Yesterday, I received a call from researchers of RTÉ Radio 1’s Liveline programme, asking me if I would be available and willing to speak about the issue of of local election candidates’ access to Direct Provision centres.
Below is a transcript of my discussion with Liveline’s presenter, with Joe Duffy, which took place at around 2pm.
You can listen to the programme here. (My contribution is about seven and a half minutes long, followed by contributions from Margaret Peters and another caller.)
Joe Duffy: […] You say, in the local elections, there’s only one place in the country where the candidates can’t canvass, where the voters are. Where’s that?
Joan O’Connell: Good afternoon. Yes, em – well essentially any local election candidate is, apparently anyway, banned or prohibited from entering onto Direct Provision centres. So this’d be centres in Ireland – across the country – where, em, people who’ve applied for asylum, by and large that’s who would live there.
Em, so, this is something that emerged during the week and I’ve been writing about it on my own blog, but a lot of other people, too, as well – including academics, lawyers, people who would be very experienced in this area, who would be familiar with it – who have been quite shocked by this news that has come out during the week – that candidates can’t essentially canvass the views of their voters in their area.
JD: Because – and we’ve, we’ve got calls – the last time we did it, we got calls from these centres. There’s, I think, how many are there, 30? Over 30 of them? Theres four-and-a-half thousand people in them as we speak; a lot of them are massive mobile home sites around the country; and they’re called Direct Provision: you live in a mobile home if you’re an asylum seeker, you go to a central location on the site where you get your meals at set times, and whatever. And we were getting calls about aspects of life there.
But they – the adults – can vote in the local elections; but you’re saying that a candidate cannot go in, and go ’round, and knock on the doors of the mobile homes and say, “My name is Peter Murphy,” or whatever, “And I’m standing in the local election” Why?
JO’C: Em, yeah well – And I’m not just saying it, I mean this is apparently according to Circulars that have gone out from the agency responsible for operating or overseeing these centres where asylum seekers and others live. So, you know, as I said, this emerged during the week, and since then, further information came out about – sort of, internal Circulars that they’re – these are the documents, they’re called “Circulars” – which have been sent to all of these various centres, to the managers, basically telling the managers, em – on the face of it, they’re talking about election materials. So that, the document that’s sent to the managers says that the centres must be “politically neutral” – is the phrase that they use – and that election literature can’t be circulated, or posters can’t be put up, in and around the area.
Now, on Tuesday, em, a local candidate was trying to get into his, em, nearby centre in his constituency, and apparently he phoned up in advance and was told that he wouldn’t be allowed to go and to engage or speak with the people living there. Em, so, he […] put this online, he put this on Twitter, and a discussion emerged around that.
So, apparently it’s not just – from what his experience appears to be – it’s not just the issue of literature and posters —
JD: And here’s […]
JO’C: — but people themselves can’t go.
JD: You pointed out this letter from the Department of Justice – the RIA, the Reception and Integration Agency – and here is the key, I think the key line: “an accommodation centre must be politically neutral. In the same way that Public Service offices operate in a politically neutral environment, so also must accommodation centres be free from any party political associations.
JO’C: Yeah —
JD: So, “To maintain the politically neutral environment,” no “party political leaflets, posters or circulars [can be] displayed or circulated.” This is crazy.
JO’C: Mm. It seems – to me, anyway, reading it when I first heard it, I thought it was extreme, I didn’t really kind of know —
JD: Wait for it!
JO’C: — intially how to make sense of it.
JD: Wait for it, Joan – it gets worse: “If such documentation is received through the post, it should be returned to the sender” – in other words, it should be opened and returned to the sender, “accompanied by a copy of this circular.”
JO’C: Yeah —
JD: Is this North Korean we’re in?
JO’C: Well. I hope not. But, I mean – now, there has been an amendment to that, apparently in the last 24 hours. Sort of, an amendment has been sent around saying that literature – you know, leaflets and things – can be left in a centre, but they must be put in a “suitable designated area,” and the prohibition remains that politicians can’t actually speak to their constituents —
JD: They can’t canvas the voters.
JO’C: Exactly, which is part of the democratic process of any kind of democratic country, you would assume. And then also, the rest of the, the, the kind of, the ruling remains. So that the issue of “politically neutral environment” remains, as well.
So – I mean, I don’t know what —
JD: What does, what does that phrase —
JO’C: — what a “politically neutral environment” is.
JO’C: I don’t know how anyone can designate that. And I don’t know really on what basis this decision has been made, because this is a civil servant sending this letter out; there’s no statutory basis; there’s no basis in law – that I am aware of, anyway – that can justify this, or any rationale that can justify it.
So, it seems just so arbitrary, and patently unfair – if anybody else who is eligible to vote in the local elections was told this, I’m sure there’d be a complete outcry.
JD: It’s like – going to the entrance of an estate and being told, “Leave the leaflets there, you can’t come on to this estate.”
JO’C: Yeah. I mean, that’s the way – in a sense, that’s more or less how I would view it, as well. I mean, this idea of equating a Direct Provision centre with somewhere where public servants work is completely absurd, as far as I’m concerned, because this – the Direct Provision centre is somewhere where people are living, they have to reside there, they don’t really have a choice about it —
JD: They don’t have – they get how much a week to, if they want to…
JO’C: Yeah, it’s part of the Direct Provision system, exactly. They have, em – adults would have €19.10 a week, and children would have, I think, €9.60 a week, em, allocated to them. Then, as you said earlier, their meals are provided at set times and set types of meals. Em, but they’re essentially required to live there. So, they don’t have a choice. So, for all intents and purposes, this is where they reside, it is their home.
It’s not comparable to a workplace, for example, which is what that Circular seems to imply; and that seems to be somehow a justification for calling this place “politically neutral.” Which […] I don’t see how it can be.
JD: Is it that they don’t want representatives seeing what goes on in these places?
JO’C: Well, to be honest, I don’t know. I mean, there’s very little transparency or information coming out about what the basis for this is, so the short answer is, “I don’t know.”
But it is interesting to see that the original Circular that – from 2008 – which has since been amended now, but the original Circular from 2008: that still stands, and it says, and I quote: “These circulars concern political stances being taken in relation to various issues in the asylum/immigration area.”
So, I – I can only infer that is a problem, seeing as it’s mentioned in the document – which itself is very troubling. I mean, why should it not be an issue for a local candidate to canvass the views of people who are going through an asylum or immigration process?
JD: What are they thinking, that the … candidates are going to go in and incite these people to go and burn down the places, or something?
JO’C: I seriously doubt it, I mean, I know that politicians come in for a lot of criticism, but I don’t think they’d, eh, you know, go that far or stoop to that kind of level! So, I mean, I don’t really understand what the problem is, what the fear might be – I can’t come up with, in my own head, any justification for it whatsoever. I really don’t understand it.
JD: Okay. Okay. Okay. We’ll find out more, and we’ll talk to some people living […]
JO’C: And just – just to say, as well, like – I did actually email the Department of Justice, as I was advised to do, a series of questions for the person who issued these Circulars, asking those questions about what is the basis for it, and there was no response, to date anyway, I haven’t got an answer back.
JD: And when did you email them, Joan?
JO’C: Eh, Tuesday afternoon.