Outside each of the three entrances to the former Great Southern Hotel at Rosslare Harbour, three locals dressed in hi-vis jackets huddle around a barrel that has been lit on fire for warmth.
Cars drive by and beep during the day, and flash their lights at night. Gardaí wave in acknowledgment. A donated Christmas tree is decorated next to them at one entrance.
It is almost four weeks since residents of the south Co Wexford village began their 24/7 protest outside what was once a hub of southeastern tourism but is now scheduled to be converted into accommodation for international protection applicants.
There are purple and yellow signs hanging around the village and on the approaches. Some of them say “Save our nursing home”. Others say Rosslare Harbour is at “saturation”, “enough is enough” and “we can not take anymore”. The village is already accommodating hundreds of refugees from the Ukraine war and international protection applicants in hotels and guests houses.
Ann Farrell, one of the protesters, said the action is not at all about immigration but about a promise made that the former hotel would be converted into a nursing home.
“We’re not saying we’re not willing to give them a home. You have to have a heart for what these people go through,” she said of those seeking asylum in the State. “But they should be portioned out around the country.”
Sitting on a prominent site overlooking Rosslare Europort, the former Great Southern has been derelict for more than a decade.
In 2021, Domal Developments Ltd sought and was granted planning permission for a change of use for the premises to a 90-bedroom nursing home, as well as 25 independent living units for older people, according to a planning application lodged with the local authority.
Earlier this year, however, it emerged that the plans for the nursing home had been shelved and it was being proposed that the former hotel would become an International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS) centre accommodating about 170 asylum seekers. This figure is expected to rise to several hundred once the redevelopment is complete.
It was at that point that the protests began, with people gathering at the entrances on an around-the-clock basis since November 16th. Most participants come for two-hour shifts to provide constant cover. Those attending span all ages, but a large proportion are retirees, including an 88-year-old woman who shows up twice a day, every day.
There have also been four blockades of Rosslare Europort by a large group of residents and some local politicians, who are demanding answers from Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman.
Farrell, a 67-year-old retiree, stands at the former hotel most days between 4am and 6am. “I thought there would be a place for me to go in the latter years of my life,” she says. “I was totally devastated to learn it wouldn’t be a nursing home.”
Independent councillor Ger Carthy says the biggest issue is that the community “got a commitment and it wasn’t honoured”. He says locals also have concerns about the provision of services for new arrivals, with the local GP and primary school “at capacity”.
On November 30th, things changed. There was a suspected incident of arson at the site, in which a forklift teleporter was burnt out. There is no suggestion that the protesters were responsible and organisers of the demonstration condemned the incident, saying they were “aghast”.
Those campaigning for the nursing home fear the attack will result in them “being tarred with the same brush as the far-right people who are anti-immigrant”.
Aidan McFadden, a 71-year-old local resident, said “it is our fear to be labelled racist”.
He and his wife ran a bed and breakfast for many years and when they were selling two years ago, they were trying to decide where to go during their retirement. They had considered Lanzarote, but decided instead to remain in Rosslare Harbour due to the nursing home plans.
“We thought: wouldn’t it be lovely, it’s right on our doorstep. We’ll have our family home nearby,” he says. “In other parts of the country, I’m sure people are thinking I’m objecting to immigrants. But even if it was 600 Irish people, we still wouldn’t have the services.”
Niamh Dennis, a local resident, said the community wants a nursing home due to its “ageing population” and that the protests have “nothing to do with the people who could be living there at all”.
Rosslare Harbour currently houses more than 300 Ukrainian refugees and international protection applicants, who, Dennis says, have really settled into the local area.
“I even went into the accommodation centre and the hotels where the Ukrainians live to let them know the protest was nothing to do with them. It’s about services being provided in the community,” she adds.
“There are no services here. There is nothing for them to do or nowhere for them to work. There’s very little in the community.”
The provision of State accommodation for asylum seekers has been a consistent and contentious issue in recent years, with demand significantly outstripping supply. Violence, intimidation and arson attacks have not been uncommon in some areas when centres are proposed or established.
Speaking generally about violent protests and intimidation, Fiona Hurley, chief executive of Nasc, the migrant and refugee rights centre, says it is “imperative” that authorities stop these cycles from being perpetuated. The Irish Refugee Council says the State’s response needs an “all-of-Government approach” to facilitate integration.
But the locals in Rosslare Harbour are insistent that is not their goal. Bernie Mullen, chairwoman of the Kilrane-Rosslare Harbour Community Group, says they are “always concerned the far right will come and take advantage.
“There was a feeling of who is doing this [the suspected arson] when it’s not us?” she asks.
A spokesman for the Department of Integration said the Government is in “advanced negotiations” to contract the former Great Southern building for use as asylum seeker accommodation. However, he said the provider informed the department that access to the site has been “impeded”, which has affected its ability to complete the development.
He added that the department is “not in the position to turn down any reasonable offer of accommodation”, adding that it “strongly condemns any attempt to promote division and hostility towards those who come here seeking safety, and those providers willing to offer their premises for this use”.
Furthermore, Wexford County Council made an application to An Bord Pleanála last month seeking a determination on the change of use of the property from a nursing home to an accommodation centre, as well as the proposed intensification and increased occupancy of the building.
Independent TD Verona Murphy, who was deselected as a Fine Gael general election candidate in 2019 over comments she made about immigration, has also written to the council on the matter. She is a vocal supporter of the locals who are protesting, stating that there are concerns around adherence to planning rules.
Rosslare Harbour is a “very welcoming community”, she says, but “one that has suffered the effects of such an influx in such a short period of time, in that the services are not capable of reaching demand”.
Farrell says that no matter what happens to the site, the people in Rosslare will continue to be welcoming to those who reside in their village.
“We have no tolerance for any abusive activity, not even language,” she says. “The people who are here are part and parcel of our family and will continue to be treated like family.”
Internation Protection Centre Protests
Though the Rosslare protest is peaceful, there have been demonstrations at other proposed accommodation complexes around Ireland that were more violent:
- Caiseal Mara Hotel in Moville, Co Donegal was set on fire at the end of 2018.
- In early 2019, two fires broke out at the Shannon Key West hotel in Rooskey on the Roscommon-Leitrim border.
- In 2022, threats were made to set the former Grand Hotel in Wicklow on fire.
- In May, protesters wearing masks blocked buses attempting to carry asylum seekers into accommodation at the Airways Industrial Estate in Santry, Dublin.
- Homeless asylum seekers also had their tents burned in Dublin city centre in May.
- During the Dublin riots, a petrol bomb was thrown through the front of a premises earmarked for refugees on North Road, Finglas. The building had previously been vandalised.
- Dublin City Dorms on Parnell Street, which was used to accommodate asylum seekers earlier this year, was also targeted during the violence on November 23rd.
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