From top: Independent TD Noel Grealish; Eamonn Kelly
Responding to the Direct Provision controversy that erupted in Galway last week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said that people in direct provision can leave at any time. That staying is not “compulsory”.
But leave to what?
This is of course deliberately disingenuous of him, the same smart-alecky approach that he used about welfare recipients a few years ago, the same dodgy use of the word “compulsory” that Regina Docherty is so fond of.
Varadkar said that we (Ireland) simply can’t give every asylum seeker a house or an apartment, that Direct Provision is the only response we can afford.
Again this is similar to his pronouncement in the Dáil a few years ago on the subject of social housing that people can’t expect a house for “nothing”, leaving hotel accommodation as the only affordable response to the homelessness crisis.
Both situations, homelessness and the problems associated with direct provision centres, could be solved with a believable social housing programme.
But Varadkar and Fine Gael are ideologically opposed to the concept of social housing, which leaves us back with the homeless in hotels and asylum seekers in Direct Provision.
Both groups are of course entitled to leave at any time. Nothing is “compulsory” or “mandatory”. Destitution is a lifestyle choice.
Rules and Flaws
At the public meeting where Noel Grealish made his controversial remarks, Fine Gael TD, and Minister of State Seán Kyne, said that Ireland was obliged under EU and United Nations laws to “accept and process anyone who could prove they had fled persecution and injustices in their own country.”
Fair enough. However, EU and UN laws also state that Ireland is obliged to provide social housing to citizens, many fleeing persecution and injustice by greedy Irish landlords in the private rented sector.
The point is, Fine Gael can’t expect to cherry-pick directives from UN and EU conventions on Human Rights in order to bolster weak arguments for the ideological privatisation of services, without also being held accountable for their lack of observation of Human Rights conventions under EU and UN law.
Especially when such neglect results in measurable harm to citizens, as was shown in the study commissioned by Dublin City Council and published in June this year proving that homelessness – the hotel accommodation variety – causes measurable psychological harm to children.
Such subtle distinctions however have been nicely hijacked by the Noel Grealish comments, though in earlier reports it seemed clear that the people gathered in Oughterard were not specifically opposed to a share of refugees being accommodated in the town, they were opposed to a privately-run direct provision centre in a large empty hotel in the heart of the town.
Filling this large empty hotel with refugees, and thus fulfilling government EU obligations to accept a quota of asylum seekers, may be the real motive behind the government’s interest in a large 60-room empty hotel pitched way over in the wild West of Ireland.
But Direct Provision centres in such hotels, particularly centres run by private companies, have been described as inhumane and are accused of being run on a shoestring to maximise private profit, with the needs of the tenants taking second place.
The private companies who run the centres were paid €55 million by the state in 2017, while the people inside the centres live lives of squalid desperation, according to reports from the Irish Refugee Council, which have highlighted overcrowding, unhygienic living areas, malnutrition, psychologically damaging long-duration stays, and a host of other problems as a consequence of overcrowded and stagnating conditions.
The Refugee Council, in July 2019, also took the government to task for its failure to meet legal obligations in the EU Reception Conditions Directive, warning that Ireland was in breach of EU law.
A press release this year from the council stated:
“Today (Friday 12 July), the Irish Refugee Council called on the State to fulfil its obligations under the Reception Conditions Directive which became legally binding in Ireland one year ago.”
Apparently, Ireland, having opted-in to provide a set standard of conditions, have failed to implement aspects of the agreement, placing the country in breach of its EU obligations. This, more than anything, demonstrates that the privatized Direct Provision concept is a failure that serves no one except the private companies that profit from the system.
Much of the anger in Oughterard was fuelled by a lack of communication by government with the local community on plans for the empty hotel in the town. This type of thing sends out a message to people that government is none of their business, even when decisions impact directly on their lives. It is as if the government simply wanted that hotel, and they were going to take it.
Local Oughterard businessman Rory Clancy told the Irish Times that the town would be “happy to take its quota of refugees in the form of a few families properly accommodated and integrated, but not housed in a direct provision centre.”
While Patrick Curran, described by the Irish Times as one of the main organisers of the public meeting, repeatedly warned during the course of the meeting “that if the politicians would not stop the centre, the people would.”
Catherine Connolly TD said of government’s setting up of Direct Provision centres that “Their lack of communication with people causes hatred and division towards people who have already fled persecution in their own country,” and went on to say that the Department of Justice had not learned from its mistakes.
The Irish Times also reported that many of the speakers at the meeting in Oughterard “accused the Government of ignoring rural towns such as theirs which had only one doctor for a population of 1,600, full to capacity schools, an intercom instead of a Garda station and a social housing waiting list with no sign of any new schemes being built.”
It seems then that much of the anger on display was a response to government neglect of and lack of consultation with the community.
Rights, rights and more rights
The right to asylum appears under article 18 of the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union. Just below that is article 24, the rights of the child, which includes “the right to such protection and care as is necessary for their well-being”.
A right which, as the report mentioned earlier showed, is being daily undermined by a government ideologically opposed to the idea of social housing.
This neglect of social services in favour of privatization also runs counter to the spirit of article 34.3 of the European Charter, which reads:
“In order to combat social exclusion and poverty, the Union recognises and respects the right to social and housing assistance so as to ensure a decent existence for all those who lack sufficient resources, in accordance with the rules laid down by Community law and national laws and practices.”
Meanwhile, the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights states in Article 22:
“Everyone, as a member of society, has the right to social security and is entitled to realization, through national effort and international co-operation and in accordance with the organization and resources of each State, of the economic, social and cultural rights indispensable for his dignity and the free development of his personality.”
A right undermined by homelessness and the conditions of Direct Provision as described by the Irish Refugee Council.
Rather than combat social exclusion and poverty, Fine Gael policy seems to actually foster these things. Then they contract private companies to “fix” them. (Game: how many definitions of “fix” can you think of in the context of privatisation of services?)
It seems clear that the solution to both homelessness and Direct Provision is social housing, and is a solution that might satisfy the people of Oughterard and other Irish towns, if reasonably implemented, as well as fulfilling obligations to housing and direct provision obligations under EU and UN laws.
That the government selectively present themselves as being bound by EU and UN directives when they want something – like a big empty hotel to dump a pile of refugees into – while at the same time clearly flouting EU and UN directives,
in both social housing provision and refugee direct provision, is perhaps the real story here, one that was overshadowed a little by the spectre of racism found in Noel Grealish’s misguided remarks, which, for all anyone really knows, could easily have been just a clever gaming of the public: fling out a couple of offensive Trumpisms and set them all off in a tizzy so they’ll forget where the real game is.
A very handy distraction for a government always determined on privatisation at any cost, regardless of EU or UN laws.
Eamonn Kelly is a freelance Writer and Playwright.
Previously: Eamonn Kelly on Broadsheet
Previously: on Oughterherard: ‘You Can Leave At Time’