The Tipperary town that changed its mind on asylum seekers

Borrisokane residents Mags Donnelly, Robert Armitage and Margaret Bevan-Hanger at the apartment complex earmarked for asylum seekers. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene
‘WE DON’T WANT THIS TO BE OUGHTERARD 2.0’: BORRISOKANE HAS DECIDED TO WELCOME ITS NEW DIRECT-PROVISION CENTRE. BALLINAMORE, IN CO LEITRIM, HAS NOT

Ballinamore, in Co Leitrim, and Borrisokane, in Co Tipperary, have a few things in common. They are of similar size and face many of the same challenges: a struggling retail environment, overstretched services, a lack of opportunity for young people. The major employers in both are supermarkets. Both also pride themselves on having welcoming, tight-knit communities.

Over the past fortnight that belief was put to the test when the two communities, 140km apart, learned they were about to get a direct-provision centre, to house asylum seekers. The initial reaction in both places was similarly dismayed and angry. At highly charged public meetings, complaints were made that the numbers being suggested – up to 130 asylum seekers mooted for Ballinamore and about 70 for Borrisokane – were disproportionate. There was a feeling, too, that communities had been deliberately kept in the dark until the last minute.

One woman at the meeting in Borrisokane said that asylum seekers in other towns were ‘intimidating women’. Someone else suggested they would be ‘hanging around the street’

Some people went further. One woman at the meeting in Borrisokane said that asylum seekers in other towns were “intimidating women”. Someone else suggested that they would be “hanging around the street”. Justin Barrett, the leader of the far-right National Party, who spent some of his childhood in the town, told the meeting that crime and vandalism increased in towns with direct-provision centres. Two days later a dozen members of his party, none understood to be local, arrived in the town with a 6m banner that they stretched across Borrisokane’s bridge.

The news that far-right activists from Ireland and abroad had joined local protests is causing alarm in the Government. Speaking to The Irish Times this week, Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan said he was “very concerned at a small number of alt-right political activists who are not representative of communities” and are “whipping up anxieties in local communities”. “I would urge communities not to buy into a cynical and dangerous populism that is becoming evident in rural Ireland,” he said.

As it happens, Barrett’s intervention also upset people in Borrisokane, where it proved a tipping point. In the days since, there has been a softening of the rhetoric in both towns, along with the emergence of two distinct strategies: ongoing “silent” protest in Ballinamore, and positive acceptance in Borrisokane.

Both communities made a decision to learn from the recent protests in Oughterard, in Co Galway, and approach matters differently. “We don’t want this to be Oughterard 2.0,” says Bryan Cribbin, one of the organisers of the Ballinamore demonstration.

Borrisokane

Justin Barrett trying to hijack it was the turning point”

It is Thursday morning in Borrisokane, and final preparations are being made for the first four families of asylum seekers, who are due to arrive at their new homes, a complex of just-refurbished apartments overlooking the river and a nearby people’s park, around lunchtime. Local people have been dropping in welcome baskets, filled with toys, nappies, fruit, coffee and tea, over the last few days.

There’s no sign of a protest anywhere, because the people of Borrisokane decided very quickly after that first meeting not to go the protest route, and instead set up a liaison committee to meet local councillors and the Department of Justice, to work out how best to integrate the new arrivals.

If the Department of Justice had come down and asked us would we take in asylum seekers, the answer would have been yes

A meeting on Wednesday ran for more than three hours, and established a foundation for ongoing consultation. Joe Hannigan, an Independent councillor who attended, said the big issue discussed was “the numbers of people coming in, and the timelines. What we don’t want to be is a conveyor belt,” with 16 families leaving and arriving every two years.

There should have been consultation from the outset, “but if the Department of Justice had come down and asked us would we take in asylum seekers, the answer would have been yes.”

Borrisokane residents Mags Donnelly, Robert Armitage and Margaret Bevan-Hanger at the apartment complex earmarked for asylum seekers. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene
Borrisokane residents Mags Donnelly, Robert Armitage and Margaret Bevan-Hanger at the apartment complex earmarked for asylum seekers. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene

Flanagan told The Irish Times this week that he accepts “a greater level of consultation must take place” and that he wants to ensure “a whole-of-Government response to the challenge” of making sure the needs of communities are met.

Hannigan says Borrisokane can “stand tall” in the way it has opened its arms to the newcomers.

The initial fears do seem to have given way to a more welcoming attitude, particularly since a member of one of the asylum-seeking families came to Borrisokane on Monday to see his new home and meet locals.

The tragedy in Essex during the week, in which the bodies of 39 Chinese people were discovered in the back of a truck, also seems to have swayed public opinion – several people refer to it when asked for their views. And then there’s the Justin Barrett factor, which is hard to avoid in Borrisokane. But more of that in a moment.

