- 20 May 20
When the Minister for Justice, Charlie Flanagan, apologised to the people of Cahersiveen for the way in which a direct provision centre was established there, he omitted to apologise to those worst affected by events in the town: the asylum seekers who were effectively confined to barracks.
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan TD has penned an open letter to locals at Cahersiveen Co Kerry, apologising for decisions that led to an outbreak of coronavirus in the Direct Provision Centre in the town.
In recent months, the Department of Justice has faced increasingly intense public scrutiny for transferring a group of asylum seekers from various, undisclosed locations, to be housed in Skellig Star Hotel in Cahersiveen.
A number of those asylum seekers were moved from Travelogue Hotel, a guesthouse in close proximity to Dublin airport, where a guest, travelling from Italy, had become ill with Covid-19, earlier in March.
During April, over 25 people contracted the novel coronavirus at the Cahersiveen centre, prompting public demands for its closure. As a result of the outbreak, the residents in the Direct Provision centre were urged to spend four weeks inside, with no outside contact whatsoever.
As confirmed in a story earlier today on hotpress.com, the HSE declared, in a letter to residents, the outbreak of coronavirus to be officially over at their centre, and lifted restrictions on the migrants’ movements in and out.
THE MINISTER’S DEFENCE
In his letter, published in today’s newspapers, Minister Charlie Flanagan, has said that he was writing to “apologise and explain.”
“On behalf of Minister Stanton and myself, I want to apologise most sincerely to the people of Caherciveen, for the way in which we had to open the Direct Provision Centre in the Skellig Star, but I also want to outline why we had to do it in the way we did," the Minister writes, "I hope you will allow me to do both."
The Minister acknowledges the “upset and anger” of locals over his Department’s handling of the Cahersiveen controversy. However, he also outlines the difficulties in procuring new accommodation centres for refugees.
“Opening Direct Provision centres can be difficult,” he writes. “Finding a way to balance confidential tender negotiations with local wishes for consultation is not easy, but as a department we had been getting much better, once decisions on centres were made, at engaging with local representatives, communities and services, at informing them, reassuring them, and answering their questions. But that was way before any of us had ever heard of Covid-19.”
The Minister says that his Department was informed of an urgent need for securing new accommodation early in March. “It was not tenable in a health emergency,” the letter states, “to have large numbers of international protection applicants in emergency hotel accommodation, sharing facilities with other guests.”
Charlie Flanagan has admitted that the transfer of over 105 people to Cahersiveen was carried out hurriedly, but he urges locals to note that it was done with good intentions.
“We needed more dedicated Centres where we could offer care and services,” he writes, “and the Skellig Star was one of three available centres identified from a previous expressions of interest process. So we moved people in within days. It was fast. I admit that. It left little or no time for engagement. I admit that. It was presented as a fait accompli. I admit that too.”
However, Hot Press has learned that not all residents who were moved to Cahersiveen had been staying in emergency accommodation. Ten people, for example, were transferred from Ciúin House, a Direct Provision Centre in Carrick-On-Shannon, Co Leitrim.
“All I can say in my Department's defence is we simply did not feel we had a choice,” Charlie Flanagan writes. “We were facing an unprecedented health emergency and the Skellig Star was available to us. That meant we were unable to offer community meetings, local people couldn’t visit the premises to view the reconfiguration and amenities, there couldn’t be meetings and chats with centre staff, and there was no time for guidance on establishing a Friends of the Centre Group to foster bonds and friendships.”
SAFETY FOR RESIDENTS
Charlie Flanagan has thanked the locals for the level of compassion and concern manifested by them toward the well-being of residents at Skellig Star Hotel.
In the letter, Minister Flanagan goes on to acknowledge the outbreak of coronavirus in Travelodge, adding, however, that "there have been suggestions that we knew of that case and recklessly allowed transfers to proceed despite it and despite the risk it posed to public health. I want to categorically deny that. My Department was never told of that case.”
