One year ago, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin TD asked the new Minister for Justice Frances Fitzgerald a question about Direct Provision in the Dáil.
“The issue of direct provision centres has been troubling many people for quite a while,” said the TD. He went on to ask the Minister if she would allow the Health Information and Quality Authority (HIQA) to oversee the Direct Provision system.
Minister Fitzgerald responded in the negative and fleshed out her answer with some boilerplate Department of Justice statements:
All centres are subject to a minimum of three unannounced inspections a year — one by an independent company, QTS, under contract to the Reception and Integration Agency, and two by officials of the agency. Moreover, since 1 October last year, details of all completed inspections are published on the agency’s website, www.ria.gov.ie. This adds to the transparency of the system. Anybody — researchers, Oireachtas Members, residents of centres, NGOs and so on — can examine these reports in detail. Asylum accommodation centres do not exist in isolation. In fact, they are subject not only to inspections by the Reception and Integration Agency, but other State inspections. They are, for example, subject to inspection by fire officers and, in respect of food issues, to unannounced inspections by environmental health officers.
One year later, Ó Ríordáin was a Minister for State within Fitzgerald’s Department. As part of his duties as Minister for State he had to respond in the Dáil to a scathing report on the Direct Provision system by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Public Service Oversight and Petitions. Amongst the recommendations of the Joint Committees Report was that HIQA be allowed inspect Direct Provision centres.
Minister for State Ó Ríordáin responded in the negative and fleshed out his answer with the exact same boilerplate Department of Justice statements:
All centres are subject to a minimum of three unannounced inspections a year. One inspection is carried out by QTS, which is an independent company under contract to RIA, and the other two are carried out by RIA officials. All completed inspections are published on RIA’s website and this adds to the transparency of the system. Researchers, Deputies, residents of centres, NGO officials and everyone else can examine these reports in detail. It has to be said that asylum accommodation centres do not exist in isolation. They are subject to RIA inspections and other State inspections. They are, for example, subject to inspection by fire officers and, in relation to food issues, to unannounced inspections by environmental health officers.
So how did Aodhán Ó Ríordáin in one year go from listening to Frances Fitzgerald reject his suggestion that HIQA should inspect Direct Provision centres to — one year later — using the exact same language to brush off a Joint Oireachtas Committee Report which recommended the exact same thing?
Well, it’s an interesting story.
Less than a month after asking the Minister to let HIQA oversee Direct Provision, Ó Ríordáin was appointed as Minister for State in Fitzgerald’s Department. The new Junior Minister said that the reform of Direct Provision was a priority for government.
This priority was outlined the new Statement of Government Priorities which included a section on the government’s plans for asylum seekers. That section started with the following Jekyll and Hyde sentence, a good example of the ideological differences (on asylum, at least) between the two government parties that produced the Statement:
“While ensuring continued rigorous control of our borders and immigration procedures, we will treat asylum seekers with the humanity and respect they deserve.”
In his exchange with Fitzgerald a month previous, Ó Ríordáin had asked if Ireland would guarantee people “a definite decision on their status within six months”. The Statement of Priorities committed the government to legislating for a “single applications procedure” which would “reduce the length of time the applicant spends in” Direct Provision, without necessarily guaranteeing a six month cap on stays.
The Statement of Priorities also signaled the government’s intention to establish a Working Group on the protection process. It would transpire that the the Working Group’s Terms of Reference closely matched the language used in the full Statement.
Ó Ríordáin made a number of media appearances around this time, during which he gave some very conflicted statements. On Today FM’s The Last Word he said that “none of us can stand over [Direct Provision], it’s just not acceptable.” He also said the system is now his responsibility and that he takes “that responsibility very seriously.” Speaking on RTÉ Radio’s Today with Seán Ó Rourke, however, Ó Ríordáin echoed the Statement of Priorities by saying that “there is a balancing act between having a system that doesn’t encourage people to come into the State, but that also treats people with respect.”
In August, the Irish Times would publish a series of articles by Carl O’Brien and others under the heading Lives in Limbo. The series highlights many of the inadequacies of the Direct Provision system. One of O’Brien’s articles quoted from a government briefing document:
“Leaving aside the considerable difficulty in putting in place alternative reception conditions for those asylum seekers already here . . . the biggest concern would be the ‘pull factor’ involved.”
