‘There will always be two groups in Achill now’

A protest against the manner of a Government move to accomodate asylum seekers at the Achill Head Hotel has been going on for the last few weeks. Photograph: Conor McKeown
protests continue against the acceptance of asylum seekers on Achill Island – where the taxpayer continues to pay sizeable accommodation costs to an empty CO MAYO hotel

The placards are visible first. “Site Not Suitable.” “Community Not Compounds.” “System Failure.” There are several of them in front of the Achill Head Hotel, some 17km from the bridge at Achill Sound, which connects the island to the mainland.

Then I see a fire burning in a barrel, men sitting on a bench outside a reconfigured shipping container, and people going in and out of the container. There is another sign behind the bench, “Achill Community Group Silent Vigil”. This is where some 150 members of Achill’s community have been protesting on a rota basis, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, for the past six weeks. Forty to 50 people are present for each 24-hour cycle.

I was at the filling station that night getting diesel, and someone said there are a load of migrants coming into Achill, and I said something like, ‘The more the merrier; we need people in Achill,’ and I didn’t think any more about it

Towards the end of October, it emerged that the Department of Justice and Equality had plans to accommodate 38 asylum seekers at Achill Island in Co Mayo. It was to be short-term emergency accommodation, and the department had signed a contract and booked the 20-room Achill Head Hotel for a period of three months, beginning at the start of November. This hotel, like several others on the island, usually closes for the quiet winter season.

The department’s plans to accommodate asylum seekers on Achill at short notice had been made without consultation with local people, or notice to them, who first learned about the news via a Facebook post in late October. Thirteen women were scheduled to arrive on November 1st, with 25 additional people, composing of family groups, due to arrive a week later. They were all scheduled to remain there until the end of January. None has yet arrived.

“I was at the filling station that night getting diesel, and someone said there are a load of migrants coming into Achill, and I said something like, ‘The more the merrier; we need people in Achill’, and I didn’t think any more about it,” says Darren Molloy, a resident of the island. Within an hour or so of that conversation, he received news via a WhatsApp group that an “emergency meeting” was to be called in Ted Lavelle’s bar in Cashel that evening.

The vigil at the Achill Head Hotel. Photograph: Conor McKeown
The vigil at the Achill Head Hotel. Photograph: Conor McKeown

Molloy, who attended, estimates there were some 200 people there, at a meeting where he says there was a lot of tension. Achill’s population is 2,700, with an increase of some 2,000 in the summer to the island’s many holiday homes and other holiday accommodation.

“The whole scenario escalated very quickly,” he says. “It seemed to me there was a lot of fear of the unknown; a lot of talk about, ‘We don’t know who these people are who are going to be living beside us’. My guess is very few people in Achill knew much about direct provision [the State system for accommodating asylum seekers]. Anyone who voiced an opinion in saying bringing migrants here wasn’t the end of the world were in the minority.”

I do not feel represented by the protesters, and I know I am not the only person on this island who feels like that

As Molloy sees it, “If everyone in Achill had been told to attend that meeting, there would have been a more balanced view in the room, but the majority of people who didn’t attend didn’t think it was a big deal that asylum seekers were coming. That’s why they weren’t there. And their absence was felt.”

I ask Molloy why he thinks his fellow islanders are maintaining their protest. “I think it has become a habit now, and they fully believe what they are doing is effective, but why there are doing it, only they know.”

As far as Molloy is concerned, the protesters do not represent him or his personal views. “I do not feel represented by them, and I know I am not the only person on this island who feels like that,” he says.

The meeting

The outcome of that meeting in Lavelle’s bar was the immediate formation of the group of 150 volunteers who eventually settled on calling themselves the “Silent Vigil” community group. Ever since, they have maintained a round-the-clock presence outside the Achill Head Hotel. As a result of their widely-publicised presence, the department issued a statement saying that the arrival of the 13 female asylum seekers was being postponed, due to the “ongoing protest”.

At an Oireachtas committee meeting on November 6th, Fine Gael Senator Martin Conway asked Aidan O’Driscoll, secretary general of the Department of Justice, if “the department is currently paying for services in Achill Island that we are not using”.

