'We're being sold a pup and our good nature exploited'
News that a hotel in Moville on Donegal's Inishowen Peninsula is to be turned into a Direct Provision centre accommodating 100 asylum seekers has divided the local community. Some look forward to welcoming the new arrivals, but others are concerned about the lack of resources and the effect on tourism
The pretty seaside town of Moville juts out into Lough Foyle just before the point where the lough opens out into the wide expanse of the Atlantic. While its Victorian grandeur has faded, its neat terraces and streets sloping gently down to the shore front make it picturesque even in bleak weather. And it's a place that 1,400 people are proud to call home. In coffee shops, supermarkets and along the town's shore path, where many locals take a daily stroll, there was only one conversation on everyone's lips this week; the new Direct Provision centre.
On the town's Foyle Street, there was no sign of life at the Caiseal Mara Hotel. Its glory days are long past. For well over 30 years it has stood as a beacon of hospitality to diners and revellers, playing host to countless weddings, functions and family gatherings. But in recent years its fortunes ebbed away and when the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) advertised for accommodation centres last September, the Caiseal Mara Hotel was one of a number of hotels which applied. Now it's preparing to welcome its new guests - but not everyone in Moville is happy about it.
At a packed meeting last weekend, officials from RIA - the government agency responsible for overall administration of the system which provides accommodation for asylum seekers under the Direct Provision system - answered questions posed by locals. But long after the officials had left, the questions kept coming.
What people learned was that the first of the town's new inhabitants will arrive in the first week in December. A number of jobs will be created by the company operating the Caiseal Mara as a Direct Provision centre. When the centre is fully operational, it will accommodate 100 people, but RIA officials said the arrivals would be staggered, with groups of around 20 coming at a time.
When Tracy Cullen Sheehan heard that her home town would soon be home to 100 people seeking asylum, she decided to set up a welcoming committee and used her Facebook page to ask people to get in touch if they'd like to get involved. She was inundated with messages from hundreds of people pledging to help in any way they could.
Cullen Sheehan, a lecturer at the North West Regional College in Limavady, Co Derry, says she was prompted to act after hearing what she calls some "less than charitable" comments from people in the town.
"These people who will be seeking asylum here are desperate. Ireland has made a commitment to do its bit and we're only doing a small bit. While Direct Provision is not perfect, this is hugely positive for the town and the cultural diversity will be amazing. There has been a huge outpouring of kindness from people wanting to help, offering everything from yoga trauma classes to drama. People are talking about setting up homework clubs for the children. There's been over 500 people in the Facebook group in less than one week," she says.
Cullen Sheehan doesn't believe Moville people won't be welcoming, but says many people's anger is directed towards the system. And while she says more could have been done in advance to ensure the various government agencies were prepared for the new arrivals in Moville, she believes that if people have to queue a bit longer at the doctor's surgery or make room in the classrooms for more children, it's a small price to pay compared to what the people seeking asylum have gone through.
"Most people who are coming won't even be in this country yet. They will be walking across deserts or hitching rides in trucks as we speak. I would like Direct Provision not to look like Direct Provision here. I'd like individuals and families coming here to be given an opportunity to flourish. I hope their children will integrate in the local schools and I hope they make lifelong connections. And I hope when they are able to work, they will find employment. I would like to think that Moville would always have a special place in their hearts and that they would feel like it rescued them and reached out to them," she says.
At the Foyle Hotel on the town's Main Street, chef Brian McDermott is preparing for the lunchtime trade. McDermott took over the hotel, which had lain empty for a decade, this summer and is dismayed at the fact the only other hotel in the town will not be re-opening as a hotel again. And he feels that an opportunity to build on the tourism business has been lost.
"The only other hotel is now gone forever as a tourist business. Why should a government agency, the RIA, that never set foot in Moville before, determine the future of this town? With the right investment, we could have had another 40-plus rooms for tourists here. The business is here. But instead, they land over 100 people into an area, and there has been no consultation about it," says McDermott.
He believes there are many questions remaining about how people seeking asylum coming into the town will be integrated and what resources they will have. But he insists his main issues are the lack of consultation with locals and the effects on tourism in the town.
"Moville can't take a coach tour now. I have 16 bedrooms in my hotel. I worked hard all summer to encourage the cruise-ship business to stop in Moville. I've gone and met them and told them to stop here. I've had to fight for my business. We put the jump leads on and brought this hotel back. I feel hurt by this whole thing," he says.
McDermott also feels the town has not been given adequate time to get ready for the change that 100 new people from different parts of the world will bring. "We're just a dot on a government page. Moville's history is about to change forever and no consultation took place with people whatsoever. The community has been treated despicably," he says.
At Moville Community College, principal Anthony Doogan says he won't know who will be joining the school community until the week before they arrive. "If there are teens among them, we'll be looking at taking them in," he says.
Doogan explains that in the history of the school there has been a limited experience of students from other countries. While there have been a number of students from India, Bangladesh and Eastern Europe, that has been the extent of any multiculturalism they have seen.
