Wednesday 16 October 2019

Patricia Casey: 'Asylum centre row hijacked by outsiders - but locals' concerns are legitimate'

Protest: People march in opposition to a direct provision centre in Oughterard, Co Galway
Protest: People march in opposition to a direct provision centre in Oughterard, Co Galway

Patricia Casey

The small Irish town of Oughterard has come to national, if not international, attention in recent weeks. Just like the gilets jaunes of Paris, local people in the Co Galway town have stepped in to protest about the manner in which they have been treated and ignored by Government.

The issue in Galway relates to migrants and refugees. People living in the town and its hinterland number about 1,500 and they have been told that 250 migrants and asylum-seekers are about to be placed in a direct provision centre, which was formerly a hotel in the town.

Given the size of the population there, the sudden increase by around 20pc has caused alarm. Unsurprisingly the locals are aggrieved that they have not been consulted about this. Just like the gilets jaunes, their grievance is a symptom of how they perceive they are being treated by government and other elites who will not confirm if the disused hotel is in fact being converted.

Some militant public representatives, politicians and the media have jumped on the bandwagon that is labelling these people as racist. Those from the hard left are impugning the locals as being from the far right.

The people of Oughterard find themselves as the fall guys and scapegoats for extremists who, from both sides of the political divide, have waded into and are capitalising on a local issue for their respective causes.

So, what is the definition of racism? The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines it as "a belief that race is the primary determinant of human traits and capacities and that racial differences produce an inherent superiority of a particular race".

It is also defined in that dictionary as a political system based on these principles.

Can anybody writing about the concerns of the people of that town quote anything that the locals have said that conforms to the above definition?

Here I am not referring to comments from protesting outside groups who have hijacked the issue. Indeed it is mainly the left who have been casting aspersions on the local people rather than in the opposite direction, and the original complaint arose when a People Before Profit representative made comments about Noel Grealish, an Independent TD who articulated the concerns of the local community in his constituency.

I absolutely lament his clumsy "sponging" comment, but I cannot assume he is a racist as he has never uttered such words or sentiments before. Immediately, motives of racial intolerance were imputed to the whole community, while some immigrants living in the area utterly disputed this and described their very happy co-existence with the community.

It is very troubling that those who have tried to point out the real problems created by a large influx of new inhabitants into a small town, without sufficient infrastructure, are immediately besmirched as xenophobic. Among the issues they raised was the fact of there being only one GP in the town, an absence of housing developments to address social housing needs and the stealth by which the centre was being developed since none of their local TDs was aware of the exact reasons for the empty hotel renovation, while the Department of Justice remained tight-lipped.

There are already 39 direct provision centres in Ireland and all but two are outside Dublin, in areas with very poor public transport, making it very difficult for these migrants to find employment and be able to travel to work. So one of the first requirements for integration, finding a job locally, is curtailed.

When such a centre was proposed for Ballsbridge in Dublin, the locals immediately litigated and were successful in preventing this - but with no suggestion in the media that they were bigots. But the locals in a small Galway town were branded as such for their wish for information. Yet their signs read 'Say No to Inhumane Direct Provision Centres'.

The protesters in Oughterard have some justification in these sentiments.

These centres were first developed in 1999 as an emergency when there were serious delays in processing asylum applications. For many, they've become long-term solutions and strayed from their original conception now that the application and appeals process is so protracted.

I have treated one man who has been in a centre for two years and has only just had his first interview, which was unsuccessful and which he is appealing.

These centres, by and large, are not family oriented and privacy is lacking. For instance, there is usually no provision for personal cooking, bathrooms are shared and people eat communally. Many have a ban on taking food to rooms. They are institutional in nature yet our State is forcing this discredited style of living on vulnerable people.

Because of the shortage of appropriate accommodation, we now have 1,200 migrants and refugees living in other emergency arrangements. In the past year, €12m has been paid to bed and breakfast landlords.

The ongoing failure to deal with the direct provision and accommodation chaos was criticised by Ombudsman Peter Tyndall earlier this week.

Unsurprisingly, journalists have leapt on the situation in Galway and along with the Irish Council for Civil Liberties, are calling for strengthening of the Incitement to Hatred Act 1989, a call that was welcomed by Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan.

Government, it seems, is using the Oughterard situation opportunistically to shut down discussion of matters of legitimate concern to local communities.

It is time for the far left and far right to butt out of this local issue and to respect the concerns of the locals.

Arguably the biggest culprit in this is the Government in its hypocritical posturing of ignoring the sleight of hand of the denizens of Dublin's leafy suburbs.

Irish Independent

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