Mags Donnelly and Margaret Bevan-Hanger with Robert Armitage in his home, next to the new centre. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene
Mags Donnelly and Margaret Bevan-Hanger with Robert Armitage in his home, next to the new centre. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene

Three of the 12-member liaison committee, Robert Armitage, Mags Donnelly and Margaret Bevan-Hanger, are gathered in the kitchen of Armitage’s home, which is next to the new centre.

The community officially found out about the development only 10 days ago, although there had been speculation since refurbishment works started, in September. On Wednesday, October 16th, the developer invited a small group of locals to come and see the apartments, but about 100 people turned up, and the atmosphere was tense. The air of secrecy contributed to a lot of the anxiety and fears, says Bevan-Hanger. “It was, like, ‘What’s going to happen that is going to be so bad that we can’t be told?’”

At the initial public meeting the following night, Armitage listened to the comments about asylum seekers hanging around on the street and women being at risk, and felt he had to intervene. “I was shaking like a leaf, but I just made up mind I had to say something, otherwise it was going down a route,” he says.

I’m not well read, but I have a bit of a social conscience. I’ve watched the news and seen people in war-torn countries, and what they’re coming from

“I just said, they’re human beings and why tar anyone until we get to know them? I’m not well read, but I have a bit of a social conscience. I’ve watched the news and seen people in war-torn countries, and what they’re coming from.”

When Barrett started to speak at the meeting, “30 to 40 people got up and walked out,” says Donnelly, who was acting secretary.

“Basically, he was trying to hijack it,” says Bevan-Hanger. “But that was the turning point. When his supporters turned up at the bridge on Saturday with their banner, they were told by several people, ‘Get out.’ We don’t want this.”

The committee was also approached by someone who had been involved in the protests at Oughterard, who wanted to help them organise a protest in Borrisokane, and suggested blockading the street. But he got short shrift too, says Donnelly.

If I come back in six months, they predict, I’ll find that the asylum seekers have joined the town’s various committees and that their children are playing GAA and are playing in the playground with other local children after school. In fairness, says Armitrage, “Borrisokane is a great little town. It has its problems, but it also has fabulous people.”

Pauline Roberts. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene
Pauline Roberts. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene

Back on the main street only one person I speak to, Pauline Roberts, is against the accommodation centre. “I think there’s far too many coming.”

She lives in Bolton, in England, and has a holiday home in Borrisokane, which she visits 10 times a year. “I’ve seen the impact of immigrants on a place where you can be the only white person in certain areas. Individually, the people can be okay, but not when there’s too many.”

A retailer who doesn’t want to be named says he welcomes the new arrivals but is disappointed that the voucher or points system means they can only do their shopping at one shop. Not because he’ll lose out on trade but because he thinks that will make it harder for them to integrate.

Myra Stanley. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene
Myra Stanley. Photograph: Diarmuid Greene

Jim Kilgallen and Myra Stanley are having a chat outside the post office. Stanley is pleased that the apartment block, which had become dilapidated, is now looking new and clean. “The one thing I would talk about is whether they are bringing in too many families for the size of our town. But otherwise they’re as entitled to somewhere to live as the rest of us are.”

Kilgallen says that people in direct provision “are coming from a place that’s far worse off than we are here. The only negative thing I’d say is that possibly there’s not enough services in the town. But, look, they need a place to stay and we have a place to give them, and they’re welcome.”

Ballinamore

There’s fear of the unknown in a conservative community like this”

The first hint came in a report in the Leitrim Observer on October 16th, announcing a €30 million investment for the town, including housing units, a retail element and a nursing home. Ordinarily, a report like that might be expected to cause celebration, but in Ballinamore it was greeted with suspicion. A meeting was held that evening between the developer and 150 locals. “It quickly became apparent,” says Gordon Hughes, an estate agent in the town and a former Fine Gael councillor, “that this proposed €30 million development was just a rehashing of a previous planning application.” It was, he says, “pie-in-the-sky stuff”.

Hughes and others in the community concluded that the development was “a smokescreen” to push through the other part of the plan, a direct-provision centre to accommodate up to 130 asylum seekers, the contract for which had been signed the previous day.

Ballinamore’s apartment ‘compound’. Photograph: Lorraine Teevan
Ballinamore’s apartment ‘compound’. Photograph: Lorraine Teevan

A text message went out about a second meeting, the following Sunday. “Extremely important that everyone is at it... This is a crisis meeting. Everyone from all surrounding parishes are encouraged to attend as it will affect their children also,” the message read. “The future of our town is at stake. SPREAD THE WORD.”

More than 350 people turned up. Afterwards, Ballinamore Community Group issued a statement saying plans to increase the population of the town by 15 per cent were “bordering on criminal”.

