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'We'll have to deal with what the far-right say': Minister Roderic O'Gorman on childcare, social media and ending Direct Provision

O’Gorman sat down with TheJournal.ie as he take the reins of the children’s ministry.

Image: RollingNews.ie

“I DON’T WANT the public thinking this is taking up a huge amount of my time,” Minister Roderic O’Gorman, sitting at his desk in the Department of Children & Youth Affairs, tells TheJournal.ie after weeks of a social media furore.

“It’s not,” the Green TD says of the targeting by a number of groups, which culminated in a protest at the Dáil on Saturday. “I’m focused on the job.”

Last week, the new Minister for Children, Disability, Equality and Immigration released a statement attacking what he called “homophobic” attempts on social media linking him to views purporting to condone paedophilia. 

Twitter and other social media posts in recent weeks have made claims about him and his views.

An online petition was also launched calling for the Green TD to resign from his role.

“It wasn’t pleasant,” he says. “My parents thankfully aren’t on social media so I’d to call them up…No one wants to have that conversation with their folks.”

If a 2018 photo of the Minister with high-profile UK LGBT activist Peter Tatchell sent right-wing activists into a frenzy since he took office last month, O’Gorman hasn’t time, he says, to linger on it. 

It’s over to him and his new ministry to improve Ireland’s childcare, navigate the upcoming Commission of Inquiry into Mother & Baby Homes’ final report and, after years of political truancy, end Direct Provision. 

‘Creep Into Discourse’

O’Gorman, first elected councillor for Fingal in 2014, has campaigned for the Green Party since he was 10 years old when he canvassed for former leader Trevor Sargent’s 1992 election bid. 

As he was meeting with new colleagues (he inherits a section of Ireland’s Justice Department which oversees Direct Provision, as well as the Department of Children), did he feel the recent campaign against him had made inroads?

“My initial response was to ignore it because I think there’s a risk giving that element a platform and I very much try to avoid that,” he says.

But the volume with which they were able to magnify the lies they put forward was such that it was starting to creep into discourse.”

In a statement posted on Twitter last week, O’Gorman said he would not allow the claims linking him to Tatchell to stand uncorrected, saying they were “rooted in homophobia, stoked by anonymous, far-right Twitter accounts”.
“I think a very significant amount of it was motivated by homophobia,” he tells TheJournal.ie.

“Most people involved, which makes it all the more worrying, were careful in how they crafted their abuse. But I think that was the basis of it, that I’m somehow incapable of making decisions regarding children and young people.” 

Following the far-right melee, O’Gorman says he plans to possibly “have a word” with his party colleague Catherine Martin around abuse received online by TDs. 

“I got huge support from my own party, though, from colleagues in the Oireachtas, from Councillors, it was amazing support,” he says. 

A very significant number of politicians from other parties reached out to me, privately or publicly. I was very grateful for that. 

“I think when it comes to threats [against TDs] I think probably more needs to be done there. The Department here were able to give me some advice but maybe if you’re a backbencher, more could be provided.”

And it’s that Department which will soon see Justice officials head over its way as O’Gorman tries to reform Ireland’s Direct Provision system, itself a catalyst for local opposition – and a difficult political tightrope for TDs – in recent years.

“End it,” O’Gorman emphatically says, echoing The Movement of Asylum Seekers in Ireland (MASI)’s mantra when we return to the topic.  

Ireland’s asylum system, whereby the accommodation for people in the International Protection process is franchised out to the private sector for profit, has to stop, says O’Gorman. 

Yet beyond a commitment in the Programme for Government, how does the 37-year-old TD for Dublin West plan to end a 20-year-old system, a complex network of 80 centres and re-accommodate 7,700 people?

“Move away from that to a system that is not-for-profit, where the State is in control of the system and where people who are having their applications processed can live in dignity and who aren’t isolated from the communities they’re living in,” he says. 

We’re very clear that this… isn’t going to be done quickly. This is something that’s going to be done over the course of a term of Government.

That may not inspire people close to Ireland’s Direct Provision system; asylum seekers, NGOs and a smattering of TDs. 

Former Judge Bryan McMahon recommended a similar policy in his 2015 report. Dr Catherine Day, chair of the Expert Group on Direct Provision, looks set to go even further on reform when she submits her final report in September.

Not until then, O’Gorman says, will he move ahead with the Government’s White Paper on ending Direct Provision, which he says will be published by December. 

“We could have thrown in a timeline [for ending Direct Provision]. It might have looked better, made a better headline at the start,” said O’Gorman. “But it wouldn’t have been fair, primarily to the people who are actually living in the system… in as much as we have to let them know this is a process and this going to take a while.”  

‘Childcare’

During the last government’s term, his predecessor Katherine Zappone, tried to get to grips with Ireland’s dismally underdeveloped childcare system – something which is also taking a while. 

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However, he defends her record. 

She “inherited seventy years of non-investment in childcare” in Ireland and “10 years of trying to get a system in place”, he says.  

The National Childcare Scheme, he adds, has “huge potential”.

“It’s designed in such a way that supports can be targeted to certain income brackets,” O’Gorman says. “I think she’s put in the building blocks but it has to be acknowledged she was building from a low base.”

“My job is to continue to work on that and widen out the Scheme further. But I think there is also an infrastructure deficit in this area.”

O’Gorman has already announced that parents with children born during the pandemic will be able to take an additional three weeks of parents’ leave – to mixed reaction.

There are more leftovers. Items which the previous administration didn’t get to – or deal with fully. 

Come October, the Minister will receive the Commission of Inquiry into Mother and Baby Homes’s final report, delayed again due to Covid-19. 

Amid rising costs and calls for a National Archive of records to be set up, O’Gorman stresses the independence of the Commission but says, “I’ll be seeking to publish it as quickly as possible”, adding the final report will be over 2,000 pages. 

Moving forward, O’Gorman also plans to allow children under 16 to be able to change their gender with the consent of their parents or guardians. The decision was made on the back of a review of the 2015 Gender Recognition Act commissioner by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection when Regina Doherty was minister. 

Is he concerned by further attacks by far-right activists about this proposed legislation? 

“It’s come up in some of the social media dialogue, it’s been thrown against me over the past couple of weeks,” he says. 

“Look, this is a very sensitive area that only impacts a small part of the population…If that consent [of parents or guardians] is there I think we should be helping these kids as much as we can and we’ll just have to deal with what the far-right say.”

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