State right not to consult Ballaghaderreen on refugees
Giving platform to naysayers would have sown division in welcoming town
The old hometown’s just the same. If under something of a strain.
Ballaghaderreen is a welcoming place. A sign at one entrance is a reminder. It recalls how it was host town to the Special Olympics team from Qatar in 2003. There were no links with Qatar before that.
For more than three decades it has had a significant Muslim population, mostly Pakistani. There since the 1980s, when Pakistani entrepreneur Sher Mohammed Rafique took over a local meat plant.
He recruited Muslim butchers who specialised in halal slaughter of animals according to Islamic rite. The plant went through various ownerships after he left in the 1990s. It was closed in 2008 with a loss of 170 jobs, but the Pakistanis stayed.
Arising from hefty exchanges about the superiority of Ireland’s cricketers, he and local cricket enthusiast John Corcoran set up the Ballaghaderreen Cricket Club. It has enjoyed unlikely success, provincially and nationally.
A local GAA football star is Pakistani-born Shehroz Akram. He was on the Mayo team that became All-Ireland Under-21 Champions last year.
Of Ballaghaderreen’s 1,822 population (2011 census), more than 200 are believed of Pakistani origin. It has not been a problem. The town also has a significant eastern European population. Again, without difficulty.
Almost half the children at the local St Attracta’s primary school are foreign-national, as are very many at St Nathy’s College secondary school.
Where there have been antisocial problems, these have not involved foreign nationals. They have been home-grown, frequently around local ethnic groupings.
This is not new. In younger days there I attempted a Youth Club initiative to help local Travellers who lived in shocking conditions near the town dump.
It did not go down well.
It was another bad time in Ballaghaderreen. There were few jobs; word had gone out that an expected factory wasn’t happening; and the GAA club was doing badly.
A local man was pessimistic. He was heard to say: “The football’s gone. The factory’s gone. And McGarry brings the tinkers.”
Nor did I bring the Syrian refugees to Ballaghaderreen, as social media “experts” have intimated. Nor have I any idea of what life is like in Bermuda. I’ve never been there. But thank you for asking.
In July 2015, Combin Properties Limited, c/o Remcoll Capital, Bandon, Co Cork, bought the Abbeyfield Hotel in Ballaghaderreen. An associated company acquired the 52 houses in nearby River Oaks estate last spring.
Melanie McGarry is not related to me, either by blood or marriage.
But I do recall delight in the town when news broke in 2015 that the Abbeyfield had been bought. Open a few years and the town’s only hotel, it closed in 2010.
Word was it would reopen on St Patrick’s Day last. That did not happen. Then news emerged that the nearby River Oaks estate had been bought.
People in the town sensed a certain inevitability about the future.
There are 282 vacant residential units in Ballaghaderreen, an appalling legacy of Celtic Tiger years. Hundreds of houses were built along our greatest river under the Shannon Valley tax relief scheme. Ballaghaderreen was the most westerly town to “benefit”.
No one asked who would ever live in these houses or what employment would sustain them. It was a case of build and be damned.
The damned part was to come.
By late last summer people in Ballaghaderreen feared others had plans to turn the town into a social housing ghetto. So there was relief at reports of homeless people in Dublin refusing accommodation in parts of the city – meaning they were even more unlikely to accept any sort of relocation to Ballaghaderreen.
That left refugees. Last month, with word that refurbishment on the River Oaks houses had to be completed by Christmas, people in the town knew something was stirring.
So the shock and fury of local politicians at last week’s news has to be taken with some salt. Undoubtedly, they were not informed in advance of Thursday’s announcement, but it was not a shock. The numbers involved, however, were.
At the weekend, Minister of State at the Department of Justice David Stanton apologised for the lack of consultation. He needn’t have.
Many in the town believe consultation would have been a disaster. It would merely have provided a platform for the naysayers who are always with us. Everywhere. They would have sown bitter division, prolonged an agony, prevented agreement.
Strategically, what occurred was best. It implemented a decision by our democratically elected Government to help the Syrian people and which has widespread public support. Including in Ballaghaderreen.
A must now is the putting in place of infrastructure locally to support the refugees, as the town can barely meet its own needs.
And, no, it is not easy for me, as has been said too on social media. And I don’t live in Dublin 4.
I visit home (note that particular four-letter word) regularly. Four generations of my family live there, from my mother to her youngest great-grandson. She is his godmother. I am his godfather. He lives with his family near the Abbeyfield hotel.
He will be three next June, the same age Alan Kurdi was when his lifeless body was washed up on a Turkish beach in September 2015. That name has been on many lips in Ballaghaderreen over recent days. He will continue to be remembered there in coming weeks and months.
Patsy McGarry is religious affairs correspondent