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Céad Míle Fáilte? Asylum-seekers in rural Ireland, 2019.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Estelle Birdy.

About 8,700 people in Ireland await a decision on asylum claims. 6,000 live in Direct Provision. Of these, 778 have received refugee status or ‘leave to remain’ but are unable to find alternative accommodation. Another 1,531 people live in 36 inferior,  emergency-accommodation centres opened in the past year. Between 1,200 and 2,000 asylum-seekers who do not need State accommodation are living outside Direct Provision.

But this is the human story behind the statistics. It is the story of three towns and how they are dealing with people seeking asylum..

Carrickmacross

There had been murmurings around the town  about groups of men, foreign nationals, gathering on the Main Street.  And there’d been much discussion surrounding the alleged sexual assault of a woman in the town the previous week. Nevertheless, the apparent out-of-nowhere eruption of far-right sentiment in Carrick, on October 3  this year, took the townspeople by surprise.

On that day, an online petition appeared, with the word Lawless, recalling the 1964 B-Western, scrawled across a background photo of   Carrick’s Main Street. The petition asked, “Do you feel intimidated while walking around Carrickmacross?”.People began to sign and comment.  Many comments were measured  but later additions turned to outright racism. A quick search for the text of the petition online found  it  being shared,  from the moment it was uploaded, by known far-right social media accounts.

A Facebook group,  established  under the name ‘Lawless’,  quickly became a focus for anti-immigrant organising.  Locals drawn to the Facebook group, found it already animated by far-right activists and anti-immigrant sympathisers. Several local group members , say they thought the group was “just a community discussion group”. It would prove to be much more than that.

Soon the administrators were receiving requests to join the group from all over the world – a large number from the UK, the US and from around Ireland. By the afternoon of October 4, ex-British soldier and far-right activist, Rowan Croft, was livestreaming video from the town, linking a supposed lack of feminine security to immigration. Subsequently, right-wing media outlet, Gript published a piece suggesting that   criminal gangs stalked the streets of Carrick, referencing the alleged sexual assault, stating that no one had been arrested in the investigation. This was untrue. A suspect had been in custody within 24 hours of the alleged incident.

In the Lawless Facebook group, one name kept cropping up – Seamus ‘The Banty’ Mc Enaney, a local businessman,  contracted by the government since late 2018 to provide emergency accommodation for asylum-seekers in the area. A plethora of complaints about McEnaney   emerged. Some  professing interest in the welfare of asylum-seeking people, some angry at the money allegedly being earned by McEnaney to accommodate asylum-seekers. Another businessman, with links to the Yellow Vest Ireland movement, had prior beef, of a financial nature, with McEnaney. This man, highly active in the group, along with his proxies, agitated against both McEnaney and immigrant people.

Gemma O’Doherty, of Anti-Corruption Ireland and Justin Barrett, leader of the far-right, National Party, commented online about Carrickmacross, styling it as a matter of female safety.. In fact, the National Party and assorted linked groups already had a small number of supporters living in Carrickmacross

Mark Malone of the ‘Far-Right Observatory’ says that what happened in Carrick had all the hallmarks of a pre-planned far-right attack. The speed at which the petition spread, the fact that Rowan Croft was filming from Carrick within hours of its publication and the numbers of people (1,300 at one stage) joining the Lawless group, all suggested advance preparation. Indeed, far-right and anti-immigrant activists were flushed with success   after a campaign in Oughterard, which saw protests there halting the provision of accommodation to 200 asylum-seeking people.. They were just waiting   to light the fuse and they used an alleged sexual assault as the match.

Locals  began to question the credentials of some  active members of the FB group, some operating under false names. Questioning this or any  disinformation  being spread, resulted in locals and others being summarily banished..  A week prior, Fiona Ryan and Jonathan Mathis a mixed race family who had appeared in a Lidl ad and had suffered racially motivated online abuse – notably from Gemma O’Doherty    had been on the ‘Late Late Show’.  Somore people  were aware of the threat posed by racist, anti-immigrant campaigners.  EU and other foreign nationals, happily form a substantial percentage of the 5,000 strong population of Carrick .  The town has a history of welcoming asylum-seeking people – groups of (now long-established) Syrian and Congolese families were resoundingly welcomed. .

Additionally, several humanitarian groups, both lay and religious, had been quietly operating in Co. Monaghan, as they have been in towns around Ireland. Officials say   that the Department of Justice is under pressure to meet Ireland’s international obligations to accommodate a small number of asylum-seekers. The recent McMahon Report on Direct Provision and the burning and blockading of some mooted accommodation centres, has forced many asylum-seekers into long-term emergency accommodation. Much of it unsuitable, cramped, rural accommodation with few transport links. Asylum-seekers have had to share beds with strangers and  are often moved to other locations at short notice, when   commercial guests require rooms. Asylum-seeking children have been unable to attend school for extended periods. This is happening currently in Carrickmacross. Asylum-seekers, like homeless families, are often segregated from other guests and must enter by the back entrance.

