This morning, local Sinn Féin candidate, Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, claimed on Twitter that he had been prevented from accessing a Direct Provision centre in Cork in order to canvass residents. The centre houses 152 asylum seekers, each of whom (over the age of 18 years) has the right to vote in local elections.
Mr Ó Laoghaire later alleged that he had been told by centre staff that the decision was based on a “Ministerial directive” and that the state-owned centre has been designated a “neutral zone,” where no political activity is permitted.
He subsequently tweeted that he had telephoned the Reception and Integration Agency (RIA), the Department of Justice and Equality’s state agency with responsibility for reception and accommodation centres where asylum seekers and victims of trafficking are housed in Ireland.
Rang RIA.Confirmed that its a policy not to allow Canvassers in. Has to be kept ‘politically neutral’ zone. Decision by Director I’m told
He claims he was told that this was a nation-wide policy, not confined to the centre in Cork.
I telephoned RIA, the Department of Justice and Equality, and the accommodation centre to enquire about Mr Ó Laoghaire’s claims.
Department of Justice and Equality, Dublin.
Image: © Joan O’Connell, 13th May 2014
After lunchtime this afternoon, I was informed by a member of staff at RIA who had been instructed by the Principal Officer at RIA, Mr Noel Dowling, that Mr Dowling has a policy that no canvassing is permitted for any political parties. I was told that this member of staff had been instructed to say that election canvassing had never been permitted, and this policy had always been in place. I was told that this RIA policy follows Departmental policy (of the Department of Justice and Equality).
I was told that this was all the information that the staff member had, and that any further queries should be put to the Department of Justice and Equality Press Office.
I telephoned that Press Office. I was told that the staff in that office would have very little information about the RIA policy, but that I could send my queries to the Press Office by email, and that they would forward this on to Mr Dowling.
I stated that I had been informed that RIA policy was based on Department policy, and asked whether the press officer knew what this might have meant. It was suggested to me that canvassers may be rarely permitted because asylum accommodation is treated like a private home. I pointed out that asylum seekers do not have the choice of where to live and that direct provision centres could not be considered to be a home in the normal sense of the word. I asked whether, since the direct provision system has no statutory basis, would it be correct to infer that the policy regarding canvassing was also without any statutory basis. I didn’t really get a response to this. It was again suggested that I email my queries to the Department Press Office and await a response.
(To be fair, I was told by the Department of Justice and Equality staffer that I was the first person to contact that office with my query; and at all times the staff in RIA and the Department were as courteous and as helpful as possible. At times they sounded a little flustered or unsure, understandably enough.)
I telephoned the accommodation centre in Cork, and asked to speak to the manager. I was told that the manager was “unavailable,” but that, in relation to the policy regarding canvassing, “a letter came from Noel Dowling in RIA.”
Throughout the afternoon, I was told that Mr Dowling was unavailable. I have this evening (4:30pm) sent the following questions to the Department of Justice Press Office:
Can RIA refuse permission for canvassers to access asylum seeker centres?
If yes, on what grounds?
On what grounds does RIA grant permission for canvassers?
Can a centre manager then refuse, even if RIA has granted permission?
Why is it necessary for canvassers to seek permission from RIA to canvass at reception and accommodation centres?
What is a “neutral zone” designation?
What constitutes political activity?
Why are all political parties prohibited from these centres?
When did this policy come into force?
On what basis?
What is the legal basis for the policy?
Who has the legal authority to impose this policy?
Regarding the letter purportedly sent by Noel Dowling to accommodation centres:
– What is in this letter?
– What is the date of this letter?
– Furnish a copy of this letter?
– Why was this letter sent to direct provision centres?
– On what basis was this letter sent to direct provision centres?