Saturday 22 October 2016

The policy of leaving things as they are

We are creating a society in which some respond with glee to the death of Traveller children, says Gene Kerrigan

Published 25/10/2015 | 02:30

Cartoonist: Tom Halliday
Cartoonist: Tom Halliday

Say the word Stardust in my neighbourhood and it still produces pain, almost 35 years after the terrible fire that killed 48 people.

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Two weeks ago, just over one fifth of the number of those killed at the Stardust died in the Carrickmines fire. And the grief of that tragedy was thrust onto a small number of families.

Almost immediately, residents of Rockville Drive decided that four-year-old Thomas Connors should not be allowed dwell near them.

The kid had gone to sleep and when he woke up his parents were gone forever. His brother Jim was gone, and his little brother Christy and his baby sister Mary. His uncles Willie and Liam, too, and his aunt Tara - and his cousins Kelsey and Jodie.

It is hard to imagine another individual in the history of this country - certainly since the Famine - who has suffered such a psychological blow. Similar blows were dealt to other members of those families.

Thomas, on leaving hospital, needed a safe place to curl up, where the security of his extended family might help him survive the devastation. Christ knows how they'll do it, but they'll try.

Why did the Rockville residents turn Thomas away? Oh yes, they hadn't been "consulted" on Thomas's future. And they believed, in their worries over Thomas's welfare, that the site wasn't exactly what he and the other survivors needed.

Yes, local authorities can be inept. On this occasion, the officials might have imagined that all claims on our rights and our reverence for procedural niceties had been put on hold in the face of this horror.

And they may have felt that justified fears arising from the friction between two cultures would be put in perspective.

Anyway, let's leave the Rockville charmers out of this.

Something else happened. Something that took the Carrickmines tragedy way beyond the concerns of the camera-shy protesters of Rockville Drive. There erupted a convulsion of sheer blind hatred.

Respect for the grief of others is common to us all - whether we are religious or not. It is one of the things that distinguishes us from the animals. Usually.

One of the benefits of what is loosely termed "social media" is our ability to comment immediately and anonymously on the events of the day - through Twitter or Facebook, and in the comments sections of various online sites.

I followed news of the Carrickmines fire via the efficient reporting done by The As word spread, people expressed dismay in the comments beneath the stories. Sometimes a simple "RIP", sometimes remarks such as "our thoughts are with the families and also with the firefighters".

An inappropriate and ghoulish exchange began, in which some questioned the "Traveller lifestyle". Others said this wasn't the time or the place. The offensive and inane chatter continued and eventually The Journal closed the comments.

Such people aren't necessarily bigots. They seem to have sociopathic tendencies - which make them emotionally tone deaf to reality.

But that was the least of it.

The ability to say anything you like about anyone, anonymously, brings out the worst in us.

And, as is the way with such things, the comments area on The Journal caters even for those unable or unwilling to string a few words together. It has an image of a green thumb if you want to endorse a comment, and a red thumb if you want to reject it.

You don't have to actually write anything to make your anonymous views known, you just click on a button.

Travellers, said one idle chatterer, are "good old fashioned Roman Catholics". And 45 people endorsed the comment. And 172 rejected it.

No fewer than 645 people endorsed an "RIP" comment. But 268 rejected it. "God bless them. So sad", brought 375 endorsements, but the hate also brought forth 236 rejections.

A hundred and one people endorsed the sentiment, "God rest them". And 41 rejected it.

As the scene still smouldered, a commenter prayed that "none of the fatalities are children". Endorsements: 415, as you might expect. And 259 rejections, from people who are cool with the idea of Traveller children burning to death.

The hatred had to have been there all along. The Travellers told us about it, but it took the 10 deaths at Carrickmines to embolden the haters.

And all the time, the persistent whine of the hard-done-by. "I keep hearing about rights but what about responsibilities", wrote a concerned citizen, as the firefighters sought to recover the bodies. There were 1,099 endorsements of that.

There was repeated rejection of any expression of compassion. During one of the funerals, a commenter said: "Heartbreaking for the whole family & community". While 71 endorsed the sympathy, 96 rejected it.

Of course, these are anonymous haters who lack the guts to sign their name to their beliefs. Nothing to worry about, right?

The problem of fairly regulating different cultures sharing the same space is not an insurmountable one - and will become more pressing in an ever more globalised world. Last week in this paper, Willie Kealy documented the responses of politicians, down through the decades, from 1926. To say the political response was pathetic would be to credit it with a coherence it never had.

This column has said before that when a problem persists, it is not a problem but a policy. And it is clear it has long been policy to do just enough to ensure that nothing changes. From 2008 to 2015, a 94pc cut in funding for Traveller accommodation. Millions left unspent by councils too cowardly to do their jobs.

The ungenerous - to say the least - response of the Rockville residents to those suffering extreme pain is one layer in all this. Then there are those who hide behind anonymity to make gratuitously offensive remarks. There are also the downright racist. And then there are the haters - the anonymous, implacable ones who respond with glee to the death of children.

The policy of leaving people in dangerous conditions springs from politicians' fear of everyone, whether uneasy residents or online haters. Doing something won't win votes, it might lose them.

We're not doing favours for Travellers when we ensure they don't live in dangerous places. I neither know nor care what percentage of Travellers pay income tax, but they and we all pay Vat, every time we buy goods or services. And that's almost 30pc of State revenue (income tax is about 40pc).

Travellers have long paid for anything they get from the State, and much they don't. Our short-changing them leads to tragedies like the Carrickmines fire. It also feeds a lack of generosity among many.

We now know that amongst us are people who cheer the deaths of children. These are not spittle-flecked oddities from who knows where. They are our children, our siblings, our parents, our friends - they are part of what we are.

And this is our problem. There has never been evidence of this kind of hatred towards us expressed by Travellers. We have bred this hate amongst our dearest ones.

The policy of leaving things as they are endangers Travellers, and it corrupts settled society.

Sunday Independent

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