The recent announcement of the Irish Government’s decision to locate 80 Syrian refugees in a recently refurbished hotel in Ballaghdereen in County Roscommon has prompted much comment, both local and national. Much of the commentary has focused on the absence of consultation with the local community in advance. Some of it has been of the humorous variety: “Roscommon? Refugees don’t deserve this!”.
The Government’s intends to establish the Abbeyfield hotel as an Emergency Reception and Orientation Centre (EROC) which will receive Syrian refugees for a limited period of time. On completion of the EROC programme refugees will be dispersed and housed in different parts of the country, mostly in donated accommodation suitable for families.
The issue has activated a neuralgic nerve in the public consciousness. While most people are openly welcoming to refugees, there are also many who feel that “locals” should come first, including the local homeless and people on the housing list. As it happens, there are 286 vacant houses in and around Ballaghdereen, the so-called “ghost estates” built during the boom era when so much money flowed into speculative construction. The local area plan (LAP) compiled by Roscommon County Council notes:
Growth in Ballaghaderreen particularly, was fuelled by the presence of the tax incentives (at 21.5% between 2002 and 2006) which has left many unoccupied and unfinished houses in the town (Local Area Plan 2012–2018, page 9).
The local public representatives support the LAP in its ambition to rid the town once and for all of its ‘backwater’ image and to create, in the words of the plan “a culturally rich town that celebrates cultural diversity”. A refugee reception centre was probably not envisaged by the planners. In addition, locals interviewed by the media expressed disappointment that the newly-refurbished hotel which, they believed, would be a key element in implementing the plan for a more vibrant local economy would no longer be available.
The Ballaghderreen situation could probably be replicated across rural Ireland wherever a similar proposal might be made. Speaking at the Céifin Institute Conference in 1999, the late John O’Donohue, noted that one of the persistent and corrosive problems afflicting Irish society i the urban-rural divide. The city simply does not understand rural life. The language used by the city bureaucrats, he said, “is a language determined by the city and is usually not an understanding language” (John O’Donohue, *Walking on the Pastures of Wonder”, 2015, p. 139). In light of Brexit and the Trump phenomenon, we are only too well aware of the dangers to society posed by elite biases and prejudices.
On the other hand, the Ballaghderreen narrative is not entirely shaped by opposition and prejudice. In fact, quite the contrary. Many from the local community have expressed their desire to be welcoming to refugees and newcomers. One lady, interviewed on RTE’s Prime Time programme, the owner of the haberdashery and clothes shop in the town, has become something of a national celebrity for her straightforward assertion of traditional moral values, shaped by generations of living and working together in community:
We were brought up to think that if somebody was needy — I’m not talking about someone who just come to work and they’re alright, they’re okay, they’ve money coming in every week. But it somebody is needy and they were driven out of their homes and you see a child being picked up in Aleppo out of the clay, how could you say no?
How could you say no? You’d be betraying every single thing that we ourselves came from.
That statement is at once an unashamed espousal of inherited deeply held community values as well as an equally generous welcoming of ‘the stranger in our midst’.
Pope Francis, in his statement for World Refugee and Migration Day, 2017, confronted us with a similar challenge, couched in biblical language, to that offered by Mary Gallagher. Citing the Hebrew Bible he said:
“Love the sojourner therefore; for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt” (Deut 10:19). This phenomenon constitutes a sign of the times, a sign which speaks of the providential work of God in history and in the human community, with a view to universal communion.
It is difficult for us, in these turbulent and disruptive times, to grasp the profound implications of what is happening. Sometimes, the events in history that have, in the long run, the most positive longer term effects are those which are born in chaos and disruption. A bit like the story of the universe itself.
In the Pope’s remarks it is not too difficult to hear the voice of Teilhard de Chardin. Something is being born in the present chaos. Something that brings us that nano-step nearer to universal communion. As Catholics, every time we gather for Eucharist we are reminded of this ultimate goal of human history, what the liturgy often refers to in the language of ‘gathering together’. This is not a reference to an initial pre-historic unity but a yet-to-be-realised future realisation of God’s dream for the Universe, “a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” (Ephesians, 1:10).
So, despite the practical political difficulties arising from the present situation, we can, on reflection, being to discover and appreciate a wider horizon for hope and action.