A LISDOONVARNA resident, who set up a welcome group for asylum seekers living in direct provision, has decided to lift the lid on her experience of intimidation at the hands of what she believes to be far right agitators.
Theresa O’Donohue, who has been active in welcoming asylum seekers to the North Clare village, says that “exasperation” at the secrecy still surrounding the process of housing asylum seekers in rural communities has motivated her to write a book to expose those trying to exploit the information vacuum.
“Lessons have not been learned,” she says, “and that’s incredibly frustrating. I had no intention of doing this. And then Oughterard happened. I was exasperated that this is still happening in terms of the Department [of Justice] and communities. The lack of information. It’s demoralising when it’s happened in your own community and it’s still going on. The Department haven’t learned any lessons.”
Reflecting on the atmosphere around the time the news broke early last year of the conversion of The King Thomond Hotel into a Direct Provision centre, Theresa says that answers were in short supply, while rumours raged:
“Trying to get information was very strange because the elected representative didn’t know anything. Only the Department knew, and there weren’t exactly jumping up and down to provide information.”
Against that backdrop, Theresa believes the atmosphere was ripe for the infiltration of those with anti-immigration agendas.
“There was a lot of scaremongering at the start and the circulation of videos about crime and the distribution of a leaflet to stoke fear. The community is vulnerable and these guys come in and they exploit and manipulate. It’s the ideal kindling for that sort of a fire. They come into a fraught situation and they exploit people’s fears and the lack of information.They feed people with their venom.”
Theresa is reluctant to delve into too much detail on her personal experiences but feels that others can learn from what she went through.
“Those of us who put together the welcome group were targeted,” she explains. “They took a shot of our Facebook page, showing the administrators and then they started posting about us and looking into our lives and our backgrounds. Some members left because of the intimidation and it was a bit of a scary time. Not many people would have known that that was happening, but I think it’s important now that people are aware that the people are going into communities and pretending to offer them support and information, and talking about protecting their heritage.”
Theresa says the intimidation reached a point where she had to take a stand.
“I wrote a blog about it and pointed out that we were more afraid of the far right than we were of any asylum seekers coming in. I don’t know if that made any difference.” She also feels a sense of frustration that those targeting her appeared to be beyond the reach of law.
“The fact is that there are no laws to stop their actions. I could take a civil case, but why would I do that. We need to stop what’s going on.
“Then you see what happened to Martin Kenny. We cannot tolerate this in Irish society. We need to stand up and say, ‘No, you can’t do this here’. People need to know what they did and how repulsive this is and then we might be able to take a stand against them.”
Theresa says she is aware that outside forces continue to portray the experience of Lisdoonvarna, with a view to swaying opinion in the other rural areas like Achill.
“The truth is that the far right didn’t get the narrative in Lisdoonvarna that they thought they would. At the end of the day, I think most people wouldn’t even notice the Direct Provision centre, because life has gone on as normal. Lots of people have had very good experiences.”
Although a reluctant author, and a novice – Theresa has set up a Go Fund Me page to support her venture, and says any proceeds with go towards MASI, the Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland local support groups – she believes the real story of what happened in the North Clare village must be documented.
“The whole point is to expose the abuse we got and the attacks on us – the fact that this racism and zenophobia is present. I want to address the misinformation, the fear-mongering and the bullying that happened. I want to expose that and to call on the Government to change its strategies. If we all stay quiet forever, nothing ever changes.”