This statement shows that the state’s real position is that the system was working as intended — as a signal to potential asylum seekers outside Ireland not to come here. This is what Ó Ríordáin means when he says that there needs to be “a system that doesn't encourage people to come into the State”. The conditions in Direct Provision are an intentional part of Ireland’s immigration controls. This appears to be perfectly acceptable to the to the politicians — listen, for example, to Niall Collins of Fianna Fáil describing Direct Provision as a “success” in this context — who are responsible for the system and the civil servants who run it.
Later in August, visible unrest began in Mount Trenchard, the County Limerick Direct Provision centre. During days of protest residents went on hunger strike, windows were smashed, transfers were carried out and armed Gardaí attended the centre. But a member of management claimed that none of this had anything to do with conditions at the centre:
“There was a disagreement between the residents and the management. Their issues were not with the centre or the management. They have been waiting a while for their status. Some of them are here about eight years, some of them five years. That’s just the process.”
Of course, that’s rubbish. One of the men involved in the protests described conditions in Mount Trenchard in a Limerick Post article this year. He listed bad food, lack of heating, broken windows, cameras in the toilets and sickness among residents as some of the problems with the centre.
But the manager of Mount Trenchard was just repeating a common myth about Direct Provision. It’s a myth that was there in the Statement of Government Priorities and it’s there in the Irish Times series which frames the lives of people in Direct Provision as being “in Limbo”. The myth is that the length of time people spend in Direct Provision is the main problem with the system. This myth is necessary to maintain the fiction that Direct Provision would be somehow acceptable, if only people could have their applications processed sooner.
It is well documented that the length of stays in Direct Provision have extremely negative effects on people’s mental and physical health. But the length of people’s stays is just one of the many issues with Direct Provision. The system itself is the problem.
Nobody should be kept on €19.10 a week for years on end but equally nobody should be kept on €19.10 for six or nine months, especially without the chance to work or study. Nobody should be forced to eat at set times each day for any length of time, without the opportunity to cook their own food. Nobody should be forced to share a room with 2, 3, 6 or 8 strangers from different backgrounds for any length of time. These and other problems, features of Direct Provision, would not be solved by capping the length of stay at six months.
Fresh protests took place at several other centres throughout September and October. In the Seanad in September, Ó Ríordáin referenced the protests. While he supported the right of residents to protest, he said, he could not “condone the targeting of individuals working in certain direct provision centres or the stopping of people going about their lawful work.” The first part of this malicious statement was said under privilege without any apparent basis and should not be on the Oireachtas record. The second part is even more offensive to protesting asylum seekers than it would be to any other group, because asylum seekers cannot lawfully work.
During all of these protests, the protesting residents’ demands included changes to conditions in each centre and included calls for the abolition of the system itself. RIA responded to some of these protests by negotiating with the residents directly. In the Kinsale Road Accommodation Centre in Cork, for example, officials from RIA responded to a list of demands from residents by saying that while they could deal with local issues, so-called “non-local issues” would have to be dealt with by the upcoming Working Group.
The Working Group
In the Seanad speech above, during which he defamed protesting residents, Ó Ríordáin also discussed the forthcoming Working Group. He said he expected the Group “will have three months in which to come up with its recommendations and I want to stick to that. Nobody wants a group that sits for six or nine months. I believe three months is a realistic target for a report to be issued.” It turned out that the Group would sit for over eight months.
The Group was announced in October and was said to be an “independent Working Group” by both Ministers at various times. For example, Ó Ríordáin told an Oireachtas Committee (you can see my take on this meeting here) that “the government has set up an independent working group”. On the same occasion, the Minister for State said that:
“We wanted to ensure that people could make their comments or representations or do their work without involvement from or interference by practising politicians.”
That’s an insane position. The fact is that government set the parameters, the Terms of Reference, that the Group had to work under. The government appointed the members of the Group. Ó Ríordáin himself nominated the Chair, Bryan McMahon as well as Tanya Ward, Ciara Smyth and Dan Murphy to the Group. The Department of Justice drafted the Work Programme for the Group, provided the Group’s secretariat and hosted meetings of the Group. There were more representatives of government Departments on the Group than “independent” members.
Another phrase was that Bryan McMahon was an “independent Chair” of the Group (see here for example). But Fitzgerald held talks with McMahon prior to the establishment of the Group. In November 2014, Fitzgerald and McMahon were both present at a citizenship ceremony in UCC. Ó Ríordáin and McMahon were both at another such ceremony in the Convention Centre, Dublin, in April. In March, Enda Kenny was able to answer a question about the Working Group because he had “met Mr. Justice McMahon recently at a function.”
