The developer of a hotel in Oughterard which was earmarked to open as a direct provision centre says he has withdrawn his tender and will not be proceeding with the development.
The decision by Sean Lyons, owner of the Fazyard Limited company, to halt the development of an accommodation centre for asylum seekers at the former Connemara Gateway hotel follows more than a fortnight of round the clock protests at the site on the outskirts of Oughterard town.
The Department of Justice, which had been in negotiations with Fazyard about a tender to open a centre to house “less than 250 people”, said on Tuesday evening it is disappointing that a bidder has chosen to withdraw from the tender process.
"This is of course their prerogative. However this is a development which will ultimately exacerbate a very serious situation in terms of a shortage of accommodation for those who come to Ireland seeking accommodation and requesting State services," it said in a statement.
It added however that the Department does recognise the need to engage with communities in advance of new centres opening and “we are working to improve community engagement structures and how all the State parties respond when a centre is proposed”.
The Department will continue, it said, to evaluate the other bids received and to progress the remaining tenders in the Dublin and border regions.
“It is imperative that we do so to avoid a situation where accommodation cannot be offered to people who arrive seeking protection. Ireland is perilously close to this scenario, given that the 38 existing centres are full, there are almost 1,400 people currently being accommodated in emergency accommodation in hotels and guest houses, and that dozens of people are arriving every week. Voluntary presentations seeking protection are up more than 50 per cent on last year.
“The Department acknowledges that the system of direct provision is not perfect but we are working to improve it. Without it we would not be able to support the thousands of people who arrive here with nothing every year to seek our protection. That is an obligation that the Department and the State takes very seriously.”
Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said grossly misleading comments have been made in recent weeks about the nature of direct provision services here.
“The nature of the services - which have improved steadily over many years and are now in line with EU law - have been totally mischaracterised. People have demanded we close down our accommodation centres. They have been less forthcoming with proposals as to where housing would be sourced for the 6,014 people currently availing of services in centres, the 1,379 people being provided with shelter and services in emergency accommodation and the dozens of people who will present today, tomorrow and the next day seeking the protection of the State. Many EU Member States provide services to asylum seekers through the centre model and some 60,000 people have been supported by direct provision services over a 20 year period,” he said.
The first demonstration against the proposed centre for Oughterard took place on Saturday, September 14th, three days after a public meeting in the town during which Independent TD Noel Grealish claimed direct provision housed “economic migrants” coming from Africa “to sponge off the system here in Ireland.”
The town’s first Saturday protest attracted an estimated 1,500 people who carried placards with the message ‘Oughterard says No to Inhumane Direct Provision Centres’ and a stream of 24-hour demonstrations have continued. Most workers who turned up to continue refurbishment works at the site were unable to pass the protests.
Speaking on Galway Bay FM on Tuesday morning, Mr Lyons said the development of the former Connemara Gateway hotel would “100 per cent” not be going ahead. Despite these assertions, a large crowd remained outside the centre on Tuesday lunchtime.
The developer, who informed the State’s Reception and Integration Agency of his decision to withdraw on Monday, criticised the Department of Justice for its lack of communication in recent weeks, saying his company was left at the forefront of the debate without clarity around the project.
Department of Justice officials had been in negotiations with Fazyard about a tender to open a centre to house “less than 250 people” but no final decision had been made. The residents for the new centre in Oughterard would most likely have come from the 34 emergency accommodation centres around the country where 1,363 people are currently residing.
The businessman said he also contacted the Oughterard protest committee requesting that his workers be allowed to access the site to collect their tools but that they had not been allowed past the blockade yet. He reiterated the request on radio, saying once the tools and equipment were gone he would be “finished with the premises, we’ll be gone”.
“It’s just not worth it from the point of view of the workmen and their safety, all they’re trying to do is work,” he said.
“Nobody is happy with this situation. We needed more support and there should have been more information given out.”
Rory Clancy of the Oughterard Says No to Inhumane Direct Provision told RTÉ radio’s Today with Sean O’Rourke show that “there is still a road and journey to go in saying no to direct provision centres.”
He denied the protestors had essentially bullied the developer, saying “as a community we are victims of bullying too.” He also denied protestors had prevented workers at the site from removing rubble that was dumped at entrance.
Fine Gael TD Seán Kyne agreed there had been a “lack of information around the process and secrecy” around the situation in Oughterard, saying he had “made it clear to all ministers” that the consultation process around the opening of direct provision centres needed to change. “It’s something that lessons have to learned from in terms of the Department of Justice.”
A statement from Patrick Curran, who has led the campaign against the centre, commended Mr Lyons for choosing to pull out of the tender and the department for "admitting they got it wrong".
He also thanked the local Oughterard community for their support during the campaign.
“We have not only cancelled the centre in Oughterard, we have made a positive change for the people of Ireland and also for the asylum seekers themselves,” said Mr Curran.
“This started out as a village opposed to a direct provision centre but it ended up as a village finding its voice and standing up for an entire nation on behalf of democracy and humanity. We stood up for the people that had no voice.”
A spokesman for the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) welcomed the news that another direct provision centre would not be opening and called on the Government to focus on the integration of asylum seekers into the community as per the recommendations laid out by the special rapporteur on child protection.
He said MASI was surprised to see such strong calls against the system from Oughterard given that the community had never expressed support to end the asylum system before plans emerged for a centre to open in their backyard. “We hope to see them campaigning against direct provision as the system remains in place,” he said, adding that the Government must end its reliance on emergency accommodation solutions for new arrivals.
At the weekend the Bishop of Galway Brendan Kelly sharply criticised the Department of Justice over its lack of consultation with local people amid the then ongoing controversy over the proposed direct provision centre in Oughterard.
He said the State has fallen far short by inadequately preparing local communities to effectively plan for new arrivals.
“There has been a lack of consultation, ineffective communication and information-sharing, and an absence of required social infrastructure and resources in health and education. The Department of Justice needs to take a cultural leap of faith and begin trusting communities at the earliest opportunity regarding this sensitive issue,” he said.
The Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said on Sunday that he and David Stanton, the Minister of State in the Department of Justice, “will continue to engage once decisions are made”.
“The fact of the matter is that once a decision has been made on Oughterard there will be local engagement,” he said.