The Minister for Justice has apologised to the people of Cahersiveen in Co Kerry for the manner in which a direct provision centre was opened in the town in mid-March.

In an open letter, published as an advertisement in The Kerryman newspaper, Charlie Flanagan rejected calls to close the centre.

The first cases of coronavirus among residents of the direct provision centre at the former Skellig Star Hotel in Cahersiveen were confirmed in early April, just over a fortnight after it opened.

Residents and local people called for the centre to be shut down on the grounds that it was not fit for purpose and social distancing among residents was impossible there.

In the open letter, Mr Flanagan apologised for the manner in which the direct provision centre was opened.

He said he regretted the extent to which his actions and the actions of his junior minister David Stanton fuelled upset, anger and suspicion over the opening of the centre.

However, Mr Flanagan said the Department of Justice felt it did not have a choice as it faced a pandemic.

He also rejected calls for the centre's closure, saying a 12-month contract was in place and it will continue to operate.

Asked on RTÉ's Today with Sarah McInerney whether he would apologise to the residents of the centre, as well as the people of Cahersiveen, Mr Flanagan said: "I am apologising to the residents now through you."

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Mr Flanagan said he apologised to the people in Kerry because he was unhappy at the relations between the people of Cahersiveen and those in direct provision and the coronavirus pandemic meant he was unable to consult with people face-to-face ahead of the opening of the centre. 

He said that he has no problem apologising to the residents in the centre for the speed at which the move took place, but did not deem it appropriate to do so through the Kerryman newspaper which, he said, he does not believe is "a high seller in the Skellig Hotel". 

He added that there has not been a day in the last month that he has not engaged on the highest level on this issue.

Mr Flanagan said he knows there is an unresolved problem with the boiler and the central heating system in the hotel, but every room and communal area has heating and electric heaters were supplied.

The minister said there was an assessment of the hotel last September but the pandemic meant that the centre was opened up very quickly and "perhaps in a way that might not have happened" in other centres.

He said there is not a bedroom for everyone, but all issues were discussed with the health authorities and the Health Service Executive and anyone who wants a room on their own has one. 

Mr Flanagan said every effort is being made to ensure comfort and high hygiene standards are provided.

He said the first positive case of Covid-19 was detected at the centre in mid-April and that local people were told "some time thereafter" and he regrets that they were not told more promptly. 

The minister said he is satisfied that matters were not handled in the way they should have been, had we not been operating under the pandemic. 

However, he said, he did not believe this was secrecy, but there was not the type of dialogue that there should have been.

When asked about an engineer who carried out work at the hotel and was told there was no case of Covid-19, he said he could not comment on this.

Minister Flanagan said he would be happy to address the Dáil "if called" and said he addressed the matter last week. 

Labour Party Justice spokesman Seán Sherlock called on Mr Flanagan to apologise to the residents of the direct provision centre and to apologise to the Dáil. 

Mr Sherlock said Mr Flanagan had "utterly failed" the centre's residents. 

Asylum seeker fears for her life in direct provision centre

Sne Mkhize, an asylum seeker and resident in Skellig Star has said she has "feared" for her life in the direct provision centre.

She was speaking on RTÉ's Drivetime after the Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan wrote written an open letter to the people of Kerry to apologise and explain about what happened at the controversial direct provision centre at the Skellig Star Hotel in Cahersiveen.

The centre, which opened unexpectedly on March 18, has been mired in controversy following an outbreak of Covid-19 in mid-April where 25 people became ill with the disease. 

Speaking on RTÉ's Drivetime programme, Ms Mkhize said she was "not happy" with the Minister's apology, and that it was "insensitive and saddening as it shows he is less concerned about what is happening to us.

"We thought it was generalised and not specifically directed to us, the people going through the trauma in the hotel seeing fellow asylum seekers being taken away, crying hysterically, as we try to calming them down, telling them everything will be alright when we know it will not be ok."

Ms Mkhize was moved from the Travelodge hotel in Swords in Dublin on 18 March, as she said "there had been cases of Covid-19 at the hotel".

She was made aware that she would be moving 24 hours beforehand.  

"A letter came through to reception that the majority of us were being moved to Kerry. We were told that we were being moved because of Covid-19 and being kept away because the hotel was close to the airport and there would be guests coming and going."

Ms Mkhize said she began to "fear" for her life after the hotel became "overcrowded".

"When we arrived in Cahersiveen, the small town, we thought we would probably settle in ok. But then more and more people came the following day.  It was puzzling and scary as we were supposed to share rooms. 150 people came in to eat together and it was overcrowded. That's when I started fearing for my life."

She said the residents were not made aware of cases at the hotel, but she noticed staff "going in to panic mode".

She has been tested for Covid-19 twice after experiencing symptoms, but she said she was angry that her both sets of results were not given to her directly, but instead were communicated to her through staff members.

Until today residents have not been free to go out of the hotel.

Ms Mkhize said residents have been told that they are going to be staying at the hotel, which is said is "scary", because "this hotel has not been disinfected, and people are being put into rooms where there have been positive cases without the rooms being properly cleaned."

Speaking on the same programme Danny Healy Rae, Independent TD for Kerry appealed to Minister Flanagan to close the centre.

He said his apology was "not enough", and that "only action is required now as the centre is clearly not acceptable as a direct provision centre.

"From the start local people have been telling me that it is not fit for direct provision. The rooms are too small, the hotel too small, there are no outdoor areas for people to walk around, they are too confined", he said.