In opposition, Shatter was fiercely critical of direct provision for asylum seekers

Opinion: In government, however, he has radically changed his tune

The system for claiming asylum in Ireland is broken. Carl O'Brien's reports in The Irish Times over the last few weeks shine a light on simply one of the broken spokes within Ireland's asylum system: direct provision.

Under Irish law the State has a responsibility to investigate and determine whether an individual falls into the legal category of refugee or has any other legal claim for protection in this country. However, what rights does this person, an asylum seeker, have while their claim is being determined?

If an asylum seeker is found to be in need of protection a person will be granted extensive rights, almost on par with rights enjoyed by citizens as regards a right to work, right to become self-employed, right to travel in and out of this State and a right to access social security.

While the veracity of an asylum seeker’s claim is being assessed, the system of direct provision is utilised to provide social supports to asylum seekers, who are legislatively prohibited from working.


In July 2010, then in opposition, Alan Shatter compared an aspect of the direct provision system, set meal times, to "the type of operation one might apply in prisoner of war camps during a war, not the type of approach that a civilised democratic western European country should apply in any situation".

'Forced idleness'
When discussing the system of direct provision in October 2010, Shatter stated that the asylum system was "grossly deficient" and direct provision subjected asylum seekers to "a life of debilitating forced idleness".

In 2013, Minister Shatter in the Seanad ( October 23th, 2013) attacked those asking questions about the legality of direct provision.

Shatter had come full circle; forcing asylum seekers to years of set meal times, communal living and a lack of social space without privacy or dignity is something the State should be congratulated for providing.

Direct provision, a system that Shatter compared to a prisoner of war camp, has transformed into a system that protects Ireland from asylum-seeking hordes.

The “pull factor”, as Minister Shatter calls it, means that showing any form of compassion or respecting the dignity of an asylum seeker as a human person is to be resisted.

Responding to a motion by Senator Jillian van Turnhout, Shatter made the Government position clear: direct provision is here to stay.

In late August 2013, in a judgment from the Northern Ireland High Court, Mr Justice Stevens voiced serious concerns about the suitability of the direct provision system, in particular for children.

The Northern Ireland High Court stated that the best interests of the child could not be met in the system of direct provision in the Republic.

Mr Justice Stephens therefore refused to permit the return of a family to this jurisdiction.

I have argued elsewhere (Irish Times, August 3th, 2013) that there is no legal basis for the system of direct provision. However, whether the direct provision system is complying with our Constitution will be decided by the Irish High Court some time in 2014.

In Carol Coulter’s latest ground-breaking childcare law reports we have seen yet more glimpses of life in direct provision. One case in particular stands out.

An emergency care order was granted for an eight-year-old child who was born and reared in a direct provision system. The mother was suffering with her mental health and the child was taken into care. The judge was told that the mother and child had €28.70 per week.

Noting the length of time that the mother and child were in direct provision, the judge noted: “I am struck in this case by the fact the child has resided her entire life in direct provision and the mother has been in it for that time….”

Direct provision shames Ireland as a society. The fact that many other countries in Europe operate even more punitive social support systems or detain asylum seekers as a matter of course does not and cannot allow Ireland wash its hands of treating individuals in a dignified manner.

We should judge any standard of State-provided supports for asylum seekers by the standards of Irish society, not other European states nor the countries of origin that asylum seekers come from.

Given the delays in bringing forth the Immigration, Residence and Protection Bill, now promised for 2014, it remains unlikely that claims for asylum and other protection status will be dealt with fairly and speedily any time soon.

The scar on the conscience of Ireland that is direct provision looks set to remain for now.

Dr Liam Thornton is a lecturer in law in UCD Sutherland school of law. His monograph, The Socio-Economic Rights of Asylum Seekers in International & European Law, will be published in 2015