify his claim at a meeting in Oughterard last week that African asylum seekers are economic migrants coming to Ireland to "sponge" off taxpayers.
Mr Welby, who chaired the meeting attended by an estimated 800 people last Wednesday, said people in Oughterard were "not upset" at what Mr Grealish said.
"They are upset that he is being asked to apologise," Mr Welby said. "The media is focusing on one word, as in 'sponge'," he added. "If Noel Grealish had used the word "avail of", no one would be talking about it.
"This is a 60-bed hotel, and we are hearing figures of 200 to 250 people being housed here... that is a 20pc increase in the population of Oughterard overnight," he added.
Moroccan resident Sammy Nawi said he believed Mr Grealish should apologise. Mr Nawi, a chef who has lived for the past seven years in Oughterard, said the town "is not racist" and had been very welcoming to him.
"We need hotels and tourists in this town."