Oughterard row: ‘It’s a little town and we like to keep it the way it is’

Locals against the direct provision centre reject the idea that Galway town is racist

Rory Clancy, owner of Powers Bar and Restaurant in Oughterard. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Rory Clancy, owner of Powers Bar and Restaurant in Oughterard. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

 

It was business as usual for Oughterard the morning after nearly half the town’s population attended a highly charged meeting called about the State’s plans to turn a long-closed local hotel into a direct provision centre.

Very few wanted to talk about the issue yesterday, but those who did were unhappy that much of the focus has centred on remarks made by local TD Noel Grealish.

“We’re not talking of good Christian Syrian families who were persecuted and hounded out of their own country by Isis,” he said. “More than likely it will be economic migrants from Africa who are coming here to sponge off us.”

Grealish was loudly applauded at the meeting, though the Independent TD was not responding to calls yesterday following sharp criticisms of him from anti-racism campaigners.

The meeting was called to address the mooted development at the former 60-bedroom Connemara Gateway hotel, which lies a mile or so outside the town and has been closed for a decade.

The Connemara Gateway Hotel, Oughterard. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
The Connemara Gateway Hotel, Oughterard. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Oughterard, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
Oughterard, Co Galway. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

However, it soon turned into a rally calling for an end to negotiations between the Department of Justice and the hotel’s owners to use it to house asylum and refugee applicants.

All local speakers were against it, saying Oughterard could not cater for a large number of refugees because it does not have enough school places, doctors or other local services.

Some speakers said they would be willing to welcome a few asylum and refugee families as long as they were properly housed and integrated into the local community.

However, another Galway West Independent TD, Catherine Connolly, publicly told Mr Grealish she was unhappy about his remarks: “He was not the only person who said that.

“A phrase was used more than once, ‘those people’, which I was unhappy with. I was heckled once or twice. I asked them to consider my points and they did listen,” she said.

‘Information vacuum’

Saying she understood the local anger, Ms Connolly said the Department of Justice, by refusing to give any information about its plans, had allowed an information vacuum to develop.

“The vacuum is terrible. It allows for rumours and information that is not factual, that’s what I heard in Oughterard on Wednesday night, including from a politician,” she said.

One of the meeting’s organisers, Rory Clancy, who runs Powers bar and restaurant in Oughterard, said he believed local public representatives, especially Minister of State Seán Kyne, knew more than they were saying. Mr Kyne was booed and heckled at the meeting.

“I’m glad we had the public meeting but it didn’t go well because we still got no clarity as to what’s happening with the hotel. There’s still a lack of information. We couldn’t cope with a centre like that.”

“Deputy Grealish said it as it is . . . he was honest about what he believes will happen here,” said the local businessman, who insisted Oughterard is “not a racist town.”

“I have six different nationalities working for me and there are at least five non-nationals running their own businesses in the town, who support the local community, one in particular as a fundraiser,” he added.

Unhappy about the lack of information, George Lyons, a local retailer, said everyone accepted that Ireland has to take some refugees as part of its international obligations.

“But if 100 came to Oughterard, that would be a 10 per cent increase of our population, which is too much for a town which lacks infrastructure. Putting such a centre at that location is unsafe because of where it is, with no footpath or lighting between it and the town.”

‘Crammed in’

Locals do not want to talk after the meeting, he said, because they do not want to turn the issue into a racist one when in reality “local people didn’t want to see asylum-seekers being crammed into a compound”.

Saying locals “just don’t know what’s going on down there”, John McQuinn, a butcher at Roger Finnerty’s, who was not at the meeting, said: “It’s a little town and we like to keep it the way it is, if you know what I mean.”

John McQuinn of Roger Finnerty Butchers in Oughterard. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy
John McQuinn of Roger Finnerty Butchers in Oughterard. Photograph: Joe O’Shaughnessy

Meanwhile, Mr Grealish is facing a backlash from some people on social media over his remarks with the Galway Anti-Racism Group calling for his resignation as a TD.

Niall Ó Tuatháil, a Social Democrats candidate for Galway West, said he should “clarify or retract his comments and make it clear that this does not represent the people of Oughterard”.

Local councillor Tom Welby, who chaired the meeting, said it was called after significant construction work had begun at the hotel. Locals had put two and two together and suspected a direct provision centre was to be located there: “I felt as a public representative we needed to get the information,” he said.

Sharply rejecting accusations of racism, he continued: “I have no problem with integrating. We have all nationalities in Oughterard as it is is. Our problem is this is a flawed process.”

Complaining about the lack of information, Mr Welby said: “By the time the contract is signed it will be a done deal. There will be no point at that stage in consultation.”