The Skellig Star hotel should never have been a direct provision centre, given the questions as to the basis on which it was accepted as one, says Michael Clifford
There is serious money in Direct Provision. Take a hotel with 50 rooms. The owner can expect to pull in between €1.5m - €2m annually for housing up to 150 asylum seekers.
Compare that to trying to fill rooms with guests year round, maintaining high standards and keeping everybody happy and willing to come again.
One hotel on which somebody made such a calculation was the 56-room Skellig Star in the south Kerry town of Cahirciveen. Two months ago, it opened as a Direct Provision (DP) centre, much to the surprise of the townspeople.
Twenty four hours earlier, around 100 asylum seekers based in the Dublin area were equally surprised when told they would be heading to the deep south. The plan was that another 50 people would be joining them within weeks.
And since then the place has been mired in controversy over an outbreak of Covid 19 and serious shortcomings in the reaction to it. Asylum seekers, the local people and politicians are now saying that the hotel not fit for its current purpose.
The Skellig Star was supposed to be tourism magnet for the town. It was built in 2006 on the site of an old convent and included a leisure centre with a swimming pool.
Thereafter the establishment had a chequered history but in recent years there were attempts to bring it to its full potential. Colm Wu, a Chinese businessman, bought the hotel a few years ago. Then in January 2019, hotelier Jude Kirk took out a lease on it. Mr Kirk also runs the Derrynane Hotel in south Kerry and another premises in Dingle.
He created a company, Skellig Hotel Experience, to hold the lease and brought on board two other shareholders, Michael Healy Rae and solicitor Gus Cullen. The company was also intended to be a vehicle for other tourism ventures but these never took off.
Sometime in early 2019, another businessman, Paul Collins, expressed an interest in the hotel. Mr Collins has a number of ventures, including Direct Provision centres in Ballinamore and Dublin city centre.
The Irish Examiner understands that a verbal agreement to sell the Skellig Hotel Experience, which included the lease, to Mr Collins was agreed by the summer of 2019.
At around the same time, the Department of Justice asked for expressions of interest from property owners to set up Direct Provision centres.
Mr Collins offered the Skellig Star Hotel even though he didn’t own it or hold the lease. All three shareholders in the Skellig Hotel Experience told the Irish Examiner they knew nothing of this move.
On 25 September 2019, an official from the Department of Justice visited the hotel. In response to a question as to whether the premises was inspected for suitability, the department has said that this official “identified” a dining room, kitchen and en suite bedrooms.
The official did visit but did not conduct anything that could be called an inspection. The failure to conduct a proper inspection became an issue six months later when the DP centre opened, as the bedrooms in the hotel are noticeably smaller than the standard size.
It is unclear who knew the purpose of this official’s visit last September. All three shareholders in the Skellig Hotel Experience are adamant they knew nothing of plans for a DP centre.
Another individual, JJ Harrington, was reported to be a frequent presence in the hotel around this time. Mr Harrington is in the construction business and is a close associate of Mr Healy Rae. He was subsequently employed by Mr Collins this year to carry out work in what is now a DP centre.
In December 2019, the paperwork for the sale of Skellig Hotel Experience, including the lease, to Mr Collins’ company, Remcoll, was completed. Mr Healy Rae says he knew nothing of the purchaser of the company.
The Irish Examiner understands that the price paid for the Skellig Hotel Experience company represented a considerable return for the three investors. The only asset the company held was the lease for the hotel.
On 28 December, the boiler in the hotel blew. Thereafter there was no central heating right up until this week. Mr Collins and his operating company took possession of the hotel in January this year. On 16 March, he signed a contract with the Department of Justice to house 150 asylum seekers on the premises. There was no consultation or information provided to local people.
On 19 March, the day the asylum seekers moved in, there was a scramble to source standalone heaters as the boiler had not been repaired. The asylum seekers included two pregnant women and a number of children.
There was also a problem about the size of the bedrooms. If there had been an inspection the previous September, as inferred by the department, this issue would have been spotted immediately.
When asked about the heating, the department issued a statement to the Irish Examiner saying that a problem arose with the boiler on the day the asylum seekers moved it. This is factually inaccurate, as shown above.
On 14 April results were received for the first four positive cases of Covid 19 in the centre. At least 20 other cases have been confirmed since.
Questions arise as to the basis on which the department accepted the hotel as a
DP centre when there was no proper inspection, no apparent knowledge that the central heating was broken and that the applicant, Mr Collins, was not in possession of the hotel when he applied to change its use.
Mr Collins now holds the lease and is in the process of buying the premises from Mr Wu. The landing of a lucrative contract from the department should help in funding the purchase price.
There is no suggestion of any illegality in what transpired, but the property play does once more raise questions as to the manner in which the DP system operates, particularly in the private sector.
Mr Healy Rae says he had no involvement in the hotel and he knew nothing about who bought the company in which he was a 25% shareholder.
Other sources have confirmed he was not involved in running the premises. When asked whether his investment in the Skellig Hotel Experience gave a good return he said, “It was no big deal. I would have preferred if the business went ahead and we did the plans we had for south Kerry.”
Asked about his knowledge of the involvement of his associate Mr Harrington in the hotel, Mr Healy Rae said, “he doesn’t live in my pocket…he told me he didn’t know about the direct provision centre.”
Attempts to contact Mr Harrington were unsuccessful.