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Protesters outside Columb Barracks in Mullingar. Eamonn Farrell

Mullingar: Anti-migrant protests see allegations of 'intimidation' against refugees and locals

Protests over the use of a barracks in Mullingar have intensified over the past week even as protester numbers have fallen.

CONTINUING PROTESTS OUTSIDE emergency refugee accommodation in Westmeath have led to locals, workers at the site and asylum seekers being followed and recorded in recent days.

Several social media posts over the past week have shown some protesters at Columb Barracks in Mullingar record video and take images of migrants, workers and local people.

There were also suggestions that an individual garda should be targeted following his policing of a protest.

A Garda spokesperson told The Journal that any suggestion that people involved may “use violence” or “intimidation” against a named individual or organisation would be a worrying development.

One local woman who has set up a group to repel anti-migrant sentiment in the town said the actions of the protesters had been “disgusting”, with a number of people now “now in fear” after a number of people were allegedly “followed and recorded” around Mullingar.

The past week has seen demonstrators block the entrance to Columb Barracks, with locals who spoke to The Journal saying that a number of people in the area – including migrants staying in the barracks – have faced “intimidation” from protesters.

There are 53 international protection applicants accommodated in Columb Barracks.

Last month, the Department of Integration confirmed plans to use the Columb Barracks for temporary asylum seeker accommodation purposes. Tents have been erected inside the barracks grounds to house the people there.

The intention is that no person should have to stay at Columb Barracks for more than three weeks before being moved on to more suitable accommodation, the Department said.

It is intended that the site will be used for a maximum of 12 months.

Drop-off in numbers

Recent weeks saw a large protest of up to 300 people demonstrating against the use of the barracks to house the people. While this number has fallen to a few dozen, the past week has seen efforts by protesters intensify with known far-right agitators among their number. 

Last Friday, demonstrators waving flags blocked the entrance to Columb Barracks as asylum seekers were being brought to the site for temporary accommodation in an incident that led to a garda being assaulted and one man being arrested for public order offences. No charges have yet been laid. 

Days later, on Monday, Justice Minister Simon Harris called attempts to physically block accommodation an “effort to intimidate”.

Other people who spoke to this publication on condition of anonymity said they have taken part in counter-protests against the anti-migrant group in Mullingar, but would only do so while wearing garments to conceal their identity.

One man said this was due to a “very real concern that we’ll be followed and recorded” similar to others in the area.

Postings on social media by known far-right activists have shown protesters following migrant people who are believed to be staying in Columb Barracks while they’re walking around the town.

Two locals claimed that young people have also followed some of the men using their electric scooters.

Christine O’Mahony, who has set up the Mullingar4All group, said the actions of protesters have resulted in people “feeling unsafe”.

“There are recordings taking place, they’re taking pictures of locals. When they do this they say this person was here, here’s what they were doing,” she said.

“It’s not a safe place to be right beside those anti-immigrant protesters right now.

“They’re putting up photos of people staying at the barracks. I think it’s disgusting, them video recording people. There’s a lot of misinformation about the people inside the barracks, and they use these videos to say ‘this man is dangerous’.

“People have been afraid to counter-protest and instead are covering their face when they do.”

A group which organises sporting activities for asylum seekers nationwide, Sanctuary Runners, also said the treatment of its members staying at the barracks has been “totally unacceptable and shameful”.

“In recent days some of our Sanctuary Runners were moved from emergency accommodation in Dublin to tents in Mullingar where their safety was threatened,” the group said.

“Even the basic right to have food was compromised. This is totally unacceptable and shameful.”

While a Garda spokesperson said gardaí do not comment on remarks or unverified material posted on social media by third parties, they do consider any suggestion “to use violence” or “intimidation” a seriously concerning development.

“An Garda Síochána considers any suggestion in respect of the threat to use violence and/or perpetration of violence or intimidation in any general sense against named individual(s) or organisation(s) as a matter of serious concern and could potentially be subject to criminal investigation,” the spokesperson said.

“An Garda Síochána is acutely aware of the volume of misinformation, disinformation and fake news in circulation – particularly on social media and messaging apps which often does not reflect the accuracy of any particular incident.”

Access to food

O’Mahoney said the efforts to blockade the barracks to prevent catering deliveries was horrendous.

“Access to food is a human right and even if you’re against having immigrants staying in the barracks, you can’t protest food going into them.”

She added that there will be efforts to mount a response to the protests in coming days. One man told this website he feels it has “been left to go too far”, with a local response needed by the community.

“Mullingar4All is going to be about solidarity. There has been this divide and conquer pitting refugees versus homeless people. Really, we should be fighting for all and that’s what this group will do.

“Anger should be directed at the government, not vulnerable asylum seekers and refugees who have no no control over the sector and who in some circumstances will have come to Ireland from warzones and even fleeing persecution.”

Social media claims

Another local told this website that while they have opposed the use of Columb Barracks for housing asylum seekers, they disagreed with the protests that have taken place in recent days. 

Social media posts have also repeated regular far-right claims that the men staying in the barracks are “unvetted males” and that they pose a danger to women and children. 

There have also been claims circulated heavily on social media over the past week that the asylum seekers have been moved out of the barracks, in a “victory for the protests”. 

However, the Department of Integration has rejected this.

“There are currently 53 international protection applicants accommodated in Columb barracks. Given current pressures on the international protection accommodation, the Department does not intend to end its use of the facility,” it said.

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