By late morning on Tuesday, however, all talk of a crisis and children being affected has faded away. A silent demonstration – the participants are at pains to avoid the word “protest” – has been set up outside the complex of about 25 newly refurbished apartments. Shiny, professionally printed signs read “Proportional provision” and “System failure”. A platter of sandwiches donated by the local SuperValu is being passed between the protesters, who are gathered under a canopy around a fire pit.

Ballinamore residents protest outside the apartment complex earmarked as a direct-provision centre for 130 refugees. Photograph: Lorraine Teevan
Ballinamore residents protest outside the apartment complex earmarked as a direct-provision centre for 130 refugees. Photograph: Lorraine Teevan

A white Mercedes camper van acts as “the hub of the whole operation”, one of the volunteers, Jackie McTague, says. Inside, three volunteers are sitting around a laptop. They allow me in but ask that I turn off my tape recorder. They’re dividing the 380 volunteers – in a town of 900 residents – into three-hourly shifts. The protest will continue 24/7, they say, for as long as it takes.

On Thursday some of the committee travelled to Leinster House to meet Minister of State for Equality, Immigration and Integration David Stanton. After a “productive” meeting it was agreed to pause any further development at the facility until further notice, “to allow such time for further dialogue and consultation”. But the peaceful demonstration will continue in the meantime, Hughes says.

One of four “official” spokespeople for the protest, Hughes is adamant that “it isn’t about racism”. The town’s view, he says, “is that we feel it should be proportional provision. Every town and village in Ireland should take their fair share. We are prepared to sit down with Government officials to help them source suitable accommodation... Just don’t land them here overnight.”

We do not want extremist views coming in and hijacking the issue, like has been done elsewhere. We want those people to stay away

Does he accept that language such as “land them here” and “take their fair share” might give the impression that Ballinamore sees the individual asylum seekers, rather than the system, as the problem? Absolutely not, he says. The town previously hosted 25 to 30 asylum seekers with no difficulties.

He is determined not to allow far-right groups to exploit the issue. “We do not want extremist views coming in and hijacking it, like has been done elsewhere. We want those people to stay away.”

All the same, is he concerned that, in launching a 24-hour protest, the town might have unleashed something that will prove difficult to contain? “Ballinamore has always been known as the friendly town. Maybe we can find a new way of doing this.”

Ita Reynolds Flynn, a Fine Gael councillor, is another of the appointed spokespeople. “Anybody who says this is about racism is wrong. I am concerned for those refugees, and the plights and the hardship they have come through,” she says.

Reynolds Flynn is opposed to direct provision in principle, and to the fact that the families will be housed in an apartment complex that she regards as a “compound”, with a voucher system to allow them to shop at one supermarket. Has she ever protested against direct provision before? “I had no cause to speak out against it. But it came to my town. And the message I’m trying to give is that it could be your town tomorrow.”

Despite the insistence of those involved that the demonstration is not about racism, at least a few people locally have been dismayed by the language used. “I’m shocked, to be honest,” at some of what he has heard, says the Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny, likening the language about proportional provision to that used in Nazi Germany. He later raised the issue in the Dáil with Minister for Foreign Affairs Simon Coveney, criticising people who “peddle far-right ideology” against immigrants.

It’s also making Anna O’Donoghue, who has been living here for two years with her three children, one of whom is mixed race, uncomfortable. She says that although she’d like to see the flats open to Irish people on the housing lists as well as to asylum seekers, she has considered setting up a counterprotest. “We want to have our own placards saying ‘Welcome’.”

I am not anti-immigration in principle, but I’m against the way it’s done here. It’s a small town, and they’re talking about 15 per cent of the population

But McTague, who is originally from Manchester and has lived in Ballinamore since 1984, insists this is a welcoming place. “This town will help anybody in need.” The demonstration is not about immigration, she says, but about a lack of infrastructure. “No matter how many come, when those families arrive I’ll be here with placards and banners, welcoming them.”

Back on the main street, as a light rain starts to fall, Nadeem Iqbal is getting ready to open his takeaway for the evening. Originally from Pakistan, he has run a business here for 11 years. He’s never had any problems here, and people are very friendly, he says. What does he think about the planned accommodation centre? “Whatever the local community think, whatever the people here think, whatever they say will be right. They know best.”

Lela Hansen, who is originally from Denmark, and has been living in Ballinamore for nine years, stops on her way to the shops. “I am not anti-immigration in principle, but I’m against the way it’s done here. It’s a small town, and they’re talking about 15 per cent of the population. If you put a lot of people together of the same nationality and the same faith, you’re creating a ghetto.”

You’re talking, she says, “about a lot of people with a very different culture coming to a very conservative, frightened little community. There’s fear of the unknown in a conservative community like this. I mean, even I am a weirdo around here. And I am the ‘right’ colour.”