Lorraine McMahon, Balleyfermot Travellers Action Project.
Saturday 10th October 2015 – an earthquake of tragedy sent shock waves across the Traveller community on a scale never seen before. The fire took the lives of 10 members of the Traveller community, 5 adults and 5 children; Willie Lynch (25) and his partner Tara Gilbert (27) and their children Jodie (9) Kelsey (4) and Willie’s brother Jimmy Lynch (39), Sylvia Conors (25), her husband Thomas (27), their children Jim (5), Christy (2) and Mary (5 months) as they slept through the early hours of the morning in the halting site on Glenamuck Road, Carrickmines Dublin.
“I think in reflection to ignored voices, valiantly fought campaigns, deep and repeated challenges to the systematic and institutional ignorance and thinly veiled discrimination; those ten lives were not lost. They were taken” Oein DeBhairduin, Traveller leader.
This was the worst fire in Ireland in terms of fatalities since the Stardust Fire in 1981. It raises serious questions as to the safety on halting sites, in particular unofficial and temporary sites on which Traveller families are forced to live for decades; sites with intolerable conditions, severe overcrowding and often without the most basic of services such as water and sanitation. Traveller families who were worried before this tragedy are now living in fear, with a common statement being “I am now afraid to sleep at night”.
Safety concerns have been raised for decades by Traveller organisations to no avail. Our calls for safe, culturally appropriate accommodation in line with legislation have been systematically ignored by the vast majority of Local Authorities.
Travellers In Ireland
Travellers are an indigenous minority who have been part of Irish society for centuries. Travellers long shared history, cultural values, language, customs and traditions make then a self-defined group, which is recognisable and distinct. Their culture and way of life, of which Nomadism is a part, distinguishes them from the sedentary or settled population.
Yet successive governments, despite obligations from human rights treaties Ireland has signed, have denied Travellers recognition of their ethnicity. It is the desired wish of the majority of Travellers to have formal recognition of their ethnic status. Continued refusal of this is nothing less than State Racism.
Recognition will not in itself solve our problems but it is a vital starting point.
Traveller Accommodation – the Policies of the State
At 36,000 Travellers are less than 1% of the Irish population, so their accomodation needs could easily be met. But it doesn’t happen.
In 1995 the Task Force Report on Travelling People recognised that Travellers suffer social marginalisation and that Traveller specific accommodation was a key need. One outcome was the enactment of the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998.
This Act makes it mandatory for all Local Authorities to develop 5 year Traveller Accommodation Programmes (TAPs) identifying how they plan to meet the accommodation needs of Traveller families, including group housing, halting sites and transient sites where the needed.
However, in practice, these TAPs are only a paper exercise; they dont deliver on commitments made. Government policies actually facilitate this as there are no penalties for non delivery. Plus the budget allocation for TAP’s at €4.3million in 2015, is so small that the delivery of targets is literally impossible.
This situation continues to be ignored by the government, It turns a blind eye to the fact that this year alone 15 Local Authorities did not even seek to draw down funding for Traveller accommodation. One of these is Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown who have responsibility for the Carrickmines site .
The last local elections told a horror story about public representatives attitudes towards Traveller accommodation. Josepha Madigan (FG), openly objected to the Council’s decision to locate Travellers on sites in the area as “a misuse of taxpayers’ resources”and Cllr Barry Saul (FG) saying about the proposed halting site at Mount Anville Rd, “This site overlooking Dublin Bay would be a premium site for development”, and that he had “a commitment from the Council that it would be sold and the money reinvested in the community”.
Clearly Fine Gael do not view Travellers as a part of the community! The other Authorities who did not draw down any funding this year for Traveller accommodation are Carlow, Cavan, Donegal, South Dublin, Galway City, Galway County, Laois, Leitrim, Louth, Mayo, Meath, Monaghan, Sligo and Wexford. All these areas have Traveller families in need of accommodation.
Accommodation is one of the most critical issues for the Traveller community. It is the linchpin needed to address wider issues of health, education and employment.
Currently 549 Traveller families are living in unofficial, i.e. side of the road or temporary, halting sites and 987 Traveller families are estimated to be sharing accommodation. That is 1,536 Traveller families living in intolerable conditions, overcrowded, unsafe and often without access to water and sanitation. In one area families have been waiting up to 18 years on permanent accommodation, 14 of those without water, sanitation or electricity. 4 years ago the Council provided the family with what is basically a 10ft x 10ft steel shed only fit for use on a building site. Conditions became unsafe due to exposed sockets wired to the internal walls which were only plasterboard and eroding over time. It took two years to address the unsafe conditions and that was only after one of the units went on fire in Jan 2015 and following a protest outside Dublin City Hall in July this year.
