The stand-off at Magowna House has dominated the news agenda all week and reignited political controversy over the migration crisis. The war in Ukraine and a surge in asylum seeker numbers has left many in Government convinced that even though it will ebb and flow, migration will be an ongoing feature of the Irish political landscape.
“There’s no easy answers,” says one senior government source this weekend. However, questions persist, as do political flashpoints.
A controversy like Magowna presents a tricky balancing act for politicians. It can be a perilous position – for example Roisin Garvey, the Green Party senator who stumbled through a Morning Ireland interview on Wednesday, equivocating over whether the protesters were right or wrong and adding fuel to internal Coalition tensions by baldly stating her party colleague, Minister for Integration Roderic O’Gorman had been “thrown under the bus”.
Garvey later tweeted that the blockade should be lifted, taking a position most Clare representatives have deftly avoided all week. Independent TD Michael McNamara wouldn’t be drawn on whether it should stay or go, but told The Irish Times there was a “justifiable feeling of disempowerment – that a decision that will affect a community can be made without any interaction with that community, without giving any consideration whatsoever to their fears and concerns”.
McNamara is angry, including at what he calls “woke f***ers on social media” suggesting consultation was sufficient. He says he and other reps were blindsided, their queries about Magowna ignored, only for the accommodation centre to be confirmed a few days before people were moved in – in contrast, TDs in Dublin North West were consulted over another project in Santry at least a month ago.
At the grassroots, that is probably the real political impact of the migration accommodation saga story – that it will fuel feelings, where they exist, that the government is remote, indifferent and arbitrary.
That can form a heady cocktail when rolled in with tropes popular with the far right. In Clondalkin, Dublin this week, leaflets were distributed calling for more background checks to be done to ensure the men arriving “don’t pose a danger to our families or community. This means their backgrounds should be fully checked to find out if they have done anything bad in their home countries or if they have ulterior motives for coming here.”
It has other spillover effects that bring political pressure to bear – such as the impact of hotels and guest houses being booked out on other tourism trade providers. Mayo based Fianna Fáil Senator Lisa Chambers wants Covid-style supports for businesses. “Accommodation providers are getting rich very quickly and it’s proving very lucrative to house refugees, so much so that tourism cannot compete,” she told The Irish Times.
At Government level, the Coalition and the Department of Integration is in a constant scramble to find beds. It ran out of road earlier this year, the net effect of which is 500 men being turned away when they sought accommodation – leading to a High Court ruling against the government (dozens more cases are pending) and fuelling the growth of encampments which themselves have become the focus of ugly protests, including the burning out of tents at Sandwith Street, Dublin last weekend.
Documents drawn up by the Department of Integration show that across six sites there are 1,061 bed spaces ultimately planned: In a previously undisclosed plan, the upmarket suburb of will host Ranelagh 66 men in two buildings, and a former hotel in Scariff, Co Clare will host another 77 people - with the remainder in four other projects confirmed this week: Magowna (69), Santry (303), Clondalkin (386) and Dun Laoghaire (160).
Nominally, that should provide enough room to take everyone off the streets, but that can be complicated, as seen in Clare, where a four week pause has been offered in exchange for calling off the protests. O’Gorman told Cabinet that he still expects there to be a gap between what is needed and what can be mustered. There are plans, of course, for modular and “pod” accommodation and promises that an accommodation working group within the Department of the Taoiseach will begin to bear fruit – but these have been torturously slow so far, and nothing seems to be of a scale to supplant the provision of hotel and serviced accommodation as the backbone of the State’s response.
Meanwhile, the system remains clogged up, most visibly at Citywest, nominally a transit hub where people were supposed to spend a night or two. Papers drawn up for a Cabinet subcommittee meeting in March paint a grim picture of life at Citywest. At the time there were 734 people sleeping at the 600-capacity centre. “Tensions are high between ethnic and religious groups there because the hub remains over capacity,” with 134 people “currently sleeping on chairs, sometimes for weeks”. This, the papers describe, caused a “serious fight between two ethnic groups” in March.
