Sunday 25 September 2016

Sympathy won't prevent another fire tragedy - funding for Travellers will

Published 13/10/2015 | 02:30

Flowers, messages and toys left at the scene of the fire which resulted in the deaths of 10 people at a halting site in Carrickmines, Dublin, at the weekend Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos
Flowers, messages and toys left at the scene of the fire which resulted in the deaths of 10 people at a halting site in Carrickmines, Dublin, at the weekend Photo: Stephen Collins/Collins Photos

The speed at which a fire engulfed a temporary halting site in Carrickmines at the weekend, leading to the deaths of 10 people, means serious questions need to be asked about the standard of Traveller accommodation.

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While the cause of the fire that swept through prefabricated buildings in the early hours of Saturday morning is still under investigation, it is clear that those trapped inside on that awful night stood no chance.

Assistant chief fire officer with Dublin Fire Brigade Denis Keeley told 'Morning Ireland' yesterday that it was the most devastating fire he had witnessed in his 30-year career.

The country had been braced for a fire tragedy since the full extent of the shoddy building work that proliferated during the Celtic Tiger became apparent. Most recently, it was the residents of Longboat Quay who were issued with a fire safety warning that they would have to evacuate their homes unless €4m was immediately spent repairing their death-trap apartment complex.

The questions that must be answered by local authorities now are whether similar inspection schemes exist for halting sites and, if so, if it is time to evacuate those that fail to meet basic safety requirements?

In a statement following Saturday's tragedy, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council said the Carrickmines site met fire, health and safety regulations.

However, given what we know about the effectiveness of regulations in this country, and the ferocity of the blaze that swept through prefabricated cabins, we now need to ask whether these regulations are stringent enough.

The fact that so many people have been living in what was supposed to be a temporary halting site for so long also raises serious questions. The council opened the site as an emergency measure nearly 10 years ago, but work on a permanent site has yet to start.

The local authority cannot be held entirely responsible for this delay - it simply hasn't had the money to do the work. In 2007, the national budget for Traveller accommodation programmes was €39m. This year, it's just €4.3m.

Although funding has been decimated around the country, among the worst cuts have been experienced in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown - despite the fact that it is home to the second highest number of Traveller families in the country. So, while the council was allocated €1m for accommodation programmes in 2009, last year it was awarded just €8,793. This year, it got nothing.

The Connors family, who suffered such a devastating loss at the weekend, are not the only ones living in temporary accommodation across the country. According to Census 2011, there are 920 Traveller households, out of a total of 7,765, who still live in caravans or temporary accommodation. Of these, 900 people are living without any sewerage facilities, while almost 600 have no piped water source.

Despite this, funding to develop sites, with access to basic services like water and sanitation, has been mercilessly reduced.

The cuts to Traveller programmes have been disproportionate, but that's because politicians know they can get away with them. Nobody around the country much cares about the plight of Travellers living in overcrowded and squalid conditions. If anything, the scale and level of the cuts are something to crow about - a vote winner.

While people seem to begrudge the Travelling community the funding required to make halting sites habitable, they also don't like it when they move to permanent accommodation beside them.

Recent years have seen a spate of arson attacks in homes purchased by local authorities to house Traveller families. In Co Clare, for example, between 2010 and 2013, nine houses within Traveller group schemes in Ennis were destroyed by fire. Earlier this year, yet another house was set alight.

In January 2013, there was outrage in Ballyshannon, in Co. Donegal, when it was revealed a Traveller family was about to move into a house in the area. Local Fianna Fail councillor Sean McEniff said: "I am not a racist or a bigot, but I believe Travellers should live in isolation."

Fine Gael councillor. Eugene Dolan supported his colleague's comments 100pc: "As far as I'm concerned they can be sent to Spike Island for all I care," he said.

One month later, the house was burned to the ground.

There is no suggestion that either councillor had anything to do with the arson attack.

The councillors' comments are just indicative of the naked antipathy with which Traveller families are treated.

No other section of Irish society is as discriminated against or marginalised as Travellers.

The infant mortality rate is nearly four times the national average, the suicide rate is seven times the national average while their life expectancy is 15 years less than the average in the settled community.

Even in death they are discriminated against.

Last year, a funeral home was found guilty of discrimination for refusing to allow the body of a 14-year-old boy, who had died from congenital liver disease on Christmas Eve, repose at its premises.

Since the disaster that befell the Connors family at the weekend, politicians from all parties have expressed their sympathy.

But while this sympathy is no doubt heartfelt, it won't stop another tragedy from happening in the future.

If politicians really want to do something positive in the wake of such a senseless loss of life, then funding for Traveller accommodation programmes needs to be restored and fire safety standards on existing halting sites urgently need to be investigated.

Irish Independent

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