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Traveller prejudice 2012.

By éibhir Mulqueen.

One of the few benefits of post-boom Ireland is that it has given us back an old self-image we are comfortable with, that of being resourceful, creative and even welcoming. Inconveniently, the treatment of  Ireland’s 22,000 Travellers remains an open sore on the national conscience.

In 2002 a woman in her seventies, Mary O’Donoghue, fell foul of Clare County Council’s indigenous clause for Travellers, which  states that it will provide  Traveller-specific Accommodation only for the county’s indigenous Travelling Community. Traveller households must be “permanently resident in the county for at least three years”. South Dublin and Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown county councils have a similar provision.

Mrs O’Donoghue died in her caravan in a disused car-park in Cork. “Her heart was very much in Clare”, the then Bishop of Killaloe, Dr Willie Walsh, said. Ten years later, there are still families fighting council officials’ interpretation of this policy, either because of the provision itself or  the censuses councils conduct  of their Traveller populations. Mary’s daughter-in-law, also Mary O’Donoghue, is a victim of the same clause and was not counted in a 2008 census. Although just 56, she has chronic health problems, including asthma, epilepsy and cerebral vasculitis, after spending her life on the road.

“I have been moved on by the council, by the police and by locals, some locals,” she says. “I would like to be in Ennis now”.

Her GP has stated that she requires what most people take for granted. “She needs to have basic facilities, including electricity, heating and running water”.

It is most councils’ practice not to provide transient sites so Travellers find themselves in a no man’s land, forced to find some waste ground that has not been fenced off or covered with boulders. Just 47 transient bays, for short stays, exist nationally, according to the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM). A 1995 task force report recommended there should be 1,000 transient bays to provide for Travellers’ nomadic needs and a national agency to oversee them.

Two years ago, Mary O’Donoghue’s caravan was deemed unfit for habitation on public-health grounds. “It is not provided with electricity, piped water, drainage/sewage facilities or refuse collection”, the Environmental Health Office’s report stated.  Nevertheless it was her home, but in April of this year she appeared to fall foul of vigilantism when it was vandalised. The windows and door were smashed in with a gas cylinder. Nothing was taken. Since then, the council has continued with its eviction proceedings, seeking a High Court injunction preventing the woman or her extended family from returning to the site outside Ennis.

Meanwhile, Community Development Worker Adrian Healy has confirmed that attempts by Mary O’Donoghue to get private rented accommodation over a two-year period have been unsuccessful.

Apart from the prejudice of landlords, in the background is a dysfunctional Traveller-accommodation policy, run at local-government level and beset by problems from all sides: in Clare there has been massive expenditure – ten group-housing schemes were built for €20 million – for a disappointing return.  Clare has a 75% occupancy rate, arson attacks on five of the 64 units against a background of feuding, and a high transfer request rate: 27% of tenants want to be moved elsewhere.  County Manager Tom Coughlan has stated that expenditure on maintenance and legal costs in Traveller accommodation “continues at a disproportionate level”. He set aside €235,000 in 2012 for maintaining group schemes and €128,000 for legal costs.

In March a council sub-committee proposed that no further building should take place. In response, the ITM warned such a policy “would be in breach of the Housing Traveller Accommodation Act 1998, specifically in relation to Travellers’ human rights”.

In the background of the above cases and well known among the Travellers in Co Clare is Heather Rosen, who has advocated for them since the late nineteen nineties when she took up a three-year Community Employment (CE) scheme at a Travellers’ training centre. She provides a tour of Beechpark Halting Site, an example of how officialdom’s planning can go awry. On the edge of Ennis, the site feels like an open prison. With three small houses and two halting bays, and the shell of one house gutted by fire two years ago, the €2 million building cost seems hard to justify. But 300 yards of reinforced-concrete wall, varying in height between six and eight feet, and a double barrier entry point, soaked up many thousands of euro.

On a sunny day it feels like the Israeli security wall at the West Bank. Just one family is living there, kept company by 24-hour security, provided at an additional annual cost of €137,500. As we are leaving, a council official asks how we gained entry, completing the sense of exclusion. We explain that the gates were open and ask whether the resident family has visiting rights.

Underlying the council’s security concerns at Beechpark and other sites is an ongoing feud in the Ennis area that periodically results in violence. Two years ago, armed gardaí were manning checkpoints in the area and a mediator, Dr Miceal O’Hurley, who had worked in the North during the Good Friday Agreement negotiations, was called in.

Rosen says the violence among Travellers is often an expression of frustration that results from the powerlessness of their position, and the erasing of their identify by both assimilation and dispersal policies.

“It feeds into the issue of horizontal violence between people of that minority group because they cannot find avenues to address the wrongs done to them by people in authority”.

In relation to Beechpark, she says a combination of the site’s oppressive atmosphere, intimidation and three suicides over two years has put families off wanting to live there. Like all walls, the Beechpark one divides people. It reinforces segregation, Rosen contends, “putting the sites out of sight”.

