Travellers - Citizens Rights
Negative attitudes towards the small immigrant population that has arrived here in recent years have attracted much media attention, but the reality is that discriminatory attitudes were ingrained in Irish society long before a few black faces arrived. This week, ROISIN DE ROSA exposes the plight of one group of Travellers, which highlights the lack of any attempt by most local authorities in the 26 Counties to provide accommodation for Travellers
It was only four years ago that a Waterford County Councillor said: ``The sooner the shotguns are at the ready and these Travelling people are put out of our country the better. They are not our people, they aren't natives.'' It is only twpoo ears since a Mayo County Councillor suggested that the methods of tagging livestock should be repeated with Travellers, so that the council could monitor their movements.
Last September, six Travelling families moved onto Wicklow County Council land on the outskirts of Blessington. The site is 26 acres. In one corner there is a small factory and opposite this a housing estate.
The Travelling families, desperate for a place to settle for the cold wet winter months, moved onto the tarmacadam road which runs up to the other corner of the site, well away from anyone.
The families stayed on this site for two months. The kids started school. They got on well. The people living in the new council housing were supportive. One of the young lads joined the local boxing club, and by all accounts had exceptional talent. The families were well liked.
After two months, the county council took the families to court to get them to move on. They had an opportunity to make their case to the court the following week. They didn't bother. After all, they had been to courts before. They were told a time to go. The gardai arrived and they were moved on.
The local curate, Fr. Murphy, spoke up for the Travellers in his Sunday sermon. He reminded people of their Christian responsibility. He said that society would pay, and pay dearly for their treatment of those who have been cast out.
Local Sinn Féin member Gerry O'Neill asked the Travellers where they would go. ``Clondalkin maybe, or we'll go across to Wales,'' they replied. O'Neill, who runs the boxing club, asked the young 17-year-old who had been doing so well with the gloves how he felt at having to move. ``I don't care,'' he replied. He doesn't care because its useless for Travellers to care, want, or hope.
d Rosemary Dennison, Wicklow County Council Housing Officer, didn't care either, not even enough to come to the telephone to discuss what Wicklow County Council was going to do about Travellers looking for somewhere to settle over the winter.
The main thing is to move them on, out of the county, so they aren't there long enough to get onto, or stay on, the council's housing list. Then no one has to bother about them.
``There is no halting site, still less a permanent serviced caravan park, in West Wicklow,'' says Gerry O'Neill. ``Not one.''
1998 Act a Milestone
The Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act of 1998 obliges each local authority to adopt and implement, by 31 March 2000, a five-year plan for the provision of accommodation for Travellers in their functional areas.
At a conference held this summer to mark the fifth anniversary of the publication of the Government Task Force report on the Travelling community, it was pointed out that this 1995 report had recommended that 3,100 units of accommodation be provided by 2000. To date, 99 have been provided.
There are an estimated 28,000 Travellers in Ireland. About one third live in houses, one third on halting sites and one third by the side of the road.
The conditions on many halting sites are so poor they would scarcely represent an improvement on living on the roadside. It means that at least some 14,000 Travellers, men, women and children, live with no sanitation, no running water, no showers or baths, no toilets, no electricity, no heating, no privacy, no place to put their rubbish, no refuse collection, no guarantee they will not be moved. They live excluded from mainstream society, often under threat of, if not actual violence from their local community.
Lower life expectancy
In consequence, most Travellers do not live beyond 50 years of age. Only 1% of travellers reach 65 years of age or more. The number of stillbirths is twice the national rate. Traveller infant mortality is 18 per 1,000, as against the national average of 7.4 per 1,000.
Only some 30% of Travellers get secondary education. A mere handful, as mature students, engage at 3rd level. By every indicator used to measure disadvantage, be it unemployment, poverty, social exclusion, health status, infant mortality, illiteracy, Travellers are the most disadvantaged section of society.
The 1998 Housing Act was a milestone, indeed. But as Davie Joyce of the Irish Traveller Movement points out, there are many gaps. ``What of the people who are moved on continuously and never get on any county housing list? Their needs are not catered for because no local authority takes responsibility for them.''
Nor does the act make a distinction between transition, or temporary sites, which are for emergency accommodation pending provision of permanent accommodation, and Transient sites, which are for stop-overs, and cater for the needs of Travellers to move season to season.
Milestone or not, the first part of implementing the act is the easy bit. As Larry O'Toole, who is a member of Dublin Corporation's Committee dealing with Traveller accommodation says: ``Here in Dublin, we have drawn up a good plan, in consultation with Traveller groups. We have made good progress, but it is quite another thing to put the plan into effect.
``At the end of the day, why are we talking about parking lots, hard surface sites, and little huts with communal washing facilities? Travellers have just the same right to accommodation. They need a serviced site, upon which they can be helped to build a house, beside which they, like other people, can park their caravan, should they wish to. The fact that another 50,000 people are on the state's housing list as in need of accommodation is no reason for refusing to do anything about the housing situation for all of the people, including Travelling people.''
26-County Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, speaking last May at the launch of a new book `Travellers: Citizens of Ireland' said: ``It is simply impossible for Travellers, in the absence of proper accommodation, to access services to which they have an absolute entitlement, such as education, health care, leisure and recreation and training.''
He went on to point out that it was ``no longer a resource problem'', as the government had made funds available for the implementation of five-year plans. He urged local authorities ``to stop blocking efforts to house Travellers.''
``Fine sentiments, indeed,'' says Larry O'Toole. ``But while Bertie Ahern's government allows a handful of developers to sit on development land, waiting for its sale price to appreciate yet further, there will be no solution to the housing crisis.''
Sinn Féin Councillor John Dwyer secured the agreement of New Ross UDC in Wexford to buy the land from the local developer and provide sites at nominal prices to those on the local housing list. The average cost of building a bungalow on a site provided is reckoned at around £50,000. A mortgage on this sum is within the reach of most households in the state, especially through shared ownership schemes with the local authority.
y solkution to the housing crisis lies in such imaginative solutions, but applied on a much larger scale, through compulsory purchase orders, if necessary.