Let the Carrickmines tragedy be the spur for treating Travellers with real humanity
A planning enforcement officer called to my house a few years ago to inspect my back garden. I had been reported for contravening the planning code and I would have to remove the offending construction or face legal action. The offence? My climbing roses were supported on a trellis that was two inches higher than that permitted for a rear garden boundary. I couldn't believe the local authority wasted its time and human resources on matters like that. When I put up a fence out the front, though I would have preferred a 10ft wall, I adhered to the strict regulations of 1.2 metres for fear of breaking the law.
If 'settled' people can barely tolerate each other, how can we negotiate good neighbourliness with the Travelling community?
I say 'settled', but I've never called myself a 'settled' person, it is a label applied to differentiate those of us who prefer to live in a dwelling made of bricks and mortar and don't crave living next door to family.
Interviewed on radio last week, 'Love/Hate' actor and proud Traveller John Connors was asked would he ever buy a big house from the proceeds of his acting success.
His response was enlightening; he would buy a big field and fill it with wagons and portacabins. He tried living in a house and didn't like being among the settled community, he preferred being back on his campsite. He is an excellent spokesperson for Travellers, reminding us that there are bad and good elements everywhere.
Similarly, TV celebrity Kelly McDonagh and her deeply religious, funny and perma-tanned family are a very positive reflection on their community.
The Travelling community prefer to live amongst extended family in a close nucleus. The nomadic lifestyle is less prevalent these days. As the children attend local schools, there is less likelihood of continuous movement. If schooling is disrupted, then the low outcomes in education are inevitable - 55pc of Travellers leave school before the age of 15; only 1pc attain a third-level qualification and long-term unemployment is at 84pc. Health issues vary from the rest of the population because of the small gene pool; there is a rare genetic disorder, Hurler's Syndrome.
There is theft, murder, rape, drug addiction, poverty, disease, unemployment, a rural and urban divide, depression, suicide, alcoholism, difficulty in getting school places and many more social problems in the settled community. It is something small that we have in common with Travellers.
Preferring to live on a campsite is not only what divides the two. Hundreds of families in the settled community have become homeless and live in temporary shelter, crammed into hotel rooms. The newly evicted have little hope of ever buying a house or getting a mortgage, the aspirations of a family home are remote.
But the tragic death of two young travelling families at the Carrickmines halting site has sadly brought a serious problem to national attention. The 15 grieving survivors have endured an unbearable loss of family and home, made all the worse by the controversial blockade mounted by the local residents who refused access to a field.
It was a monumental planning debacle. Of all the Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown and Nama-owned land available, the survivors have been allocated a car park off the motorway. While politicians attended the funerals of the 10 fire victims this week, not one of them has committed to immediate resolution of this problem.
There are 29,000 Travellers in Ireland. According to Housing Minister Paudie Coffey, only 4pc are living in halting sites. The idea of halting sites being 'temporary' is misleading and the reality of providing safe and acceptable sites, with running water, sanitation and electricity, is not beyond the capacity of local authorities. The funding is there for it.
Even though the budget for Traveller programmes has decreased from €35m in 2010 to €4.3m this year, that figure is surely sufficient to implement immediate provision of safe facilities.
Upgrading of existing sites would be more likely to aid harmonisation within settled and Traveller communities. In turn, Travellers must take some responsibility for ongoing maintenance, like rubbish containment and disposal, to limit vermin infestation and consequent spread of disease, which they rightly complain bitterly about.
Last week Minister for the Environment Alan Kelly announced that 500 modular dwellings will be constructed for homeless families, presumably from the settled community.
If the Government is at last taking steps to alleviate the misery of austerity caused by the banks, then it can include a task force to deal with the Travellers' accommodation needs.
Pavee Point continues to campaign for Travellers to be recognised as a distinct ethnic group because of their separate traditions and culture.
The organisation maintains that recognition as an ethnic minority would help to counteract the racism and hatred that they encounter and would promote respect and tolerance. But respect must be earned, no matter who you are or where you come from.
Local councillors have been slow to provide for Traveller accommodation, no doubt meeting resistance from homeowners with voting power. They now have a realistic focus for dialogue and determination.
The Carrickmines tragedy has united communities in sympathy, it is a turning point, with a spotlight on Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown to get this right and for others to follow.