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'A Lightning Rod': Anti-immigrant rhetoric, Ireland's Direct Provision system and Carrickmacross

The Co Monaghan town was the first to accommodate asylum seekers in emergency accommodation last year.

WhatsApp Image 2019-10-29 at 13.27.09 Main Street, Carrickmacross Source: Cónal Thomas

LAST YEAR, BUSINESSES in Carrickmacross were the first in Ireland contracted to provide emergency accommodation for asylum seekers as Direct Provision centres across the country remained at or over capacity.

The Co Monaghan town’s courthouse was the location for a small rally, earlier this month, where tricolour flags were raised by those present. The demonstration – attended by known anti-immigration activists and endorsed by Irish Freedom Party leaders – took place less than two weeks after a tender for a Direct Provision centre in Oughterard, Co Galway was withdrawn following a local opposition campaign.  

Separately, and throughout the summer, there had been local commentary and disquiet about groups of men and women – mostly non-Irish, EU citizens in their 20s and 30s – gathering on Carrickmacross’s Main Street.  

After a woman was allegedly sexually assaulted by an EU foreign national in the town in mid-September, there was a proliferation of online activity referencing immigration and a perceived increase in crime.   

The alleged assault, as one local representative told TheJournal.ie, ultimately became a “lightning rod” for misinformation, anti-immigration activity and the conflation of the two issues at work in Carrickmacross. 

‘Main Street’ 

Carrickmacross lies near the border with Northern Ireland, 11 kilometres from Iniskeen, birthplace of poet Patrick Kavanagh.

Its population in 2016 was just over 5,000. According to data provided by the Central Statistics Office, that can be broken down to show there are at least 3,500 people of Irish nationality and 1,000 people from the rest of the EU. 

Half of the town’s population are employed with over 500 residents above retirement age, according to the last census. 

Its main street – dotted with cafés, four pubs, a Lithuanian supermarket and a solicitor’s office – stretches from Saint Finbarr’s Church to the Courthouse.

Capture Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan Source: GoogleEarth

Separate to the 6,000 people living in Ireland’s 38 Direct Provision centres, there are now nearly 1,500 people – including 250 children – living in 34 hotels and B&Bs, a policy first implemented by the Justice Department in September 2018.

There are three main reasons for this, it says: an increase in international protection applicants arriving in Ireland; people unable to leave Direct Provision once granted leave-to-remain due to the housing crisis; and pressure on its “accommodation portfolio” after recent arson attacks at hotels in Moville, Co Donegal and Rooskey, Co Roscommon put paid to plans to open further Direct Provision centres. 

It’s estimated there are now 150 to 200 asylum seekers accommodated near Carrickmacross in hotels and B&Bs. Several Syrian refugees also live in the town centre.

TheJournal.ie recently reported that providing emergency accommodation for asylum seekers in Ireland costs nearly three times more than Direct Provision centres.

Treacy’s Hotel – located 5 kilometres outside of the town on the Kingscourt Road – was the first business outside of Direct Provision centres contracted to provide bed and board to asylum seekers. 

The premises was sourced by Trenthall Ltd, a company run by Seamus ‘Banty’ McEnaney which has sought out hotels and B&Bs in the Cavan-Monaghan region for the Department of Justice since September 2018. 

Within four months, Trenthall Ltd had been paid over €1.5 million by the Government. 

Asylum seekers accommodated at Treacy’s were moved suddenly on several occasions this year; twice to accommodate weddings at the hotel, once due to maintenance works. 

Almost 100 asylum seekers were relocated to Co Meath in March after the hotel ended its contract with Trenthall Ltd. 

Asylum seekers are still being placed in Treacy’s, where it is understood 20 rooms are in use. People are also housed at another B&B a short distance from Carrickmacross. 

In March, the Department described the pressure it is under to accommodate international protection applicants in Ireland as “severe”. By September, a spokesperson for the Department told TheJournal.ie it had become “immense”.  

‘Oughterard’

Following last month’s protests in Oughterard, Co Galway, a tender for a permanent Direct Provision centre – due to accommodate 200 asylum seekers – was withdrawn.

Locals – who orchestrated a campaign against the centre’s opening – consistently voiced concern over a lack of consultation by the Department of Justice. 

