The Justice Minister has publicly apologised to the people of a Co Kerry town for his department’s handling of a direct provision centre in the area.
The centre, which opened in Cahersiveen in March, has been at the centre of controversy after a number of residents at the former Skellig Star Hotel were diagnosed with Covid-19.
Residents and local people expressed concern over social distancing, with many calling for the centre to be shut down.
Charlie Flanagan, in an open letter published in the Kerryman newspaper, said he acknowledges the “upset and anger”, however he rejected calls to close the centre.
All I can say in my department’s defence is we simply did not feel we had a choice. We were facing an unprecedented health emergencyCharlie Flanagan, Justice Minister
In the open letter, written to the people of Cahersiveen, Mr Flanagan said he wanted to explain his handling of the decision to move residents into the former hotel without local consultation.
He wrote: “I know there has been suspicion and worry. I can see why they built up and I really regret the extent to which our actions fuelled them.
“That is why I want to explain as much as I can, to outline the circumstances and timelines, and by doing so, hopefully to rebuild trust.”
He said opening direct provision centres “can be difficult” and that in early March, his officials realised new centres were needed quickly following the outbreak of Covid-19 in Ireland.
He added: “It was not tenable in a health emergency, to have large numbers of international protection applicants in emergency hotel accommodation, sharing facilities with other guests.
“We needed more dedicated centres where we could offer care and services, 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.
“All I can say in my department’s defence is we simply did not feel we had a choice. We were facing an unprecedented health emergency and the Skellig Star was available to us.”
He denied his department knew some of the residents had come into contact with a confirmed case of Covid-19 before they were transferred to the Co Kerry facility.
He said it was over two weeks later before any of the residents in Cahersiveen began to show symptoms or were confirmed as positive for Covid-19.
The Minister for Justice should apologise to the DÃ¡il over what has happened in Cahersiveen, and not just to the people of Kerry.— The Labour Party (@labour) May 20, 2020
Last Wednesday when questioned on the treatment of residents there he failed to give adequate answers to @seansherlocktd 👇https://t.co/4kXDlhYDwS pic.twitter.com/nf5d60pByI
Residents who were diagnosed with coronavirus were transferred to a special self-isolation facility.
He said another case was recently confirmed which means residents are currently self-isolating.
Mr Flanagan said the centre, which has around 70 residents, has infection control measures in place and supplies of sanitising materials, masks and other PPE.
Asked on RTE Radio’s Today with Sarah McInerney whether he would apologise to the residents of the centre and the residents of Cahersiveen, he said: “I am apologising to the residents now through you.
“I don’t have any problem apologising to the people living in the centre. For example, there was an issue with the boiler and there was no water at the beginning of the tenure there. I understand the boiler is not fixed because of difficulties due to the pandemic – I apologise for that, I have no difficulty with that.”
Labour justice spokesman Sean Sherlock called for Mr Flanagan to apologise to the Dail.
“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,” Mr Sherlock said.
“The minister for justice should now make an apology to the Dail and to the refugees he has utterly failed.
“He failed to adequately answer questions in the Dail last Wednesday when I raised this centre with him and the treatment of residents in direct provision.”