Whether or not McMahon discussed the Working Group with either Minister (although he did discuss it with the Taoiseach, by Kenny’s own account) is irrelevant. The point is that “practising politicians” do not need to directly interfere with the progress of the Group because they set it up to achieve the result they want. Members of the Ministers’ Department were heavily involved in discussions of the Group. If the Ministers had been involved in the Group, perhaps they might have been able to direct the officials in their Department to stop blocking attempts to implement meaningful changes, as they were accused of doing by Sue Conlan in her letter of resignation from the Group.
Visiting (Some) Direct Provision Centres
From before the Working Group was established, and throughout the process, Ó Ríordáin went on a tour of several Direct Provision centres. This led to many photo ops and one interesting anecdote.
During a visit to a centre in Limerick last October, the Minister for State met an Afghan man who had been “quite literally broken by the system”.
This man obviously had a huge impact on Ó Ríordáin as he incorporated the anecdote of the Afghan man broken by the system into his stump speech on Direct Provision. He mentioned the man in the Seanad and in various media and in the Dáil. At one stage the it turned out that Ó Ríordáin had met the man in Wexford (where there has not been a Direct Provision centre since 2011) but the location of the meeting reverted to Limerick again shortly afterwards.
I’m sure the Afghan man exists and I’m sure Ó Ríordáin was genuinely affected by that man’s “circumstances”. But aside from the questionable ethics of using one man’s story as an anecdote for months on end while overseeing the system that has “broken” him, it begs the question of how Ó Ríordáin can let eight months pass with thousands of other people living under the same system that has broken a man. How many others were broken during those months? How can he insist on reforming a system that “literally” breaks people?
If a man was broken, he should be receiving compensation. If the state oversaw a system that broke a human being, the state should immediately end that system and compensate each and every person who endured that system.
Ireland has a love affair with incarcerating people
Another one of Ó Ríordáin’s stock phrases is to say that in Ireland “we have a love affair with incarcerating people.” In a speech before the Seanad in January, he said that:
“[It’s] very disconcerting for me to see that this country still persists in prolonging its love affair with incarceration… Ireland also has a history of mother and baby homes, Magdalen laundries and an industrial schools system, yet again we revert to incarcerating and storing people while they wait for their asylum applications to be processed.”
Officials at the Department of Justice and the Office of the Attorney General must be thrilled that a Minister with responsibility for Direct Provision is making the direct comparison between the system and other abusive systems such as the Magdalen launderies.
As Ó Ríordáin said himself in the Seanad last year, over 50,000 people have been accommodated in Direct Provision since 2000. That is 50,000 potential clients for firms such as Sinnots Solicitors who are actively encouraging current and former Direct Provision residents to sue the state for damages arising from their time in the system.
Ireland — or at least those in power in Ireland — indisputably does have a love affair with incarcerating people. But Ó Ríordáin doesn't seem to want to stop incarcerating people in Direct Provision. This month, the Minister for State outlined to the Dáil the type of system he would be happy with:
“What kind of system could we stand over? … I can envisage a system where there is an excellently run centre, with proper oversight, links to the community and proper cooking facilities for families.”
He would be happy to see people incarcerated for six to nine months in centres with “links to the community” and cooking facilities. That is a system he could “stand over”.
The fact is that for 15 years the Irish state has operated a system which has seen over 50,000 asylum seekers specifically excluded from the rest of Irish society. Agencies of the Irish state have created a system removed from the scrutiny of the Oireachtas, from Freedom of Information, from the Ombudsman.
No law was passed to establish this system, but it has stood for fifteen years. Asylum seekers, who are barred by legislation from taking up employment, are forced to live indefinitely in detention centres while they await a decision on their fate from ORAC or the RAT or the Minister. At least one Direct Provision resident spent the first 14 years of the system’s existence, in the system (and he might still be there). Even if the length of stay is capped and the centres are “excellently run”, the fact that such a system existed — and continues to exist — for fifteen years should be reason enough to close it.
I hope that I’m wrong, but it doesn’t look like tomorrow’s publication of the Working Group report will herald the closure of Direct Provision. Of course, the Group was never intended to recommend closure; the government didn’t plan it that way.
Ó Ríordáin’s comments show that he does not want the system to be closed. He has said that it is the responsibility of government to implement the Group’s recommendations. He said again today — hopefully having read the full report — that he wants it implemented in full. Those recommendations might bring long-awaited status to some people in Direct Provision (in a few months) but the system itself will remain.
Ó Ríordáin says that he wants to stop incarcerating people in Direct Provision; his legacy will be that he had a chance to end a system of mass incarceration but he failed to do so.