I hope we will be able to deal with the fears people have, and move on, getting people into the hotel without them feeling any sense of fear because of what is happening

O’Driscoll replied, “Yes. We have to pay as we have a signed contract.” He went on to say: “I hope we will be able to deal with the fears people have. Even if they do not have substantive foundation, I hope we can nonetheless deal with them and move on, getting people into the hotel without them feeling any sense of fear because of what is happening.”

The 38 people who were due on Achill were to take up those hotel places on an emergency accommodation basis.

The money

In August of this year, the department published a spending review of the cost of direct provision. The report noted that in 2018, expenditure on direct provision had reached €78 million, the highest level since 2010. “Provisional figures provided by the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA) indicate that this could exceed €120 million in 2019, based on most recent trends.”

One of the factors listed as a reason for the “significant increase” for the 2019 sum was given as: “RIA was required to seek emergency accommodation to accommodate new applicants. In the context of a housing crisis and a healthy tourism sector, the prices of obtaining such accommodation has proved very costly, averaging approximately €100 per person per night.”

If the average nightly cost was paid in this case, the cost to the State for as-yet-unused emergency accommodation for 38 people on Achill for three months would be almost €350,000. However, the precise figure has not been divulged “for reasons of commercial sensitivity and confidentiality”, says the Department of Justice.

Achill Head Hotel. Photograph: Conor McKeown
Achill Head Hotel. Photograph: Conor McKeown

An email from Conor O’Riordan, press officer at the Department of Justice and Equality, sent on 29th November, stated: “The department has booked rooms in low season in the Achill Head Hotel for 38 women and families for a maximum stay of three months (end January 2020). That remains the contracted position . . .

“Nobody wants to see people protesting outside hotels to stop a small group of people, who by their very nature are more vulnerable, arriving and taking up the beds that have been booked to give them temporary shelter.”

The container

Two men participating in the protest sitting on a bench outside the Achill Head Hotel wave me inside the container, where five women of different ages are sitting in the dark, huddled round two gas heaters. The generator that powers the lights is being given a temporary rest. I introduce myself and am invited to sit down. Nobody offers their names.

I ask them who they consider they represent.

“The people of Pollagh.” (Pollagh is the nearest village to the hotel.)

“And the majority of the people of Achill.”

“The support we have had is just wonderful, and we are all of the same mind. The majority – I would imagine – of local people living on the island understand why we are here.”

Inside the caravan hut assembled by Pollagh community group at the Achill Head Hotel vigil. Photograph: Conor McKeown
Inside the reconfigured shipping container outside the Achill Head Hotel. Photograph: Conor McKeown

I tell them I’ve heard people say that Achill is a very welcoming place, but from the perspective of the 38 people who were meant to come here, it doesn’t seem like a welcoming place.

“It’s nothing to do with the people; it’s to do with the process of the Government dumping people in a place like Achill which is not fit to support them.”

“We were told nothing beforehand, and the Government have maintained silence all the way through.”

“Even if it’s just for three months, it’s not right.”

“It’s not right for the poor souls who would be coming here.”

Whoever’s plan it was, it was never going to work out to dump people in the middle of Achill Island in the middle of the winter time. The hotel is not fit for purpose

“Whoever’s plan it was, it was never going to work out to dump people in the middle of Achill Island in the middle of the winter time. The hotel is not fit for purpose.”

I point out that the hotel was open to paying guests all summer.

“It doesn’t have hotel status really.”

“Those people coming to the hotel have money to spend. They go out into the island and explore the island and enjoy all that’s to offer on the island.”

“There are no services here.”

“The whole point is, Achill in winter time is not suitable for anyone that has no knowledge of Achill, no family, no friends, no communication, no nothing.”

I ask if they would be more open to the possibility of people arriving in spring or summertime.

“No, we’re not saying that at all, we are just saying, we are here as a silent vigil because the Government are not communicating with the community of Achill.”

“I am not saying something will be more acceptable than something else.”

What do they have to say about the negative image of Achill that their protest is creating at a national level?

