The Irish Times view on the direct provision white paper: A welcome milestone

If O’Gorman succeeds, he and the Green Party will have a lasting legacy

Minister for Children and Equality Roderic O’Gorman. Photograph: Keith Arkins Media

Minister for Children and Equality Roderic O’Gorman. Photograph: Keith Arkins Media

 

There is today such clear political consensus on the need to replace direct provision that it can easily be forgotten just how thoroughly – and how quickly – public discourse on the subject has been transformed.

For two decades, since what was intended to be a short-term fix for accommodating refugee applicants was introduced in 2000, the critique of that system largely fell on deaf ears. Report after report documented the damage it did to vulnerable people, including children.

Residents, some having arrived in a traumatised state, were housed in for-profit, often sub-standard centres, kept at a remove from the society in which many of them would one day be expected to integrate. Until very recently, asylum seekers were not allowed to take on paid work. They were paid a paltry allowance that in effect closed them off from active participation in the community.

Worst of all, this happened by design. Successive governments openly defended this scandalous system by falling back on the defence of “deterrence”. The argument, which originated in the Department of Justice, the driver of the policy, was that in order not to create “pull factors” that might attract applicants to Ireland, the accommodation system need an element of misery built into it. This was not a slur imagined by critics – this was the policy.

The work of many tireless activists helped to keep the situation in focus. In particular, asylum seekers themselves showed courage in speaking out, recounting their experiences in public even while feeling it left them open to abuse and worse. This was occurring at a time when Irish society was forced to reckon with institutional abuse in its recent past; the more that past was interrogated, the clearer the contemporary resonances became. And as the public clamour grew louder, political parties took heed. Reports by groups led by Bryan MacMahon and Catherine Day duly plotted a route to a better system.

The white paper published by Minister for Children and Equality Roderic O’Gorman on Friday is not quite a culmination of this process – there is some distance still to travel – but it is a big milestone. If he succeeds in ending direct provision by 2024 and replacing it with a system that combines short-term stays in State-owned reception centres with not-for-profit housing, then he and the Green Party will have a lasting legacy in Irish social policy.

But it is an ambitious timeline, and the path ahead is strewn with obstacles. The Department of Housing has already signalled its misgivings, and shortages of housing in the community are already posing problems for those granted status. With most applicants having to wait at least 18 months, and often far longer, for a final decision, there is a lot of work to be done to get waiting times down – a key plank of the reform plan.

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