Protesting racism in Rooskey


Rooskey - when I heard the name, it triggered some flicker of recollection. A memory was stirred. As it turned out, it is not far from where my mother's family come from. I had a cousin who grew up in a nearby Longford village, I had actually cycled through this place. So it vaguely came back to me, and I remembered the bridge spanning the Shannon, as that great river flows onto Lough Ree and down towards Athlone. My mother's people grew up around that Lough. I’ve spent summers listening to the wind whistling through the telephone wires. Today I was on my way to an anti-racist protest.

Now on this Sunday, I was drawn back towards this village because for the second time in six weeks an abandoned hotel had been set on fire. This hotel, which has been empty for a couple of years, has been earmarked to open as a centre for asylum seekers. That is what you and I understand to be a direct provision centre. There hadd since been not one, but two attempts to burn that building since the news spread of this development. There was an anti-racist demonstration called for, and I was driving up from Dublin to show my support.

This road is familiar to me. It was the road to the north-west, and I’d spent many years driving it, when the campaign against the gas terminal in Rossport was active. You could go out the road towards Sligo and turn off and take that road to Ballina and then onto Erris or you could go via Strokestown to get there. In fact on this very morning outside Mullingar I remember stopping on the road as I saw the long march of local people from the Rossport community who were taking their protest to the Dáil. In that struggle I was not local, but I knew which side I was on. That is how solidarity works.

When I got to Rooskey, I parked on the Leitrim side, near to the closed hotel of the now infamous double arson attacks. I could see some people sheltered from the wind beside the river on the far side. It looked like there was a PA being set up. I took a stroll over the bridge. It was a bright sunny day, with the majority of people if they were anywhere, up in the church at twelve o'clock Mass. When the wind picked up, it was a chilled one. But for now, it was pleasant. There was a RTE satellite van with the local correspondent hanging back. I went into the local shop to pick up a coffee. The butcher was looking out the windows out towards the side of the building over towards the river. He said to me “That protest is not happening in my car park. I tell ya” and I said “that’s the side of the river that they’re setting up on.” The butcher turned away from me, muttering something and dialled someone up on his mobile phone. I was guessing that it was the guards. As I came out of the shop with my coffee, I saw a cop Paddy Wagon go over the bridge.

The crowds were gathering, but it was not that significant. I would say that there was about 40 people there and there must have been about a dozen media, cameras, video shoots, journalists with recorders. I was asked to keep a bit of space in front of the PA speakers, so that people could gather there to hear the speeches and the musicians who had agreed to play. The distinctive sound of Neil Young was lending an atmosphere to the gathering.
‘Old man take a look at my life, I’m a lot like you.’

Mass must’ve ended because quickly there was a got a lot more activity in the car park. A woman drove in and wanted to park in the space right in front of the speakers. I asked her to not do that. There was a space across the car park which was available and she said that it was for the public and that she did not want to park there. After being obviously annoyed she did park in that spot.

I recognised some faces in the crowd. People had come from Dublin to support this. But there are people that I know who’d moved to this area of the country years ago. They decided to get out of that city, and had built lives for themselves here and in Leitrim. These people are good people, the kind of people that any community should welcome and treasure. They are active and get stuck in trying to improve things for all.

The anti- racist demonstration started with the first speaker, Izzy Kamikaze, and she had not been speaking for very long when a woman in a brown coat and sunglasses came striding up to get into her face and started to shout about ‘People coming here, outsiders to blacken the name of Roosky.’ Who’s from Roosky here?’ How do you know it was arson?’ You can’t say it was arson. How do you know it was racist?’. It was just a swirling vocalisation of emotions in the guise of disruption. I know logic has little to do with anything that was said, but I thought it ironic that Roosky’s reputation was being ‘blackened’ by an anti-racism protest taking place. The reputation of Roosky has been damaged by repeated arson attacks on that hotel across the river. Roosky went from anonymous to infamous. But eventually this disruptor moved off and managed to hold her own press conference, unchallenged, with the media hanging on her every theory.
Luke Ming Flanagan - MEP showed up and was anxious to speak - as he had to return back to Europe later that day. He addressed the lack of information that is provided when direct provision centres are being set up. He said that he knew that the people of the area were welcoming, but it was the policies of government, direct provision and dispersal that led to issues.

I am uncertain as to whether or not Ming had finished speaking when another distraction waltzed aggressively into the centre of the crowd and pushed his camera into people's faces. This Gemma O'Doherty sidekick called Tan Torino came swaggering into the crowd. He was calling himself a citizen journalist and complained that as he was being surrounded by people, who used placards to block his cameras view, that he was being assaulted. He proclaimed that he would call the guards for these various 'assaults' that were being carried out upon him. He was aggressive and it proved difficult for people to speak, such was his presence in the crowd. He was presumably despatched by his leader to do her bidding in this crowd, and be the provocateur.

Eventually he was surrounded and moved back from the crowd. There were more speakers, a man from the locality who said that people had short memories in this area, when so many people have left to emigrate to make new lives for themselves in London and New York. Another local man got up and said that he too wanted to say that he was in favour of people coming into the area, and condemned the actions of whoever set fire to the hotel.

