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Marchers during Sunday's protest. © RollingNews.ie
THE MORNING LEAD

From private Facebook groups to a clash with gardaí: Inside the Newtownmountkennedy standoff

The Journal visited Newtownmountkennedy in recent days to speak to locals and organisers, after the protests reached fever pitch last Thursday night.

IT’S ESTIMATED THAT some 2,000 people took to the streets of Newtownmountkennedy in Co Wicklow last Sunday, in protest against the use of a vacant building on the village’s outskirts to house asylum seekers.

The protests reached fever pitch last Thursday night as members of the Garda Public Order Unit clashed with protesters. Four people have been charged following the incident.

Amid the six-week-long demonstration, there has been criticism of the media for its coverage of the protests, with demonstrators repeating that the standoff has been reported on unfairly.

The Journal visited Newtownmountkennedy in recent days to speak to locals and organisers, while also examining the social media posts used to gather support for the demonstration.

A number of protesters spoke of a distrust of media, specifically RTÉ, and were reluctant to speak initially. After interviewing a number of people across the community (including locals not affiliated with the demonstration) in the wake of last Thursday’s violent scenes, it was clear that the vast majority were in agreement on a number of points.

They criticised what they called a “heavy-handed” approach by gardaí with some, including public representatives, claiming that members of the force were “not attacked”. They instead blamed the Garda Public Order unit for charging at protesters.

For his part, Garda Commissioner Drew Harris – who visited the location in the aftermath – said there were “very unacceptable scenes” which “turned to violence” at the site. He recounted an attempt to burn a small outhouse, along with attacks on gardaí “with stones” and he alleged a garda car was smashed with an axe.

In interviews with The Journal throughout Friday, locals also repeated their opposition to the housing of asylum seekers, citing concerns over the gender of the applicants and the suitability of the proposed accommodation.

The building at the centre of the controversy – Trudder House, also known as River Lodge – was previously used an institution for Traveller children and was the focus of sex abuse allegations in the 1990s before its closure. It later served as a medical facility for a period but has lain dormant for the past decade.

While there were occasional calls about bringing it back into use for a community purpose over the past five years, no serious proposal appeared to garner support. Included in the people The Journal spoke to were Kevin Haig, a local glamping-owning businessman who has become a key spokesperson for the protest, and John Snell, an Independent councillor for the locality.

They have both appealed for the site to be put to another use, describing it as unsuitable for asylum seekers. Haig in particular told The Journal that it was also necessary for Ireland to “have a debate” on immigration.

While Sunday’s protest was fronted by a banner saying ‘We will not be replaced’, a slogan used in far-right conspiracy theories, Snell insisted there was “not a sinister” undercurrent to the protest. He said he was unaware of the banner and claimed that the protest was not about “race” or “eradicating people of colour”, and is instead about “right and wrong”.

The demonstrations, however, have also been organised online with a private Facebook group being used to encourage others to provide an even stronger presence at the Trudder House site.

Although Haig posts statements to the page, he does so as an ordinary member and has no moderating, founding or administrative role in the page. Snell is not associated with the page.

The Journal has examined hundreds of posts and comments in the group, many of which contain racist rhetoric, misinformation tropes and conspiracy theories about immigration.

The group was initially set up in early March as a public page but was changed to private on 17 March. It remains discoverable on Facebook and has almost 2,000 members, though users have to apply to join and be approved by a moderator before they are able to see posts in it.

Initially, most of the discussion within the group centred on the organising of protests at River Lodge, with members regularly calling on others to picket the site and praising those who attended.

Some posts in mid-to-late March singled out a small number of individuals for protesting, and warned others that workers were attempting to gain access to allow the site to be used to house asylum seekers.

“We need everyone in the town to come support us, the workers were trying to get in this morning luckily our protesters stopped them,” a post on 19 March said.

“The problem is it’s mostly the same people daily and they are burning out, so please whether you’re able to [attend] for a couple of hours or only an hour, any time at all really matters, and please if you have only recently moved to the town we need you too.”

There is a mention of concerns for the town’s “services and amenities” in the group’s description, and one post within the group about the condition of the site itself (in which the poster said “I wouldn’t leave an animal living in them conditions”). But the majority of the concerns centre around the housing of male asylum seekers in the area.

The group’s influence has also spread to other parts of Facebook, where members of the anti-immigrant movement have adopted animated images of Gardaí facing off with protesters beside “Newtown says no” placards as their profile pictures.

In conversations with Haig (KH) and Snell (JS) about the private Facebook group, The Journal (TJ) asked about some of the explicitly racist comments that had appeared at times in the comments section under posts.

