Micheál Martin has warned that the housing crisis is in "danger" of increasing racism in Ireland
The Fianna Fáil leader told JOE that his party has picked up resentment towards immigrants in parts of the country where people are on long housing lists.
Mr Martin declined to commit to reforming or replacing the existing Direct Provision system if his party leads the next government. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has called on the government to stop using emergency accommodation for people in Direct Provision, and said that the existing system for processing asylum seekers should be phased out. Last year, a report by the Oireachtas Justice Committee called for a complete overhaul or replacement of the Direct Provision system.
"You say [a new system] as if it's something you could do overnight, I don't think you can do an overnight replacement of the Direct Provision system, if I'm honest," Mr Martin said.
"I think what we need really is to accelerate the application process. People are too long in Direct Provision, people have been too long in Direct Provision."
He said that while racism had not played a part in the general election campaign so far, there was a danger that the housing crisis could be used to incite it - particularly in towns where there has been opposition to Direct Provision centres.
"All political leaders, I think we have a general, genuine collective view that we must try and prevent any racist undertones or any of our colleagues trying to exploit this situation for their own electoral advantage. The housing crisis is the danger here. We do pick it up in some areas. People on housing lists for a long time feel that someone who hasn’t been in the country too long get … that’s coming a bit, and that worries me," Mr Martin said.
"So that's why, for a whole range of reasons, is why we need to get to grips with the housing problem."
He said that there had been some improvements to the Direct Provision system and that David Stanton, the immigration minister, had worked tirelessly on the issue.
Direct Provision centres are at capacity at the moment, and over 1,500 asylum seekers are staying in hotels or B&Bs which are being used as emergency accommodation.
Attempts by the government to set up new accommodation centres for refugees in small rural towns have sparked protests and demonstrations. Many community groups have claimed that there has not always been full transparency and consultation between the Department of Justice and small towns or villages. It is understood that the government is also concerned that in some cases, these demonstrations were hijacked by far right activists.
Speaking to JOE as part of a series of interviews with the main political party leaders, Mr Martin said that he believed that some of the demonstrations had been motivated by a "fear of the unknown."
"And I think there was definitely groups exploiting, in some areas, that fear. And some of it was completely unfounded," he said.
Mr Martin said that he believed that the Department of Justice had probably been "traditional" in its view of how to set up new accommodation centres.
"'Let’s get it in first, and then make it a fait accompli, and we get away with it,' kind of thing. That’s over. You have to be up front and you have to consult with people and say 'here's why we're doing this,'" Mr Martin said.
He said that Ireland can be a very welcoming place when people get comfortable with each other, and there had been "wonderful" stories about refugees integrating and being welcomed around the country.