Michael Clifford: Residents right to hold out for the full facts

There are still more questions to be answered about the Caherciveen Direct Provision centre - and the Department's handling of it, writes Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford: Residents right to hold out for the full facts

A timeline shows that there was ample opportunity to engage with the community about the situation in the Caherciveen Direct Provision centre writes Michael Clifford

Residents of the Skellig Star DP Centre in Caherciveen emerge from the Centre on Wednesday after a four week lockdown. Picture Alan Landers.
Residents of the Skellig Star DP Centre in Caherciveen emerge from the Centre on Wednesday after a four week lockdown. Picture Alan Landers.

The justice minister, Charlie Flanagan, has apologised to the people of Caherciveen for issues around the opening of a direct provision centre, but he failed to address many aspects of the controversy.

Mr Flanagan claimed that local people could not be consulted about the opening because of the pandemic — but, as our timeline shows, there was ample opportunity to engage with the community.

A number of questions also remain unanswered about when the decision to open a centre was made, how suitable the premises was, whether an inspection was conducted, and how did the company running the centre manage its affairs both before and after the outbreak of the virus in the hotel.

Timeline 2019

January: The Skellig Hotel Experience takes out a lease on the Skellig Star Hotel (SHE) in Caherciveen.

The company has three shareholders, hotelier Jude Kirk, solicitor Gus Cullen, and local TD Michael Healy-Rae. Mr Kirk held 50%, the other two 25% each. The lease to the hotel is the only asset in the company. Plans to use the company as a vehicle for other tourism ventures never materialise.

July-August: Businessman Paul Collins is understood to have first raised the possibility of buying the SHE company. An expression of interest to provide the hotel as a direct provision centre is lodged with the Department of Justice. The three shareholders all say they knew nothing of this.

September 18: An official from the department visits the hotel to assess its suitability as a direct provision centre.

The Irish Examiner has learned the inspection is cursory. Neither the manager nor Mr Kirk, who was running the hotel, knew anything about an inspection. It would have been impossible to conduct an inspection without their full knowledge.

December: The sale of the SHE company to Mr Collins is completed. The Irish Examiner has learned that the sale represented a good return on investment for the three shareholders. The only asset in SHE is the lease to the hotel.

Initially, Mr Healy-Rae said he had nothing to do with the lease. Subsequently, he said that he knew very little about the sale, but ultimately he told Radio Kerry that he was in the room with Mr Collins when the sale was completed.

An associate of Mr Healy-Rae, JJ Harrington, took on work in the hotel after the sale was completed.

December 28: The boiler in the hotel blows. It has not been repaired. The Department of Justice initially told the Irish Examiner that the problem with the boiler occurred on March 18, 2020, the day the asylum seekers moved in, but this is factually inaccurate.

A sign at the main reception entrance of the Skellig Star DP Centre in Caherciveen stating 'Do not Leave, STOP, Not an Exit' . Picture Alan Landers.
A sign at the main reception entrance of the Skellig Star DP Centre in Caherciveen stating 'Do not Leave, STOP, Not an Exit' . Picture Alan Landers.

Timeline 2020

January 1: Mr Collins takes possession of the hotel through his company, Remcoll Capital.

January 18: The Kerryman newspaper reports that the Department of Justice has denied there are plans for a direct provision centre in Caherciveen.

March 7: Positive results for Covid-19 are received from tests on residents in the Travelodge, Swords, Co Dublin. A number of residents from this centre are subsequently transferred to Caherciveen.

The minister for justice says that his department knew nothing of this positive case eight days later when asylum seekers moved from the Travelodge to Caherciveen.

March 9: Plans in the Department of Justice are put in train to move asylum seekers to Caherciveen and open the hotel as a direct provision centre as part of the response to Covid-19.

March 14: Local businessman Jack Fitzpatrick hears that 150 asylum seekers are to be moved into the Skellig Star the following week as the premises is converted to a direct provision centre.

March 16: A 12-month contract is signed between Townbe, the company which runs Mr Collins’ direct provision centres, and the department to provide a direct provision centre at the hotel.

March 17: Asylum seekers in a number of locations in Dublin are given 24 hours notice that they will be moved to south Kerry.

A number of them are working in the health sector and have no choice but to leave their jobs.

March 18-19: The asylum seekers arrive. The exact number of new residents is disputed, but is between 96 and 105.

Staff in situ have not received any training or garda vetting, or completed a mandatory course required of people working in centres with children.

Frantic efforts are made to locate sufficient food to feed the new arrivals, and to locate heaters. Some are sourced in Tralee, 65km away. An issue arises over the size of some of the bedrooms which are abnormally small.

Nobody from Townbe, Mr Collins’ company, which already runs other direct provision centres, is present at this crucial time. The Irish Examiner understands that no Townbe representative attended for more than a cursory visit at the centre for at least three weeks after the asylum seekers moved in.

March 20: One of the residents attempts to self-isolate, as she has a symptom of Covid-19.

This resident had transferred from the Travelodge in Swords, Co Dublin, where there had been an outbreak of the virus. She is not tested because criteria for testing at the time requires two symptoms.

March 24: The Department of Justice is aware — at least from this date, and possibly earlier — that a resident in Caherciveen is self-isolating.

March 29: Another resident begins self isolating. She and three others are tested, the results for which won’t class arrive for another two weeks.

April 10: The manager of the hotel, who had worked there since the previous year, resigns in frustration at the running of the centre under the new ownership.

For the two and a half weeks prior to her resignation, she had remained in the hotel, fearful of returning to her home outside the town, where she lives with her young family, in case she might be carrying the virus.

April 13: The first four positive results for the virus are received in the centre.

April 17: The duty manager resigns in frustration at the running of the hotel.

April 18: Word is received by Mr Fitzpatrick, through a circuitous route, that positive cases have been confirmed in the centre. A meeting with management representatives is held in a car park near the centre. The positive cases are confirmed.

Over the following three weeks, 25 positive cases from the centre will be recorded, including three cases among the staff.

April 19: An engineer from a firm in Shannon arrives for a routine check of the elevator in the hotel. His company is assured twice before he arrives that the centre is safe and the virus not present. He is assured again on arrival.

On leaving the centre, a garda informs him there are positive cases in the centre. His company writes to the hotel asking for an explanation.

April 21: Residents begin protesting from inside the centre, putting signs at the windows saying they want to be moved.

April 29: Residents are photographed behind the iron bars of the gate to the centre’s car park. The residents say that they have been told not to leave the centre. The Department of Justice denies that they are being confined.

May 7: At least half of the staff have yet to be garda vetted, a mandatory requirement for working in a direct provision centre, by this date. None of the staff have completed a mandatory course from Tusla, required of anybody working in a centre with children.

Residents display more signs from inside the centre. One reads: “This place is fully infected. Covid 19. Move us out of Caherciveen”. Another reads: “We want to start our own life. We thank the Irish people for standing up for us”.

May 20: The Irish Examiner and The Kerryman publish an open letter from the minister for justice to the people of Caherciveen apologising for the lack of consultation ahead of the opening of the direct provision centre.

Some of the residents of the centre venture out of the hotel grounds for the first time in three weeks.

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