The racist attack that rendered a village mute

Arson attack on direct provision center has created a fearful silence

I was frustrated and disappointed when I first heard the news that the closed hotel in my village was going to become a Direct Provision centre. It would be yet another episode in the series of government failures to provide for those whose lives are at risk, and to protect their right to refuge. Since the news broke, the small village of Rooskey in Co. Roscommon has gained national media attention as the hotel was subject to two arson attacks.

“These were racist attacks with deliberate intent, and not mere vandalism.”

The hotel has been closed since 2011 with the fires taking place following the announcement that asylum seekers would be housed there. These were racist attacks with deliberate intent, and not mere vandalism. Preceded by a similar attack on a hotel in Moville, Co. Donegal, the story sparked a national conversation about racism in Ireland. The attack is part of a larger picture. It is the story of the government’s failure to protect asylum seekers, rural Ireland, and the village of Rooskey.

Direct provision is the reception system in which those seeking asylum in Ireland live and are processed. The State provides asylum seekers with essential services such as accommodation, board, and a small weekly allowance. It is mainly operated by private operators under the control of the Reception and Integration Agency, part of the Department of Justice. President Michael D. Higgins has criticised the system as being “totally unsatisfactory in almost every aspect”. Many of these centres are placed in rural communities despite the Irish Refugee Council’s submission on the standard of these centres, recommending that new centres are “close to support services, communities, and amenities”, and that “integration services and strategies apply to people from the point at which they make their asylum claim”.

Rooskey does not fit the recommendations of the Irish Refugee Council. The village with a population of 564 has been one of the many victims of rural decline in recent years. It faced the loss of the largest local employer after the Glanbia factory burned down in 2002, the loss of bus services, the closure of its hotel, and the looming threat of losing its post office. Local residents have expressed concerns over the capacity of the local primary school and GP services to support a sudden influx of the 80 new residents. Rooskey appeared to be yet another forgotten village where the government would place asylum seekers in the hope that they would be forgotten too.

“It offered an opportunity for the community to come together, as with the festival, and have a unified response.”

Locals had recently come together to create the successful Rooskey Heritage Festival to celebrate all the village has to offer, with part of the profits from the festival going towards supporting the local Tidy Towns group and other community groups. The festival allowed some optimism for local residents, the festival’s strength being the support from the entire local community. When the news of a direct provision centre opening broke in local news outlets, it offered an opportunity for the community to come together, as with the festival, and have a unified response. Unfortunately, this was not to be the case.

Myself and many other residents viewed it as a crucial moment in the national spotlight to advocate for investment in infrastructure and services, for both existing residents of the village and any new residents that may arrive. This opportunity to appeal for necessary services such as a regular bus service, a community healthcare centre, and another teacher for the local school was lost, stolen following an arson attack on the hotel. I was horrified and couldn’t believe that this had happened where I grew up. The attack devastated the local community. National media stepped in and Rooksey residents were caught in the flurry of a media storm. The voices of those welcoming the news, of those critiquing direct provision but welcoming asylum seekers, and of any reasonable conversation were stolen by the attacker.

The second arson attack took place with two security guards and a foreman still in the building. While nobody was injured, the second attempt showed a worrying determination from the attacker and no regard for human life. The “No To Racism: Asylum Seekers Welcome” rally took place following the second attack. The rally was criticised locally, as not many Rooskey residents were present. Many residents of the village felt that an anti-racism rally implied that racism is a significant problem in Rooskey. I don’t believe that an anti-racism rally brands the whole village racist, however I do understand locals’ fear in expressing their support or solidarity with asylum seekers following the attack. National news outlets reported a “clash” and “confrontations” as a woman interrupted the rally to express her objection to situating asylums seekers in Rooskey, with videos of the incident quickly circling on social media.

The clash shows the frustration of local people not being heard. The feeling was that national media wasn’t representing the village accurately, and that the village’s narrative was being hijacked, be that by Gemma O’Doherty labelling the attacks as “#fakeracism” or by the rally organisers themselves.

“It is too easy just to see Rooskey as the story of a xenophobic attack.”

It is too easy just to see Rooskey as the story of a xenophobic attack. In reality, it is a reflection of a much larger story of an inadequate and inhumane reception for asylum seekers, rural decline, and hijacking narratives. It is the story of a racist attack that stole a village’s voice. As of February 21, there is a metal fence around the hotel in question. Despite the attacks, local sources say that asylum seekers will arrive in less than two weeks. It is unknown whether the fence will stay up or be removed.

If you have read about Rooskey as it hit the headlines, I ask you to see the larger picture. To question why are direct provision centres still being opened, despite being frequently cited as inhumane? Furthermore, why are these centres being placed in rural areas lacking services and infrastructure? And why hasn’t this been stopped?

Despite the fear that Rooskey residents might have, it is more important than ever that the village takes back its voice. I ask my neighbours and Rooskey to stand together, to work together, and to speak together with one voice against this racist attack. I ask students to offer a welcome to these new arrivals who have had so much taken from them and who are losing their own narrative. Rooskey has so much to gain from the situation if we stand together, old residents and new, and take control of our narrative to help those who have lost theirs. Students should rally around direct provision activism in College, and events like this should illuminate the importance of their action.