Offaly councillors clash over issue of asylum seekers
There were sharp exchanges in the chamber as Offaly's county councillors discussed the issue of immigration and asylum at the December meeting of the full council on Monday, December 16.
The discussion came on foot of the introduction and adoption of Offaly's brand new migrant integration strategy for 2020 to 2024. The strategy was presented by Sara Stephens and presented a report on the migrant population in the county and the plans to create "inclusive communities" and "education, training and employment opportunities" for non-Irish nationals making Offaly their home, both long and short-term.
Cllr Declan Harvey read a prepared statement calling it a "practical strategy" and recommending its adoption while Cllr Liam Quinn similarly thanked staff members for their work on it.
Cllr John Leahy then spoke and while he praised staff for work on the strategy, he took issue with housing solutions allegedly being found for migrants over natives on the social housing list for a number of years.
"We're discriminating against Offaly citizens on the social housing list. We're seeing migrants not long on the list, or in some instances for a few hours, getting houses ahead of people on the list seven or eight years," he claimed.
"I cannot stand idly by when this is happening and I can't answer people who ask me why this is going on. To have an intercultural society, it needs to be fair and it should comply with existing rules of housing lists," he added.
Chief Executive of the council, Anna Marie Delaney, immediately refuted the claim made by Cllr Leahy, explaining that the programme for housing refugees is a separate one to the local housing list and that Offaly County Council is obligated to comply with that separate mechanism by the Department of Justice.
"Under the current round of this resettlement programme for refugees, we [Offaly County Council] have 25 families designated to Offaly. This is a separate system and I certainly would not consider the process discrimination and that needs to be clear," she stated.
Cllr Neil Feighery claimed some comments made in the chamber by other councillors were "intentionally divisive," adding, "we can rise above that here in Offaly." He thanked Chief Executive Anna Marie Delaney for her clarification.
Despite having earlier read a statement recommending the adoption of the migrant integration strategy, Cllr Declan Harvey said, "I have to kind of agree with Cllr Leahy. People down town are asking me how some of these people are getting housed before them or people they know on the list."
Despite the comments, the strategy was adopted by the council.
Later at Monday's meeting, exchanges were once again heightened when Cllr Frank Moran read a motion regarding the allocation of emergency asylum centres in the county into the record.
Cllr Moran's motion read: "I call on Offaly County Council to invite Minister Charlie Flanagan or an official from his Department to come before this council to tell us as public representatives if any sites in Offaly are being considered for direct provision."
Cllr Moran then said a decision for such a centre was made on the Offaly/Westmeath border last year "with little or no consultation or community engagement."
"I am not against direct provision but stakeholders should be consulted before such contracts are agreed. The lack of communication, which is all we want, is an absolute disgrace," the Clara councillor added.
Cllr Neil Feighery claimed it was "not practical" for Fianna Fail to call on Minister Charlie Flanagan to appear before the chamber. He said: "We do not have large camps like other countries in Europe and I hope scenes at potential centres seen elsewhere in the country are not repeated here."
Cllr John Leahy said he welcomed Cllr Moran's motion and fully supported it. He said the Department [Justice] has "not engaged or communicated with us despite previous attempts and requests to this one today."
Cllr Tony McCormack described the motion as "a sensitive subject." He said: "I welcome anyone coming to this county that needs to be looked after but the current asylum system is just not fit for purpose."
"Communication is key," he added. Cllr McCormack used Tullamore as an example where getting a doctor's appointment is hard and said the current asylum system has an undoubted strain on services, including health and education.
"It's simply not fair to bring more people into a situation where services are already stretched without public or stakeholder consultation."
He concluded by saying, "I welcome Sara's [Sara Stephens] strategy because it is the correct approach and the right way with forward planning but I don't think the current system from the Department is the way forward."