Bullish council learns the hard way that sensitive issues need sensitive handling
Published 15/10/2015 | 02:30
You people are vile! How can you live with yourselves? I don't know how you can sleep at night." A middle-aged woman lowered her car window to shout at residents blockading a planned halting site in their cul-de-sac.
Her words rattled the small knot of people standing near a barricade of cars in Rockville Drive - mainly senior citizens and mothers of young children. Until then, they had been largely silent, with an underlying tension.
One resident asked the driver how she'd like something similar on her doorstep. "I've lived with Travellers for years, I'm from Ballyogan," came the reply. She seemed to have turned into the cul-de-sac in this relatively rural part of south Dublin especially to tackle them.
After she drove off yesterday the protesters were defensive. One complained about being abused. Several drifted away, perhaps uneasy about the incident. After all, they are resisting a halting site for families left homeless by the Carrickmines fire which claimed 10 lives last weekend. Public opinion is not with them.
They say they aren't motivated by antipathy to Travellers. Speaking off-the-record, they point out that the halting site where the fire happened is only a five-minute walk away and they accepted its presence. Some of them were planning a pub quiz this weekend in aid of the Travelling community.
Their grievance is against the local authority, Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, which did not consult with them when it decided to turn a field beside their homes into a temporary halting site. As they put it, the digger arrived more or less in tandem with letters to householders announcing the change of use.
This case is a one which demands careful attention on all sides. Those lives lost in horrific circumstances include a pregnant mother, four children and a six-month-old baby girl. No-one could be unmoved by the scale of the tragedy.
The scene of the fire on Glenamuck Road is marked by a mound of flowers, soft toys and a blue and white Madonna and Child statue.
There is a tendency to ghettoise Travellers, to push them out of sight, but this is an attractive location for a halting site: a leafy plot of land near the foot of the Dublin Mountains. Though the peaceful impression is contradicted by a garda presence (I counted four) and tape securing the area - necessary precautions while the circumstances of the blaze are investigated.
Some 14 people from other prefabs there have been relocated to temporary accommodation, and another halting site is urgently needed for them. That's of vital importance considering the trauma they have undergone.
But where there is a sense of emergency, mistakes can be made. Such seems to be the case here. On Tuesday, a digger arrived to dismantle barriers to the one-acre field - put up by the council previously - and to prepare the ground as a temporary halting site.
Residents had no prior notice and no consultation arrangements were made. Maybe they would have resisted, asked or not. Halting sites are rarely welcome. But dialogue cannot be set aside. Consultation is now happening belatedly.
However, damage has been done. Particularly to the Travelling community: it must be appalling to lose 10 members in horrific circumstances, only to find near neighbours rejecting you. One blow following another.
"I have never witnessed such depths of hostility and hate towards my community as I have on this occasion," said Pavee Point's co-director Martin Collins. "Shameful and wrong," is how said environment minister Alan Kelly characterised the blockade.
So, on the one hand we have residents who were not consulted - the council just arrived, citing emergency powers - and on the other hand we have a tragedy which gives rise to the need for a halting site. More than one example of avoidable insensitivity is apparent here.
This is not an affluent suburb. While there are substantial properties along Glenamuck Road, the houses in Rockville Drive are relatively modest for the most part. Many of the homes have young children in them, their bicyles and other toys lying in front gardens.
The residents are bristling under accusations of Nimbyism. One mother told how she regularly gives lifts to a teenage boy from that fire-scarred halting site. A retired man said he recognised some of the dead from their photographs in the newspaper, and what happened was "undeniably a tragedy".
But he insisted the field was unsuitable for two reasons: it contains septic tanks which need years of decontamination, and the site is prone to flooding. A woman carrying her newspaper back from the shop pointed to holes in a neighbour's wall bored to let rainwater escape. The council, they said, was more concerned at being seen to take action than in finding suitable accommodation for the families.
But there is no doubt residents don't want Travellers living permanently in their midst, and don't trust the council's insistence that it's only for six months.
Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council had to devise a rapid solution, and the plot of land in question has the advantage of being close to the Travellers' original home.
But decisions must be arrived at for the right reasons and not because they strike someone as convenient.
Failure to consult residents - while legal under emergency powers - is authoritarian. You have to wonder at the local authority's bullish approach.
A sensitive situation has become a great deal worse than it needed to be. Not least for people who are grieving.