Deputy Martin Kenny responds to Ballinamore Community Group

The ongoing debate about the proposal to house asylum seekers in Ballinamore conintues and this week The Leitrim Observer put the following questions, rasied by the Ballinamore Community Greoup to the Leitrim TD.

Deputy Martin Kenny responds to Ballinamore Community Group

Deputy Martin Kenny

Ballinamore Community Group: In his latest of a series of comments in the Dáil, Martin Kenny has referred to the people of Ballinamore as “bullies”. Until now, the Ballinamore Community Group has remained silent and has not referred to Mr Kenny personally, except to unequivocally condemn an attack on his property. We feel however that Martin Kenny has not represented the views of the overwhelming majority of the population of Ballinamore and surrounding areas (whom he claims to represent) and feel that questions need to be asked regarding his involvement and his public pronouncements about this project which the people of Ballinamore feel he has made without any consultation with his constituents.

MK: My comments on Wednesday last in the Dáil are public for anyone to see and hear. I explained some of the issues around accommodation for asylum seeker families and where the Government needed to improve the situation. At the end of my comments I told the Minister he should stand up to bullies everywhere and I believe everyone should.

Why would Martin Kenny repeatedly call out in Dáil Éireann, over the last few years, for an end to direct provision centres and yet now so rigorously support the idea of one in Ballinamore?

MK: Direct provision is a short name for the government policy of providing accommodation, sustenance and services directly to asylum seekers. It evolved over the past twenty years. There have been many examples of well below standard conditions in direct provision centres around the country mainly in old hotels and hostels where people and whole families were in overcrowded rooms with no right facilities or privacy, that is primarily what needs to end. The alternative to providing directly, is to pay a weekly payment to asylum seekers similar to jobseekers’ allowance and place them on the housing list and rent allowance. The problem with that is they are not documented and have no legal status, a bit like the undocumented Irish in the US, it is full of pitfalls as they are don’t have the rights EU citizens have. Therefore, providing temporary accommodation directly is the only real option for government to fulfil its international legal obligations for asylum seekers. Many political parties and groups have been rightly critical of the model of direct provision, as it is done by hiring private companies and some of the centres are of a very poor standard. Another issue is the time it can take to finalise applications, in the past this has left people in bad quality buildings with poor services for years.
About 3 years ago justice McMahon published a report on the direct provision system with a range of recommendations that would greatly improve the system and the government says they are now trying to meet these recommendations when placing people in new asylum seeker accommodation. My position is the all people seeking international protection from war and terror should be housed where they have the ability to live as close to a normal private life as possible, cook for themselves, have work and have supports around them and this would be better if it were provided directly by the State and not by private business interests.
Of course, if the state were to build a thousand new homes somewhere for asylum seekers, it would naturally jar with people on the housing list and the homeless in emergency accommodation and we all understand that.
Justice McMahon set out how to remove the worst aspects of the old direct provision system which I and others were so critical of in the past. He proposed that each family should have their own private living and sleeping and cooking space with wrap around services provided close at hand.
Finding accommodation that fits his recommendations in the context of the housing crisis is not always easy and again I do understand that in a country run by market economics it is the private property owner that is going to provide the faster and most available option. Every week over 100 people are seeking asylum here, due to war and human rights infringements across the globe, so there is an urgency to this issue as the need is growing faster than people are being processed and moved along.
The proposed apartments in Ballinamore are family sized three-and-four-bedroom units with their own front door and they fit as close as one could find the recommendations of McMahon. These type of clusters of accommodation with services on site are considered the best for families to live in while they recover from the trauma of conflict and get their papers processed. The provider making money on it is an issue, but of course no one is aware of the financial or other details of the private contract which is arranged under EU procurement rules. Criticism of the old model of direct provision is like criticism of the HSE delivering health services, many of us have issues with the extent of private health care and the mismanagement and underfunding of public health care; however no sensible person would use these valid issues to block people from getting healthcare.

What motivation does Martin Kenny have for dismissing the concerns and questions of his most immediate constituents?

