Council chief denies 'Offaly citizens' seeking houses are discriminated against
THE chief executive of Offaly County Council has denied a claim that its social housing policy favours migrants over local people who have been on the waiting list for years.
Anna Marie Delaney was responding to a comment from Cllr John Leahy who said “Offaly citizens” were being discriminated against.
Cllr Leahy said waiting time was one of the main issues identified when the points system for housing allocations had been discussed a few years earlier.
“The number of years you spend on the housing waiting list, the greater points you get, the better chance you have of getting to the top of that list,” said the Kilcormac councillor.
“We’re seeing migrants coming in that are not long on the housing waiting list,” he said.
“They might be on the waiting list only a couple of hours for a paper exercise, and are getting houses against people who are on the housing waiting list for six, seven, eight or 10 years,” said the Independent member. “I don’t think that’s acceptable.”
He said international migrants should be housed in the same way as “our own applicants”, by going through rental accommodation, the Housing Assistance Payment Scheme, and on “up through the system”.
He claimed there were two systems, the council policy where “they’ve to go through a process” and another, “where you don’t have to go through any process and you’re housed”.
He made his remarks after the council adopted a new five-year Migrant Integration Strategy, which maps out how the migrant population will be assisted in the county between 2020 and 2024.
Cllr Leahy said he fully supported the strategy but could not “stand idly by and watch what’s happening in terms of Offaly citizens being discriminated against”.
He said he had no answer to the person who approaches him on the street and says they’ve a family member six or more years on the list and “someone comes in, supercedes that list and gets into a social house”.
“I can’t answer, I don’t think anyone in this chamber can answer that as well.”
He repeated that he believed everyone seeking housing should be treated in the same way.
“To have an inter cultural society you have to have a fair society. I don’t believe the housing side of it is very, very fair.”
Ms Delaney said the council had a scheme of letting priorities which is applied to all its social housing applicants and “it is applied fairly across the board”.
The resettlement programme for refugees is run by the Department of Justice and each county is assigned a certain number.
Offaly had been assigned 26 families in the current round and a separate system is in place for housing them.
“That’s the way the systems work,” said the council chief. “Not withstanding that, we will look at all the housing options that are utilised in relation to the resettlement programme.”
Ms Delaney concluded: “But certainly, I wouldn’t consider it discrimination at all in terms of the application of our scheme of letting priorities for our own social housing climates. That needs to be clear.”
Cllr Declan Harvey, who had earlier recommended the adoption of the Offaly Migrant Integration Strategy, said he agreed with Cllr Leahy.
“On housing, people down town are saying that to me as well, ‘How come they’re getting houses before us and we’re a long time on this?’,” said the Fianna Fail councillor.
Cllr Neil Feighery, Fine Gael, welcomed the clarification from Ms Delaney and accused Cllr Leahy of being intentionally divisive and populist.
“It can be dangerous to be pitting refugees who are quite vulnerable, who come into this situation, against people on the Offaly County Council housing waiting list,” he said.
“We need to be very careful going down that road in Co Offaly. We’ve seen it happen in other areas around the country. I think we can rise above that here in Co Offaly. I’d urge caution.”
Council Cathaoirleach Cllr Peter Ormond said the strategy which the council had adopted was postive and welcoming.
“I think a positive message has to go out in terms of the strategy that’s been adopted,” he said.
Sara Stephens, resettlement coordinator in Offaly, told Monday’s meeting of the council that there were 6,617 “non-Irish” people in the county, according to the 2016 census. Another 1,143 were “dual citizens”.
Three-quarters of the non-Irish in Offaly are EU citizens, 29 per cent of whom are Polish, 20 per cent are from the UK, 16 per cent are Lithuanian, 10 per cent from other EU countries and 25 per cent are non-EU nationals such Indian, American, Brazilian and people from African countries.
“The non-Irish population of Offaly is overwhelmingly within the 15 to 64 age bracket, 80 per cent within that category, whereas in Ireland nationally it’s 60 per cent,” said Ms Stephens. “What this means is that many of them are engaging in the workforce.”
She defined integration as “the ability to participate to the extent that a person needs and wishes in all the major components of society without having to relinquish his or her own cultural identity”.
While Irish society and institutions might need to change “in some way to benefit from diversity”, it is a two-way process.
“Those who come to Ireland will also need to adapt within reason to fit in,” she said.
Her research highlighted information, communication, services, the development of inclusive communities, and supporting education, training and employment opportunities as the main themes for migrants.
The strategy had been developed in conjunction with the Offaly Local Development Committee, which is chaired by Cllr Harvey, and was then adopted by the council’s strategic policy committee (SPC), which is chaired by Cllr Liam Quinn.
Cllr Harvey said he was “very happy” to recommend the strategy for adoption. Reading from a prepared statement, he said: “The strategy is designed to help EU migrants and people who have been resettled here under refugee programmes to integrate into our country”.
He said it would be important to get people registered to vote, help them learn English and support them in their search for jobs.
After Cllr Leahy’s remarks, Cllr Harvey stated: “Although I read out that I proposed this for adoption, I’d have to kind of agree with Cllr Leahy.”
Cllr Quinn, Fine Gael, seconded the adoption of the strategy and said five councillors sat on the SPC and they had “discussed it in detail”.
Cllr Leahy said he supported the strategy because it was “very transparent” and would involve a “vetting process” and consultation.
He said the direct provision centres in Banagher and Dunkerrin were “completely the opposite” of what was contained in the strategy and went against everything he believed in.
Frank Gilsenan, director of service, said it was important to distinguish between asylum seekers, who are accommodated in direct provision centres, and refugees, who were housed by the council.
Also on Monday, the council adopted a motion tabled by Cllr Frank Moran which called on Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan “or an official from his Department” to come before the council and tell the members if any sites in Offaly wre being considered for direct provision.
“We need to communicate with local communities when such decisions are being considered,” said the Clara councillor.
He said there had been “little or no communication” last year when a former hotel near Horseleap “down a boreen” was used for direct provision.
He claimed its infrastructure was not ready and an infrastructural survey had not even been carried out beforehand.
“I’m not against direct provision. However I believe all stakeholders should be given an opportunity to discuss the future of their community,” said Cllr Moran.
Cllr Harvey seconded the motion, saying a rumour was “going around” Tullamore that the Marian Hostel was going to be used for direct provision.
Cllr Tony McCormack also supported the motion, saying the direct provision system was not fit for purpose before adding: “This is a very, very difficult situation to discuss and you have to be very careful how you use your words.”
He said he welcomed anybody who “comes in and needs to be looked after”. “Communication is vital to this whole process. The people in the areas where these poor unfortunate people end up need to know what’s happening.”
In Tullamore, it was already difficult to get a doctor or a school place and the health service was in an awful state with people on trolleys.
“To be bringing more people into this situation, I don’t think is fair, without having communication with local people,” said the Fianna Fail councillor.
He said he fully supported the work of Ms Stephens and was happy that the refugees in Tullamore had integrated well.
Cllr Feighery opposed the motion and said since 1999, 65,000 applicants for international protection had been assisted by the direct provision system.
“We are all keenly aware of the system’s shortcomings but critics have failed to come up with any real workable alternatives,” he said.
In Borrisokane, self catering apartments are working well and he told his council colleagues that the numbers coming to this country are up 60 per cent this year.
He said he hoped the scenes witnessed in other parts of the country would not be repeated in Offaly.
“I don’t think it’s reasonable, feasible or practical for Fianna Fail to expect the Minister or his officials to come before this chamber if officials of his department are looking in our direction for potential direct provision centres,” said Cllr Feighery.
Souce: Tullamore Tribune