Sean Lyons, whose company Fazyard Ltd. runs Clondalkin Towers Direct Provision centre in Dublin, eventually withdrew the tender for a new centre in the interest of the safety of all stakeholders, he said on 1 October, forcing the Justice Department to contract additional hotels and B&Bs as a result. 

Fears over small-town infrastructure and a lack of services raised by Oughterard locals are echoed by people living in Carrickmacross – and now Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, and Borrisokane, Co Tipperary where Direct Provision centres were set to open.

Oughterard, though, also became a litmus test for Irish far-right infiltration, as the Irish Times reported in late September.

Known anti-immigration activists travelled to Oughterard – which has a population of 1,300 people – and attempted to steer local debate around the proposed Direct Provision centre. 

A contentious meeting on 11 September was filmed by Gearóid Murphy, whose YouTube channel features videos entitled ‘Becoming a Minority in Ireland – Fact or Fiction?’ and ‘The Frightening Growth of Vile Anti-Irish Racism’. The meeting was addressed by Gerry Kinneavy, an organiser for the National Party led by Justin Barrett, who has made a number of false claims about Ireland’s immigration figures in the past. 

Rowan Croft, a self-styled ‘citizen journalist’ and ex-British soldier known as Grand Torino who recently gifted his rosary beads to Italian far-right leader Matteo Salvini, posted online saying the tender withdrawal was “a victory for Ireland”. 

‘An Assault’

On 3 October, two days after the tender withdrawal in Oughterard, an online petition appeared. It asked: ‘Do You Feel Intimidated When Walking Around Carrickmacross?’

A local woman in Carrickmacross was allegedly sexually assaulted in mid-September. 

An EU citizen in his 30s was arrested and appeared before Monaghan District Court in September, gardaí sources confirmed. 

Claims that incidents of criminality increased after the assault continued to circulate despite local representatives attempting to address growing unrest. 

“We’ve been trying to address what are the genuine concerns of people,” local MEP Matt Carthy told TheJournal.ie, adding that others have been “trying to make an issue much bigger than it is”. 

Carthy’s brother Colm, a local councillor, said that despite efforts by his office, misinformation spread quickly.

On 5 October, Gript.ie – a website which says it is “challenging the consensus, facilitating debate and delivering news and analysis without the liberal filter” - reported that a “row” had broken out in Carrickmacross between locals and Seamus ‘Banty’ McEnaney – who runs Trenthall Ltd – and the Department of Justice. 

The article connected the provision of emergency accommodation for international protection applicants and a petition which people had signed “saying that they no longer feel safe walking through their own town because of large groups of migrants congregating in the centre of the town, and an allegation of sexual assault against a local woman”.

The authors, although noting there was no confirmed information about the alleged perpetrator’s nationality or identity, added that “tensions in Carrickmacross appear to have escalated in recent days after a young woman alleged that she was sexually assaulted… by a migrant housed locally”. 

Another article appeared on thetricolour.com on the same day and also linked a supposed “migrant gang” problem in Carrickmacross with the provision of emergency accommodation to asylum seekers, claiming that “many women have been taking to social media to express their fear and experiences of life in the town”. 

Treacy's. Treacy's Hotel, Carrickmacross Source: GoogleMaps

Another petition was launched on 13 October.

“Should the Direct Provision Centre in the Oasis-Treacy’s Hotel be stopped?” it asked. 

The petition claims that Treacy’s “is now to become a Direct Provision Centre”.

“Are the people in the surrounding areas happy with this development?” it asked, before stating it was set up due to the response from the first petition. 

The petition didn’t give a reason why a Direct Provision centre in Carrickmacross should be stopped, only implying that it should.

As of 20 October, over 200 people had signed it.

A closed Facebook page titled, ’LAWLESS: Do You Feel Intimidated When Walking Around Carrickmacross?’, at one point had over 1,300 members.

According to local sources, the page became a target for anti-immigrants posts before it was deleted. 

On 4 October, Rowan Croft travelled to Carrickmacross.

Croft, a supporter of Gemma O’Doherty, actively campaigns against immigration on YouTube, live-streaming videos from Irish towns in which he promotes far-right theories and highlights crimes committed by non-Irish. 