TJ: “There were a couple of people talking in [those groups] and I’ll put this quote to you… one person here says ‘a hammer to the head for the animals is the best way to deal with them’. Another person says, ‘I wonder who from Newtown will help the filthy vermin in our town, fucking animals should be homed in cages’.”

KH: “I think you’re dealing with the absolute, absolute minority of people. I mean, if you’ve got a large, very economically diverse and educationally diverse group of people, there will always be extremes of views. I think that if you look at the bell curve, that would be the furthest, furthest end of the general majority… You’ll always get extreme feelings. I mean, at the other end of the scale I’m sure there’s a couple saying ‘come one, come all’, so you get that with any crowd.”

TJ: “Again, on the one hand, you are saying it’s peaceful but we have slogans used by far right conspiracy theorists, promoting a race war between white people and black people. We have other people calling asylum seekers ‘filthy vermin’ and talking about assaulting them.”

KH: “Again it’s a very, very small minority, and I wouldn’t focus on that, because if we started going down that road, we’re not looking at the bigger picture, which is, when are we going to have a proper debate on the policy?”

Arson concerns

The Facebook pages also features at least one message calling for the site to be ‘burned to the ground’. As arson attacks have become more commonplace at locations earmarked for asylum seeker accommodation, we asked Haig did he have fears of something similar happening in Newtownmountkennedy.

KH: “There was a small arson attack I think in week three or week four when some lads came down from Bray. It was protesters that called the guards and the fire brigade because, as we said right at the beginning, we want that building for our community. We have no interest in that building being damaged in any way. I don’t think there will be any attacks personally in Newtownmountkennedy because we are a community that just want the building back basically. I don’t think that’ll happen.”

TJ: “What do locals want to use Trudder House for?”

KH: “It could be ideal for a small secondary school. We talked about a women’s shed, we talked about a general community centre because the only community centre in the town is very small, and there’s just no space in it. Now there are other issues around the history of the building. You know, it was a school run by the nuns and there are people on the protests who remember that and it being a not very pleasant place.

“So we would have to be very careful about how we presented the building. But certainly, there’s been a list of things to say this is what we could use it for in the community. And it would be ideal for those kinds of things. You know, like a scouts’ den, like a women’s shed, like even a community coffee shop, a shopping centre for the elderly and so on.”

In 2019, Wicklow County Council examined Trudder House after a number of councillors called on it to buy the site.

However, the local authority ruled out the purchase because, as reported at the time by the Wicklow People, a “substantial amount of investment would be required to make the building fit-for-purpose”.

Politics of the protest

Haig told The Journal that the protests have been welcomed by people from “all over the country and now all over the world”.

He said that the organisers have “tried very hard to keep politics out”.

“There’s not that many people that are interested in politics,” he said. “Obviously there was right-wingers and racists from day one, but you’ve spoken to the people yourself. They’re just ordinary people. We all have the same concerns.”

TJ: “We’re talking of the different kinds of types of people that are involved with the protest. Like one of the people doing recordings Sunday was a self-styled citizen journalist called Philip Dwyer. He has long been reported as a far-right agitator… Can I ask are you comfortable with him getting involved in the protest?”

KH: “There’s always going to be a different opinion and again, it’s my opinion: I can’t stop him from being there and saying what he says because I believe in freedom of speech, and I believe everybody has a right to say what they feel and if you don’t have a proper debate… You know, we’re supposed to be adults here, in a civilised nation. And you believe in freedom of speech and debate.”

TJ: “Similarly, you’ve freedom of speech to say if you’re concerned by his presence.”

KH: “Yes…that’s fair comment… I was concerned because I want us to stay peaceful and I don’t want to see agitators of any persuasion coming in and taking the voice away from the message.

“And the message is: why is this happening, can we have a proper debate? So I think any kind of agitation just distracts from the argument.”

Dwyer, who is a member of anti-immigrant party Ireland First,has in the past admitted to a tribunal that he kicked a dog during his previous work as a postman. He has been live-streaming from the Trudder House site in recent days.

Thursday escalation

Since Friday, protesters and people from the Newtownmountkennedy area have appeared across media to state their belief that garda actions were to blame for the escalation seen at the site on Thursday.

The Journal has received a number of emails from locals sharing the same viewpoint.

Gardaí put a different timing on the events, issuing a statement which outlined how members of the force were subject to both physical and verbal abuse at the site earlier in the day, which escalated to rocks and missiles being thrown during the evening.

“There were very unacceptable scenes seen here in terms of a protest, which then turned to violence,” Commissioner Drew Harris later said, before describing how a patrol vehicle’s front and rear winds were smashed with a “full size axe”.

“And also then we’ve had another vehicle lights broken and the Public Order vehicle with its tyres slashed,” he said.

