Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan has said he is “deeply concerned” following a fire at a former hotel on the Leitrim-Roscommon border that was to open as a centre for asylum seekers.
The Shannon Key West hotel in Rooskey had been due shortly to house 80 people as a direct-provision accommodation centre.
Emergency services were called late on Thursday after a blaze broke out there. However, gardaí are not yet linking it to a fire that took place recently at a Moville, Co Donegal hotel which had also been booked to house refugees.
There are unconfirmed reports that a window in the Roscommon building had been broken and that the fire had been started deliberately in the reception area.
A security guard raised the alarm, and was not injured. The exterior of the building suffered smoke damage, and there are reports that the reception and bar are also badly damaged.
Many of the 80 asylum seekers due to come to Rooskey “have experienced conflict and trauma and are vulnerable”, said Mr Flanagan, adding that it was too soon yet to say when the hotel would be able to open.
Necessary checks and repairs must be carried out first, he said. “In the interim, my department will continue to meet our obligations to provide accommodation for persons seeking our protection.”
Praising fire officers and gardaí for dealing quickly with the fire, he said they had “undoubtedly minimised” the damage. Department of Justice officials will now liaise with the hotel owner and contractors.
During a visit to Ethiopia , Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he would condemn the blaze “if it transpires the fire was a deliberate act of violence”, but he would await a full report.
The 39-bedroom hotel has been the subject of significant controversy since the Department of Justice confirmed before Christmas that 80 asylum seekers would be accommodated there.
The contract was agreed despite ongoing legal proceedings between Paradub Ltd, which wants to develop it as tourist hotel, and the owner James Kiernan.
Paradub claims it entered in 2016 into an agreement to buy the hotel for €600,000, and began a High Court action in 2017 which has been contested by Mr Kiernan.
Among those who condemned the attack was businessman Andrew Reynolds chairman of the local festival committee who said the general feeling in the community was one of “shock and horror”.
Mr Reynolds said he believed that the hotel would reopen under Paradub “in the near future” but might in the interim operate as a centre for asylum seekers “for a short period”.
He described the apparent arson attack as “malicious damage” and “criminal” and said local people were shocked. “People in Rooskey are not racist. I want to make that very clear,” Mr Reynolds said.
Sinn Féin councillor Seadhna Logan who also visited the scene on Friday said he was “absolutely disgusted” at the attack and the apparent attitude behind it that “it is better to burn a vacant property than to use it for refugees”.
The Mohill-based councillor said he knew there was concern in the community about plans for a direct provision centre there “but I very much doubt if this was locally driven”.
He said, while people had legitimate concerns, he did not believe this level of hostility existed in the community.
Of the controversy surrounding the property’s future use, he said: “At the end of the day these people (asylum seekers) are coming from places of crisis and I do not think Rooskey is the first place they would pick to come to.”
Fianna Fáil TD for Roscommon-Galway Eugene Murphy who also condemned the attack pointed out that a security man was in the premises when the fire broke out “so there could have been a potential loss of life”.
Criticising the lack of consultation by the Government with local people, he added: “We cannot continue to operate the present system of direct provision and dealing with asylum seekers by railroading them into small rural villages around the country where there is simply no proper infrastructure in place to meet their needs.”
Fiona Finn, head of the Migrant and Refugee Rights Centre (Nasc), said the suspected arson attack should be “treated as a hate crime”, though it was a sign that the methods used to set up new asylum centres was not working.
According to Ms Finn, communities do not feel they are being consulted, while there are concerns that some asylum centres are too big to be placed in small rural towns.
“We feel for the communities where this is happening, where they feel legitimate concerns are not being listened to and illegitimate concerns are allowed to fester and intensify.
“But, even more so, we feel for every asylum seeker around the country today, who has woken up feeling scared and isolated. Whoever did this does not speak for Irish people; they are fostering hate and intolerance,” she said.
Jut before 3pm on Friday, gardaí, who had been carrying out forensic examinations inside the building, handed it back to Mr Kiernan who told journalists that he was too upset to speak other than saying he was pressing ahead with a cleanup of the premises.
The former Shannon Key West hotel was one of three planned new direct-provision centres due to be opened by the Reception and Integration Agency .
The Caiseal Mara Hotel, in Moville, Co Donegal, which was severely damaged in a fire in November, was another of the three centres. It had capacity for 100 people. Repairs are scheduled, but not yet under way.
There was “no set date” for when repairs would be completed and the cost was “a matter for the contractor”, a Justice spokesman said.
Some 6,162 people are today living in direct-provision centres .