Concerns raised over influx of 'unvetted' refugees to county

“There will be trouble. It wouldn’t be me. But I’d be afraid of what will be brought up,” voiced a fearful Aiden Fitzpatrick on speculation that the landmark White Horse Hotel in Cootehill might soon be used to house refugees.

The rumour circulating locally suggests that up to “100 Syrian men” are set to arrive by bus at a moment’s notice. Cllr Fitzpatrick asked what the reaction might be if the same number of Irish men were deposited anywhere in the world without warning.

The welcoming of refugees, Cllr Fitzpatrick said, was an increasingly “sensitive subject” particularly in areas where support services and infrastructure are already strained. His motion demanded that the council write to the relevant authority or body asking what plans are in place to assist towns and villages get the ‘necessary services and resources to help communities accommodate incoming refugees’.

Earlier Cllr Fitzpatrick described the uncertain situation regarding the hotel in Cootehill as the “elephant in the room”. He sat aghast when informed that, due to European wide introduced legislation, accommodation could be transformed for emergency use without planning permission, or public consultation.

If the hotel were to be used to accommodate refugees, it would result in a situation where one in five people living in the town were “not Irish”.

It was however, he acknowledged, a “small” complaint to make in the face of the devastation faced by those fleeing persecution, but still it remained a concern for the community he represented.

There were already issues in the town in terms of providing supports for young people, including problems around crime and addiction. Cootehill has already welcomed Ukrainian refugees, and Cllr Fitzpatrick said local schools are bursting at the seams, GP lists inundated, and crèches heavily over-subscribed. There needs to be some additional level of support offered to communities taking in refugees rather than simply having “a bus with refugees arriving in the middle of the night” to Cootehill or any other town in the county.

“People will not be happy,” he warned.

The debate, spurred also by a separate motion tabled by Aontú’s Sarah O’Reilly, veered from its initial point. So much so that Cathaoirleach John Paul Feeley sharply rebuked another councillor for comments made.

Sinn Féin’s Paddy McDonald suggested that one only needed to look at the “names” of people “appearing all the time” in the court pages of The Anglo-Celt “with 20, 30 or 40” previous convictions for insight.

“We need to start looking after ourselves,” said Cllr McDonald.

Cllr Feeley, a solicitor by trade, responded that there were lots of people before the courts with “names like my own”, who regularly appeared judges because of a “tradition of crime” within their own families, had “never contributed a red cent” and instead “only terrorised their neighbours and An Garda Síochána”.

He immediately pointed to two recent cases where suspended sentences were handed down in courts in Dublin. “They weren’t from Romania, or Buglaria, or Syria. They were good Irish names. I think we should reflect on that too.”

Cllr O’Reilly’s motion had focused on asking the Minister for Justice “what steps” are being taken to reduce the asylum processing time in Ireland “considering the enormous pressure on the asylum process currently in Ireland and the burden on the State”.

She stated that “5,000 asylum seekers” had arrived in Ireland “without valid travel documents” last year. “That’s 40% of the total number of people applying for asylum. The cost of providing accommodation for one year for an asylum applicant is €18,568. The median wait time for an asylum applicant is one and a half years. This means that the cost of providing accommodation for those who provide ‘false or no documentation’ on their arrival is €141m.”

Cllr O’Reilly further pointed out: “The longest wait for processing is over 14 years. That is not acceptable.”

She said that those who “destroy their travel documents to confuse the application process” should be “sent home” on arrival.

“We cannot entertain for years, those who are not asylum seekers but pretend to be,” remarked Cllr O’Reilly, who suggested that airlines and ferry services should also “be held to account”.

“In all the discussions I have been hearing there is little said about cracking down on human trafficking. The government must, where possible, work out whether migrants have criminal records. Again, this is a tiny cohort but access to Ireland should not be given to those who have criminal convictions.”

She added that people do not want the offer of asylum in Ireland “abused”, where pressure on the system is already resulting in Irish people and asylum applicants “sleeping on the streets”.

“It is very important that we do the right thing by those who need help. We can not to do that, if we don’t have the systems to identify who really needs help.”

Cllr O’Reilly described the government’s “mismanagement” of the current situation as a “disaster” that is serving only to create “real division” in Irish society.

“Proposing to bring large numbers of people into an area that is already deprived must be accompanied by a community dividend and real investment into housing and services,” she said. “People must be allowed to respectfully and openly discuss the government’s mismanagement of the migration and refugee issue without being called names. Many people have real and legitimate concerns in how the government is handling the refugee and international protection process. They are entitled to articulate these concerns. Calling people names for articulating real concerns, you simply push these concerns underground where they will be capitalised on by actual racists.”

Fine Gael’s Carmel Brady, who offered support for the motions, agreed that it was a “delicate subject” for which “something has to be done”.

TP O’Reilly (FG) accepted too that the processing system for asylum applications in Ireland urgently needs to be improved. He said of many Ukrainian arrivals: “They can contribute a lot.”

Cllr Feeley acknowledged also that the arrival of Ukrainian refugees to Blacklion had been welcomed, hampered only by their inability to take up employment across the Border, not by their willingness.

He noted too that many of the people fleeing “persecution” from likes of the regime in Syria for example would, due to their variance of opinion with the political structure in place, often have criminal convictions, merited or otherwise.

“Of all the countries in Western Europe, we should understand that the most.”

At the end, a frustrated Cllr O’Reilly said the thrust of her motion had gotten somewhat “conflated” with other issues. There existed a “lack” of engagement with local communities. She said that needs to change and this would assist in combating the rise of “disinformation” around such subjects.

“There is a huge body of work that needs to done.”

In relation to the White Horse Hotel, it should be noted that Thomas Brady of Old Bridge Road, Cootehill, is seeking a renewal of the liquor licence for the property.