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'Nothing special being asked of Oughterard' in accommodating asylum seekers, said top Justice official

Plans for a Direct Provision centre were abandoned after weeks of protests by locals.

Department of Justice & Equality in Dublin.
Department of Justice & Equality in Dublin.
Image: RollingNews.ie

THE DEPUTY SECRETARY General of the Justice Department said that “nothing special” was being asked of Oughterard, Co Galway in accommodating asylum seekers earlier this year. 

From mid-September, locals in Oughterard organised round-the-clock protests at the former Connemara Gateway Hotel which was due to accommodate 200 international protection applicants. 

At the time, the Justice Department was accused of a lack of consultation. 

Since September 2018, international protection applicants have been placed in hotels and B&Bs due to pressure on Ireland’s asylum system. 

There are currently over 1,500 international protection applicants living in emergency accommodation, with 34 hotels and B&Bs in 12 counties now contracted by RIA to provide bed and board.

As the Oughterard protest grew, Justice Department officials consulted on how best to approach the ongoing situation. 

On 16 September, two days after the protest started, Deputy Secretary General Oonagh Buckley wrote to officials saying it “might be useful to set in context” the number of Direct Provision centres already open in Ireland to set out the Department’s “whole of Ireland response,” emails released under Freedom of Information show. 

Buckley suggested including maps of towns where emergency accommodation provision was located to set in context the situation and said that “nothing special” was being asked of the Galway village, which has a population of 1,300. 

‘Potential to become problematic’

The Justice Department first became aware of the Oughterard protest on Saturday 14 September when 40-50 people demonstrated at the site. On that day, the head of RIA noted the protest had the potential “to become very problematic”. 

Over the following week, protesters blocked entry to the hotel with a round-the-clock presence in place at the site. Gardaí could not intervene, Department officials were told, because the protest was held on a public road. 

Gardaí also advised that Sean Lyons, whose company Fazyard Ltd was set to run the centre and which also runs Clondalkin Towers Direct Provision, take out an injunction against protesters. 

On 16 September, Oonagh Buckley suggested officials meet “in crisis committee style” the following day.

Documents show that by 19 September:

  • No policing plan had been put in place for the Oughterard protests. 
  • There had been no full-time garda presence at the site. 
  • The garda approach throughout the protests had been one of “passing attention”, a Justice official noted.

Sean Lyons eventually withdrew the tender for the new DP 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 for asylum seekers as a result. 

Fears over small-town infrastructure and a lack of services raised by Oughterard locals would later be echoed in Ballinamore, Co Leitrim, Borrisokane, Co Tipperary and on Achill Island. 

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