Tensions have played out at Cabinet too, including this week. The sense that O’Gorman has been abandoned is a significant undercurrent to the crisis that is rarely publicly acknowledged. But it does break through at times – a Green Party source telling The Sunday Independent earlier this year that O’Gorman’s requests for help fell on deaf ears and angrily telling Fine Gael backbenchers critical of the Minister to direct complaints “closer to home”.
When O’Gorman appealed for help again this week at Cabinet, Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien pushed back. All parties later sought to minimise reports of tensions. At a doorstep with journalists this week, O’Gorman was under close observation, accompanied not just by his own staff, but by senior Green Party advisers from Government buildings – deputy Government press secretary Aiden Corkery and Eamon Ryan’s co-chief of staff Donall Geoghegan
In Reykjavik, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pointedly told reporters that the Integration Minister was receiving all the help he asked for, following up on Thursday in an interview with Claire Byrne, telling her the Green Party had explicitly asked for the creation of the Department of Integration, and for the portfolio. One source quipped this week that the party had been eager to “save asylum seekers from the cold hearts of the Department of Justice”.
Meanwhile, the Department of Integration’s tendency to project a dramatic shortfall of thousands of beds that do not materialise has, in the view of one mandarin, “created the space for [the Department of] Housing to feel they don’t have to step in because every time they say it’s going to be a complete catastrophe they figure out another short term solution”.
The crisis is potentially very lucrative. For an investor, the prospect of long-term, state guaranteed rents are very attractive. One property industry veteran said the returns were “off the charts”. A business plan drawn up by a property investor has been seen by The Irish Times (the investor did not proceed with the plan). It outlines the potential for payments of between €130 and €180 per night for hotel rooms hosting asylum seekers and of around €55 per bed per night in multi-occupancy facilities. It states 100 per cent of the rent is payable every month even if all beds aren’t occupied and claims in some circumstances, the State is willing to pay a full year’s rent upfront.
A worked example in the document is based on a converted nursing home with 22 beds, let out to the International Protection Accommodation Services (IPAS) section of the Department of Integration. It suggested a net income after costs of €575,000 a year, against costs to buy and fit out the home of around €2 million – suggesting the investment would pay for itself in less than four years, leaving a potentially enormous and long-lasting upside for every investment property.
Industry figures involved in providing accommodation who were consulted when the investment plan was being drawn up indicated their belief that the State will need to lean on the private sector to provide accommodation for refugees for “decades”.
The Irish Times has previously reported that almost a dozen companies were paid more than €10 million to provide accommodation to Ukrainian refugees and asylum seekers from other countries last year. There are also significant players involved in some of the projects announced this week. In Santry, where 303 asylum seekers may ultimately be accommodated, the owner is a firm called Goldstein Property ICAV. It also owns the ESB building in Dublin’s East Wall, site of some of the early protests against asylum seeker accommodation last year. The two Ranelagh properties which will be home to 66 people are owned by a company called Eastpoint BP.
Its directors are two Dublin property and investment professionals who work for the boutique Dublin investment house Elkstone Capital partners which achieved a degree of renown for managing the investments of supermodel Elle Macpherson. However, it is understood this is a personal investment by the two men.
The longer the crisis drags on, the more apparent it is that the chances of a return to “normal” are vanishingly small. Amid higher levels of migration around the globe, one senior government figure estimates that even once the war in Ukraine ends, a new normal might envisage 10,000-20,000 new arrivals per year alongside inward migration from the European Union.
There are tentative plans about what a post-Ukraine war future might look like, when the temporary protection directive that allows those refugees work and live in the EU is lifted. Government papers show solutions such as a “return programme” including the ongoing provision of welfare payments to those who return to the country for a period of time, as well as residency being granted to some who wish to remain or who cannot leave.
Migration politics looks set to become a lasting feature in Ireland. “We have had it very, very easy with immigration up to very recently,” one senior source says. That time looks to be over.