Roderic O’Gorman, the newly appointed Minister for Children, Disabilities, Equality and Integration, has made clear promises to sort out the State’s direct provision system.
The Green Party TD is not short of ambition: he wants to take the “meanness” out of the existing system and pledges to replace the accommodation system – currently housing 7,700 people – “within the lifespan of this government”.
Changes will come quickly, he says, including reducing the time asylum seekers must wait before becoming eligible to work, better training for direct provision centre staff and better mental health supports.
Existing centres will continue to operate in the "short to medium term", while the changes in an end-of-year white paper will be guided by former European Commission secretary-general Catherine Day's expert group report, due in September.
The current system has 'always been ad hoc' and was never properly planned, he says
He avoids putting a date on when the last direct provision centre will close, but it will be achieved “within the lifespan of this government”. Staged deadlines now might look impressive politically but would be unfair to those living in the centres, he adds.
The current system has “always been ad hoc” and was never properly planned, he says. “So-called improvements” have been made over the years, but no consistency has been maintained. “Ending direct provision is a key priority,” he says.
The coalition’s programme for government states direct provision will be replaced with a “new international protection accommodation policy centred on a not-for-profit approach”, backed by a properly funded current and capital budget.
So far O’Gorman has met with Minister for Justice Helen McEntee to discuss the handover of the direct provision portfolio from the Department of Justice to his new department, but both will have to continue to work closely together. A “fairly substantial” number of Justice staff will have to move.
The support of local communities for the changes to come after the ending of direct provision will be vital, says O’Gorman: “Engage early, engage accurately and engage comprehensively.
“The earlier you start speaking to people, the more information you give them and the more correct that information is, the less chance you have for far-right groups to spread malicious lies.”
"As soon as a State body is seen to try and be quiet or mysterious, it allows conspiracy theorists on the far right to fan the flames of public concern," says O'Gorman, who points to the lessons that must be learned from last year's protests in Oughterard.
Push factors are going to determine the number of asylum seekers coming to Ireland. I don't think it's the pull factors primarily
Asked if he is worried that an Irish pledge to offer own-door accommodation to asylum seekers will spur more arrivals, he says people quit their homes because of violence and persecution in their home countries.
"When you look at the dangers people are fleeing – violence, civil war and climate catastrophes – the push factors are massive. It's these push factors that are going to determine the number of asylum seekers coming to Ireland. I don't think it's the pull factors primarily."
The new system may “not satisfy everyone’s demands”, he accepts. But if asylum decisions are made in a shorter time and people can live in a more dignified way, he will feel “we’ve achieved a lot”.
The Government could also be “a bit more outspoken about the quiet dictators who through their actions and repression of human rights in their own countries are generating asylum seekers”, he adds.
Moving people out of emergency hotel and B&B accommodation is a priority to ensure that they get proper supports, while special support services for victims of sexual violence will also be considered, he says.
A 2018 attempt to let asylum seekers find work was “embarrassing and complicated”, he says. “I think taking that meanness out of the system is something that we need to look at; those small things like making it really hard to get a driver’s licence.”
Decisions on asylum applications should be made within nine months to a year, rather than the average 15 months that applied before the pandemic, while asylum seekers should not have to wait nine months before being able to work, he says.
Last week’s Ombudsman for Children’s report raises “concerning” information about widespread racism, bullying and exclusion experienced by asylum seeker children in schools throughout the State.
I think it's absolutely essential, particularly in the context of Black Lives Matter, for gardaí to look like the communities they police
Hate crime legislation and greater diversity amongst the Garda Síochána is needed, too: "I think it's absolutely essential, particularly in the context of Black Lives Matter, for gardaí to look like the communities they police.
“We see from other countries if a gap grows up in that trust ... that creates the potential for trouble in the future.” O’Gorman has himself been the target for social media trolling in recent weeks.
However, he declines to debate matters again, saying he has paid “precisely zero attention” to a protest outside Leinster House last Saturday that called for his resignation because he had marched alongside British activist Peter Tatchell at Dublin’s Pride march two years ago.
“My focus is on doing this job and I’m not going to be distracted by a small minority no matter how vocal they might be,” he says, adding that he had attended a commemoration of the Srebrenica massacre that day.