In a video filmed in Carrickmacross, Croft claimed that Ireland’s “open doors” migration policy has led to “some of the most heinous crimes” being committed against women on a daily basis in Ireland.

‘Lightning Rod’

For several months, Carrickmacross witnessed groups of non-Irish people congregating on Main Street, leading to online and offline commentary about their presence. 

Sources, however, have cast doubt over claims that there was an increase in criminality in the area during that time, telling TheJournal.ie that the purported ‘migrant gang’ problem did not exist. 

The use of the Main Street as a meeting point ended by mid-September. It is understood that families were using public space to gather over the summer months. 

Yet September’s alleged assault, as one local representative put it, then became a “lightning rod” for misinformation, anti-immigration activity and the conflation of two separate issues. 

The alleged assault is not connected with anyone other than one EU citizen – despite attempts to link it with asylum seekers living in Carrickmacross. 

After a “social media storm”, the Northern Standard reported on 10 October that Carrickmacross businessman Sean Jones – who rents apartments on Main Street – wished to clarify matters. 

Jones said that he rents rooms to “a small percentage” of the town’s foreign community. 

“We house all European citizens. They are extremely happy with their accommodation and they are all working families,” Jones said in a statement, before adding that “we have no business with the government and Direct Provision”. 

If outside actors gained ground in Oughterard after being initially endorsed by local campaigners, attempts to steer the debate and gain traction in Carrickmacross after the assault have been met locally with a mixture of concern and outright rejection. 

As one local woman put it, the town has had “no issues” with asylum seekers placed in emergency accommodation. The ‘Lawless’ Facebook page, she said, quickly became filled “with rubbish” from “people who had absolutely nothing to do with Carrickmacross”. 

However, many locals do have questions around the numbers of people arriving in the town given that much of the accommodation is already crowded. Money paid to private contractors, hotels and B&Bs has become a contentious topic in Carrickmacross.

“An awful lot of people are angry,” one local on O’Neill Street in Carrickmacross recently told TheJournal.ie, on condition of anonymity. 

Meanwhile, John Treacy – Director of Timber Toes Ltd which owns three hotels in the Treacy Group – told The Northern Standard newspaper on 10 October: “We’re definitely not going Direct Provision. There is no signed legal document,” he said. 

It is, however, being used for emergency accommodation. 

Treacy said that “twenty-odd rooms” are in use for emergency accommodation for asylum seekers in Carrickmacross, with two to three people in each room.

He added that potential customers will be made aware that Treacy’s provides emergency accommodation to asylum seekers, that the hotel’s bar is reserved for paying customers only and that there will be a separate area for asylum seekers. 

‘A Perfect Storm’

If events in Moville, Rooskey and Oughterard further exacerbated accommodation pressure on the Department of Justice and its Reception & Integration Agency (RIA), its recourse to emergency accommodation since September 2018 remains wholly inadequate. 

Emergency accommodation for asylum seekers is not a Direct Provision centre. NGOs, volunteers, grassroots groups and asylum seekers have found conditions far worse due to a lack of services normally available in Direct Provision centres.

In March, the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS) warned the Department it was facing “a perfect storm” due to new international protection applicants, difficulties adding accommodation and people living in Direct Provision leaving centres due to the housing and rental crisis. 

“JRS Ireland would be wary of a failure to learn lessons of the homeless sector whereby short-term emergency responses have become long-term fixes,” it told the Department. 

“This is undoubtedly a significant risk with respect to RIA’s recourse to Emergency Accommodation,” a JRS report submitted to RIA states. 

Documents released under FOI also show that JRS reported a number of emergency accommodation cases to the Department from around the country, including instances of overcrowding, remote locations, unsuitable food, hotels and B&Bs unable to provide information regarding health services and difficulties accessing education.  

‘No excuses’

Remote – and at times strict – accommodation setups have been highlighted to RIA consistently by the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI).  

In March, it was reported that there was often no information for asylum seekers to attain medical cards, no information on how to access GP services, difficulty accessing a Community Welfare Officer for an exceptional needs payment as well as no information on how to apply for PPS numbers in order to collect their €38.80 weekly payment. 

