TEMPERS rose and those with different views shouted at each other at a public meeting on Saturday afternoon regarding the use of a building in the Shannon Free Zone for refugee accommodation.
Around 200 people came to the meeting which was held at Shannon Town Park and which had been publicised through social media. The turnout itself was interesting; particularly given that there was only a few days notice and relatively poor weather conditions.
Going by the comments made and the levels of applause at certain stages, around 80-90% were opposed or at least uneasy about the use of the large industrial building for emergency accommodation, while a minority were in favour of it happening.
There was no evidence of common ground between the two sides, and on this afternoon’s evidence there is significant opposition in the town to taking in another large cohort of refugees, with claims that Shannon does not have the amenities, the health services or school places to do so.
As well as those concerns, many of those present said they are worried about crime after incidents in Killarney and at CityWest.Questions
One of the organisers, Michelle Hayes, opened the meeting and she said she would like to know why local politicians have not been spoken to by the relevant Government department. “I want to know why there was no consultation with the residents of Shannon and our councillors.”
She said there are a number of other questions to be addressed. “Why is this empty building going to be used to accommodate asylum seekers, what countries are these people from, have they been vetted and do they have the correct documents to come into this country. I’m so concerned at what’s going on in Killarney and CityWest. As we know this does not end well.”
Elaine Kingston Durbin was also involved in organising the meeting and she insisted she is not aligned to the far right. “I didn’t even know what the far right was, I actually had to Google it. Not everyone who speaks out is far right, not all refugees are out to cause trouble. But the Government have created this divide in how they’ve mismanaged this from the very start. I do not oppose refugees, I want to be very clear on that. I oppose the system and the Government management of this. They’ve treated people appallingly on this, and we’re all victims of a broken system.”
Ms Kingston Durbin said that Shannon is already looking for greater policing resources, more GPs, longer opening hours for ShannonDoc and greater staffing at the local fire station.
“The Government’s answer is to bring more people in with no plan to increase these services and no consultation with local people or service providers. A couple of weeks ago you couldn’t get a bus to Limerick because they were full, there are limited retail outlets, schools are at capacity.”
She said there is already a major housing crisis that is not being addressed. “Up to May of last year there were 221 people on the social housing list in Shannon. Two thousand eight hundred and forty seven people in Clare. It’s likely to have increased since then. In May there were 192 people homeless in Clare, in two years there was an 82% rise in homelessness. These problems are not new but they certainly haven’t been addressed and it is clear the system as it stands can’t cope. There’s no housing for new workers coming in, Shannon has no housing for those already here. We have a crisis and we don’t need to add to it without a structure and a workable plan.”
Ms Kingston Durbin also said that Clare would need another 25 GPs just to bring its ratio into line with the national average.
A sizeable number of new arrivals will make the situation at UHL worse, she warned. “If there’s not enough beds for those here, how do we have enough beds for up to 1,000 people that are coming in? I’ve nothing against anyone, if you were bringing 500 priests or nuns, English, Welsh or Spanish, putting 500 to 1000 people in a building in an industrial estate, with no resources, no services, no money, then what’s going to happen? They’re going to spill out, their mental health will be affected and it will impact us.”
The Government minister responsible for emergency accommodation is out of touch, she claimed. “Roderic O’Gorman is not on the phone to (local GP) Yvonne Williams on a Monday trying to get an appointment, he’s not spending an hour trying to get through to someone to get his bloods done. The people making the decisions about Shannon are not affected by the decisions that they’re making about our town.”
However while many people were of the view that Shannon is not in a position to accommodate more refugees, that certainly was not true of everyone there.
After the two organisers spoke, local man Dominic Haugh was next to take the microphone and he said there are parallels with the concerns existing residents of the town about people arriving from the North in the early 1970s. “I want to talk about something that happened in Shannon almost 50 years ago to this day, when another incompetent Government announced that there would be 3,000 people, refugees from the North of Ireland who were being driven out of their homes by loyalist gangs, brought to Shannon, effectively doubling the population of Shannon at the time.
“The reality is that the concerns that are being expressed here today were also expressed 50 years ago. People were worried about where they were going to be housed, people were worried about schools, people were worried about how they would get hospital and GP appointments. People were worried that loyalist paramilitaries would plant bombs in Shannon, that loyalist paramilitaries would come down and shoot people. People were also worried that the IRA would come in and try to dominate the town and try to use it to organise attacks.”
However, when he said that refugees coming now are victims of war and violence, he was met with shouts of derision from a substantial proportion of the attendance, and it was clear that most people in attendance did not share his views or accept the historic parallel he was making.
From this point on it was very clear that there were people with two very different points of view at the meeting, both fundamentally opposed, and with one greatly outnumbering the other.
When people said that the new arrivals would be unvetted, Mr Haugh responded saying, “Were the people who came into Shannon 50 years ago vetted? Is the problem the colour of people’s skin? Is the problem where people are from?”
Again he was met with derision from a large number of people, and it was apparent that the argument he was making would get little traction.
Before the meeting’s conclusion several more people voiced concern about the implications of the building in question being used for emergency accommodation.
One woman said she will no longer let her teenage daughter walk to work early in the morning after the centre opens. “”Would you let your daughter or granddaughter out at 5am or 6am to walk to work now with 800 people over there? I can’t. I’m terrified, absolutely terrified I can tell you,” she said.
With tempers fraying, one man said that those who are in favour of the centre going ahead should “”read a f**king newspaper every now and again”.
One person who spoke in favour of the emergency accommodation said that when a committee was formed after the meeting it should not claim to be representing the people of Shannon, while a person against the centre urged those of a different view to go away and form their own committee.
A post later in the day on a Facebook page created by the meeting’s organisers said that a committee has been formed representing those with concerns about the new emergency accommodation.
In a statement to the Clare Champion after the meeting, Clare Public Participation Network said that some far right activists had come to the meeting and it warned against allowing them to cause trouble in the future.
“Far-right agitators have been active before in Clare but with little success – in Lisdoonvarna, Ennis, and nearby in Kinvara, Co Galway. Our communities saw through these attempts to pit people against each other and instead acted to welcome people to their neighbourhoods, while continuing to demand better resources and services. The very same agitators did however go on to cause community division and upset in Oughterard and Rooskey and Moville to name but a few places.
“We were extremely concerned to see some of the same individuals show up again in Shannon today at a community gathering. Given recent events around Ireland, Clare PPN is extremely concerned that the groups of far right agitators do present the prospect of violence in our communities and we are calling on all the community groups to reject their presence, and to reject their messages of division.”
Owen Ryan has been a journalist with the Clare Champion since 2007, having previously worked for a number of other regional titles in Limerick, Galway and Cork.