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Lessons from the Achill saga

Comment & Opinion

Edwin McGreal

Trying to simplify the complexities of events in Achill these past two weeks isn’t, frankly, simple.
So people who choose to throw around terms like ‘racists’ and ‘bigots’ at the people of Achill are failing to examine the nuance of what has been a horrible spell in the locality.
Similarly, those demonstrating at the Achill Head Hotel have to understand how their actions look from afar. Regardless of their motivations, their intransigence can and is being interpreted as them being outright against asylum seekers coming to the island.
I’m not from Achill but I am lucky enough to live and be raising a family in the parish (the island itself and villages on the Currane peninsula make up the parish of Achill).
Are there racist people in Achill? Absolutely. That should not come as a shock to anyone because there are racist people in every town and village in the country. Walk into any local pub and you will hear racist sentiments being expressed.
Achill is like anywhere else in this regard.
And it is like anywhere else in the sense racism is held by a very small minority of people.
Is the village of Pollagh racist? If you are branding the protest racist, then you are branding the village racist because the vast majority of people in the small village have been taking part in the demonstration.
The reality is, of course, that Pollagh is not a racist village. You can rightly criticise the protesters for their approach or their stance, but to label them racist is off the mark.
And, of course, by extension, to brand the entire island as racist is clearly wrong.
Speaking on Friday both to demonstrators at the Achill Head Hotel and to members of the welcoming group, it was clear they shared much common ground, with both sides criticising the Government for its poor handling of plans to move asylum seekers to the island. Where they differ, fundamentally, is how to approach and react.
It was also clear that high levels of anguish are common to both groups. Many people from both sides used the word ‘heartbroken’.
The saga has taken a huge toll on the island, on friendships and on relationships. Events on Achill must surely be seen as a template for how not to engage with a local community.

Those on the protest (though they insist on calling it a ‘silent vigil’) have two core points that they wish to make. The first refers to the lack of consultation, while the second is what they say is the unsuitability of both the hotel and its surroundings.
Now many people have argued that these arguments are a cloak, that locals are only using these points to cover an outright objection to asylum seekers arriving.
But if we are to learn anything from Achill, then the issues have to be examined in their totality.
All sorts of wild rumours spread in the first hours when this story began to leak locally. The vacuum left by the clandestine management of matters by the Department of Justice and Equality created the perfect environment for rumours, suspicion and fears, often unfounded, to thrive. Especially in an area of Ireland where so many feel they’ve been forgotten by the State.
An open approach, though not without its own risks, would have allowed the community to know exactly what was being planned and could have calmed tensions from the get go.
Instead, while the story broke locally of asylum seekers arriving the next day, there was no official statement for another eight days.
Before the statement, the only semi-official information available was that which had been chased up by local councillor Paul McNamara – information that he said was very difficult to get.
What does the department expect with such a secretive approach?
Then the Government swung the other way last Thursday and Friday, with a full court press. If the Government and the department had been a bit more proactive and a lot less reactive in their strategy, it might not have come to that.

Of course, proper communication would still have left the issue of the location of the emergency centre.
Department officials confirmed to local representatives at a meeting last Wednesday that no assessment or inspection of the area was carried out.
No assessment of local school capacity. No consideration of the fact that aside from the hotel itself, a church is the sole amenity in the village of Pollagh. Or of the village’s small population, which stands at just 76. Or of the island’s pitiably poor public transport service. Not to mention the immense distance that any Pollagh-based asylum seeker would be forced to travel to access critical asylum-application services in Dublin.
You might think the demonstrators are disingenuous in making the points about the unsuitability of the location or the hotel. People are free to interpret events as they see fit.
But looked at from a wider perspective, the lack of any sort of feasibility study is incredible.
Achill people’s assertion that they cannot cope with asylum seekers has been criticised in light of the thousands of tourists who descend on the island every year.
There’s some merit to that argument, but it can be a tad simplistic too and goes to the heart of what people at the protest are arguing. Tourists are self-sufficient. And take it from me, if there is one thing you cannot survive without on Achill, it is a car. A train has not serviced  Achill since 1936. Bus services are few. Bus Éireann only comes through the village I live in once a week, for instance.
But the asylum seekers arriving to stay in the Achill Head Hotel will not have the means to independence that most of us living here have and need. There is little enough to do and, having experienced the last five winters here, I can also attest that winter on Achill can be bleak and desolate.