In August, asylum seekers living in a Dublin hotel were told not to bring food to their rooms “under any circumstance”. That same week, the owner of the Central Hotel in Miltown Malbay, Co Clare issued a notice to people telling residents “you must be in your room by 10pm. No excuses!”

clayton hotel 428_90577396 Clayton Hotel, Liffey Valley, Dublin Source: Sam Boal

For years, inspections of permanent Direct Provision centres – conducted by the Department at pre-arranged times – have been criticised for a lack of transparency. Private and hotels and B&Bs are not subject to these same rules. 

Emails released under FOI show that in May, the Department of Social Welfare and Protection (DEASP) alerted the Justice Department to a visit paid by staff to the Dunkerrin Arms in Co Offaly. 

The hotel was contracted by RIA to provide accommodation to asylum seekers but when DEASP staff arrived they deemed the hotel closed. 

“When they arrived… it was boarded up with no staff present,” an email sent to RIA states. 

Hotel staff eventually arrived and opened the hotel. The DEASP reported it had “serious concerns” about the premises but after improvements RIA took the decision to not move asylum seekers living there. 

Despite the EU Reception Conditions directive stating the Minister for Justice may provide emergency accommodation, it must be for “as short a time as possible”. 

‘Oxygen Online’

Bulelani Mfaco – an asylum seeker and MASI activist – said that his organisation has witnessed communities in Ireland react both positively and negatively to asylum seekers.

Direct Provision fundamentally “imposes” restrictions on both asylum seekers and smaller Irish towns struggling for resources, he said. 

“A long-term alternative to Direct Provision is needed – urgently – because conditions are deteriorating in [emergency accommodation],” said Mfaco. 

“The ‘othering’ process begins when an asylum seeker is warehoused in a Direct Provision centre,” Mfaco told TheJournal.ie.

If local people and asylum seekers don’t know each other, far-right myths “thrive”, Mfaco said, because information only comes from one source – anti-immigration activists. “Stranger danger quickly takes hold,” he added. 

Ireland’s far-right did not gain a foothold in Carrickmacross, Co Monaghan, despite growing online activity and a recent anti-immigration rally. 

Local sources confirmed that the 12 October rally outside Carrickmacross Courthouse was attended by just 20 demonstrators – 17 of whom were from outside Carrickmacross and do not live in the town. 

The alleged assault, recent online activity and petitions raised concerns locally, Cllr Colm Carthy said, and gave rise to “natural questions” local communities have.  

“It needs to be clarified that people in Carrickmacross are in no way racist,” he said. “They’ve concerns like every area.”

Secrecy surrounding Ireland’s asylum system combined with a lack of communication from the Justice Department created its own “perfect storm” in Oughterard; a vacuum quickly filled by far-right online content aimed at stoking local tensions.

Yet attempts to exploit similar concerns at a local level in Carrickmacross dissipated after October’s rally. 

Shane O’Curry of ENAR Ireland (European Network Against Racism), who visited Carrickmacross given the rise in anti-immigration activity, told TheJournal.ie that formal and informal networks in Co Monaghan helped mitigate against far-right progression. 

“I was not surprised to find the far-right did not replicate Oughterard,” he said, in part due to a local volunteer network has operated quietly in Co Monaghan since September 2018. 

Last year, one volunteer told TheJournal.ie, a mother and daughter walked five kilometres on foot along Kingscourt Road from Treacy’s Hotel into Carrickmacross Village to buy sanitary products. 

Locals offered help, he said.

Assistance given by people in Co Monaghan is essential. So far, it has included driving asylum seekers to appointments, ensuring children are given support, liaising with new families moving in. 

“People try to make themselves available to help,” he said. “Everybody has lives, everybody’s busy, nobody’s on a crusade.

“There are people arriving into the country who are put into a very uncomfortable, practically hostile, situation with no resources, no supports, and in the case of the people out in Treacy’s Hotel, they didn’t have access to the town, there was no transport,” he said. 

That changed. People locally said ‘This is wrong’.

It is, he said, up to Carrickmacross people to “react appropriately and honestly” to anti-immigrant rhetoric in future. 

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