Credit: Local Source

Tensions flare at Columb Barracks in Mullingar as refugees and locals remain divided

There is growing tension relating to the unfolding situation in Columb Barracks in Mullingar, where a number of international protection (IP) applicants are currently being housed.

As per a report in this week’s Westmeath Topic, discontent between locals and refugees is only continuing to grow as refugees and local groups “try to find a way to work together”.

According to a report by local journalist Robert Kindregan for the Topic, 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. 

“Heavy machinery is now operating on the site daily as the Department of Integration is in the process of installing 64 portacabin-type units for the purpose of housing refugees,” the Topic reports.

It adds that flat back porta cabins have already arrived at the former community hub and foundations have been put in place for their installation. Meanwhile, it is understood that “large holes” have been dug up in the main square for plumbing pipes, while 17 mature trees were cut down last week to accommodate the new units, as reported by Gript.

The Department of Integration 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”.

Credit: Land Development Agency (LDA)

Chairperson of CBR, Helen Donnelly, told the Topic that community groups “feel like a thorn in the backside” of the Government’s plans for the former army barracks.

At the end of March, locals in Mullingar told Gript of their deep frustration over the government’s handling of the refugee crisis, just days after protests erupted in the county Westmeath town over the proposed use of the barracks to house migrants.

The former Military Barracks, which closed in 2012, has been the scene of a string of protests, with locals regularly gathering at the gates. 

Back in February, the Department of Integration confirmed that 120 single male international protection applicants would be housed at the former army Barracks in the County Westmeath town, sparking concern from some locals. The Barracks is situated beside a local Gaelscoil, and many of those harbouring concerns and protesting have been mothers of young children, a local source told Gript in March.

The 25-acre space is used by up to 30 community groups and businesses. It was used as a training base for GAA clubs and as a base for a local boxing club, before it became a refugee centre.

It is understood that the Department of Integration is currently managing the area of Columb Barracks after it was handed over by the Department of Defence in early March to be turned into accommodation for International Protection Applicants and refugees. 

It has been confirmed that 55 International Protection Applicants (IP) are currently being housed across 15 tents at the former army Barracks. Local paper The Westmeath Topic reports this week that there has been a “large, 24/7, private security presence” at the Barracks since the night of 24 March.

The Topic reports this week that Mullingar’s Ukrainian community now say they have been “locked out” of their hub in Block E of the Barracks by members of SkillsXchange, who remain operational at the facility. 

“Serious accusations such as theft and sabotage have been made from both sides of the dispute, which has resulted in the situation being discussed in the Council Chamber last week,” the Westmeath Topic states.

One local councillor told the paper that the situation is now “exceptionally dangerous” at the historic site – with tempers reaching “boiling point” over the use of the hub.

The Ukrainian hub was set up in April 2022, and was used for meetings, holding classes, and collecting donations, washing clothes, and cooking food, the paper reports.

It is understood that the hub initially ran smoothly, however after additional rules were imposed on the Ukrainian community in January time – following allegations against the Ukrainians by SkillsXchange, an educational resource provider – tensions started to emerge and worsen. The education provider which operates on the site, alleges that the refugees were “staying up too late at night and not keeping the place clean,” as per the Westmeath Topic. 

“Members of the SkillsXchange said that the Ukrainian community in Mullingar had not abided by the rules set out for all community groups at Columb Barracks,” the paper reports this week.

“They said that they were volunteers and that, as key holders, their lives were being disrupted, having to stay late to lock up at Block E”.

Rules which were introduced included a reduction in the amount of hours Ukrainians were allowed to use the facilities at their hub, which ended up totalling four hours per week, it is understood.

Meanwhile, the Ukrainian community deny they stayed up after hours, and claim that “certain people have wanted them out of the barracks since their arrival, and that the felt their presence was a nuisance to some,” the paper reports.

They also claim that some donations to them, which include cash and gift cards, were never received and had been “taken by other groups” at the facility, the paper reports. 

“On one side it is claimed that the Ukrainian community decided not to return to the barracks in January of their own choice; however, the Ukrainians maintain they were locked out,” according to The Topic. 

Westmeath County Council, the Department of Integration, along with the CBRRC, have been contacted by Gript for comment on the claims.

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