Last week saw the first anniversary of the fire at the Carrickmines halting site that killed 10 members of the Travelling community, five of them children.
After the tragedy, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Council wanted to move – on a temporary and emergency basis – the now homeless survivors to a publicly owned site on Rockville Drive.
Incredibly, even as the funerals of the victims were taking place, local residents objected to the council’s plan, and some went so far as to block access to the site with their cars, claiming the location was unsuitable for various reasons, and that they had not been consulted.
Whatever the validity (or not) of those concerns, the timing was truly shocking. Actor John Connors, himself a Traveller, was moved to comment: “They were worried that property prices would go down if Travellers were living next to them and it’s as simple as that.” (See note below.)
The council backed down in the face of the residents’ objections, and the bereaved Travellers were instead accommodated at a public car park on the Ballyogan Road, a site that lacked water or sewerage services. They are still there (with a new site at Glenamuck not expected to be ready for them until July of next year).
Nor are they alone in their plight. Across the country, 534 Traveller families are living on unofficial and unserviced sites. Over the last year, the number of Traveller families forced to share accommodation rose by 135 to 862, affecting some 4,000 people in total.
Last month it was reported that seven Traveller families, including six young children, who were evicted from a halting site in Dundalk in January, are still living on the side of the road without toilet facilities or running water.
The EU Commission is considering taking legal action against the Irish state over its treatment of Travellers, with a senior official stating that “The Travellers appear to face discrimination in Ireland in a number of fields, including housing, employment and access to goods and services.”
Of course, the problems facing Travellers as regards accommodation are part of a wider housing crisis, which means, in the words of Gene Kerrigan, that “on some Dublin city centre streets, the homeless are already running out of doorways in which to sleep”.
But Travellers have been among the very hardest hit by the post-2008 period of austerity and cutbacks. A 2013 report by Traveller support group Pavee Point tells an “egregious story of an extraordinary level of disinvestment by the Irish state in the Traveller community. One can think of no other section of the community which has suffered such a high level of withdrawal of funding and human resources.”
For example, government funding of national Traveller organisations fell from €259,000 in 2008 to €94,200 in 2013. Over the same period, funding for Traveller accommodation fell from €40 million to just €4 million, a staggering 90 percent cut. Even more obscenely, local authorities underspent by 36 percent the paltry and diminishing Traveller accommodation budget allocated to them.
Apart from the intensity of the cutbacks and privations they have endured, what distinguishes the situation of Travellers is the racism to which they are also subjected. Martin Collins of Pavee Point talks of “Travellers … stereotyped as criminals and untrustworthy. My own son has been called a smelly knacker at school.”
This racism is, in effect, officially sanctioned. In 2013, a Fine Gael councillor in Donegal, Eugene Dolan, said that Travellers could “be sent to Spike Island [jail] for all I care”, while Fianna Fáil councillor Sean McEniff, also from Donegal, said Travellers should live in isolation by themselves. The two political parties described these as “personal views”, but did not condemn them or ask either representative to withdraw them.
In 2012, a district court judge, Seamus Hughes, referred to Travellers as “Neanderthal men lying in the long grass and living by the law of the jungle”.
In the face of such casual demonisation, it seems the best Travellers can hope for is to be exoticised and sneered at for their supposedly tasteless and tacky weddings. As Carrickmines demonstrated, the worst they can expect is death and homelessness.
* Ewan MacColl’s classic song about anti-Traveller prejudice “Go, Move, Shift” (popularised in Ireland by Christy Moore) contains the lines, “The local people said to me, ‘You’ll lower the price of property.’” MacColl wrote that in the 1960s – little has changed.