Middleton House (via Westmeath Examiner)

‘Westmeath has done its fair share’: Village group concerned about huge influx of refugees

People in the Westmeath village of Castletown Geoghegan are highlighting their concerns around the tiny village’s capacity to house refugees and asylum seekers – as the village now faces the prospect of doubling in size.

Castletown Geoghegan Village Steering Group is opposing the reported plans to house those seeking international protection in Middleton House, a Georgian country house on the outskirts of the village.

The large-scale mid-nineteenth country house, built during the famine, was previously used as a hotel and was the subject of The Great House Revival programme on RTE One three years ago, when the mansion underwent extensive renovations. It was recently used as a ‘premium’ wedding venue.

Now, it is to become home to refugees as Ireland struggles to find sufficient room to accommodate the numbers of people who have arrived here in recent weeks and months.

On 14 February, it was reported that the Department of Children and Integration was in talks with the owners of Midleton Park over plans to use the sprawling property to house droves of international protection applicants (IPAs).

Minister of State Peter Burke confirmed earlier this month that the Department of Children and Integration was in discussions with the owner of Middleton Park about accommodating refugees and asylum seekers  at the former wedding venue. 

In correspondence with the group, the Minister confirmed:

“I have put the concerns of residents to the Department of Children who have advised that negotiations are ongoing with the owners of Middleton Park, Castletown Geoghegan and that there is the potential to accommodate up to 244 International Protection Applicants there.”

In a statement released to the Westmeath Examiner in mid-February, the Castletown Geoghegan Village Steering Group said the community is “shocked and outraged” to learn that such a large number of IPAs could soon be accommodated at Middleton Park.

Speaking on Midlands 103 radio earlier this month, Deirdre Clarke, who is co-chair of the village’s Steering Group, said that structures were not in place within the community — pointing to the fact the local primary school has been forced to close multiple times since September.

She said problems with the village’s water system has been persistent, and doubling the size of the village would only exacerbate difficulties.

“It’s troubling from the point of the lack of communication from local government and government,” she told the radio programme.

“We don’t have structures in place within our community. Our local primary school in Castletown Geoghegan has closed since September no less than four times due to water outage. Further pressure on that water system is going to be absolutely detrimental to the people living in this village”.

This week, the co-chair of the village’s steering group said that the people of the village are of the belief that Westmeath has already done enough to welcome refugees in their area.

“Westmeath has taken on its fair share” of asylum seekers and refugees, Ms Smyth said this week, as detailed in a report from the Westmeath Examiner on Thursday.

The group organised a meeting in the village hall on Wednesday night, which saw huge numbers in attendance. Local reports state that some 300 people attended from in and around the local area. Locals and those from further afield say that Castletown Geoghegan does not have the capacity or infrastructure to cope with what would be a huge increase in its population of around 140 people.

The concern from the group comes after they were informed that the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth is seeking to accommodate 244 asylum seekers in Middleton Park.

The Westmeath Examiner was later told by a “reliable source” that the figure was “more likely to be closer to 140” – which would still mean the population of the small village doubling in size.

Ms Clarke told the Westmeath Examiner that the local group are “disappointed” by the lack of engagement from the department as concerns start to swell. She said that there has been a “tireless” effort made to secure answers, however there is clearly a lack of transparency.

“The anxiety for us as a local group is that we have been trying through the appropriate channels to reach out to Roderic O’Gorman’s office.

“It is very disappointing when you have a small group working tirelessly to get answers for the greater community and we seem to be getting the same stuff churned over. We are getting no answers and no engagement,” she told the paper.

Ms Clarke said that even if the lower figure is correct, the village would be unable to cope with the intake of refugees. She also said that the Westmeath allocation of €1.65 million in the government’s new Community Recognition Fund, which provides funding to local authorities based on the number of new arrivals, is evidence that the number of people being taken into the county is already “disproportionate” compared to neighbours including Offaly and Longford.

Under the Community Recognition Fund, Offaly received a much lower €670,000 for its intake of refugees, while Longford received €650,000, and Roscommon received €690,000 in funding. 

“What we are asking the government for is a fairer dispersal of people,” she told the local paper. “Look at their own figures, you can see Westmeath has taken on its fair share. The government say that we all need to do our bit – in our opinion, Westmeath has done its bit.”

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