Michael Clifford: Trust has been eroded in how State operates

The mishandling of the Caherciveen centre has been exacerbated by misinformation, deflection, and at its most charitable, a deficit of knowledge, writes Michael Clifford
Michael Clifford: Trust has been eroded in how State operates
Residents of the Skellig Star DP Centre in Caherciveen emerge from the Centre on Wednesday after a four week lockdown. Picture Alan Landers.

The mishandling of the Caherciveen centre has been exacerbated by misinformation, deflection, and at its most charitable, a deficit of knowledge, writes Michael Clifford

Trust is a vital element in a functioning democracy and trust in the machine of state has broken down completely in relation to the opening and running of a direct provision (DP) centre in Cahirciveen, Co Kerry, where there has been a serious outbreak of the coronavirus.

The Irish Examiner has, over the last month, documented a whole litany of issues around centre.

A recurring theme is that asylum seekers and local residents believe they have been taken for fools.

In the last 48 hours further information enhancing this view has come out through the Oireachtas committee on Covid 19 and Radio Kerry.

What follows is a series of questions which the agencies of state have repeatedly failed to answer in a full and frank manner.

When did the process to open the DP centre begin?

The Minister for Justice and department officials have claimed repeatedly that the plan to open the Skellig Star hotel as a DP centre came about suddenly as a result of the health emergency.

Yet Radio Kerry has published documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act that shows the original plan was to open the centre on November 4 last, long before any pandemic.

In September 2019, the hotel was offered to the department by Paul Collins, a principal of the company Remcoll. Mr Collins runs a number of a DP centres around the state.

He was not in possession of the hotel at the time but assured the department he would be within weeks. As it was to turn out he took possession on January 1, 2020.

In January the department told The Kerryman that there were no plans to open a DP centre in Cahirciveen. The repeated contention that the opening was in response to the pandemic is patently false.

Last week, Justice Minster Charlie Flanagan issued an unprecedented apology in the form of a public letter to the people of Cahirciveen over the failure to consult locally about the centre because of the health emergency.

The latest revelations demonstrate that plans for a centre were six months in the making.

How many asylum seekers were to be accommodated in the hotel?

Since last March the department has insisted that the plan was to house 150 residents in the hotel.

As it turned out there was just over 100 transferred. Radio Kerry has discovered that the original plan was to include adjoining apartments and accommodate 300 residents.

The population of Caherciveen is approximately 1,000.

The repeated assertion that the centre was planned to accommodate 150 is patently false.

Was the premises suitable?

The department and the Minister have repeatedly stated that the hotel was inspected last September.

The Irish Examiner has established that this “inspection” consisted of a visit from a departmental official who walked through the reception and out the back into the grounds to have a chat with Mr Collins, and a Mr JJ Harrington, who was subsequently employed by Mr Collins.

Mr Harrington is also a close associate of the Independent TD Michael Healy Rae, who had a stake in the hotel at the time.

When queried by the Irish Examiner about an inspection the department stated that the official “identified” various elements of the hotel.

Radio Kerry yesterday published a note on the visit which recorded: “During the course of my visit I was shown around by Paul Collins.”

There was no inspection in the context of how that term is normally used.

Why was there no central heating?

The boiler in the hotel blew on December 28 last.

When queried about the absence of any central heating when the asylum seekers arrived on March 18-19, the department stated to the Irish Examiner that the boiler blew on the day on arrival.

This is patently false.

Did the staff at the Skellig Star receive training on running a DP centre and/or dealing with the possibility of an outbreak of Covid 19?

At the Oireachtas committee hearing on Tuesday, Oonagh Buckley, the deputy secretary-general of the Department of Justice, said the department “worked hard to try to ensure that residents in our centres, and the management and staff, have the tools and knowledge to prevent outbreaks or reduced the impact if they occur.”

Staff and management in the Skellig Star received no training, certainly until long after the confirmed outbreak on April 13.

Nobody from Mr Collins’ company attended at the hotel for at least eight days after the asylum seekers arrived.

The Irish Examiner reported last Thursday that at least half the staff had not been garda vetted by May 7 and none had completed a mandatory Tusla training course.

At Tuesday’s committee meeting, Ms Buckley said the department became aware the previous Wednesday about the lack of vetting and training.

This was the day the Irish Examiner informed the department of the situation. All staff have since been vetted and trained, she told the committee.

What was the origin of the outbreak?

A number had come from a hotel in Swords where the virus was present.

No blame attaches to anybody who may have contracted the virus but questions have been asked as to whether the department or HSE were aware of the situation and why testing wasn’t done.

The Minister and the department have repeatedly stated that the virus could not have come from the Dublin location as the first symptoms noted in Cahirciveen were outside the incubation period.

Mr Flanagan wrote in his open letter: “It was well over a fortnight – the incubation period – before any of our residents in Caherciveen began to show symptoms.”

At the Oireachtas committee hearing it was noted that the HSE was told of the first suspected case on March 30, 12 days after arrival.

At the same hearing Fianna Fail TD Norma Foley said she had “verifiable evidence” that the department was contacted on March 24 about a suspected case.

The Irish Examiner reported on this case last week and also reported that the person went into self-isolation on March 20, the day after arrival.

The department continues to say they do not have a record of the communication on March 24.

The Irish Examiner has had sight of this email sent to the IPAS section of the department which deals with direct provision.

Why are some non-family members still sharing rooms while self-isolating in the centre?

A minute from an internal department meeting on the Covid emergency in direct provision, seen by the Irish Examiner, states: “Every resident, not part of a family, has been offered a single room; several residents have refused that offer however, preferring to remain with their room partner.”

The Irish Examiner has learned that this is correct but the reason for the refusal is that residents are afraid to occupy any room vacated by somebody who has been infected.

Norma Foley told Tuesday’s Oireachtas meeting that much of the cleaning done in the centre made use of the Mr Price product Stardrops white vinegar cleaning spray, which retails at €1.49 a bottle.

There is a Mr Price shop in Caherciveen. Contrary to best practice in the current pandemic there has been no deep cleaning undertaken at the hotel.

The Department of Justice has a difficult job in locating appropriate accommodation for asylum seekers, some of whom may be waiting up to years on their application.

However, the mishandling around the Caherciveen centre has been exacerbated by misinformation, inaccurate briefings, deflection, and at its most charitable, a deficit of knowledge.

That has left a sour taste among asylum seekers and the people of Caherciveen.

But just as importantly, it has served to erode trust in an institution of state and exacerbates the challenges around immigration going into the future.

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