Locals worked online countering racist and anti-immigrant claims and, crucially, working with SF local public reps to disseminate accurate information  in the community One older local man says, “I never thought I’d have to fight the far-right in Carrick but that’s exactly what I was doing.”

The following Saturday, anti-immigrant activists attempted  a protest in the town, calling it a local event. 25-30 people, in Dublin and N.I. registered cars and minivans, turned up. No locals took part, although some watched from a distance.

The fact that the de facto leader of the anti-immigrant campaign, self-styled Irish patriot, Rowan Croft, is an ex-British soldier did not sit well in this Ulster town, where Protestants and Catholics  have lived together in harmony for generations. In the end, what far-right activists thought was a perfect storm brought out the resilient generosity of the local community.

Ballinamore

Ballinamore, a small town of about 900 people in North Leitrim, saw hard times during the recession but is now recovering .

This is Quinn country.Cyril McGuinness, who allegedly orchestrated the recent life-threatening attack on Quinn exec, Kevin Lunney, frequented the town and is rumoured to have been buying a pub there.

In early October, Paul Collins, CEO of Remcoll outlined  plans for a multi-million euro re-development of a large site, known as ‘The Rock Quarter’ in Ballinamore, to local SF TD, Martin Kenny Frank Maxwell, the original developer who had lost the property to the banks, was engaged by Remcoll to assist in the development of the site, including the preparation of apartments—  idle since their construction— for the arrival of 25 asylum-seeking families. This was  the own-door accommodation favoured by the McMahon Report. There are also planning applications for a new pharmacy and houses on the site.

TD Martin Kenny,   viewing this as positive news for the town, suggested a meeting with local community leaders and representatives of the Department of Justice. This was changed, however, into a public meeting. “Within 15 minutes of the start of that meeting, all the talk was about the accommodation of asylum seekers”, Paul Collins says.

At a subsequent meeting, a protest group was formed, which would later blockade the apartments. Likened to “a Nuremberg Rally” by some attendees, attempts were made   to stop several people, including Martin Kenny, from entering the meeting. The local TD was     refused entry by Peter Reynolds, brother of  Fine Gael  County Councillor, Ita Reynolds-Flynn. Reynolds-Flynn has since been named in the High Court injunction granted against the protestors, along with  hotelier, Fred Walsh; local estate agent and former FG Councillor, Gordon Hughes; headstone manufacturer, Adrian Smith; Brian Cribbin, pharmacist in the town; and Des Wisely, wealthy ecclesiastical supplier and landlord in Ballinamore. The local Catholic priest spoke in support of the protest against asylum-seekers. Access  was eventually given to Kennyand other locals who had been initially stopped, with the proviso that they did not speak. Ita Reynolds-Flynn and Joey Smith, father of Adrian Smith,  publicly accused Martin Kenny of being financially involved with the developer. Remcoll and Kenny categorically deny this.

The meeting, comprising 300 people, many   wearing yellow vests, was chaired by Fred Walsh,  owner of two hotels in the town, one of them vacant. Walsh was also at the top table at the infamous Quinn supporters meeting held in nearby Ballyconnell, where Sean Quinn Junior railed against the current QIH directors. Mr Walsh can be seen in the video from this meeting shown on the BBC ‘Spotlight’ programme, featuring QIH director, Kevin Lunney. The Ballyconnell meeting was held at a business premises, ‘Tiler Made’, owned by the McGovern family, a member of which, 22-year-old amateur boxer, Bernard McGovern, faces extradition proceedings from the North, related to an alleged previous assault on Kevin Lunney, who suffered a broken nose at a service station in County Cavan in February; and on the two arresting PSNI officers.

Walsh, with strong FG links, has hosted the party’s   meetings at his operational Ballinamore hotel, The Commercial. QIH director, John McCartin,  the subject of multiple death threats, a popular FG councillor for 10 years and former Mayor of Leitrim, declined to comment to Village on the reasons for his widely-noted non-attendance at his party’s meetings at Walsh’s hotel, including the Selection Committee meeting at which Ita-Reynolds-Flynn was selected, in his place, to contest the election.

The protest group  blockaded the apartments, 24/7 ,since the second public meeting until recently.  Prepared with appliances and bed linen, the apartments couldn’t be finished as workmen were denied access. Locals were  intimidated by the protest, led by the town’s business people. They tell of cameras being erected and lists of non-participants being compiled. Many have stopped shopping in Tesco, outside which there was an arson attempt, choosing to shop in Carrick-on-Shannon or in the local Supervalu, owned by one of the protestors.

