The government’s treatment of asylum seekers has been a shameful stain on St Patrick’s Day celebrations

Instead of providing emergency accommodation, the government decided that their top priority was ensuring that Paddy’s Day celebrations were not impacted by refugees on the streets

Early on St Patrick’s Day morning, Irish drag queen, activist and business owner Panti Bliss posted: “I came to London yesterday because in a few hours I’m the Grand Marshal of the London St Patrick’s Day Parade. And I’m honoured and looking forward to it. But after what was done to asylum seekers in Dublin yesterday, it now feels weird because I’m also ashamed to be Irish today.”

Two weeks ago, this newspaper reported on the “rapidly deteriorating” conditions homeless asylum seekers were facing outside the International Protection Office (IPO) in Dublin. The situation was worsening as hundreds were forced out of emergency accommodation and left with no sanitary facilities in tents outside the office. Volunteers at the scene did not belong to any official organisation, they were “all trying to coordinate some type of support”. 

Then on Saturday, March 16, as thousands were arriving into Dublin to celebrate Paddy’s Day, the homeless were abruptly moved from outside the IPO. Trinity News received reports from volunteers that a masked man on the scene was slashing tents with a knife and harassing volunteers. Tents were loaded onto a truck and taken away by men who identified themselves to volunteers as “carrying out orders” for Dublin City Council. A statement from the Department of Integration claimed that all asylum seekers were “offered alternative shelter”. However, when they were escorted to Crooksling – previously the site of a fire believed to be connected to anti-immigrant protests – they were provided with tents and only offered the “use of the bathroom and shower facilities at the nursing home”. Many of these asylum seekers chose to walk the 20km distance back to the city centre, preferring the unsanitary conditions of Mount Street to the remote location they had been offered.

“Mere hours before the parade kicked off we saw the dark underbelly of modern Ireland”

The timing of this move was particularly conspicuous. The government swiftly bussing homeless people out of the city centre so they would not be seen by the vast numbers of tourists descending on the city for Paddy’s Day weekend left an understandably poor taste in the mouths of many. From Washington, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar defended the decision to move the asylum seekers, emphasising the conditions on Mount Street were unlivable and Crooksling was state-owned land. Why then were over 200 asylum seekers allowed to live in filth outside the institution built to protect them for weeks on end without state intervention? The timing, as thousands of tourists arrived to visit “the land of a thousand welcomes”, cannot be ignored. The theme of this year’s St Patrick’s Day parade was “spréach”, the Irish word for “spark” – but mere hours before the parade kicked off we saw the dark underbelly of modern Ireland. 

The treatment of the refugees by the government was truly disgraceful and left people feeling that there was not much to celebrate this Paddy’s Day after all.  When this is how our government treats the most vulnerable in society, what right do we have to be parading around the streets proclaiming how great our country and our culture is? When we can’t offer these people the most basic human decency and, worse, when the government brushes these issues under the rug, what do we actually have to celebrate?

On Sunday, the streets of Dublin were filled with jovial parade goers and pubs were packed to the rafters. Thousands of people danced through the streets – while thousands more had nowhere to sleep. These refugees came to Ireland for help, for safety, for compassion and the government has shown them nothing but contempt. Volunteers outside of the IPO described the situation as “completely the government’s failure”. Instead of providing the emergency accommodation that was so readily available when snow unexpectedly hit, the government decided that their top priority was ensuring that Paddy’s Day celebrations were not impacted by refugees on the streets.

In their statement the department highlighted that “the supply of available accommodation is severely diminished… what accommodation can be opened is primarily being utilised for families in order to avoid women and children becoming homeless”. The government chose to defend its decision to merely provide tents to these refugees ironically by reminding the public of its even greater failure to address a vast shortage of housing for years on end. The question this poses is not whether this was the best available option, but how this became the best available option. The passive language used in statements is an attempt by the government to relegate the problem of accommodating refugees to an abstract issue beyond the reach of its influence. However, it cannot deny it is in a crisis of its own making. Integration Minister Roderic O’Gorman has made assurances that policy proposals for accommodating asylum seekers are in the works, including plans to replace direct provision with state-owned centres. Beside the fact these promises are being made in the last year of the government’s lifespan and remain a remote dream, the question remains of whether this all could have been resolved sooner.

The current government might not have been able to predict the Russian invasion of Ukraine, and they can claim they could not have foreseen the influx of asylum seekers from outside Europe. It cannot claim, however, that it didn’t see any issue with its system of accommodating asylum seekers. Academics and legal experts have consistently pointed out that the policy of direct provision is unnecessarily dehumanising. It was also clear based on the years that people spent in direct provision that the international protection application process was painstakingly long and arduous, and any added pressure to the system would lead to a complete burst. The government pretends to face the public with its hands tied, when in reality it is only the failure of its own policies that has tied them.

Now, Ireland has entered a new stage in its approach to international protection applicants. In the space of four months, the number of homeless asylum seekers has risen to over 1,000. This is not a new crisis, however it is an escalating one and one the government is woefully unprepared for. The excuses that have been given for the treatment of asylum seekers in this country are absolutely unacceptable. Yes, there is an accommodation crisis in Ireland. However, the responsibility to alleviate these issues lies squarely with the government and the longer they keep pretending that it doesn’t, the more people will suffer. Until they fix this problem, to echo Panti Bliss, we have very little to be proud of as a nation.