Ex-commando hired to mediate in Traveller feuds
Desperate councils and gardai embrace new approach as violence costs the State a fortune
A FORMER United States special forces soldier decorated for valour, who acted in a secret capacity during the peace negotiations in the North, is the mediator now trying to resolve disputes among traveller communities.
Dr Miceal O'Hurley is being increasingly hired by local authorities trying to reduce the violence -- and enormous financial costs to the State -- associated with traveller feuding. Until now, he has worked in a confidential capacity.
Originally from New York, he moved to Ireland three years ago and set up a mediation company dealing mainly with business and domestic disputes. He agreed to speak to the Sunday Independent because of his concerns that the existing strategies for dealing with traveller feuding were failing and his belief the situation was getting worse.
"There is a lack of strategy and the view is that it is a small community and they are only Travellers. We need to look at the issue and the resources we are spending with no results," he said.
"The gardai, I know, have done tremendous work building cases and the DPP has done great work but the prosecutions are failing due to the credibility of witnesses.
"The policing strategy is not solving the problem. All we are doing is barring (them) . . . forcing the most violent Travellers to move around the country because we are bringing them from areas where they have had social structures in place.
"Unfortunately, this portrays all Travellers as violent -- and this is not my experience. The problem is with a small handful, but people tend to blame the whole traveller community. I have met many wonderful people who are doing the best they can for their families."
His work was welcomed by the garda chief superintendent in Ennis, John Kerin, who said: "Whether it's public or private assistance, I welcome it. The use of a mediator in situations is not unique to Ennis Town Council. It has been used in other areas where I've served.
"We have concerns about the amount of violence used in this conflict and are acutely aware of the fear of the public in relation to it. We do appreciate the efforts of the council and the resources it is putting into this. In a situation like this, we help the council and it helps us."
In May, Chief Supt Kerin had to call in heavily armed gardai from the Regional Support Unit who set up checkpoints.
Labour town councillor Paul O'Shea, who is the chair of the Ennis Joint Policing Committee, said he had called for the services of a mediator to be used in relation to the ongoing traveller feud in the town from earlier this year. "It is the right thing to do in this situation and I am glad the council has gone down this route," he said.
"My main concern, however, is the cost involved. In tight economic times, it is a shame that the council needs to spend money on mediation services."
However, Dr O'Hurley pointed to the huge amounts being spent on extra policing and in medical costs, disruption to hospitals and the destruction of publicly funded halting sites and houses.
A halting site at Beech Park outside Ennis, built in 2004 at a cost of more than €2m, has been largely destroyed and the council is paying almost €3,000 a week for security staff to mind the site, where only a single Traveller is living.
Garda sources say overtime costs of up to €70,000 a week are not uncommon when feuding is at its worst.
The feud between families in Ennis has been going on for more than six years. Earlier this year, a 43-year-old man was attacked and badly injured by three men armed with an axe and iron bars at the gates of Ennis National School. The attack took place in front of terrified children.
The victim's 14-year-old son had to collect his father's severed finger and drive him, along with his two younger siblings, to Ennis General Hospital. Dozens of Travellers followed them to the hospital, where a major garda operation had to be put in place as rivals began turning up.
Earlier this year, a grenade was thrown into a house in the town. It failed to explode and had to be made safe by the Army's Ordnance Corps.
Traveller feuding has caused problems at hospitals across the country in recent years, striking terror in other patients and causing massive problems for staff and gardai. Tallaght, Limerick, Ennis, Tralee and Waterford hospitals have all experienced violent scenes.
In some cases, up to 100 Travellers have arrived at hospitals in violent moods. Two years ago, dozens of them descended on Waterford General and one man was said to have been wielding an axe inside the hospital.
Dr O'Hurley said some Travellers were "socially ill-equipped" to deal with disputes and the feuds were causing a self-perpetuating round of conflicts as they were moved by gardai or forced to move from place to place under fear of being attacked. With local authority funding drying up, many are becoming homeless as a result of feuds.
The role of professional independent mediators is relatively new and local authorities have been turning to them partly because of the failure of traveller advocate groups, like Pavee Point and the Irish Traveller Movement, to defuse feuds.