Martin Kenny spoke emotively in the Dáil in support of asylum-seekers and immigrants..  In the early hours of the following Monday, Kenny and his family awoke to find their car alight in the driveway of theirhome. As yet, there has been no progress in apprehending the perpetrators and locals say they were terrified by the arson attack

The business premises of Joey and Adrian Smith, and Fred Walsh’s hotel, back onto the Rock Quarter site. Currently, Joey Smith uses an access route across this land. Fences erected over the years to secure the site have been torn down. When Village put it to Mr Smith that clearly both he and Fred Walsh risked prejudice to their current access from the new building development, he claimed that he had an arrangement with Paul Collins of Remcoll and he forsees no issues with access. Paul Collins denies such an arrangement is in place,stating that Mr Smith is currently entering the site illegally.

Prominent protestors, Maureen Martin  and Joey Smith contend that houses and flats, perhaps purchased or leased by the state, in other parts of the town would be more suitable than the apartments and that the protest committee, led by estate agent, Gordon Hughes, would be proposingthis to the Minister  Village put it to them that that such a plan, as an alternative to the ready-to-go apartments, would both delay the provision of accommodation to 25 families and crucially, further the business interests of the many property-owning members  of the protest committee. They  deny that this is the case and claim that 25 families is too many, suggesting a figure of approximately 25 people total instead.

Soon after the injunction was granted against the protestors, a spokesperson announced that the protest was being stood down due to receipt of assurances from FG Minister Stanton that no progress would be made with accommodation for asylum-seeking families in Ballinamore until further talks with protestors could take place..

A Welcome Committee, formed by locals to present the real face of Ballinamore to asylum-seeking people, received anonymous telephone threats after it shared the news that, immediately after meetings with the Minister and the end of the protest, at least two wealthy landlords in the town, leading protestors, served a number of their longstanding tenant families with out-of-the-blue eviction notices.

It was announced yesterday that seven of the twenty-five  families (a total of 27 people) would be moving into the  Rock Quarter apartments before Christmas and that further discussions would take place. Minister Stanton declined to comment on any meetings or agreements he has made with the business protest group. He also declined to comment on the fact that he has not, thus far, met with any Ballinamore community representatives, other than the business protest group – choosing to meet with the latter on more than one occasion.

When Village asked about his awareness of the levels of coercion and intimidation being employed against the rest of the community in Ballinamore and the vested interests of leading protestors, the Minister answered that he abhors any intimidation and that anyone with knowledge of these matters should contact An Garda Síochána.

Meanwhile, 18 families languish in emergency accommodation while high-standard own-door accommodation lies empty.

 

Borrisokane

After October’s County Council meeting in Carlow,  Councillors received a call  advising that in the following week, the DoJ would be re-locating 84 asylum-seeking people to recession-scarred Borrisokane, a town similar in size to Ballinamore. The community is currently dealing stoically with significant social problems.

Before a public information meeting, called to discuss the arrival of the asylum-seeking people, four local Independent and one Fine Gael Councillor, working together, met Department of Justice and HSE officials about proposed plans. At a later public meeting, Justin Barrett, leader of the  National Party, seated in the front row, spoke loudly.   Groups of non-locals in the crowd applauded. Several members of the community, including the local Methodist Minister, spoke in support of welcoming asylum-seeking people. When Mr Barrett began to speak for a second time, a large group of locals stood up, turning their backs to him,and leaving the room. The meeting broke up. In the days afterwards, however, local people came together, forming a committee, which met with Department of Justice and HSE officials to negotiate the best way forward for the town and the new people who would be joining it. Agreement was quickly reached to accommodate the asylum-seeking families in phases. The plan in Borrisokane, as in Ballinamore, was for own-door accommodation in a previously empty apartment complex. The local committee received assurances from the Department of Justice that all newcomers would be families and that additional funding for health services in the town would be made available.  A €50,000 community fund was allocated to the town and CCTV will be installed to assist with any anti-social behaviour that had been occurring previouslyThe town has already welcomed eight families in two phases, with schools and the community centre involved in welcoming parties. Councillor Seamie Morris says that he is extraordinarily proud of the community in Borrisokane and of the Councillors who came together and then stood aside, allowing the community to self-direct the welcome. Morris cites the fact that Borrisokane has had its own financial and social issues,  emigration from the area and the mixed religious community in the town, as reasons for the successful integration of new people to the community. However, Morris agrees that had any one of the local public representatives decided to break with the group, for potential political advantage, or if business interests had tried to take advantage, things could have been very different.