‘We have all nationalities in Oughterard as it is’

Locals say lack of communication about direct provision centre is behind opposition

Anyone who has travelled from Galway to the mountains of north Connemara will have passed the Connemara Gateway Hotel, just north of Oughterard. It has become better known in recent days.

It has been there for more than half a century, a dominant feature on the left hand side of the road, near the local golf course, about 2km shy of the town itself.

In the 1960s and 1970s, it was a motel in the US-style, with outside balconies leading to each door. In the 1980s, it was remodelled by Galway hotelier Charlie Synnott, giving it a more conventional, if sprawling look.

For a long while, it was successful. Later it changed hands and fell on leaner times before closing. For more than a decade now it has lain idle, looking increasingly neglected and overgrown.

Several weeks ago, locals noticed construction workers had moved in. Inquiries brought little information from the owner or the workers. Suspicions were raised. Building works usually do not begin as the tourist season dies.

“There was a lack of information,” says local councillor Tom Welby. “We contacted the Department of Justice and they would tell us nothing. We put two and two together,” he said.

Oughterard is a postcard-picture town about 20km from Galway City on the banks of Lough Corrib and a haven for trout anglers, particularly in May when the mayflies dance.

A dormitory town for Galway Oughterard went into decline for a long period but in the past decade has recovered somewhat. The population is not large, about 1,300.

It has two national schools, only one local doctor, and a secondary school, St Paul’s, a strong basketball nursery. GAA is big, too – recently-retired Galway manager Kevin Walsh hails from nearby Killanin.

Welby and some others were worried that a direct provision centre would become a fait accompli. Faced with questions about Oughterard, or anywhere else, the Department of Justice offers standard replies.

It cannot confirm or deny if any building is being considered, since it takes the view that it is legally precluded from saying anything until the tender process is over and contracts are signed.

It’s only then that consultation can begin, it argues. “That’s no good. At that stage it’s a done deal,” argues Welby. “There will be no point. We will be told the centre is there and how many people it will cater for.”

Welby and a few others organised a public meeting. Originally, it was to be in the Boat Inn, a local pub but a Facebook page generated so much interest that it moved to the local community centre. In the end, 800 people came.

Grealish comments

Locals have real concerns. If 250 arrive, that would be a fifth of Oughterard’s population. Two large direct provision centres have existed without controversy in Galway for more than a decade, but it has a population of 80,000.

It would be harder for a small town to absorb so many people overnight.

The meeting became highly emotional and visceral, illustrated by local Independent TD Noel Grealish’s outburst that African asylum seekers are economic migrants sponging off the system.

However, Grealish, a former Progressive Democrat TD, was called out strongly for his anti-immigrant comments at the meeting by another Galway West TD Catherine Connolly.

Moycullen-based Fine Gael TD Seán Kyne, now the Government Chief Whip, was met with loud boos when he argued that initial opposition elsewhere had turned to support once the centres started up.

Incidentally, the person who videoed and tweeted Grealish’s comments was Gearóid Murphy, who is involved in a campaign against what he calls mass immigration and direct provision centres nationally.

Grealish’s speech, including his incendiary comments, got a thunderous round of applause. Since then, many locals have privately praised him, saying he had spoken “straight”.

Oughterard has a history of protest. Thirty years ago, it met the attempt to impose a rod licence on anglers with a long and stubborn boycott that lasted for two years, bitterly dividing town and almost crippling it economically.

Does all of this translate into a general anti-immigrant or xenophobic sentiment? Welby is a close political ally of Grealish but did not associate himself with his comments.

Rejecting the charge that the meeting had been racist, Welby says: “I reject the accusation. I have no problem with integrating. We have all nationalities in Oughterard, as it is. Our problem is this is a flawed process.”

‘Positive experience’

Grealish himself has gone to ground, staying silent. Galway anti-racism campaigner Joe Loughnane, who was at the meeting, has called for the TD’s resignation.

However, Loughnane draws a distinction between him and the Oughterard locals, saying their opposition is not racist, but is, instead, derived from “fear and ignorance”.

Despite local opposition, Kyne’s description of what has happened elsewhere has often been borne out by experience in places where the centres opened. Sometimes, though, they do not open.

Centres in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon; Lisdoonvarna, Co Clare; Rooskey in Co Roscommon, and Moville in Donegal were opposed. In the latter two places, the plans were dropped after vigilante action was taken.

If opposition smacks of nimbyism (not-in-my-back-yard) then it has to be said that it is not just a rural phenomenon. In the late 1990s, Nutley Lane residents in Dublin 4 were quick to head to the courts when a centre was mooted for there.

In Lisdoonvarna, the plan to house 100 asylum-seekers in Hydro Hotel was strongly opposed when it was first proposed, though there has been a sea-change since in attitudes.

“It is almost a deja vu,” says Fine Gael councillor, Joe Garrihy. “There was little consultation. There were also concerns about our capacity to deal with the influx.”

But over time, it all worked out well.

“It has been a very positive experience in Lisdoonvarna,” he says. “The community have been very welcomed. We have more children attending our schools. There are extra children in our crèches.

“They have joined our GAA clubs and soccer clubs. And now since they are allowed to work, virtually all adults have worked in our tourist industry, which is seasonal.”

In Ballaghaderreen, the pattern was the same when Syrian refugees came. Initially, says Senator John O’Mahony, a native of the town, communications were very poor.

“When there is a vacuum, there will be difficulties. These are very small communities and they need information.”

That too went ahead. And how did it work out? “There was no fall out, absolutely not,” says O’Mahony. “People were welcoming. The leaders in the community led people to welcome in the refugees and it all worked out very well. It painted Ballaghaderreen in a good light.”

Anti-immigrant views

On a wider level, do Grealish’s comments reflect a latent, but growing, anti-immigrant sentiment? Peter Casey’s high presidential election vote is partly explained by his negative comments about Travellers and immigrants.

Dr Rory Costello of the Department of Politics in the University of Limerick surveyed 50,000 voters, finding that one-fifth have strong negative opinions about immigration and asylum-seekers.

Such opinions are more often found in rural rather than in urban areas. Such people also tend to oppose European integration, Travellers, wind farms and carbon tax.

Sinn Féin voters and (to a lesser extent) Fianna Fáil voters are the most likely to oppose, though the strongest level of opposition to asylum seekers comes from those who vote for independents.

In the European elections they tended to be Casey voters, or the tiny number of voters supporting fringe candidates such as Ben Gilroy and Hermann Kelly.

Putting this into perspective, however, Costello said Ireland has one of the lowest levels of opposition to immigrants and asylum seekers, along with Portugal, Sweden and Iceland, among 24 countries surveyed.

So why has Ireland not yet seen a successful anti-immigrant party: “This is a bit of a chicken and egg situation,” says Costello. “Do these countries lack anti-immigrant parties because the public are generally not anti-immigration, or is opposition to immigration among the public relatively low because none of the main parties are stoking anti-immigrant views?”

There is no settled answer to that. But as the Oughterard protest demonstrated this week, immigration is definitely not a non-issue in the State.

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