Tuesday 24 April 2018

'I'm afraid it could happen again. I can't sleep at night'

Halting site crisis: 15 local councils haven't drawn down improvement funds

The scene after the Carrickmines tragedy
The scene after the Carrickmines tragedy
View of Spring Lane Halting northside of Cork City. Picture: Clare Keogh.
Micke McCarthy with his baby brother Thomas McCarthy and cousin Jim McCarthy at Spring Lane Halting northside of Cork City. Picture: Clare Keogh.

Graham Clifford

From the doorway of her two-bedroom caravan, with her one-year-daughter Annabella in her arms, Ann McCarthy looks out over the halting site she calls home and asks "how are we supposed to live like this?"

In the near distance caravans and mobile homes are crammed into the Spring Lane site on the outskirts of Cork city. The halting site, first opened in 1989, was said to be designed for 40 inhabitants; at the latest count there were at least 160 Travellers here, including about 100 children. Locals describe it as "the nearest thing to a shanty town" that exists in Ireland.

Ann, a mother of five children, tells me "we have no electricity in our mobile home so we run a cable to my brother-in-law's as he has a bay, but it's not safe and often it overloads. The wiring in some of the older caravans is very dangerous and in recent years two or three of them have burned down, but luckily no one was seriously injured."

As Travellers across Ireland come to terms with the tragic loss of 10 lives in the Carrickmines halting site fire, the spotlight has been focused on accommodation regulations for Ireland's 40,000 Travellers, or 10,226 families, with a priority on safety.

"The caravans are so close together here that if one goes up in flames it will take the others with it," explains one father in Spring Lane, adding "unless the Government and local councils help us, I'm afraid there will be more tragedies like the one that happened in Dublin. Our hearts break for those poor people. I haven't been able to sleep since it happened, our prayers are with them and their families."

When I visited Spring Lane this week, council workers were upgrading the halting site's electricity network. "It's good to see. Often you get shocks from the wiring and the system overloads, especially in the winter. But when I see this work I can't help but think it means we will be here for a long, long time and that no other housing will be provided for us," said one young father.

But just three kilometres away, at St Anthony's Park on Hollyhill, Cork City Council during the summer opened a new state-of the-art housing facility, at a cost of €5 million. Sixteen Traveller families moved from a nearby halting site into the housing scheme, which includes seven one-bed bungalows, three three-bed houses and three-four bed houses, as well as nine spacious bays where new caravans will be installed. The comfortable dwellings even feature solar panels and stoves with back boilers to maximise energy efficiency, built-in wardrobes and fully-fitted kitchens.

Living in such conditions still seems like a distant dream for Ann McCarthy back in Spring Lane. She tells me through tears in her eyes: "for now, we'd just be delighted with a bay. We're here on the side of the road at the entrance to the halting site and it's not even safe for our children to play on the road. We go to bed every night praying a car doesn't crash into our home."

Those who live on the periphery of the official 10 bays here have no basic facilities such as a toilet, running water, shower and a safe electricity supply.

The Traveller Visibility Group and Cork Traveller Women's Network have called on Cork City Council to review their accommodation plan for 2014 to 2018 and commit to the planning and building of additional units of Traveller accommodation in Cork.

But how is a Traveller halting site designed, who has responsibility for it, and why are there 15 local authorities in the country - including Dunlaoghaire-Rathdown where the Glenamuck road tragedy occurred last weekend - which drew down no funding for Traveller accommodation this year?

The Department of the Environment guidelines, under 'the statutory assessment of needs under section 9 of the Housing Act, 1988', states: "Sites are intended for short stays by transient Travellers only. The occupants of such sites will not wish to locate their families in the particular area for an extended period of time and generally are on the move to fairs, festivals or trading from area to area."

However, temporary halting sites in Ireland have a habit of becoming near-permanent. Spring Lane has been in operation for 26 years and the ongoing electrical works point to it remaining in place for many more to come. The 'temporary' site in Carrickmines where the tragedy occurred was in operation for seven years.

The Department's guidelines on accommodation provision also states that "local authorities should take account of the expectations and aspirations of Travellers, subject to due regard to the need to provide for their nomadic identity at reasonable cost" and states that "all sites should be inspected, approved and reported on by the appropriate professional or technical officers of the local authority.'' Traveller welfare groups say this simply hasn't been happening at halting sites across the country.

When designing the sites, requirements of the fire authority are to be taken into account; as a general rule no more than 20 families should be on one site at one time; and pitches should be distributed around the site by the designers who normally are employees of the council itself - occasionally external design consultants will be employed to assist though this is mainly with housing schemes rather than halting sites.

The guidelines also stipulate that "the fire safety provisions should be discussed and agreed with the chief fire officer of the relevant fire authority", though Traveller groups say these provisions are clearly not being met at sites across Ireland.

Councils are to make sure the normal domestic refuge collection is extended to halting sites and must provide skips for the removal of more bulky items of waste. In some cases, as in Spring Lane, a dedicated caretaker is employed by the council.

While funds have been available over the years to build Traveller housing schemes, improve halting sites and provide others, it seems problems in locating suitable areas mean that often nothing happens.

As one Mayo county councillor told me this week: "People don't want Travellers living near them, pure and simple. And if there's nowhere to put them, there's no point in taking the funding. You saw how the local residents in Dublin tried to block those who survived the [Carrickmines] fire from moving in near them. There would be many across Ireland who would back them in doing this."

With just €4.3m provided to local councils for Traveller accommodation this year - down from €70m in 2008 - there are many like Ann who wonder if there is any will to help them to live in improved conditions.

She tells me: "We are people, real, living, breathing Irish people. Our children are real children with needs and lives and dreams, and all we want is somewhere safe and warm to live in. Surely to God that isn't too much to ask?"

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