Logistical challenges
It is no coincidence that all the places where direct provision centres and emergency centres have opened or have been proposed are small towns (a small village in the case of Pollagh).
The business need for such contracts is much greater in quieter, more remote locations, with hotel owners likely to be more willing to accept the Government’s financial offers. Cost-effectiveness appears to be a much greater priority for the Government than finding adequately resourced locations for people fleeing war and persecution. The lack of a feasibility study on Achill stands as testament to this.
There has been much undeserved criticism of the owner of the Achill Head Hotel. He has been vilified for what was ultimately a business decision; the only criticism might be that he could have ensured the rear of the hotel was in much better condition.
But the location is a huge issue. Any assessment of the area would have shown it to be an unsuitable location, so it is a bit rich for the Government to be trying to take the moral high ground now.
Especially when you consider that they are the latest Irish government to preside over the disgrace that is the Direct Provision system and do precious little to address it. To hear Charlie Flanagan talk about a moral obligation is nauseating.
It was telling to hear from Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, the predecessor to the current integration minister David Stanton, on Friday last on Newstalk.
Ó Ríordáin said the Department of Justice is ‘completely ill-equipped’ to deal with Direct Provision and said management of Direct Provision should go to another government department. That came from a man with firsthand experience of working on such issues with public servants in the department.
It is a very telling point, and one that has been lost in the debate since. The saga that is playing out on Achill only serves to prove his point.
It is possible to disagree strongly with the protest yet acknowledge that the Government’s handling of this whole saga and the wider issue of Direct Provision has been nothing short of shameful.
That would be a position that many in the local welcoming group would hold. Interviews with these people last Friday would show anyone that the island is full of kind-hearted people.
The welcoming group is a reminder that regardless of what quarrels Achill might have with the State, the vast majority of the people of Achill would offer a warm and sincere welcome to asylum seekers. They would help them get acquainted with the island and prove how decent, friendly and welcoming the people of the island are. This doubtless applies to the protestors too.

Lessons for all
If the Government is as concerned about helping people coming from perilous situations as it says it is, it would ensure State facilities are adequately resourced to cater for people who need help.
But, as we see with the homeless crisis – and a crisis that should be neither compared with nor expected to compete with asylum seekers – the Government is not very good at reacting with the required urgency in a crisis.
But there are many lessons to be learned from this episode on Achill and similar ones throughout Ireland.
No doubt, given not only our history but also our basic humanity, we should do what we can to help those fleeing from peril and those coming to try to make a better life for themselves.
The initial news that all 38 asylum seekers would be male sparked concerns locally. Following subsequent negotiations, plans were changed: 13 women would be arriving, followed by 25 people, labeled as ‘families’.
That was a victory for the protestors – but instead of walking away, they dug their heels in.
It was clear from talking to people at the demonstration on Friday that they are very angry. They had, if anything, become more entrenched since the public meeting nine days beforehand.
If labels about you are being thrown around, and you feel that no one is listening to you and that you are repeatedly ignored by official channels, instead of being open to compromise, you can become more hardline, circling the wagons and only trusting those around you. You start to look on anyone else with suspicion.
Sometimes these things take on a life of their own. What started out with good intentions becomes stubbornness as the world and its daughter rushes to criticise you. Sometimes in such situations, when you feel your area and your people are under attack, it can be hard to see the wood from the trees, hard to take a step back.
Right now the sensible course of action would be to stand down, for the hotel to take the asylum seekers, for locals to support them in integrating locally – as all sides have committed to doing – and make the best of what faces them.
The community can also proactively work on a proposal to welcome people onto Achill in a more-integrated fashion, as they have stressed they are happy to do.
That is one way they can counter allegations of racism in the medium term. But right now, locals in Pollagh need to realise that the best way they can counter such allegations is to stand back from their demonstration and welcome the asylum seekers to Achill, and do all in their power to help these newcomers overcome the many challenges they will face here.
To continue to make their points and arguments in another fashion, and hope, perhaps against hope, that the Government will finally realise that it needs to do things very differently in the future.
For while the Government has been very good at pointing fingers during this whole mess, the reality is that it also needs to take a good, long look in the mirror.