Minister for Housing, Roderic O'Gorman

Let’s face it: This refugee thing is going to turn into a mess

There are good and reasonable reasons why the Government would decide that anybody who offers to host Ukrainian refugees in their homes might be subject to an Irish government inspection, and background check.

After all, people being people, it is not hard to imagine some sad case somewhere salivating about the thought of playing host to an attractive young Ukrainian mother. That’s just the world we live in. Filtering such people out, tiny minority though they might be, is important. And so:

Speaking on Morning Ireland, Minister Roderic O’Gorman said that his department is currently developing a policy to make sure that vulnerable refugees are housed in suitable accommodation.

However, he would not be drawn on whether or not background checks or garda vetting of prospective homeowners would be done.

“There’ll be checks undertaken of all accommodation offers to ensure that the accommodation is habitable and also of course in terms of particularly where accommodation is shared, I think it is important that there are checks,” O’Gorman said. 

The problem, of course, is that those checks, while important and vital, have two major drawbacks. The first is that they will discourage people, and not only the kinds of people who should be discouraged. There are not vast numbers of Irish people who, having pledged to do a good deed, will welcome the prospect of Government inspectors coming into their home to see how clean their bathrooms are, and whether the dog is allowed to sleep on the couch or goes into a kennel at night. It’s probably more convenient just to donate money or clothes, and have done your bit.

The second problem is that even if people persevere, these inspections take time. Because this is a Government programme, there will be a LOT of paperwork. Will it shock us, in two or three weeks time, to hear stories of people who offered to host refugees, but were never contacted by Government? If it does shock us, then, we know nothing about how our own Government works.

But there’s more to it than just the matter of who sleeps where. The fact is that once again, the Irish Government has made a fairly big and emotional commitment to people without considering, even for a moment, the practicality of their plan. The usual hysteria has taken over: We’ll take 100,000 refugees, they say. Well, fine – but how many are France taking? If we are taking 100,000, then logically they should be taking up to 1.7million.

Lest I be accused of xenophobia here, let me write this: We should take as many refugees as we possibly can. These people are fleeing a literal warzone, and most of them are women and children and non-combatants. But if we are going to take them, we had better treat them well. And that means planning in advance for what we can do – not making grandiose promises that the country simply cannot keep.

It is not as if, for example, we do not have precedent for a large hosting operation. We did something like this for the special Olympics in 2003. That was accomplished not by centralising the whole thing, but by decentralising it: Almost every village and town in Ireland played host to a number of participants in those games. 10,000 people were distributed across 170 towns and villages in Ireland, and the local accommodation and care was provided by the local communities, not the big centralised state.

One advantage of that system is that, while it’s not perfect, local knowledge can come into play, and community pride and ownership can come into play too. Tell a small town like the one in my own locality that it is being asked to host 20 Ukrainian refugees, and it will find a way to do it, as a matter of civic pride. Have the Government ask for volunteers from across the country, and people simply don’t have the same kind of ownership of the process. Nor the well-versed local knowledge to ferret out the weirdo who is suspiciously interested in volunteering.

The nature of crises like this one is that they are fast, and the nature of Government is that it is slow. If Irish people are waiting for the Government to sort this all out, then they will be waiting a while. We do not need centralised Garda databases and administration: We need local civic commitment, and local garda oversight. Government can support and co-ordinate, but it cannot effectively administer, a programme on this scale, and of this urgency.

And the goals should also be made realistic: There is no need to pledge to take 100,000 refugees, because it is vanishingly unlikely that such a number will ever come. It would be much better to set a reasonable and achievable target – 10,000 maybe, for starters – and get to work today. If that plan works, then we can scale it up if necessary. The current plan – with Captain Roderic O’Gorman at the wheel of the ship – is dead on course for an iceberg.

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