The Minister writes that no resident was unwell during the transfer and clarified that “the residents who first became symptomatic were not transferred from that hotel.”
He insists that examining the facts will shed light on what he believes is the clear indication that there is no link between the outbreak of coronavirus at Travelogue and Skellig Star Hotel.
“As to what the source of their illness was, well, we will almost certainly never know,” he says. “I also want to acknowledge the people who turned out to welcome the residents on their arrival. I know there is goodwill in Kerry towards those who come to our country seeking international protection.”
The Minister ends his letter by promising to ensure safety for residents adding that the centre continues to operate and that “We are in a contractual arrangement for a 12-month period with the Skellig Star.”
“The centre is operating, and it will continue to do so. I just hope we can welcome you into it when the current restrictions are lifted. In the meantime, thank you for your understanding.”
The Minister's letter has prompted a wave of responses online, many of them very critical. Numerous social media users castigated the Minister for not apologising to asylum seekers at Skellig Star Hotel or even acknowledging their plight.
“Not apologising to the residents themselves really conveys the contempt the politicians have for the people in their car,” one local told Hot Press. However, while the Minister failed to apologise to residents in his letter of regret, he did offer an apology to migrants during an interview on Radio Kerry this morning.
Meanwhile, back at the Skellig Star Hotel, the letter has caused dismay and fury. Residents were quick to point out to Hot Press that the Minister's letter has dashed their hopes – for the centre’s closure and a safe transfer to another facility.
“It’s an open letter to locals,” a resident told Hot Press. “It covers up everything in an aesthetic dressing. Nothing was done for us until we talked to the media. The only remedy is the closure of this centre and evacuating us to a secure place that can make us feel like human beings again.”
Residents have also told us that the Minister’s apology to locals made them feel inconsequential and faceless.
“They apologised to the people of Cahersiveen, not the residents who suffered. Did he need to be pressured to apologise to us? I don’t think it came from his heart,” one resident said. “We are not citizens, that’s what he meant. Justice Department always portrays to public that we are asking for special treatment, which is not true. We demand a public inquiry into the transfer of people down here.”
A SEPARATE LETTER
Following the Minister's public apology, the residents at Skellig Star Hotel received a letter from Oonagh Buckley, deputy secretary general at the Department of Justice.
In the new letter, which Hot Press has seen, Ms Buckley has apologised to residents, acknowledging the difficulties of the ‘self-isolation’ period.
“I’m sorry you had to go through this. But everything we and the HSE have asked you to do has been for your own safety, and I hope you understand this,” she writes. “I want to thank you for your cooperation and for following the HSE guidance over the last few weeks, which had made the lifting of the restrictions possible.”
The letter reminds residents of the Minister’s public apology to the people of Cahersiveen, and expresses hope that recent ‘changes’ introduced into their lives have been helpful.
“From today, as the HSE has confirmed, you can leave the centre for exercise, to visit shops or attend medical appointment,” the letter continues. “ But, like everyone, you should continue to stay indoors as much as possible to help control the spread of the virus in the community.”
This afternoon, the Labour Party’s spokesperson on Justice, Children and Youth Affairs, Sean Sherlock has weighed into the argument – adding to the criticism of Charlie Flanagan.
“The Minister for Justice has taken the extraordinary step of publishing an apology to the people of Kerry in their local newspaper,” Sean Sherlock said.
“What he has failed to do is fully explain what has happened in Cahersiveen, nor has he apologised to the asylum seekers he was responsible for, and to date he has not fully explained why they were placed in an unfit facility.
“The Minister for Justice should now make an apology to the Dáil and to the refugees he has utterly failed.
“Last week he failed to adequately answer questions in the Dáil last Wednesday, when I raised this centre with him and the treatment of residents in Direct Provision.”
While the apologies of recent days were doubtless intended to put a lid on events in Cahersiveen, this one may yet run and run…