Saturday 1 October 2016

We need to see political will so all our citizens are treated as equals

Published 12/10/2015 | 02:30

A tragic claimed the lives of 10 people including pregnant mum Tara Gilbert, her partner Willie Lynch and their two daughters Kelsey and Jodie
A tragic claimed the lives of 10 people including pregnant mum Tara Gilbert, her partner Willie Lynch and their two daughters Kelsey and Jodie

The joyful family picture posted online yesterday of Tara Gilbert, her partner Willie Lynch and their gorgeous blonde-haired daughters Kelsey and Jodie, is a million miles away from the unthinkable fire tragedy in which they perished at a Traveller halting site in south Dublin in the early hours of Saturday morning.

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The entire family, along with six other members of the Travelling community, died in the biggest fire disaster in Ireland since the Stardust nightclub fire in Artane, Dublin, on Valentine's Day in 1981. If you take into account Tara and Willie's unborn child, the actual death toll from this weekend is 11.

It was heartening to see the huge outpouring of solidarity and support yesterday for the close-knit Travelling community, who are desperately trying to come to terms with their harrowing loss. Full credit to Ray D'Arcy for mentioning it at the beginning of his show on RTÉ One on Saturday night. And it is right that flags are to fly at half mast over Government Buildings during the funerals and that a minute's silence was held before the Ireland-Poland soccer match last night. There is no doubt the hearts of Ireland are with them.

However, I couldn't help thinking that if a fire had taken the lives of 10 members of the settled community in one of the middle-class housing estates in Carrickmines or Foxrock, just down the road from where the Travellers lost their lives, the media coverage and the national outpouring of shock would have been greater.

We saw how the deaths of six Irish J1 students in the balcony collapse in Berkeley, California, in the summer made headlines for days afterwards. Maybe it is the cynic in me but they were all from well-off, middle-class Dublin families.

Maybe it is also the cynic in me that got annoyed at the fact that local politicians, including a senior government minister, were on site expressing their condolences within hours of the fire disaster. Environment Minister Alan Kelly, who has responsibility for overseeing Traveller accommodation at a national level, posted his sympathies online.

But where were all of these politicians over the years when the thorny issue of Traveller accommodation came up time and time again?

Many Traveller families throughout Ireland are being forced to live in overcrowded, unfit, dangerous and often unhealthy situations.

Back in 1986, the ESRI said: "The circumstances of the Irish Travelling people are intolerable. No decent or humane society, once made aware of such circumstances, could permit them to exist."

I remember in 1995 writing news stories about a major government report aimed at tackling the Traveller accommodation problem. However, progress was abysmal. By 1999, there was an increase of just 68 in the number of Traveller families accommodated in houses. At the same time, the number of permanent halting sites provided throughout the State dropped from 824 to 802, while the number of temporary halting sites fell from 309 to 271. The number of families on the roadside during the period rose from 1,148 to 1,207. Things have not progressed much since.

Pavee Point said yesterday that the difficulties in accessing the private rented sector are exacerbated for Travellers, who continue to experience widespread discrimination and find it impossible to rent from landlords.

"This is in addition to the cuts made by the Government to Traveller accommodation under the guise of austerity measures, with the budget reduced from €40m in 2008 to €4m in 2013," a statement said.

While it is very early days - and the exact cause of the fire is not known - it would be particularly tragic if it was to emerge that overcrowding was a factor in the spread of the fire.

In recent weeks, serious fire safety deficiencies were uncovered in Longboat Quay, an apartment complex built at a cost of millions during the boom. There was national outrage at the revelations, with the matter raised in the Dáil.

The same sense of outrage needs to be expressed at what may be a serious gap in adequate fire safety measures on Traveller halting sites all over Ireland.

The same political will and clout used to fight the cause for the Longboat Quay residents needs to be directed at ensuring the safety of our Travelling community. All of our citizens must be treated equally.

Irish Independent

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