In a draft programme for government replete with ambiguities, the commitment on direct provision agreed by negotiators from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party is admirably clear. The current arrangements for housing asylum seekers need to change, the agreement states, with the three parties committed to "ending direct provision" and replacing it with "a new international protection accommodation policy centred on a not-for-profit approach."
Perhaps more important is the setting down of a plan and a timeline – features notably absent from a number of other commitments in the document – for the fulfilment of the pledge.
It marks an important milestone for those who have long pressed for the system to be overhauled
It commits to publishing a white paper by the end of this year, incorporating the forthcoming recommendations of the expert group chaired by former European Commission secretary general Catherine Day. In the meantime, that group's interim recommendations, issued last week, will be acted on.
These are significant moves, coming from parties that were responsible for establishing direct provision (Fianna Fáil) and for retaining it while in government (Fine Gael and the Greens) over the past 20 years. As such, it marks an important milestone for those who have long pressed for the system to be overhauled. It also underlines how a long campaign, often led by asylum seekers themselves, has succeeded in forcing an official rethink on an issue that too many politicians were for too long unwilling to confront.
But exactly what “ending direct provision” really means will hinge on what will replace it, and on this the document only hints at an answer. The removal of private for-profit involvement, the one key pledge included in the relevant section, would be a genuine breakthrough, calling time on a model that was wrong-headed from its introduction in 1999. But that alone will not be enough. Housing and intolerable living conditions are one part of the equation, but unacceptable delays in processing applications is another. Any serious attempt at fair and comprehensive change to the asylum system must address both.