GALWAY county councillor Tom Welby has called on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Justice 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 (PD), has also defended controversial remarks made by Independent Galway West TD Noel Grealish – also a former PD - at last week’s public meeting in Oughterard on the issue.
Over 1500 people participated in a silent demonstration through the town on Saturday, expressing opposition to locating a direct provision centre at the former Connemara Gateway Hotel.
Mr Welby was the only politician to attend the event, which began at the village’s Roman 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 Ms 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”, “Mr Welby said.
“If Noel Grealish had used the word “avail of” [taxpayers], no one would be talking about it,”the councillor said.
“This is a 60-bed hotel, and we are hearing figures of 200 to 250 people being housed here...that is a 20 per cent increase in the population of Oughterard overnight,”he said.
“I’d ask the media to investigate the system of direct provision, rather than focusing on Noel’s remarks,”Mr Welby continued, stating that he believed there was a media attempt to “destabilise the government”.
“I’d ask the Taoiseach, Minister for Justice and junior minister [David Stanton] to come down to Oughterard and debate these issues,”Mr Welby said.
Ms Earl said she would not condone what Mr Grealish said on Wednesday night, but felt it was “up to him” to decide if he should apologise.
“I would not condone what he said as these people are in enough trouble,” Ms Earl said.
"If I had to up and leave my home for whatever reason, the last thing I’d need is aggro and to be put into a place like this when I got here,” she said, pointing to the former hotel.
Mr Patrick Curran, who spoke at Wednesday night’s meeting in opposition to any centre, said he could not comment on Mr Grealish’s remarks as he had “not read them”.
Mr Curran, who was reared in London but whose parents are from the Oughterard area, said “if you go to a meeting and you fly a drone to catch someone out and then publish their remark in the media, that’s a bit unfair”.
However, Moroccon 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, his wife and four children.
“We need hotels, tourists, in this town – it is not fair to people who have been given no money that they should be housed here,”Mr Nawi said. “Families are very welcome, but give people 400 euro to spend or let them work.”
Ms Geri Slevin, a teacher, said she had offered her home to a Syrian family in 2016, but had been very disappointed by a “negative response” from the Department of Justice.
“I am not alone in this community in wanting to welcome families who need help, but don’t put them in a prison – which is what a direct provision centre is,”Ms Slevin said. Oughterard “ is not racist” and has welcomed many nationalities in local schools, she said.
Participants were asked to sign a petition which expressed the community’s opposition to locating any reception centre for refugees.
The petition and march were being held to highlight three issues, local publican Rory Clancy said, including “the inhumane method of housing asylum seekers” and the fact that Oughterard did not have the capacity for a reception centre.
The community is “being driven over by the Government and its voice was not being listened to”, Mr Clancy said.
At last Wednesday night’s meeting, attended by an estimated 800 people, Mr Grealish was recorded as stating: "Now I have worked with one or two Syrian families. These were genuine refugees who were persecuted in their homeland, because they were Christian, by ISIS.
"They were housed around Galway, put in houses, they were accepted by communities.
If you watch the news, and even our Taoiseach said two weeks' ago that he would take an extra 200 what-do-you-call migrants from Africa.
"These are economic migrants. These are people coming over here from Africa to sponge off the system here in Ireland,”Mr Grealish said.