“Beyond that, there was there were attempts to injure members of An Garda Síochána. Rubble and stones were thrown from fields and members had to deploy in protective public order equipment and shields to make sure that they could protect themselves from the assaults upon them.”

These claims have been denied by the protest organisers, who believe the violence was started by garda actions.

JS: “There is no doubt that after people were injured and the Public Order unit proceeded to barge over people that they did come under attack from youths that were in the field beside us.”

KH: “We need to ask questions about how we are being policed. I think the day of policing by consent in Ireland has almost disappeared almost as a direct result of their behaviour in Newtownmountkennedy.

“We had a great relationship with them for the first five weeks in the protest. It was very friendly, very civil. They facilitated us if we needed to stop the traffic to get something in or something out. It was fabulous and all that went out the window by one act of thuggery from the gardaí.”

Consultation

In its ‘about section’, the private Facebook group presents itself as a collection of concerned locals who say there were given no details about the housing of asylum seekers in the town.

“The Department cannot or will not say who this accommodation is for or how many they plan to house there, they have rolled out the old line of ‘women and children is a priority’ but statistics tell us the majority of IPAS Applicants are men,” it reads.

“They did this exact scenario in the Grand Hotel in Wicklow and then moved the women and children out and moved single, undocumented men in. Do you want a repeat of the Grand Hotel in Newtown? No – neither do we.”

However, discussion posts within the group show that the Department of Integration shared some of its plans.

On 22 March, a moderator re-shared an image posted by local Fianna Fáil Senator Pat Casey of an email sent to him by the department which detailed plans for the site.

It said the HSE offered the government the use of Trudder House for international protection applicants in order to help with an ongoing shortage of accommodation for asylum seekers.

“The department is considering the provision of tented accommodation at the site [...] It is anticipated that up to 20 x 8-person tents may be made available at the site,” the email reads.

The Journal has been told that during the consultation process for Trudder House, a meeting was held between department and council officials, with a number of relatives of a woman who was killed 20 years ago also in attendance for a brief period.

Snell recalled that the relatives told the meeting that their family member was murdered by an “undocumented individual”. However, The Journal has since verified that the local woman was murdered by a British citizen of Indian heritage. He was living in Dublin and was not undocumented.

JS: “The family gave a very passionate summary of how their daughter was murdered 20 years ago by an undocumented person in the country and all this was relayed to Roderic O’Gorman and his officials.”

TJ: “Is that reason enough to say that all these other people should be tarred with the same brush?”

JS: “The reality is the reason why people coming to live in Newtownmountkennedy would not be a success – because it’s inhumane in these times to have people in tents and that will cause a problem.”

Haig recalled the same meeting during the conversation with The Journal.

KH: “Because we’d been quite successful in the first week or so, there was a meeting called with the Ipas integration team. When we got to the meeting, two members of that family were there. They were asked to leave by the council and were told this was a closed meeting but you know, she had something to say. And she told her story, and it was heart wrenching. To have a centre like that on their doorstep must be so traumatic.”

TJ: “Do you think that tars all these people coming to Newtownmountkennedy with the one brush?”

KH: “No, I don’t think it does. I mean, I think if you had 160 young guys of any nationality being dumped in a field with very poor broadband and nothing to do, you’d be worried anyway. If you’re at a bus stop and there are 20 young lads in hoodies you know, you don’t walk up to them and go, ‘How are you doing?’ I think there’s just a fear of young lads anyway.

“I think the concern is that it’s inhumane to put people of any nationality, any description [into a tent].”

TJ: “That is a different concern. What we’re talking about is that this family who, because they suffered a very awful thing because of one person, now we have to take that into account for a lot of other people from outside of Ireland.”

KH: “The person was murdered by a man and it was a woman that was murdered by a man. I think with 160 men – men with nothing to do – then yeah, I’d be pretty nervous too.”

TJ: “That’s not what I was told earlier [by others in the area], that wasn’t the emphasis. That’s not the emphasis that was put on it. The emphasis put on it earlier was the race of the person. Do you think this is part of the issue, though, that some of the people in the protests are putting emphasis on the race of the actual people coming in?”

KH: “No I don’t think so. I’m genuinely concerned that there’s a humanitarian issue here. Now, again you’ve got a large diverse group. I think you saw unity in the group [on Saturday] and that it was a peaceful march and the message generally is the same.”

The Journal later asked Haig and Snell to clarify their comments following confirmation that the murderer wasn’t undocumented. Media reports from the murderer’s trial indicate he was a British subject who had lived there since the 1970s, before relocating to Ireland in the early 90s. He was found guilty of murder in England, and later died in prison. 

Haig said he was “only half-listening” to the family’s story when they were talking to the department officials and said his main focus was that the murderer was a man.

