By Gráinne Ní Aodha, PA
Roderic O’Gorman has said that communication could have been better with members of the Co Clare community who mounted a protest in response to 30 asylum seekers arriving by bus at night.
The Minister for Equality and Integration said he hoped that once locals spend time with the asylum seekers that would change attitudes towards the men, who are from countries such as Afghanistan, Algeria and the Congo.
A road leading to Magowna House Hotel in Inch had been blocked by locals using tractors, cars and sileage bales since Monday night, with people working shifts to man what has been dubbed as a “blockade”.
On Sunday, the protesters indicated they would lift the blockade, a move welcomed by the junior minister for integration.
Locals had cited a lack of communication and the unsuitability of the disused hotel as the reason for the protest – the men are being housed in three bungalows on the grounds of the hotel.
There has been a focus on immigration this week as dozens of asylum seekers have been forced to sleep in tents near the International Protection Office in Dublin.
One makeshift camp set up by asylum seekers was also set alight last weekend, which prompted discussions between ministers and the Garda Commissioner Drew Harris on policing resources.
Speaking to Newstalk’s On The Record on Sunday, Mr O’Gorman said that of the 520 people without offers of State accommodation, beds have been offered to 220 this week, leaving 300 others without an offer as yet.
“So, between Friday and Saturday, we’ve been able to offer accommodation to 220 of the 520 people who are unaccommodated,” he said.
“The unaccommodated list is reduced now to 300. We’ll be able to reduce further next week with more offers, and then in the subsequent week there’ll be more accommodation coming on as well.”
In relation to Inch, Mr O’Gorman said it was “really disappointing” to hear reports of some asylum seekers leaving Magowna House Hotel and added that the plans could have been communicated with locals quicker.
“We were in a really pressured situation at that time in terms of trying to secure accommodation for people who are on the streets,” he said.
“We’ve gotten better at getting information out to local reps and communities, but I recognise that in the situation in Inch it was very tight there, and that’s a legitimate criticism.
“We didn’t get the information out as early as we should have in Inch, and I think that’s one of the reasons why this has become such a contentious thing.”
He said he had held 20-25 meetings this year to communicate the accommodation of Ukrainian refugees or asylum seekers with residents groups or local representatives, and that this is easier to do online.
“From the groups I’ve met, often people have preconceptions about international protection applicants, particularly male international protection applicants,” he said.
“My experience is that after IP applicants have been living in a place for a while, those preconceptions disappear because people either meet them, and see they’re just normal people, or they don’t meet them, their paths don’t cross, and no issue arises.”
He said that Minister of State for Integration Joe O’Brien visited the accommodation at Magowna House Hotel and spoke to some of the international protection applicants living there.
“He met a delegation of the local community in Ennis and I know they were talking to him further on Friday. I think he’s waiting to hear back for them in terms of the next steps they propose to take.”
On Sunday morning, as news emerged that locals intended to lift the blockade, Minister of State for Integration Joe O’Brien said that he was pleased engagement had somewhat improved the situation.
“I welcome the decision of the residents to remove the blockade,” he said in a statement.
“My meeting with the residents on Thursday, in Ennis, was an honest, open discussion and I am pleased that that engagement has helped bring some improvement to the situation.
“I look forward to working with the provider and my officials to develop a programme of education, training & other supports for the people residing in Magowna House.
“I look forward to returning to Magowna in four weeks as agreed.”
On other matters, he said that broadening out the visa system to lower-skilled workers could be of benefit, but added the international protection system should not be used to fix problems in the Irish economy – such as a shortage of workers in some sectors.
He added: “I know, for example, Dublin Bus have been going to other countries in terms of trying to recruit bus drivers at the moment.
“I don’t want international protection conflated with, I suppose, the needs of our economy. International protection is there for a very specific reason. It’s for people who are fleeing war, fleeing conflict.
“I think it’s right that those people are allowed to work here after a period of time, because it’s not healthy for people to be doing nothing for a long period of time. But I don’t think we should be seeing the people in international protection as a solution to labour shortages in the labour market.
“Let’s do with that in the more appropriate way, which is looking at the visa system.”