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Arson in Moville: ‘People won’t tell you what they really think’

The town is ‘coming around to the idea’ of asylum seekers after last week’s hotel fire

When the people of Moville, Co Donegal, learnt about two weeks ago that the town's biggest hotel was to close and reopen as a direct provision centre before Christmas, reaction was more polarised than that being expressed over the last few days.

Whether this is because the hotel was subjected to an arson attack last weekend and people feel they should now temper opposition to the plan, or because people have become more used to the idea of 100 asylum seekers joining the remote community of 1,400 people, it is hard to tell.

In the early hours of last Sunday morning, before a planned meeting to discuss welcoming the asylum seekers, the Caiseal Mara hotel was set ablaze – an attack described a local garda, Det Insp Goretti Sheridan, as a "hate crime". The hotel's owner, Ciarán McKenna, was in the building at the time and had to be rescued by fire-fighters and taken to hospital.

Everyone who speaks to The Irish Times this week condemns the attack. About half do not want to be identified at all, describing the whole issue as "a touchy subject" and saying "people are afraid they'll not sound politically correct".


All say they heard around mid-November that the 43-bedroom Caiseal Mara hotel had been contracted by the Department of Justice to accommodate asylum seekers – on social media. This approach to communication really irritated the townsfolk.

Moville has a faded Victorian charm in its dramatic coastal setting on the Inishowen peninsula.

“People aren’t too happy about that,” says Kevin McAuley, in McAuley’s butchers on Foyle Street. “Still nobody knows what’s happening. It’s the not telling people is what’s annoying people. Will they be families? Single men? How will they treat women?”

A woman behind a cafe counter says she was “a bit shocked at first” when she heard about the plan but thought people were “coming around to the idea”. Her colleague nods, saying: “It’s getting more mixed reviews now”.

A shopkeeper, who also does not want to be named, says: “People won’t tell you what they really think, but I can tell some are up in arms. It’s been handled so badly and people feel this has just been landed on us.”

‘Peace and quiet’

Paul Gillen, manager of the Gala supermarket, worries what 100 people who will not be legally allowed to leave the jurisdiction will do all day. He stresses, though, that he hopes they will find "peace and quiet" here.

Younger members of the community, however, are unreservedly positive, even excited, about the impending arrivals.

When Art Parkinson (17), who appeared in the TV series Game of Thrones and goes to Coláiste Chineál Eoghain in Buncrana, read about it on Facebook, he says he thought: "It's absolutely great. It's going to multi-culturalise the town. It's great they are being offered refuge here in Moville."

Asked whether he can understand some older people’s anxieties, he looks exasperated. “Age is no excuse for bigotry or nastiness. What would people prefer? That we leave these people out on the street?”

Ella McGrory (17), a student at Moville Community College, describes the development as "great news". "There are so many opportunities opening up with them coming to the town, and we can do so much to support them. It's our duty to. There's no reason not to."

The first of the asylum seekers were due to arrive on Tuesday though this has now been postponed. Locals hear they are likely to be from Georgia, Albania, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Congo. They will be given food and accommodation and entitled to a weekly allowance of €21.60 (due to increase to €38.80 for adults and to €29.80 for children from January), under direct provision.

This system, in which people can remain in institutionalised settings without cooking facilities, with restricted rights to work or study, for up to and over a decade, has been widely criticised by bodies including the United Nations, Children's Rights Alliance, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and the Irish Refugee Council, as synonymous with mental health problems and poverty. As of last week there were 5,929 people in direct provision.

Local concerns

An information meeting in the town two weeks ago, attended by Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) officials, did not appear to assuage people’s concerns. Locals were most worried about the impact on the town’s health and education services, and the lack of notice. Though many acknowledge that the agency probably doesn’t consult communities before announcing a centre – given the likely strong opposition – several say they should have liaised more with local HSE facilities and schools before coming to Moville.

Brian McDermott, owner of the newly refurbished 16-bedroom Foyle Hotel, says Moville has "huge potential and is on the up". He is angry the Caiseal Mara is being taken out of use as a hotel, saying businesses like his, and cafes and restaurants, "needed those 43 bedrooms for tourists to keep the town going".