MK: I did not dismiss any concerns or questions about this issue. I attended the first meeting organised by Ballinamore Community Council on Wednesday, October 16 in Ballinamore sports complex, and at the end of that meeting, I agreed to organise a meeting with the Department of Justice to get clarity on several concerns that were expressed at the meeting. These included possible pressure on services like schools and GP services and transport for the new people and classes in English and adult education, which are totally legitimate concerns that needed to be addressed, and I said so on the night.
The point was also made the 25 families, over half of which would be children, all coming together, would be a lot to deal with and the suggestion was made that they should come in stages, which I absolutely agreed with as the best way to proceed.
The following morning after the meeting, Thursday, I contacted the Department of Justice and later that day I was informed that a meeting would be organised for the middle of the next week to discuss these issues. The Dept of Justice told me that they wanted to have people from the HSE and education at the meeting, to make sure all concerns would be addressed, and I spoke with Minister David Stanton about the possibility of families coming in stages of perhaps 6 to 8 at a time and he was open to this possibility.
On the Saturday I got a call from the person in the Department of Justice to confirm the meeting would be on the following Thursday afternoon in Dublin with representatives of the Ballinamore Community Council and local County Councillors. I believed this meeting was a very progressive development and would help to reassure people and build consensus for a sensible agreement.
However, also on the Saturday I was informed that another meeting was being organised in the sports complex on the Sunday evening 20/10 and I was immediately concerned when I saw the text message about the meeting, calling it a “crisis meeting” and that “the future of our town is at stake”. Some people also contacted me to tell me that a totally absurd and untrue story was being put around that I was a partner in this asylum seeker accommodation and was going to make millions out of it.
I decided to attend this meeting, however when my son and I got to the door we were told that we were not welcome and would not be allowed into the meeting. After a few minutes they agreed to let us in, but we were told I would not be allowed to speak.
There were some perfectly reasonable questions asked at this meeting and genuine concerns expressed which I took on board, in the context of discussing them with the Department. I don’t consider the bullying at the door of the meeting as legitimate questions or the false statements made by some at the meeting as worthy of comment for legal reasons.

Also read: Ballinamore protest stood down as per agreement with Minister Stanton

Why did Martin Kenny, at a public meeting in Ballinamore, sit beside the developer of the direct provision site and laugh and joke with him while locals were asking genuine questions and seeking information about the proposed development?

MK: This pointed question is clearly designed to suggest that I have a vested interest in the development and that I don’t care about the local community, perhaps a reference to the sinister untrue rumours of me being a partner in the development.
Anyway, I sat at the front of the meeting on 16/10 as there was a space there and I was beside several people including the man representing the company developing the site, Paul Collins, who I had only met once before and only knew of a week before that meeting on 16/10. I spoke to him and others around me, I don’t recall any laughing or joking.
Mr Collins gave an account of his company's plans to develop the site. The planning application to build 37 new houses was advertised that week and he outlined his plan to develop a large office facility to attract a large employer and to later build a large nursing home. He stated that the accommodation above the shopping centre was almost finished and 25 apartments are to become home for 25 asylum seeker families with a maximum capacity of 130 people over half of which would likely be children.
Some people expressed disbelief that any of these developments would ever happen and that it was all a ploy to get acceptance of the asylum seekers. Some people said that no new houses were wanted in Ballinamore and that the houses on his plans could be for social housing and that was a problem for them. On the asylum seeker housing, the maximum number of new people at 130 was considered as too many, as this would put pressure on the doctor and other medical services and the issue of space in the school was raised and other genuine questions which, I absolutely took on board and responded to by stating I would look for a meeting with the Department of Justice.

Why would Martin Kenny back up the developer at a public meeting in Ballinamore saying what was proposed was an “integration centre for refugees”? (It has since been confirmed that what is proposed is a direct provision centre for asylum seekers. Those in the asylum process are held in direct provision for a period of time while their applications are being processed, after which time they are either deported or they receive refugee status. Either way, they must leave the direct provision centre. This system offers little or no opportunity for proper integration with a community).

MK: I remember the meeting on 16/10 somewhat differently. Mr Collins didn’t say it was an “integration centre for refugees.” He did say that his company was running the integration centre in Ballaghaderreen and, by contrast, clearly stated that the contract in Ballinamore was for asylum seekers. There was a discussion on whether asylum seekers could work or not and that there was little work in Ballinamore.
In most cases it takes between 9 and 18 months for asylum applications to be processed, which is too long. When they are processed and if they are successful and can stay in Ireland they will usually move out of the accommodation unless they can’t find other housing and if they cannot they can remain there.