He added that the story was “another string to the bow, and a terrible one” in terms of the arguments they were making against the accommodation.

Snell did not respond ahead of publication.

‘Fake refugees’

Back on the Facebook page, one comment under a post about tented accommodation claims the site would be used to house “fake asylum seekers”, a term used by some in the anti-immigrant movement to suggest that international protection applicants are not legitimate and are gaming the system to access employment and benefits in Ireland.

One person claimed in late March that they told a shopkeeper in Portugal about the protest in Newtownmountkennedy and stated baldly that it was “about immigration”.

“I asked him about immigration into Portugal he says very little since their welfare is probably the worst in the EU but he adds you have the most since you welfare is the best.”

Asylum seekers do get some welfare benefits while in Ireland, as required under international law, but it is not comparable to the social benefits given to citizens.

For example, international protection applicants are housed in Direct Provision centres or hotels, where they are fed, given a medical card and receive weekly payments of €38.80 per adult and €29.80 per child.

Other posts shared in the past few days have referred to asylum seekers as “invaders” and “welfare tourists”, or claim they are part of a “plantation” – a phrase that invokes the ‘Great Plantation’, an Irish-specific version of the Great Replacement Theory.

The Journal asked both Haig and Snell about a banner held at the front of Sunday’s large protest which said ‘no plantation send them back’ and ‘we will not be replaced’.

KH:” I saw tens or hundreds of different banners. I didn’t obviously pay too much attention because I was talking to everybody and it was a very joyous occasion and I was also very concerned that we kept it peaceful and everybody from the community had been kind of briefed to keep an eye out to make sure that nobody got excited, if you like.

“Yes, there was a lot of flags and there’s a lot of people. There was an awful lot of Newtown flags, which is the black and white and is a community flag.”

trudder house banner The banner used during Sunday's protest.

TJ:“Would you rather that banner to be kept away in future?”

KH: “I believe in freedom of speech. Each individual did their own banner and they have a right to do their own banners. If the hate speech law comes along, they’ll all be gone anyway. But it’s up to individuals. I know [plantation is] an emotive word. And I know there are issues around it.

“It’s each individual to his own. From my view, freedom of speech is worth more than anything else. And that really wouldn’t be the issue around this particular protest…Everybody was in a very good mood and that’s the important thing to me.”

JS: “I would have to say, I really urge you to listen to what I’m saying on this.

“This is not about race, religion, sexuality. This is about right and wrong. This is about being fair to everybody, including people who are seeking asylum. For the vast majority of people that’s what their sentiment is, it’s not anything to do with you know, eradicating people of colour really. I resent that accusation actually.”

TJ: “But that banner was at the front of the protests in Newtownmountkennedy.”

JS: “These are community people. Just seven weeks ago, you know, these people were trying to get on with our lives. They’re speaking up to say this is not acceptable.”

TJ: “Would you like to see that banner maybe then not be used for a future protest?”

JS: “I genuinely don’t know what’s on the banners. I couldn’t tell you what’s on the banners.”

TJ: “As I just told you there, it says ‘no plantation, send them back’ and it says ‘we will not be replaced’. So I’m asking do you think it’s acceptable for that to be at the Newtown protest?”

JS: “And I’m saying that each person is responsible for their own actions and their own feelings but the vast majority like me, support peaceful gathering, support standing up.”

TJ: “Would you prefer that banner then not be present at the next protest?”

JS: “Well when is the next protest?…I’m trying to be as honest as I can. In regards to the banners, I couldn’t tell you what’s on the banners.”

TJ: “What does happen next? What happens next?”

KH: “I think the next step for us is probably to be to be at a national rally in Dublin next 6 May. I mean, there is no question that people will be on site this week. We would hope that they would get the proper support because, as I said earlier, everybody’s promised everything, that there’ll be plenty of people there to look after them [asylum seekers] in the village and there will be plenty of people for medical resources. We as a community will have to work out how we deal with that. We haven’t done that yet to be perfectly frank.”

The 6 May rally is a planned demonstration against the government’s immigration policy that’s been promoted on social media, though it is not clear who it is being planned by.

According to the Department of Integration, it intends to press on with the use of Trudder House to “help alleviate the serious accommodation shortage” currently faced by International Protection applicants.

It said it will be for male applicants in tented accommodation, similar to military-style tents used at the Central Mental Hospital site in Dundrum.

During a briefing with reporters yesterday evening, a government spokesperson was asked by The Journal whether the Department of Integration was proceeding with the accommodation contract at the Newtownmountkennedy site and whether there are any safety concerns for asylum seekers who will be placed there.

Th government spokesperson confirmed that the contract will be proceeding and said there are no safety concerns.

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Author
Eoghan Dalton and Stephen McDermott