The Government has totally disrespected this town. Dublin might be booming but towns like Moville are not. This is yet another thing we have no control over which is going to damage us.”

The McKenna family from Dublin, owners of the Caiseal Mara, have arrived at a different commercial conclusion, however. They bought the former McNamara’s hotel – the hub of Moville social-life and hospitality for over 30 years – some years ago.

The recession hit the town hard, and they have twice tried to sell the hotel. Tendering last September to become one of the new centres planned by the RIA to accommodate increased numbers of asylum seekers made sense.

Thursday morning finds McKenna – just out of Letterkenny hospital – and his daughter Aoife (22) clearing charred debris from the windows and doors of the hotel.

Inside, the ground floor is gutted. All fixtures and furniture are black and destroyed by fire. It is hard to see how anyone could move in here for several months. Neither father nor daughter will speak at any length, citing the “ongoing Garda investigation” but they agree the damage to the building was “shocking”.

However, both they and the RIA insist the planned direct provision centre will go ahead.

Galvanising hostility

If the aim of the attack was to galvanise hostility to the asylum seekers it appears to have failed. Indeed, it seems to have has the opposite effect on many.

Local woman Tracy Cullen Sheehan considered cancelling the meeting last Sunday she had helped organise, to plan the town's welcome, when she woke to news of the fire.

"I was worried tensions were high and also heard some [activists] were touring Ireland and were due in Donegal." She contacted local gardaí, who assured her there would be a Garda presence at the meeting.

“In the end it was packed, about 200 people. It was really positive. People want to get involved, to volunteer whatever they can do to help,” says Cullen Sheehan.

Methodist minister Alison Gallagher provided the hall for the meeting. "People do not want the town associated with a racist, violent attack. The impression I get now is that people see this as good news and want to support the asylum seekers."

Lucky Khambule, founder of the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI) who spent four years in direct provision, advised the meeting "to start building bridges and links with the people early: offer friendship, advice and make them part of the community, early on. Don't leave them to become separate from the community."

Malak Ahmad, a primary school teacher from Syria who recently settled in nearby Carndonagh with her husband and young children, offers advice too. They are one of five Syrian families who moved to the town this year having spent 10 months in a hotel in Ballaghaderreen, Co Roscommon, after arriving in Ireland from Greece.

“The people were nice but we didn’t go outside the hotel a lot because there was nothing to do. Everything – food, bed – was in the hotel.”

Asked if she would have liked more links into the local community, reasons to leave daily, she said she would have. “It was hard. It was the same every day, every day.”

They are far happier in Carndonagh, with “good neighbours” and her husband, also a former teacher, is training as a mechanic.

Another Syrian couple in Carndonagh do weekly cookery classes which, locals say, are “just lovely, like a pop-up supper club”.

‘Too remote’

Whatever welcome towns such as Moville and Carndonagh can offer, however, Nick Henderson chief executive of the Irish Refugee Council says they are just "too remote and far away from Dublin" to suit direct provision.

Residents, who must attend several different appointments in Dublin regularly, face circuitous, nine-hour journeys each way as they cannot, legally, travel via Northern Ireland.

The Department of Justice says transport via Sligo will be provided, with overnight accommodation provided en route if necessary.

“Bottom line,” says Henderson, “is direct provision has to end”.

An alternative model would include accommodation centres run by suitable housing bodies on a not-for-profit basis; a move away from congregated, institutionalised settings; and accommodation in places with sufficient services, close to an urban centre.

The department says “independent living models” for direct provision are being examined.

“We recently commenced a public procurement exercise under which public tenders for the provision of accommodation and ancillary services to persons in the protection process, by way of the independent living model, will be advertised,” the Department of Justice said.

“This process is scheduled to continue throughout 2019 and is due for completion in 2020. This will be delivered via a series of regional competitions to cover the entire State. It is open to any organisation, including NGOs and civil society, to engage with the tendering process.”

It remains unclear when Moville will welcome its first asylum-seeking residents. “The department is not in a position to know the full impact of any delay that may arise from [last] weekend’s incident,” said a spokesman.