Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has appealed to Oughterard residents protesting the possible opening of a direct provision centre in the town to "step back" and await the results of an evaluation process.
The process is ongoing and no decision has been made on the opening of a centre in the town, Mr Flanagan said. Several locations are being examined but Mr Flanagan warned “we haven’t got too many options here.”
Up to 1,500 people took part in a march in the Co Galway town on Saturday to protest against the Connemara Gateway Hotel being used as accommodation for asylum seekers. Locals have vowed to maintain an ongoing round the clock protest in front of the hotel.
It is understood the Department of Justice is in negotiations with the hotel’s owners to house “less than 250” people while their asylum status is assessed.
“I’d ask the people of Oughterard to step back now from the situation as is. There have been heightened tensions. This is a matter of real regret,” Mr Flanagan said.
“No decision has been made regarding the provision of a centre in Oughterard. There is an evaluation process.”
Asked if the Department of Justice should be consulting with the people of the town on the possibility of a Direct Provision centre there, the Minister said “of course” consultations would take place in whatever location is selected following the evaluation process.
This process has already taken place in many areas around the country housing asylum seekers and would ensure there is adequate access to education and healthcare for “all the people involved”, he said.
“I would say that ultimately a decision will be made in the west of Ireland, as with any other part of Ireland, having regard to the services available.”
The Minister said the are currently over 1,300 asylum seekers in emergency accommodation and that this is a “real challenge” for the Government. “It is important we provide shelter and basic essentials for all of these people.”
People seeking asylum in Ireland are “often leaving the most challenging of circumstances on the planet. I don’t want them sleeping rough in Ireland,” Mr Flanagan said.
The Minister said he was “disappointed” with some of the comments made at a community meeting about the issue in Oughterard last week.
Several politicians including Mr Flanagan and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar have called on Independent TD Noel Grealish to withdraw remarks he made at the meeting, claiming the centre will house “economic migrants” coming from Africa “to sponge off the system here in Ireland.”
Mr Grealish added: “I can guarantee you, it’s not the persecuted Christians and Syrians coming here, it’s the people, the economic refugees that is coming in from Africa.”
Speaking at an event with Mr Flanagan, Minister for Children Katherine Zappone said she would encourage Mr Grealish to think about or clarify his comments or “even perhaps to withdraw them”.
“Who knows the reasons maybe for uttering them at that particular moment,” she said.
She said it is important for the Government to “listen to all perspectives but ultimately to make a decision in the best interests of those who are coming.”