Galway county councillor Tom Welby called on Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan to “come west” to Oughterard to face angry ordinary citizens. The Taoiseach is the prime minister and head of government of Ireland.
Some 1500 people participated in a march through the town, to express opposition to a migrant centre opening at the former Connemara Gateway Hotel. Welby led the march from the village’s Roman Catholic church and finished at the former hotel.
— Sinéad Ní Neachtain (@SineadNiN) September 14, 2019
Many young families wearing yellow safety vests also participated, carrying banners stating “Oughterard says NO”.
The march took place a day after the Taoiseach called on Noel Grealish to “withdraw” and clarify his claim at a meeting in Oughterard last week that African asylum seekers are economic migrants coming to Ireland to “sponge” off taxpayers, the Irish Times reported.
Welby however said people in Oughterard were “not upset” at what Grealish had said. “They are upset that he is being asked to apologise,” according to Welby, who chaired a meeting of citizens attended by an estimated 800 people last Wednesday.
“The media is focusing on one word, as in ‘sponge’,” Welby said. “If Noel Grealish had used the word ‘avail of’ [taxpayers], no one would be talking about it,” the councillor pointed out.
“This is a 60-bed hotel, and we are hearing figures of 200 to 250 people being housed here…that is a 20 per cent increase in the population of Oughterard overnight,”he said.
“I’d ask the media to investigate the system of direct provision, rather than focusing on Noel’s remarks,” Welby added.
But Moroccon resident Sammy Nawi said Grealish should apologise. Nawi, a chef, has lived for the past seven years in the town.
The petition and march were being held to highlight the fact that Oughterard did not have the capacity for a reception centre. The community complained that “its voice was not being listened to”.
At last Wednesday night’s meeting, Grealish said: “Now I have worked with one or two Syrian families. These were genuine refugees who were persecuted in their homeland, because they were Christian, by ISIS. They were housed around Galway, put in houses, they were accepted by communities.”
But he said migrants from Africa were different. “These are economic migrants. These are people coming over here from Africa to sponge off the system here in Ireland,” Grealish said.
Those opposed say Oughterard does not have the facilities to accommodate such a large influx of people. Even the Galway Anti Racism Network joined the march against what it describes as the “inhumane” Direct Provision system and how it treats asylum seekers. But the network has also called Grealish to apologise for comments.
The network said they were “very concerned about anti-immigration outside actors infiltrating what it says is a legitimate protest movement”.