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Oughterard Direct Provision centre operator feared arson attack after men allegedly breached property

Plans for the centre were abandoned after weeks of protests by locals.

Image: Shutterstock/vijaifoon13

A COMPANY SET to run a Direct Provision centre at a former hotel in Oughterard, Co Galway in September feared an arson attack at the premises after two men allegedly “dazed” security officers with flashlights after entering the property’s grounds. 

Sean Lyons, whose company Fazyard Ltd. were due to run the centre once it was refurbished and operational, contacted Justice Department officials on 19 September to express his concern over ongoing protests at the site, documents released under Freedom of Information show.

“I received a phone call from Sean Lyons this morning re: Oughterard,” George Sinclair, Assistant Principal Officer at the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), wrote to Justice officials on 19 September. 

“He reports that the security guards came across two men who had breached the perimeter fence in the early hours of the morning,” Sinclair reported. 

“The intruders had a high-intensity torch which was used to daze security men and they fled. Separately, a number of tractors and trailers with large boulders have joined the demonstrators. Sean feels their intention is to block the road.

“Sean is extremely concerned for his six security men who he feels are trapped in the building. He is also concerned that if he gets these staff out, [there] is a distinct threat of an arson attack,” Sinclair reported.

Capture FOI Document Schedule Source: CónalThomas

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

The Justice Department has since been consistently accused of a lack of consultation and local communities have protested the opening of further centres.

The Department, however, struggled to open new Direct Centres even before Oughterard – in part due to arson attacks at hotels in Moville, Co Donegal and Rooskey on the Roscommon-Leitrim border. 

Since September 2018, international protection applicants have been placed in hotels and B&Bs due to this 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.

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 coming 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 Lyons take out an injunction against protesters. 

On 16 September, Deputy Secretary General at the Justice Department Oonagh Buckley suggested officials meeting “in crisis committee style” the following day.

Documents show that by 19 September:

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

By this time, there was a security presence at the site. Despite this, correspondence suggest there was an attempted break-in.

A spokesperson for An Garda Síochána told TheJournal.ie: “The focus of the policing operation was to ensure people could safely go about their lawful business while also protecting the rights and safety of those engaged in peaceful protest on the road outside the Hotel.”

The spokesperson added that it was aware that two men attempted to enter to site. 

Lyons, whose company Fazyard Ltd. runs Clondalkin Towers Direct Provision centre in Dublin, eventually withdrew the tender for the 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 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. 

Oughterard, however, 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”. 

Protest leaders quickly distanced themselves from anti-immigration figures in Oughterard. 

‘Inadequate Gardaí Support’

Two days before publicly withdrawing the tender, Sean Lyons wrote to Mark Wilson, Principal Officer at RIA to inform him that he longer planned to proceed with the Direct Provision centre. 

“I believe the situation has deteriorated significantly since the protest commenced and it is now highly unlikely that a Direct Provision centre could safely operate in the Oughterard area at any stage in the future, such is the resistance from both the public and local representatives,” he said. 

Lyons also said that his reasons for withdrawing the tender included  “inadequate local garda support, a “lack of progress” on a request to the Justice Department for support and the “inaction of Galway County Council to remove an illegal dump blocking access to the site”. 

Following the withdrawal in Oughterard, Minister of State David Stanton said: “I have visited Direct Provision centres all over Ireland and everywhere the experience is the same. Through engagement and identifying community needs, initial concerns about what the opening of a centre means, resolve.”

He claimed the “positive stories about the critical supports the State provides through Direct Provision and the benefits a centre brings to a community are largely ignored and that is a great pity”. 

The Department will continue to evaluate the other bids received and to progress the remaining tenders in the Dublin and border regions, according to the spokesperson. 

It is imperative that it do so to avoid a situation where accommodation cannot be offered to people who arrive seeking protection.

“The Department acknowledges that the system of Direct Provision is not perfect but we are working to improve it,” they said. 

“Without it we would not be able to support the thousands of people who arrive here with nothing every year to seek our protection. That is an obligation that the Department and the State takes very seriously.”

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