Failure to house relatives of Traveller fire victims is a stain on Irish society
Published 20/10/2015 | 02:30
As the funerals for the 10 people killed in last week's devastating Carrickmines fire begin today, it is an indictment of our society that their surviving family members have yet to be rehoused.
It's hard to know why Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has indulged the protesting residents of Rockville Drive for more than a week, meekly agreeing to protracted negotiations with them, while those who endured the trauma of seeing their family members burn to death remain homeless.
The halting site at Carrickmines is just 500m away from the estate, so it's not as if there is no history of Traveller accommodation in the area. Meanwhile, Section 24 of the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act permits the county manager to deal immediately with an emergency situation without consulting councillors or local residents.
If the razing to the ground of existing accommodation, and the deaths of 10 people, including five children, doesn't count as an emergency, what does?
The council has both moral authority and legal authority on its side, but still it dithers and wrings its hands.
Perversely, it is the Rockville Drive residents who believe they are the victims in all of this, with a representative telling a newspaper yesterday that their lives would never be the same again.
According to this bizarre logic, it is the residents who may have to endure the ordeal of living with a halting site at the end of their road for six months who have been permanently blighted - not those who lost their homes and 10 members of their family to a fire.
The protests at Rockville Drive may be ugly, but the attitude of the residents reflects the kind of anti-Traveller sentiment that has persisted around the country for generations.
In his book 'Racism and Social Change in the Republic of Ireland', UCD Professor Bryan Fanning recounts the story of another protest that took place just outside Shannon in 1992.
On that occasion, while Travellers living on an unofficial halting site were on a pilgrimage to Croagh Patrick, local residents hired a digger and dug up the site, making it uninhabitable. When the Traveller families returned, they refused them access to the destroyed site. In the aftermath of that protest, 18 Travellers were prosecuted but not a single member of the settled community appeared before the courts.
It's not just residents who don't want to live near Travellers who behave like this.
In 1997, a district court judge in Galway criticised local solicitors when a Traveller was unable to find anyone to represent him after he was refused service in a pub. He was forced to travel 50km away to Gort to find a lawyer willing to take on the case, which he eventually won.
The Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 was enacted in order to circumvent the problem of councillors bowing to local pressure and refusing to fulfil their statutory obligation to provide for Traveller accommodation.
It made it mandatory for development plans to provide for Traveller accommodation. However, in a classic 'Irish solution', there is no penalty for local authorities that actually fail to provide this accommodation. So, while they must identify accommodation for Travellers, they don't actually have to deliver it, with councils able to cite all kinds of excuses to evade their responsibilities.
The extent of this failure of policy is evident in a study conducted by the Irish Traveller Movement earlier this year. It found that just nine of the country's 34 local authorities had met their obligations under their 2009-2013 Traveller accommodation programmes.
Meanwhile, Housing Minister Paudie Coffey confirmed on Sunday that nearly €300m allocated for Traveller accommodation had not been drawn down by local authorities over the last 10 years.
This abdication of responsibility by local authorities does not just impact on housing. Numerous studies have linked substandard accommodation to health, education and employment problems that disproportionately impact the Travelling community.
For example, squalid conditions at Clonlong halting site in Co Limerick have been linked with health problems among the 34 children living there. A 2011 report found that just two children, out of 34, do not suffer from respiratory problems or other regular bouts of sickness.
Given that local authorities all over the country are either unwilling or unable to provide Traveller accommodation, it is now time a proposal first mooted nearly 20 years ago, the creation of a national Traveller Accommodation Agency to oversee and deliver accommodation, was adopted.
As well as overseeing a comprehensive Traveller accommodation plan, this agency could also have responsibility for Traveller health and education issues, ensuring a coherent and strategic response to these interconnected issues.
In order to be effective, this national agency would need to have powers to penalise those councils that renege on their statutory obligations to provide suitable Traveller accommodation.
Additionally, Equality Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin should get his own house in order before criticising Rockville Drive residents. In November 2014, Mr Ó Ríordáin said he expected Traveller ethnicity would be a reality within six months and would be "one of the greatest things we can do".
Nearly one year later and there are no indications that this pledge will be honoured in the lifetime of this Government.