One mother stated at the Dublin City Housing SPC in 2013 “Could you imaging having to take your child out of the trailer and going across the road in the middle of the night to go to the toilet, waking up in the morning not knowing if you can get water to boil a kettle to make a cup of tea or wash your children before going to school? That’s what I have been forced to live in for well over a decade”. This situation is the reality for many Traveller families the length and breadth of the country.
Many families could no longer cope with living in intolerable conditions and have turned to the private rental sector. Currently there are 2,672 Traveller families in private rented accommodation, many against their stated preference for Traveller specific accommodation which would allow extended families to live closely together which is a very important part of Traveller culture and a support for Travellers who are marginalised by wider society. This situation reinforces the belief among Travellers and Traveller organisations that an unofficial policy of assimilation or “absorption into the general community” is very much active and supported by the State.
For years Travellers and Traveller organisations have made repeated reports to their Local Traveller Accommodation Consultative Commtties, the Housing SPC’s, National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committies and directly to the Department of Environment and Ministers with responsibility for Traveller accommodation of our concerns in relation to safety on sites across the country. But these have never been addressed. If our concerns were taken seriously would the Carrickmines tragedy have happened? Questions must be answered.
“As shocking and sorrowful as the recent deaths have been,, it was not a surprise. It was something spoken about for quite some time, challenged, raged against.”. Oein DeBhairduin
Given the fact current government structures have not delivered on accommodation for Travellers despite a clear legislative framework to do so, it is time for an alternative and more effective structure to be put in place. Traveller organisations have long since recognised this and have been calling for the establishment of an Independent Housing Agency for Traveller Accomodation.
As the Connors, Lynch and Gilbert families grieve the loss of their loved ones, we must ensure that such a tragedy is a turning point and the discrimination that Travellers experience is wiped out.
In the days which followed the horrific fire we witnessed an outpouring of genuine grief and sympathy for the victims of Carrickmines, the survivors and their extended families. Some of us hoped that such a tragedy would not be in vain and that this might be a turning point and maybe the settled community and public representatives who previously objected to Traveller accommodation would think of human need before reacting with prejudice.
However, even before the bodies of the deceased were formally identified, a racist frenzy began. A media circus of comment and condemnation focusing on victim blaming, feeding prejudices against Travellers went into overdrive. The bias which the media (with the exception of Kitty Holland and one or two others) have shown towards the Carrickmines families has been shameful.
When Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council moved to provide emergency accommodation for the survivors a small group of local residents quickly mounted a blockade. This reflected the anti Traveller racism that has persecuted Travellers for decades. Even worse, however, was the reaction of the Council. When they abandoned their plans for temporary accommodation at Glenamuck Road they capitulated to the bigotry and failed to invoke the powers that a Local Authority manager has in emergency situations.
If these were Water protesters the Gardai would have swiftly moved them on. But neither the Council nor the State saw fit to protect the rights of Travellers even in such tragic times. Instead they offered the grieving families a car park to live in; a car park which the council themselves have describe as “not ideal”. Not ideal is an understatement, the car park was formerly a dump. It is beside a recycling centre where families will have no peace and quiet to grieve the loss of their loved ones, where there is no access to proper sanitation and where the private lane way in, further isolates the families from the wider community.
Martin Collins, Co Director of Pavee Point says “Once again Travellers’ rights to a decent place to live come second place to the demands of the majority population. This situation is a sad indictment of our society and raises issues which need to be urgently addressed. It is shocking that the bereaved Traveller families will be accommodated in a car park… If in these tragic circumstances the county council cannot assert its authority in acting in the best interests of its citizens, what chance do Traveller families have in other less urgent situations”.
This, along with the “lockdown” of Bray, Balally and Wexford on the days of the funerals, demonstrates the deep rooted institutionalised racism towards Travellers.. When Enda Kenny and Brendan Howlin at the funerals of the Connors Families in Wexford on Friday said they understood why business premises, including pubs, remained during the funerals, they were not talking about closures due to respect. They said “Obviously, you’ve had incidents on some occasions where things got out of hand” and then Kenny said that Travellers have to discuss the ‘bad eggs’ within their community more.
When, at the funeral of Garda Tony Golden last week, did Enda Kenny speak about the need to discuss the “bad eggs” within the force?
The 10 lives taken in such horrific circumstances and the subsequent responses are an indictment on the State. The racism and discrimination Travellers experience must be wiped out and the media bias with which Travellers are portrayed must be challenged. It is time for change and, in the words of Fr Derek Farell at the funeral mass of the Connors, this must be a “Watershed” moment!