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22nd Dec 2019

Leo Varadkar says it “isn’t right” for people in Direct Provision to be living in isolated areas

Ellen Coyne

Varadkar direct provision

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said there is a “better system” for accommodating refugees that the government must move towards.

Varadkar also said that the government must update hate speech law, but it will be difficult to balance a new law against freedom of speech.

Earlier this month, a report by the Oireachtas Justice Committee said that the Direct Provision system was flawed, and needed to be replaced or fundamentally reformed. This year, the government set up its own review to examine if Direct Provision is fit for purpose. 

Varadkar said that the government will try to reform Direct Provision to have uniform standards across all centres. 

“I think there is a better system, and that is a system that we are trying to move towards. That is where anyone who takes up the offer of Direct Provision has accommodation with their own door, has accommodation with their own cooking facilities, for example what we call the McMahon standards,” Mr Varadkar said. 

“Having your own door, being able to cook for your own family, having your own fridge – all these things that we all take for granted.”

The Taoiseach said he wanted to move away from “institutional” facilities to ones where people have more independence, which preferably are not in isolated and rural areas.

“At least being in a town or village or a city, not an old convent in a rural area which is the case very often. Which isn’t right. So that’s what we can move towards, and we intend to,” he said.

“What we are not going to be in a position to do is to provide a free or subsidised house or apartment to everyone who arrives in the country. No government has ever done that, no government ever can. We just wouldn’t have the capacity to do that, and it would come with other risks as well. But we can have better accommodation and that’s what we intend to move to.”

Two weeks ago, the Department of Justice to the United Nations committee for the elimination of racial discrimination that it was concerned about the rise of political hate speech in Ireland. 

Varadkar said that current hate speech laws were “woefully out of date,” but he added that legislating against hate speech would be difficult.

“I’m someone who believes in free speech and the needs of a free press, and believes that you have the right to offend as well. Sometimes, people need to be offended and people have the right to offend them. We have to get that balance right. There is, of course, a huge difference between saying something that’s nasty and unpleasant and something that actually incites violence, or incites hatred,” Varadkar said.

“But writing that down in law, that’s a very tricky piece of work to do and I’m not sure anyone has got it perfectly right anywhere in the world but we do need to try because what’s happening now, particularly online, when it comes to fermenting hate is really wrong.”

The Taoiseach said that any new law would have to balance free speech and make sure “people who incite violence and hatred don’t just get away with it without being in any way accountable at all.” 

The Taoiseach also said he didn’t want to talk about his own experiences of racism or homophobia, because other people have experienced much worse abuse than him. 

“If you’re mixed race and if you’re a person of colour you do experience a degree of racism and discrimination. If you’re a gay man or a gay woman you do experience a degree of homophobia. It’s just the way it is. I never experienced any violence, thankfully, but it can certainly range from name-calling and things like that as you walk down the street or it can be the kind of stuff you can see for yourself online or it can be just the fact that people treat you differently. Little things,” he said. 

Varadkar is travelling to Mumbai this month as part of a family trip to celebrate his father’s 80th birthday. Ashok Varadkar, the Taoiseach’s father, is from Mumbai and Miriam, his mother, is from Dungarvan. The Taoiseach was born in Dublin. 

“You’d be surprised the amount of people in the last couple of days who’ve heard I’m visiting India with my family and have asked me when am I going ‘back’ to India. They don’t mean it that way, but it is a way of thinking. I was born in the Rotunda. I’m not from India. People don’t hear what they’re saying sometimes but I’ve also never been somebody who goes on about it,” Varadkar said. 

“I’ve a good life. I’ve done well. I’ve very little to complain about, much less so than other people who I’m sure have experienced the kind of racism I’ve never had or have experienced, the kind of homophobia I’ve managed to avoid so I don’t like to engage in complaining about it or any self pity because I think that’s disrespectful to those who’ve experienced the kind of racism that I could never imagine.”

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