Sunday 19 November 2017

Council stands firm

Contractors moved in to an unofficial Halting Site to erect a new barrier, backed up by Gardai in public order riot gear. Jenny McCudden reports

Matilda McGinley - a 65-year-old mother of 11 - sat weeping outside her caravan in the corner of a city centre car park. This prime piece of property has been the place she has called home for the past 34 years.

It is where she has reared her children and welcomed her 18 grandchildren, who also all reside at the unofficial halting site.

Here at Connaughton Road carpark her late husband Barney McGinley planted a tree a few years before his death in 2000. Last Wednesday morning that same tree was uprooted in front of her eyes by council contractors who arrived without warning, backed up by up to 20 gardai with riot gear.

“21 years ago Barney planted that tree when it was only a branch. They came in here today in riot gear with shields and cut it down without a thought of what it meant to us. The gardai and the council workers are working together against us,” says Matilda.

She has tears streaming down her face and is visibly shaken by what is going on around her. Her hand is unsteady as she fumbles to smoke a cigarette. A daughter comforts her saying: “They cut that tree down to aggravate us. I remember my Daddy coming home from the hospital one day and planting that. He said it would grow strong and always remind us of him. It was very upsetting to see it being cut down.”

The reason the tree was cut down, according to Sligo County Council was health and safety. CEO Ciaran Hayes stands one hundred percent behind the action dismissing any sentimentality on the part of the travellers.

He told the Sligo Champion: “The tree was taken down in the interest of road safety. It was obstructing a traffic sign and causing problems in terms of sight lines and was deemed a potential hazard for motorists. This was a decision taken by our road engineers who have been monitoring the situation for some time. It was a decision that was made in the interest of the wider community and the greater good.”

And what about the manner in which it was taken down - contractors backed up by gardai with public order riot shields forming a protective barrier between the workers on site and the travellers? The Garda armed support unit was also at the scene. Again, the council chief maintains this arguably heavy handed approach was ‘absolutely necessary.’

Ciaran Hayes claims that verbal threats were made to council contractors on the last occasion work was carried out at the location. “This is very serious. We have an obligation to our staff to ensure their health and safety and had to take all precautions necessary to ensure that. We carried out a risk assessment before the works today (Wednesday).”

During the stand-off a group of young children, including toddlers approach the Gardai chanting: “We shall not be moved. We have rights.”

This image of tiny tots shouting slogans before an intimidating line of policemen with riot gear was captured on camera by the Gardai who started filming from the moment they arrived.

Sergeant Mick Kelly who was heading up the operation says: “The council had to carry out some work and we were called in to assist. The public order shields are for the protection of our members.”

In addition to cutting down the tree the council erected a height control barrier which had been removed some time ago. Ciaran Hayes explains: “We have height restriction barriers on all access points into our carparks. Since we last took action at this carpark two weeks ago, an additional caravan went in. It is important that the council is in a position to regulate access. We can of course facilitate the opening of the barrier if anyone wants to leave.”

The council CEO stresses: “Sligo County Council is maintaining contact with the McGinley family through their solicitor in relation to recent issues at the car-park. The Council will continue to engage with the family with a view to finding a solution to their accommodation needs.”

But he says in the meantime the council is dealing with a litany of complaints from residents in the area. “We have been receiving consistent complaints about activities in the carpark and there is an obligation on us to deal with them. In recent weeks we have been getting consistent reports about fires, rubber being burned. It is not acceptable for a group of families to consistently have bonfires in a public space. This is more than just a nuisance, it’s a health hazzard. That there has not been any arrests is a matter for the Gardai. We will be pursuing prosecution under the waste management act.

“There is a history of anti-social behaviour from that site. We had an assault case against a member of our fire service. It is absolutely appropriate that we take all precautions when dealing with them.”

An ambulance arrives on the scene. Matilda is still being comforted by her family. She has her head in her hands. Her grand-daughter and daughter-in-law are taken to hospital. Both claim they were injured during a scuffle when the Gardai and workmen arrived unannounced earlier in the day.

Indeed it is not the first time members of the McGinley family have been taken to hospital due to confrontation at the carpark in recent weeks. It’s understood that instructions have been given to begin a personal injuries summons against the Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan TD, the Garda Commissioner Noirin O’Sullivan, the Attorney General and Sligo County Council.

It’s believed that to date there have been two injuries of minors. One 14-year-old boy had an injury to his shoulder that required surgery. This child was hand cuffed after sustaining the injury.

Speaking about the latest action regarding the new barrier a legal source said: “The purpose of the barrier is for the council to reassert its control over the carpark. But they are not going to stop the clock running. It is a classic case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted.”

Impending legal action is being taken by the McGinley family to claim adverse possession or squatter’s rights to all or part of the land. It’s understood the papers are being checked over by Senior Council at the moment and will be lodged during the week.

In relation to the legal action Ciaran Hayes told the Sligo Champion: “We have received no notice to date. It is our intention that the carpark would be available to the public as a public carpark. We are available to work with the families to resolve the situation.”

He insists: “It is not a case of Sligo County Council imposing a type of accommodation on them. We have explored all options from private housing to halting sites and everything in between. The difficulty lies in getting them to agree.”

The family have said on record that they wanted to leave the carpark, that it is no place to bring up children today, on the side of an extremely busy road. They have expressed an interest for a site on the Bundoran Road.

But as relations have deteriorated between both sides, and communication at present is via a solicitor, it seems unlikely that a resolution will be reached in the immediate term. The family is now focused on proceeding with their claim for adverse possession.

Two weeks ago hired contractors removed a garden fence at Connaughton road carpark. The fence had been erected around one of the caravans. The same day a separate contractor re-painted a small number of car parking spaces.

The latest action of cutting down a tree and erecting a new barrier at the entrance has made the McGinley’s more determined than ever to pursue legal action.

Willie McGinley has lived in the carpark from the age of 9. He says: “We were given no notice of this action here today. They’re putting up that barrier at the entrance to make it look like more of an operational carpark."

His mother Matilda shakes her head: “I can not explain it. This has hurt me beyond words. This has made me feel very sad. That tree was watered in the heat and taken care of. It was part of him,” she says.

Sligo Champion

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