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Documents show changes made to letter defending decision to open Kerry Direct Provision centre

The Skellig Star Hotel was at the centre of a media storm earlier this year after an outbreak of Covid-19 among residents.

Skellig Star Hotel, Cahersiveen, Co Kerry
Skellig Star Hotel, Cahersiveen, Co Kerry
Image: GoogleMaps

SWEEPING CHANGES WERE made to a controversial letter sent by the Department of Justice defending its decision to open a direct provision centre in Co Kerry.

Early drafts of the letter show the Department was planning to say there was likely no way they “could have done it any differently” in opening the Skellig Star Hotel in Cahersiveen.

They also planned to definitively say there was no link between the Covid-19 outbreak at the centre and an earlier case in a Dublin hotel, where some of the asylum seekers had previously stayed.

The final draft of the letter appeared as a paid advertisement in two local papers. The Department was unhappy about a “provocative” article that accompanied publication in one of the titles – Kerry’s Eye – according to records released under FOI.

The department also contacted the other newspaper the Kerryman believing their coverage of the letter was “disappointing”. However, no changes were sought to the paper by the Department, according to a statement.

The department said in an information note: “The [Department] Press Officer contacted the Minister’s Press Adviser to discuss the matter and it was agreed that, although disappointing given the nature of the document being published, the Department should not ask for a change to the front page.”

New version 

Discussion on what should be included in the letter lasted several days. Said one internal email on 14 May: “I haven’t gone too heavy on the health piece but we can easily add in more if needed.”

One section in which Minister Flanagan said they had adopted an “over-cautious” approach ended up being dropped from the final draft.

“Please accept my apology once again if perhaps the tension between wanting to protect people’s privacy and establishing what information could be shared perhaps led us in this case, to an over-cautious approach,” said the early draft.

A new version was prepared by the minister’s staff with advice that it needed to be cleared by senior officials to “ensure that they can stand over everything that’s being said”.

An email from the Minister’s special adviser said: “Will you see what you think…too open? Not open enough? Right feel? If not this, what?”

Definitive statements that the outbreak in Cahersiveen could not be linked to residents having stayed at a hotel in Dublin where a Covid-19 case was confirmed were also removed.

The draft text had said: “All I can say about Cahersiveen however is that my officials are fully satisfied that the source of the outbreak there simply could not be the case in the Dublin hotel. The timeframe simply doesn’t add up.”

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Chopped sentences

The final text was much less stark saying instead only that it was “difficult to look” at the facts and “conclude that there was any link”.

Other sentences were also chopped, including one line that read: “As the old saying goes, we are where we are.”

An email from the minister’s special adviser accompanying the latest draft said: “Bit shorter. Bit more direct at the beginning. What do you think?”

Just prior to publication of the letter, the Department of Justice was also contacted by the HSE who had been asked for a statement on the Skellig Star outbreak.

An internal email: “I’ve spoken to the HSE Press Officer and asked that they not respond this evening, as this is a paid advert, not an article or an OpEd [opinion piece] that the Minister has asked to have included.”

Asked for comment on the records, the Department of Justice said they had nothing to add.

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Ken Foxe

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