“I don’t really care what other people think. It’s about what we feel as a community. It is the wrong thing to be happening. It’s not about what other people think. It’s about we think, we the people who live here.”

“We know what’s best because we live here.”

The plan for 38 people to be placed in emergency accommodation at Achill is still live. How would they react if and when buses turned up with those people? There is silence. Then one person says:

“Well, I don’t know could it happen if we were still here.”

The ‘local nature of the issue’

An islander whose identity is known to The Irish Times but who asked not to go on the record, “due to the very local nature of the issue”, did sit down with me for an hour.

“I’d say there would have to be a Garda presence if people came to the hotel while the protesters were still outside,” he says. “But that is just my guess.”

Like everyone I talk to, this man points out that the lack of communication from the beginning between the department and the local community was disastrous. “The department handled it wrong. Everyone agrees with that.

There has to be a racist element to the protest. That’s what people are thinking, but not saying

“There’s a line going round; ‘we don’t know anything about these people’. Do we ask tourists for their CVs before they drive over the bridge at Achill Sound? There has to be a racist element to the protest. That’s what people are thinking, but not saying.

“Then people are saying the protest is because of lack of services. The population of the island doubles in summer, and yet the electricity and water has never gone off, or the sewage system clogged up, so I don’t see how 38 extra people here for the winter could make any difference; their argument about services doesn’t stand up.

“I don’t see the sense in protesting or having silent vigils outside a closed hotel in the west of Ireland. If you really want to change things, you should bring this to the Government, as the farmers did lately; they are not going to have any impact where they are at the moment.”

Photograph: Conor McKeown
Photograph: Conor McKeown

This man drives past the protest daily, and recognises many of the protesters. “They are a mix of men and women of all ages, so they are very democratic in that respect. It has split families: some are off protesting, and others want to organise some kind of welcome. It has been the source of heated arguments in pubs. Some people have threatened to picket businesses offering services to the hotel if the asylum seekers came – buses, laundry, food services.

“Whatever outcome there is to this protest, the community will remain split. I can’t see it going back to the way it was. I fear there will always be two groups in the island now: those who wish to welcome people and those who don’t.”

The tourists

Everyone I speak to on the island agrees that tourism is a vital part of Achill’s economy. Does Achill Tourism consider that the protest is damaging the image of the island to future tourists, many of whom come from the domestic market?

Chris McCarthy, manager of the organisation, replies in a statement: “It is the position of Achill Tourism not to comment on any issues pertaining to our members while these issues are ongoing. We will remain impartial. It is important that we protect the integrity of the process and it should not be compromised in any way.”

Unlike the Achill resident who spoke to me anonymously, John McHugh, who lives in Dooagh, does not consider there will be a long-term impact on the island community due to the protest.

Of the protest group, he says: “It is awkward and divisive in the community, but it is not a divided community otherwise. This incidence will pass, whatever the outcome is. And the community will work together again and we will get over this.”

The only reasonable interpretation for me was that the protesters didn’t want people who are migrants in the hotel. My own response is one of sadness that people feel for whatever reason they have do this

McHugh says he is “really not sure what they are protesting. It’s not clear. The only reasonable interpretation for me was that they didn’t want people who are migrants in the hotel. My own response is one of sadness that people feel for whatever reason they have do this. But the people protesting don’t speak for the people of Achill: they just speak for themselves. Most people don’t want to get involved.”

Before I leave the island, a member of the protest group offers to confer with other members, to answer some questions via email. I ask the group to respond to the fact that several islanders have told me they felt intimidated by the presence of the protest; and about the impact they think the current negative image of Achill may have on tourism and the island’s economy.

They respond: “The group rejects any accusation of intimidation, as the nature of the vigil has been peaceful from the outside and would like to apologise to anyone who finds the presence of OAPs standing on the side of the road intimidating in any way.”

“The economic importance of tourism to the island is hugely important to us, and we wish to protect this in any way we can. However, the lack of engagement by the Department of Justice with any of the stakeholders on the island has left the group with no alternative but to continue their 24/7 silent vigil. The group feel this is the only option open to them as they wait for some meaningful engagement in the near future.”