Skellig Star's short history mired in claim and counter-claim

Skellig Star's short history mired in claim and counter-claim
Local residents stand together with the Direct Provision Residents of the Skellig Star Direct Provision Centre on Thursday voicing their disgust at the Department of Justice and their handling of the situation. Picture: Alan Landers.

From the very beginning the Skellig Star Hotel Direct Provision Centre in Cahirciveen has been dogged by controversy.

The Department of Justice said initially, for example, that the 15 staff recruited to work in the Skellig Star accommodation centre when it opened had all previously worked there.

However, as the Irish Examiner discovered, only five of the staff had worked there previously.

The department also said that the group manager for Townbe, the company operating the facility, provided on-site training prior to the centre opening and ongoing management support after it opened.

Sources subsequently told the Irish Examiner that no training was provided. On May 26, this newspaper revealed that over half of the staff at the centre had not been Garda vetted.

The department says it subsequently advised Townbe that any member of staff who had not completed the vetting process could not be on-site.

However, it then emerged that everybody continued on-site regardless as evidenced by an email from Townbe to the hotel manager three days before the centre opened.

“We will get them vetted asap,” the Townbe representative said. “But for the moment run with those staff as I can’t see that the vetting will matter too much.”

Cahersiveen and residents of the Skellig Star DP gather in protest outside the centre last March. Picture: Alan Landers
Cahersiveen and residents of the Skellig Star DP gather in protest outside the centre last March. Picture: Alan Landers

The Irish Examiner was also told by the department that the boiler in the hotel malfunctioned on the day the asylum seekers arrived.In fact, it was out of action for three months before their arrival and remained in a state of disrepair, ensuring no central heating was available.

The then justice minister Charlie Flanagan claimed at one point on RTE Radio that “social-distancing measures were acted on pretty speedily” at the centre. In reality, for at least ten days after their arrival, as the country went into lockdown, residents ate communally and queued up for their meals.

The new residents, few of whom knew each other before they arrived in Cahirciveen, had to share bedrooms in the 56-room hotel. Social distancing was absent with shared dining facilities, and no measures taken in elevators, corridors, dining or common areas.

The minister, in his public apology to the people of Cahirciveen in May, claimed the virus could not have been brought to the hotel by a resident who had been staying in a hotel in Dublin where an infection broke out.

“It was well over a fortnight (the incubation period) before any of our residents in Cahirciveen began to show symptoms or were confirmed as positive for Covid-19,” said the minister. This was repeated to Oireachtas members by department officials.

In reality the first display of symptoms was recorded on March 21, four days after the arrival of the asylum seekers, and the department was first informed three days later.

Residents of the Skellig Star DP Centre in Cahersiveen join Locals in Calling for an end to Direct Provision Centres in March. Picture: Alan Landers.
Residents of the Skellig Star DP Centre in Cahersiveen join Locals in Calling for an end to Direct Provision Centres in March. Picture: Alan Landers.

When the department finally did acknowledge the above case as “an honest mistake”, there was an attempt to infer that the discovery made no difference as “this person subsequently tested negative for the virus".

This was entirely misleading as the test in question took place nearly a month after she displayed symptoms.

Also in his May apology, the minister explained the reason for secrecy around the opening of the centre.He blamed Covid-19.

“Opening Direct Provision centres can be difficult,” he said. “Finding a way to balance confidential tender negotiations with local wishes for consultation is not easy.

“In early March, my officials realised we needed new centres and we needed them quickly. It was not tenable in a health emergency, to have large numbers of international protection applicants in emergency hotel accommodation, sharing facilities with other guests.”

But while he claimed speed was of the essence, his explanation was disingenuous.

As was pointed after his apology, there was nothing sudden about earmarking the Skellig Star as a direct provision centre.

The process had actually begun last summer, and an official from the Department of Justice visited the hotel last September.

Added to that is the fact that the department denied to local media that a centre was even being planned, saying “no contract” had been signed.

Nowhere in Mr Flanagan’s apology was there mention of the failure to inform local people of the outbreak.

The first positive results were returned on April 13.

A local businessman, Jack Fitzpatrick, said he received information about the outbreak on April 18 and he and a delegation met the management of the centre in a nearby carpark.

The outbreak was confirmed then, 21 days after the first positive case went into self-isolation.

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