“There has been progress of course. A lot of people are grateful to have services. The council officials speak of how there are no caravans left at the roadside. But look at the price that was paid in legal fees, devastation to families, exclusion for some families, prosecutions and the hurt caused. When you have that kind of hurt that is in people that is unaddressed, you are bound to have after effects of depression”.

Rosen has also come to national attention for having brought some 1,300 cases relating to discrimination or harassment concerning accommodation to the Equality Tribunal between 2003 and 2006. These relate to around 450 individuals from 96 families. Of these, according to Judge John Hedigan in the High Court last year, cases relating to 72 families were dismissed because of non-attendance. Cases relating to the remaining 18 families are ongoing. Describing Rosen as committed to alleviating the hardship endured by those she represents, Judge Hedigan rejected an application by Clare County Council to prohibit the Tribunal from proceeding with the cases.

Rosen, however, has come out badly from the affair. She has been ordered by the Tribunal to pay fines of €7,000 (35 times €200) for “obstructing and impeding the investigation”, and related Circuit and High Court costs in appealing that process have been awarded against her.

Against Seanad house rules, her name was read out in the house when Senator Martin Conway (FG, Clare) stated Rosen’s was a corporate effort to abuse the ethos of the Tribunal. “The reality is that there has been what I would describe as a systematic attempt to undermine the Equality Tribunal”, he said. The same senator once decried the locating of three halting sites for 100 Travellers near his home of Ennistymon, saying it would lead to “a reverse takeover” of the town. Rosen, in a typical example of her advocacy, replied that the then county councillor’s views were “deeply regrettable, damaging and based on misinformation”.

In contrast, the county council’s legal representatives have done well and the courts are busy. Senior counsel and barrister fees relating to the discrimination cases amounted to more than €138,000 last year. The council stated recently that, in total, “several hundred thousand euro” have been paid in legal fees – two years ago it had reached €400,000 ¬– and this figure is rising. It has appealed Judge Hedigan’s decision to the Supreme Court.

A lone legal voice has defended Rosen: UCC law lecturer Darius Whelan questioned whether the Tribunal took sufficient account of the difficulty involved in gathering a large number of Travellers for a hearing. “All in all, it seems unfortunate that the Tribunal did not proceed to a full hearing of the substantive issues and a large number of Traveller families may well be left with the impression that the state apparatus is acting against them rather than facilitating their claims”, he stated on his Irish Law Update blog.

Rosen denies any deliberate attempt at obstruction and points to the impossibility of gathering 50 people dispersed around the country on one day in January 2007 and of gathering 100 people in May 2007.

She has helped the complainants of almost half of the Tribunal’s 72 dismissals to appeal their cases to the Circuit Court. However, the council countered this by challenging the right of complainants to appeal in such cases and won their case. It is also petitioning the Minister for the Environment to change the Tribunal’s procedural rules.

Rosen has appealed to the Supreme Court against the High Court’s refusal to allow her to apply for a judicial review of the Equality Officer’s expenses orders against her.

“None of this confused state of affairs and protracted court hearings, and vast sums on money being spent, would have happened had there been legal assistance with Tribunal hearings for the vulnerable party”, she says.

A mother of two, she is originally from Bangor, Co Down. Prejudice was familiar to her from her childhood, she says. “I was a teenager at the time of the Troubles. It affected all of our lives: unaddressed prejudice that was deeply embedded in people’s minds”.

She worked for two years in a Nairobi shantytown as an APSO volunteer, and taught for a time in Co Clare Steiner school before taking up a Community Employment position in Ennis. “I knew that   I would get drawn into [Traveller politics] because it touched on so many things that seemed to matter to me”.

From the outset, she witnessed the conditions and the effects segregation and dispersal policies, including forced evictions, had on Traveller families.

“I was deeply shocked, especially when I came to see the living conditions on certain of the schemes where people had no choice but to live,  and also when witnessing at close hand the measures that were being implemented at local government level and how these contradicted stated national government policy, measures such as the multiple legal actions for the expulsion of Traveller families from successive roadside settings, or the plans for the high reinforced-concrete walls that were to be set around each of the new schemes that were to be built in the Clare Traveller Accommodation Programme. It was actually seeing the children in Ennis in the caravans and seeing their lives so inhibited by prejudice that really made me home into what was going on at first and how the late Mary O’Donoghue was being treated just after my own mother died”, she says.

The problems in Clare may not be typical of other counties but they are familiar ones. There are over 400 Traveller families living on illegal halting sites nationally, with as many again living in cramped, overcrowded conditions. “It is long past the time that this society should have resolved what is Traveller-specific accommodation. It is about a right to a way of life”, President Higgins stated recently at the annual Traveller Pride Awards.

Rosen continues to be driven by a quest for justice. “If you are moved by something, it is easy to do. It is not a sacrifice or a cost because the wish to do it comes of its own accord”.

But most of the rest of post-boom Ireland remains unmoved.