Michael Clifford: Department response on Kerry asylum centre an attack on tenet of democracy

Direct provision, on the way out, appears to be leaving with a bang. The centre, opened in Caherciveen, Co Kerry, last March, illustrates much about what has rendered the system morally bankrupt.
Michael Clifford: Department response on Kerry asylum centre an attack on tenet of democracy
Locals and residents of the Skellig Star direct provision centre protesting about the hotel in Caherciveen, Co Kerry, earlier this year. Picture: Alan Landers.
Locals and residents of the Skellig Star direct provision centre protesting about the hotel in Caherciveen, Co Kerry, earlier this year. Picture: Alan Landers.

Direct provision, on the way out, appears to be leaving with a bang. The centre, opened in Caherciveen, Co Kerry, last March, illustrates much about what has rendered the system morally bankrupt.

The myriad problems surrounding the Skellig Star hotel in the town have been well documented. But beyond the immediate problems, the Caherciveen centre has also highlighted how the system can drag the functioning of government into disrepute.

Time and again, politicians, local people, and the media have been fed information about the centre that is factually inaccurate. In all of these instances, the factual inaccuracies have painted the centre, its operator, and the Department of Justice in a more benign light than would have been the case if the truth had been revealed.

The defective information disseminated has touched on basic issues such as living conditions for the residents, the origin of the Covid-19 outbreak in the Skellig Star, protection of residents, fears of residents and local people, and whether staff at the centre had been suitably vetted.

The latest examples are revealed in today’s Irish Examiner. They consist of replies to questions from members of the Oireachtas Covid-19 committee. The replies included a covering letter signed by the secretary general of the Department of Justice, Aidan O’Driscoll.

The first issue was staffing. “There were 15 staff members recruited to work in the Skellig Star accommodation centre when it opened. All of the staff, including the manager, had been previous employees of the Skellig Star,” wrote the department.

This gives the impression that the staff knew what they were about, had experience of hotel work, and specifically knew the Skellig Star. In fact, only five of the staff had worked there previously, according to sources familiar with the specifics of the running of the hotel prior to March.

The department also addressed training, pointing out that the group manager for Townbe, the company operating the centre, “provided on-site training to the Skellig Star manager prior to the centre opening and ongoing management support after the centre was in operation". Different sources closely familiar with the hotel management have told the Irish Examiner that no training was provided.

Then there was Garda vetting. On May 26, the Irish Examiner published a story highlighting that over half of the staff at the centre had not been vetted.

Following this, vetting was undertaken with some urgency. In reply to questions about vetting, the Department of Justice wrote to the Covid committee: “In the meantime, we advised the service provider that any member of staff who has not completed the process could not be on-site.”

According to staff rosters from that time, everybody continued on site as they had prior to the urgency being applied. In any event, the attitude of the operator towards Garda vetting was evident in an email sent by Townbe to the hotel manager three days before the centre opened.

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

What would be the reaction if it emerged that such a cavalier attitude to Garda vetting existed in an agency that oversaw children born and bred in this country? Would the same lack of accountability apply? Or would there be hell to pay?

The above are just the latest examples of false or misleading information furnished through a government department about the Skellig Star centre. Others include:

- The Irish Examiner was 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 justice minister told Today with Sarah McInerney on RTÉ 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 minister, in his attempt at a public apology to the people of Caherciveen, 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 Caherciveen 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, as reported in the Irish Examiner, 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;

- 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". As reported in the Irish Examiner this was entirely misleading as the test in question took place nearly a month after she displayed symptoms.

The State has an obligation to protect those who are, in at least some instances, fleeing war and pestilence. Disseminating factually inaccurate information about the quality of their care through a government department is callous. It is also an attack on the tenet that in a democracy those wielding power, be it in the permanent or elected government, must be held accountable.

Things can be misread, misinterpreted. Mistakes can be made. There comes a time though when somebody has to shout stop. In relation to the Skellig Star centre, we’re long past that point.

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