Why would Martin Kenny, at the same meeting, stand up and ask his constituents to accept this as a fait accompli & to “take a risk” on the developer and the planned provision centre?

MK: At the first meeting on 16/10 there were many questions about school places and I stated that I understood there was no issue with space in either primary or post primary schools and that in some instances a number of additional children could trigger an extra teacher. Mr Collins told the meeting that his company intended to provide medical services at the site and that the Department of Justice is responsible for ensuring that no service is negatively affected by the arrival of the additional families. I did not ask for anything other than people to be reasonable and work out a sensible solution through civil discourse. I didn’t use the term “fait accompli” around any of the proposals, what I did say was that contract to provide accommodation was between the company and the Department of Justice and that these contracts are private until finalised, which causes problems and suspicion, but once it is in place discussions must happen about peoples real and genuine concerns.
The 'take a risk comment', I did make in the context of some people being dismissive and totally disbelieving of the developer’s proposals to build a large office space and a nursing home. I pointed out that there are very few people even suggesting that they will spend tens of millions in a small rural town which would provide employment and activity and that people should take the risk that he was telling the truth. One person pulled me up on this comment at the meeting and I then accepted that I could have said it better, but that is as it is, and it is now being used out of context as an attack point.

Why would Martin Kenny openly dismiss a community proposal for proportional provision in the town which would allow for full and proper integration of refugees and allow the community to show its support to people in difficulty?

MK: I did not dismiss any proposal for refugees being housed in the town. The proposals which are being suggested are very vague so far but seems to be housing of a small number of refugees in a few scattered houses in the town and I have never dismissed or opposed that idea. Asylum seeker families are different with many different needs. Sensible and reasonable solutions to all this can be found, however I would respectfully caution against the proportional argument, as it is too often used in race debates by people with negative agendas. Additional people coming into an area provide more of a solution to many existing problems, than they are a problem themselves.

Why would Martin Kenny, our locally elected TD, accuse those involved in the peaceful demonstration in Ballinamore of inciting hatred, racism and of acting irresponsibly? (Everything the Ballinamore community group has published is on public record) At all times the community group has called for reasoned discussion with the proper authorities and have consistently re-enforced their support for proportional provision in the town.

MK: I did not accuse the people of Ballinamore of being racist or inciting hatred at any time. I do believe that organising the large public meeting on 20/10 and moving straight to protest and blockade was irresponsible and was not in the best interest of finding a solution. Demonstrations and pickets are the last option after discussions break down not the first action.

Why would Martin Kenny launch a sustained and aggressive verbal attack on a local female councillor for Ballinamore, Ms Ita Reynolds Flynn, in Leinster House recently in advance of a meeting with Minister David Stanton if front of several witnesses?

MK: I lost my cool at that meeting due to remarks Cllr Reynolds Flynn made at the meeting in Ballinamore on 20/10. I expressed my regret 10 minutes later and Cllr Reynolds Flynn accepted my apology and I have since apologised again.

Why would Martin Kenny, in Dáil Éireann, infer a connection between the people of Ballinamore and the terrible tragedy where 39 people were found dead in a container in Essex?

MK: I never inferred any connection.

Why would Martin Kenny state in an article on his own website (March 11, 2019) “The direct provision model is not a good model for the taxpayer or the unfortunate refugees seeking asylum” and yet be so forthright in his support for a full capacity centre in Ballinamore.

MK: I have dealt with direct provision in the first question.

In a statement last year Mr Kenny’s party explained the reasons for their opposition to direct provision :
“It has cost the taxpayer €1.25b since 2001, it costs the state €40,000 per annum for a parent and 2 children.”
“It is in effect, a cash cow for those private companies who operate within it. We look at the amount spent on these centres each year and it is nothing short of astonishing.”
“It is a highly profitable model, profiting from the hardship & misery of others”
“Direct Provision has run its course; and it is high time it was ended.”
Why is Martin Kenny suddenly now in support of this system?

MK: I have dealt with this in the first question

Also read: Ballinamore protest stood down as per agreement with Minister Stanton

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