A 24-hour picket is being maintained at a former hotel in Connemara in protest over its possible conversion into accommodation for asylum seekers.
he protest by residents of Oughterard, Co Galway, was mounted after a silent march attended by some 1500 people through the town at the weekend to highlight opposition to “inhumane direct provision”.
Oughterard publican Rory Clancy said that a “presence” would be maintained on a 24-hour basis to register the community’s opposition to any attempt to open a direct provision centre.
Contractors are due to return to the site of the former Connemara Gateway Hotel, a mile outside the town, this week as part of refurbishment works at the 60-bed hotel.
Mr Clancy expressed concern today that the community had been “tarnished by the media” after last Wednesday’s public meeting in the town, attended by some 800 people.
At the meeting, Independent TD Noel Grealish differentiated between what he termed “genuine” refugees from Syria and “African” economic migrants coming to Ireland to "sponge" off taxpayers.
Mr Grealish has so far refused to make any further comment, following Taoiseach Leo Varadkar’s call on him to withdraw and “clarify” his claim, and criticism by Independent Galway West TD Catherine Connolly, Green Party and Social Democrat councillors and the Galway Anti-Racism Network.
Mr Clancy said he did not wish to comment on calls for Mr Grealish to apologise, but said that “because of the comments of a couple of people at last week’s meeting, we are being tarnished, and that is not us as a community in Oughterard”.
Galway county councillor Tom Welby, a former Progressive Democrat colleague of Mr Grealish, defended the Independent TD’s comments and said that the media was focusing on one word used – as in “sponge”.
If Mr Grealish had used the word “avail”, the reaction would be different, Mr Welby, an independent councillor and former Galway mayor, said.
However, former Redemptorist Fr Tony Flannery questioned why Saturday’s silent march began from the town’s Roman Catholic church.
“As a Galway man, I am concerned about what is happening in Oughterard,”Fr Flannery said on his Twitter account on Saturday.
“No doubt there are genuine concerns, but this increasingly seems like something much darker and more ugly. And the march today started from the church; what is that about?” Fr Flannery tweeted.
Bishop of Limerick Brendan Leahy said in Milford, Limerick today that racism and intolerance “should have no place in Irish society.
Referring to the experience of Irish emigrants, Dr Leahy said :” “Now we welcome others coming to our shores. How we speak of them is important. To denigrate others is cheap. To build them up is noble. To be loose with our tongue is like spreading a fire. And that is never good.”
At the Church of Ireland Sunday service in Oughterard, Rev Lynda Peilow, rector of Galway’s St Nicholas’s Collegiate Church, asked for prayers in relation to the “unrest in our community”.
Rev Peilow also asked for prayers for those “seeking a new life” and those who were prepared to stand up for them.
Cllr Welbyhas called on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan to “come west” to Oughterard and take questions from the community.
Moroccan resident Sammy Nawi, who marched, 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.
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.
No contract has as yet been signed for use of the hotel as a reception centre, according to the Government.