Credit: Houses of the Oireachtas (CC 2.0) / Local source (L)

Columb Barracks could be used for longer than 12 months to house refugees, Tánaiste admits

Columb Barracks in Mullingar may have to be used to house International Protection Applicants and refugees for longer than the 12 months initially stated, Tánaiste Micheál Martin has admitted, according to a report in this week’s Westmeath Examiner.

The Department of Integration’s use of the sprawling premises has been the source of tension in the local area since its announcement. In February, the Department confirmed that 120 single male IP applicants would be housed at the former army barracks, which has seen ongoing protests from locals in recent months.

The former army barracks had previously been used by up to 30 community groups and businesses, and as a training base for GAA clubs and a local boxing club. The decision to repurpose the huge space caused disagreement, including among business owners, as reported by Gript in March.

The Westmeath Examiner reports that during a visit to Mullingar last Friday, the Tánaiste said that it is currently “too hard to tell” whether the barracks will have to be used to accommodate displaced people for longer than the 12-month-period that was first proposed by the department earlier this year. He said that “a lot depends on the course of the war in Ukraine.”

“A lot remains to be seen,” he said as per the Westmeath Examiner.

“Part of the issue is that Putin has used migration as a weapon  in the war. That’s what he does. That’s why he bombed residential areas in Ukraine. We have had the largest displacement of people on the continent of Europe since World War II. Twelve million Ukrainians have been displaced, five to siz million internally, the rest going abroad. So it is hard to tell,” he said.

The Tánaiste was asked by the local paper about the housing of International Protection (IP) applicants in Columb Barracks, and other locations around the country. In response, he said he was aware of the “pressures” on people and on communities.

“I do not underestimate the pressures on people, or on communities, but this is not a peace time,” he said. However, he said he believed “there’s too much conflict in the world” at present. Mr Martin said that the war in Ukraine was a factor leading to trauma, but he also pointed to factors including “climate change impacts” which have led to migration.

“There’s too much conflict in the world and many people are going through terrible ordeals and trauma because of conflict, and hence migration is on the increase. We see that obviously in terms of the war in Ukraine, but there are many other wars and climate change impacts which have people on the move, and that creates the migratory patterns we’re experiencing,” he told The Westmeath Examiner.

He was also questioned about the proposal to house around 240 IP applicants at Middleton Park in nearby Castetown Geoghegan and the concerns felt by the local community there. He acknowledged that “issues have been raised in terms of balance and proportionality”.

“All of these issues can be worked through. I take the points that have been made in respect of that,” he said.

Mr Martin appeared to take aim at protestors in Inch, Clare, a group of local residents who have drawn national attention for their protest against the sudden opening of a migrant centre in their village. 

As reported by Gript last week, the Clare residents say they feel “disappointed and let down” by Minister Roderic O’Gorman, who declined to meet them in person to hear their concerns, and they have insisted that protests will continue to take place outside Magowna House Hotel until the decision to house migrants there is overturned. 

Ireland’s intake of refugees and asylum seekers, Mr Martin said, “reflects the welcome that many have received, and the degree to which many communities across the country have not been engaged in blockades, rather the opposite, and they have been working to help people settle down, acclimate and integrate.”

There has been continued strain relating to the unfolding situation at the landmark site. As per a report from earlier this month in local paper The Westmeath Topic, disquiet between locals and refugees is only continuing to grow as both groups struggle to “find a way to work together.”

According to a report by local journalist Robert Kindregan for the Topic at the start of May, the community usage of the former Barracks turned community hub is estimated to have dropped by 70% since the arrival of asylum seekers in March – according to local group, the Columb Barracks Regeneration and Restoration Committee (CBRRC).

The voluntary organisation, which is responsible for transforming the historic site, told the Topic that the fall in community usage can be attributed to a number of reasons, including the large security presence there, and the ongoing works at the site.

The Department of Integration previously told the local paper that they “will only be using the barracks for a 12-month period due to record numbers of asylum seekers arriving in the country on top of refugees arriving in Ireland who are fleeing the ongoing war in Ukraine”.

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