Mehmet from United against Racism spoke but I must confess that I was very distracted with the antics of our far-right 'citizen journalist' and peddler of hate.

A guitar man sang a great song about the search for liberty.

Terrence Conway - from the Shell to Sea campaign got up and addressed the crowd. He said that he didn’t want to see refugees coming here, but it was important to know that refugees were created thanks to western imperialist policies. Refugees should not be blamed or targeted for who they are? If you have a problem with refugees then you should protest outside the US embassy.

Saj Hussain, the barber from Ballaghaderreen, spoke with passion and eloquence about how love is the way forward. He came from Pakistan over 18 years ago and spoke about how he still remembers the welcoming smile that he received from people back then. These small kindnesses mean the world to the newly arrived person. He said that in his town of Ballaghaderreen, the Syrian refugees are making huge contributions, involved with the tidy towns amongst other things. He implored people to open their hearts to these people. He said that when you hear their stories, ‘you’re heart would cry.’ Love is the only thing that can conquer hate.

Lucky Khambule spoke from MASI - the Movement of Asylum Seekers Ireland and called for the ending of direct provision. He also called for an end to deportations. What we are working together for is freedom. This game of divide and conquer which makes incidents like this happen is as a direct result of policies.

Dave Lordan recited from his poem ‘The Lost Tribe of the Wicklow Mountains'.

One of the organisers, Leah, spoke about how they had to organise when they’d heard about the second attack. She encouraged people who were interested in working with the local activists who had arranged this anti-racist demo, because she recognised that they were operating in a hostile environment, and they wanted to be able to work and support the asylum seekers when they were moved to Roosky.

Finally a young girl got up and said that we had to respect people's views even if we didn’t disagree with them. I believe that it was a reference to the various forms of distraction that had been aimed at this protest.

I also remember some fellow as he drove away from the car park, looking like he belonged on a golf course, shouted at the crowd ‘You should to go back to where you came from'. That old line being used again. The Travellers in Ireland have been told that continuously. Finally two years ago the Irish state recognised Traveller ethnicity, recognised that Irish Traveller come from here, and yet they still await the provision of decent homes.

Because those who want us to be some where else, see people as a problem. We see people as the solution and the system that oppresses, exploits and divides us as the problem. My mother’s people came from such a place as this, beside this mighty river. So too did the Traveller family who worked as tinsmiths and came through the area every summer camping in the dry turlough. So too does Saj belong here, the passionate barber who came here nearly twenty years ago to make a new life for himself and still remembers the smile of a stranger from those early days.

We all need to come from a place a love. The place of hate holds no answers for us as a people.

Words: Dermot Freeman

Ahead of the protest the organisers said;

"We will gather again on Sunday 17th Feb at 12.30 to address the most recent racist arson attack on the proposed Direct Provision Center in Rooskey. We call on the people of Roscommon and Leitrim generally, and the people of Rooskey in particular, to come out and stand with us on Sunday. Vigilante racist attacks like this need to be faced down. They have no place in our society and communities.

"We want to give people an opportunity to say that - despite our many legitimate criticisms of the Direct Provision system - if asylum seekers are placed in Direct Provision in Rooskey - they will be safe and welcomed.

"We call particularly on our representatives and local community leaders to attend this event. They need to clearly reject the hate fuelled and racist motivation and logic behind these vigilante acts of arson. We call on them to draw a clear line in the sand by strongly condemning the attacks.

"We also call on them to reject the state-sanctioned torture that is the Direct Provision system. Asylum Seekers must be allowed to work and live in dignity. They should not be isolated and segregated from our communities. Refugees should be made welcome in this country.

"The far right is on the rise nationally and the hate fuelled and xenophobic attacks on the proposed DP centres in Moville and Rooskey are symptoms of that. Only by solidarity and vigilance can we hope to build a safe and tolerant society for all."

A number of racist attacks have taken place around Ireland following the high profile platforms the media has provided over the last year to a range of racist chancers from the openly fascist to those who hid their real intentions while trying to trick people into supporting them.

These fascists have at least partially succeeded in undermining the focus on landlord greed and the lack of public housing that saw significant actions last summer. Instead their hate talk has led to the creation of meaningless division around who gets housed where letting both the government and the landlords off the hook.

Following what looks like 2nd arson attack on what is to be a Direct Provision centre in Rooskey Leitrim and Roscommon United Against Racism missed a statement saying they "would like to take this opportunity to condemn what appears to be a second racist arson attack on the hotel.

We are shocked and saddened yet again by this latest incident. We want to send out a clear message that the tiny minority of people who were involved in these attacks, on the hotel and those who support them, by no means reflect the vast majority of the people living in Leitrim or Roscommon.

We ask that all public representatives come out and stand united with us and others against racism & publicly condemn this second attack. We also ask that public representatives also start to work and take actions to end racism wherever it raises it's ugly head, be that online, in our communities or state sponsored."