Any ‘bad vibes’ over refugee housing will be reversed, new junior minister predicts

Joe O’Brien says migrant reception system needs structural overhaul as he tends integration portfolio

On a “knife edge”: That is how Joe O’Brien, the Coalition’s new junior minister for integration, describes the State’s system for receiving refugees, after a year when it seemed at times on the verge of collapse.

O’Brien says more was achieved in 2022 on integration than in almost any other year, at lightning speed. But it’s also clear for him that a structural overhaul is needed.

His ministerial briefing documents were stark, warning of an “unsustainable” system which has been rolled out too quickly to track or manage properly and faces a risk of a 14,000-bed shortfall in accommodation by the end of March as hoteliers switch back to the tourist trade.

If something doesn’t change, he says there’s a “good chance there’ll be a significant shortfall” in beds available. “We are on that knife edge,” he says, “and that’s probably not going to improve until something different happens.”


O’Brien grew up on a farm in Grenagh, Co Cork, before spending much of his professional life working on migrant issues.

The Green Party TD for Dublin Fingal doesn’t hunt the limelight, is even-tempered and cautious – for the most part. Early in the Coalition’s term, he voted against the Government on a housing measure and escaped sanction.

Allies say he lets it show when he is annoyed by something. During negotiations on the programme for government, he stormed out over a transport issue, raising his voice and swearing. Largely, he is seen as businesslike, focused on his brief – which has suddenly expanded to take in one of the most vexed political and public policy problems on the Coalition’s plate.

Property provision

Part of the solution will be to acquire a lot more properties. “We’re too reliant on private providers at the moment,” he says.

“There’s providers who can provide accommodation that might not have done so before that I’ll be open to talking to them to try and convince them to do it.”

Modular housing is not a “silver bullet” – the programme will need to expand significantly, he adds. Without identifying a precise number, he agrees the programme size will be multiples of the planned 700 homes which have been announced so far.

They will be in “every county”, with O’Brien arguing for allocation on proportional basis as outlined in a White Paper on the future of direct provision. The sites will have to be of a better quality than some others which have been proposed but “are just totally unviable from an infrastructure point of view”.

He also wants to see refurbishment of buildings for accommodation happening faster.

The real test of O’Brien’s skills – and those of the wider government – will be making sure it moves in parallel with effective efforts to secure community acceptance. This is at the core of the integration element of his brief as fears grow about fraying social cohesion and the influence of far-right actors.

This must be done as the programme expands both in absolute and geographic terms. His ministerial briefing bluntly warns that new reception centres will have to be opened for both Ukrainians and international protection applicants “across the country and for the foreseeable future”, and that without well-funded efforts to secure consent “we risk being hostage to the far-right in many of our future negotiations, thus hobbling our ability to address our current accommodation shortage”.

O’Brien says his existing community development portfolio in the Department of Social Protection stands him in good stead, referencing a wider architecture of community structures which can be deputised into migration efforts.

Community reactions

“I do see it as a really key part of my role to augment or support the actions that are happening at a local level, or to help initiate reactions at a community level.” He visited Ballymun last week, and says people were coming to the door of the accommodation to give parcels to those inside, many of whom are involved in football or other local activities already, while local schoolchildren were planning to write letters to the applicants in their language expressing solidarity.

“I genuinely think the counter-reaction is not just going to cancel out what sort of bad vibes are in a community, but will end up improving it,” he says. He is not worried about the physical safety of migrants because it is “very much on the gardaí’s radar”.

It’s a hopeful vision, but one he insists is not overly optimistic in light of the protests. He says the efforts of the far-right to co-opt communities will not be successful, and while he says it is only “realistic” to accept that services are coming under pressure, that can be surmounted with planning and resource allocation.

This isn’t a recent view: before he had his new portfolio he wrote to departments telling them they should plan on the basis that the same number of people will come this year as in 2022. He still holds that view, and while it is not an official projection, believes it would be prudent to prepare on that basis.

And, for the longer term, he says preparations are needed now for a smooth path to many of those who have fled Ukraine staying on a permanent basis. The extension of the temporary protection directive, the EU agreement that governs the permissions and rights to residency of Ukrainians who fled to the bloc, means those in Ireland will likely stay for two years at least.

“If you have someone in the country with pretty much the full rights that Ukrainians have for two years-plus, you will need to open a pathway for them to permanency,” he says. “My understanding is that [the Department of] Justice are beginning to look at status options for people in the long term.”

This would likely involve giving Ukrainians some sort of status to remain until they can apply for longer-term rights – including citizenship. “[After] five years’ residency here, you can apply for citizenship. I would expect that we need to open a pathway before that, just for integration purposes,” he says.

“There’ll be children who will have all their formative years in school here and they’ll start beginning to see here as home, and families will start beginning to see here as home,” he says. While many Ukrainians’ hearts remain in their home country, he says ultimately “time will move on and I think the response that people have felt in communities across Ireland will mean that we will see a significant proportion of Ukrainians deciding that here is the better place for them.”