However, he says they are ready and willing to welcome any new arrivals and will not be limited to supporting people in school time, but will allow the school to be used for after-school activities to make sure people ease into their new lives.
At the nearby local health centre, Dr Garrett Duffy says he is concerned about the practice's ability to meet the physical and psychological needs of the town's new residents with the resources they have.
With two full-time doctors and two part-time doctors and a General Medical Services (GMS)list of 3,800 people, with private patients on top of that, Dr Duffy says they have concerns about the increased work load.
He says they have not been informed about who is coming and what their physical or psychological needs might be. And he raises concerns about the potential need for interpreters or translators when important medical histories are being taken.
One of the questions posed by many locals - and indeed by the Irish Refugee Council - is why locate a Direct Provision centre on the Inishowen Peninsula at the northern tip of the country? The most direct route to Inishowen from Dublin, where asylum seekers will have to attend appointments and case hearings, is through the North. But because under international protection rules, it's illegal for asylum to leave the State while their application is under consideration, they will have to travel to Dublin via Sligo.
While the RIA says buses will be laid on to take people to appointments via Sligo with comfort stops and overnight stays if necessary, people will still have to make a journey of up to eight hours to reach the capital.
Irish Refugee Council CEO Nick Henderson told Review that however strong the welcome in Moville, it could not mitigate against the sense of isolation someone seeking asylum would feel living in a place so far removed from the services they need to access in Dublin.
"There has to be some of kind matrix in the planning process as to where people are located and its proximity to Dublin. We have to ask if there are interpreters. Are there NGOs that can offer support? A warm welcome is essential but we also need specific supports for people. In Moville that's unlikely to happen," says Henderson.
Taking his daily constitutional along the town's shore walk, local resident Enda Craig says instead of being the first to know about the plans for Caiseal Mara, locals were the last. Craig, a retired ESB worker, says that from talking to people in other places where Direct Provision centres are located, he's learned that no extra resources were provided for the number of extra people who came to their area.
"We are an alien species up here as far as Dublin is concerned. That's no reflection on the people coming in. This was so cynically planned and deliberate. I see the RIA as thieves who came in the night. They came into our area and they planned this. They are exploiting the good nature of the people of Moville because they know the kind of people we are," says Craig. "Let there be no illusions as to why these centres are referred to as a shambles, shameful and not fit for the treatment of human beings. In truth, they are designed this way by the Government. The word must go back from those already in the Direct Provision system that Ireland is the last place to seek asylum in because of the conditions existing in these centres.
"If the word was otherwise, potential asylum seekers would be arriving in far greater numbers. It's one of the reasons that the various local resources are not supplemented to accommodate the additional load and pressure. We are being 'sold a pup' by the Department of Justice as our good and giving nature is and will be exploited to the limit," says Craig.
"People can't get their heads around the fact they have been treated so shabbily and that makes them suspicious. This is not something that's going to be any addition to the town - that's not the people, it's the system. People are reserving their judgment a bit. They are not living the experience yet. When they understand what Direct Provision really means - well, I wouldn't want to be a politician coming to Moville," he says.
At Norrie's coffee shop in the town, Toni Devine says she's ready to welcome those coming to Moville and says everyone should be ready to play their part in helping people displaced by big global issues like war and climate change settle into a new life here.
"Of course people have to be taken in and welcomed. We are a rich country. It would be a dereliction of our duty to humanity not to open our doors to those in need. We have a culture of doing that. The Irish have a history of coming up trumps. I'm excited to learn about the people coming - it's going to be an interesting time," she says.
However, Devine says she has reservations about the suitability of the former hotel as an appropriate place for families and children. "Having worked in the community, I would have concerns about the building being used 100pc of the time. How is it going to be looked after and where is the money coming from?" she asks.
She says the community has the chance to make sure that people have a comfortable, safe place to come to.
"Part of my thinking comes from working with Women's Aid and Derry Well Woman. When you ask women what they want and what they need, they say a clean space where they and their children are safe. The community has to be the arbiter of standards," says Devine.
Despite her concerns about the physical building, Devine has no worries about the warmth of the welcome the people will get.
"The welcome and the support from the community will be wonderful. It's in the blood of Moville people to welcome others - it's who we are," she says.
"Sometimes negativity is based on fear and not knowing what's going to happen. This can offer us the opportunity to be the best we can be. There is an opportunity to see the world outside of our own bubble.
"What's happening in the world has come to us now. They're asking us is there room at the inn? Of course there's room."
Direct Provision in numbers
The total number of people in Direct Provision accommodation, as of November 18.
The number of accommodation centres around the country — plus one reception centre in Dublin.
The number of new centres planned: initially one in Wicklow town, one in Moville, and later on one in Rooskey, Co Leitrim.
The total cost of the scheme last year.
The number of months, on average, spent in Direct Provision.
The top 10 nationalities applying for international protection are: Georgians, Albanians, Syrians, Zimbabweans, Pakistanis, Nigerians, South Africans, Congolese (from the Democratic Republic of Congo), Brazilians and Algerians.