Ireland: Travelling community live in appalling conditions

Case of childrens’ death in caravan fire raised in parliament

Dáil Éireann, Leaders’ Questions, 30th November 2005

Joe Higgins (Socialist Party)

A few days ago, two Traveller children, Michael McGinley aged three, and his brother Joe, aged 22 months, died tragically in a devastating fire in their caravan in Clondalkin. It was a tragedy that shocked and saddened people around the country. I do not wish to speculate on the cause of the fire, although there was a suggestion in The Irish Times yesterday that it may have resulted from families in one part of the site being forced to make amateur connections to the electricity power supply. The tragedy has focused attention on the fact that substantial numbers of the Travelling community still live in the most appalling conditions on roadsides and unserviced sites throughout the country. In this morning’s Star newspaper, a reporter wrote about visiting just a few such sites. The report quotes a mother in County Laois as saying "We are living in a site not fit for dogs", adding that shower units are like ice boxes. "You couldn’t send a child out to the units to take a shower in that weather", the woman was quoted as saying. The newspaper also reported on other similar examples.

Last January, I visited encampments of landless people in Brazil. The sum total of the facilities were black polythene covered shelters, dirt tracks, cold water taps and communal outdoor toilets. Is it not shameful in the extreme that in one of the richest countries in Europe, families, and especially innocent children, are living in squalor, not far removed from that of the poorest people on earth? Last Sunday, the Taoiseach said he believed that State agencies could play a more proactive role in supporting Travellers to develop skills and access employment.

An Ceann Comhairle

The Deputy’s time has concluded.

J. Higgins

That is after eight and a half years of Government led by the Taoiseach. Accommodation does hold the key to the future of Travelling people’s health, education, employment and particularly the children’s future. What hope do Travelling people have in regard to obtaining accommodation, when yesterday the Minister of State with responsibility for housing could not tell Deputy Gilmore how many people were on housing waiting lists around the country, let alone the situation of Travellers? Can the Taoiseach be specific in stating what Government action will be taken to speed up the provision of appropriate accommodation and to put those State agencies, to which he referred, in emergency mode to deal with the issues of developing skills and gaining employment?

The Taoiseach

I wish to express my sympathy and that of the Government with the McGinley family on the death of their two children last Sunday afternoon. The two boys, aged three and 18 months, died in that South Dublin County Council halting site at Oldcastle Park. It is a huge tragedy for the family as well as for their friends and neighbours. The circumstances surrounding the tragedy are being investigated by South Dublin County Council, the fire brigade and the Garda Síochána. Pending the outcome of these investigations it would be inappropriate to issue any detailed statements. I do not want to get into any speculation. It would not be fair to the family concerned to do so this week, but these issues will be documented in due course.

I am aware the county council has been working to upgrade what has been a very difficult site. I have read about the circumstances as to why it is considered to be a difficult site, but I do not want to go into that either.

South Dublin County Council has been one of the two most proactive county councils in the country in this regard. South Dublin and Clare county councils are the two pilot councils in trying to provide upgraded accommodation for the Travelling community. They have played a leading role in this regard. The South Dublin county manager has been an outstanding advocate of improving facilities under the aegis of the Government’s high level group and the integrated provision for Travellers. This year, I have attended conferences and meetings arranged by the Minister of State, Deputy Fahey, at which all councils were represented. The South Dublin county manager has documented the improvements that have been undertaken.

The Deputy is correct in quoting what I said when I opened the centre in Cork last Sunday morning. I have opened many such centres for the Travelling community, which provide crèche facilities along with health and education facilities. This year, some €108 million has been spent on upgrading and providing facilities. That sum excludes the provision of housing. The Deputy is aware of the powers that councils have with regard to housing. It is within their remit to co-ordinate a housing plan and I urge all councils to do so.

There are issues concerning this particular site which both the Deputy and I know about, but in fairness to the bereaved family I do not think it is for me, or the day, to go into that.

J. Higgins

The issue is not really about this site, but about the general conditions in which Travelling people live around the country. There are social problems in every community that make the resolution of specific areas more difficult than others. We are speaking about a general problem and a general approach.

Is it any wonder that the accommodation and land needs of the Traveller community have lagged behind, particularly in the greater Dublin area, when we see in this morning’s newspapers the gallery of rogues, many of whom are members of Fianna Fáil, paraded in front of the Tribunal to Inquire into Certain Planning Matters and Payments yesterday, people who facilitated large speculators in land rezoning scandals in the 1980s and 1990s in order to exorbitantly increase land prices? They were far from providing for working class or Traveller communities. The priorities of those in positions of power in Dublin were other than taking care of vulnerable, Traveller or working class communities.

An Ceann Comhairle

The Deputy’s time has concluded.

J. Higgins

Does the Taoiseach agree it is a shame that almost 1,000 families, 10% of the Traveller community, are still on roadsides or unserviced sites?

N. Ahern

The Deputy’s numbers are wrong.

F. McGrath

The Minister of State can be guaranteed that the numbers are right. The Deputy got them last night.

J. Higgins

If the Government gets another five year term, what would the Taoiseach be prepared to say at the end of it in terms of guarantees? Would every Traveller family be accommodated in appropriate accommodation and would children be secure there, in education and in future employment? Does the Taoiseach agree this society and its growth rates should be able to guarantee this at least?

The Taoiseach

On the general issue, as a requirement, every local authority in the country adopted a five year Traveller accommodation programme and was funded for the period up to last year.

Mr. Brennan


The Taoiseach

A total of 1,400 units of accommodation for Travellers were provided or refurbished in the first four years of the programme, which is by multiples higher than anything that had happened in the previous 20 or 30 years. Provisional figures indicate that, at the end of last year or at sometime during the year, the number of families on unauthorised sites formerly referred to as roadside was less than 800 compared to close on 1,300 before the scheme started. The reduction of numbers in unauthorised sites occurred in a period where there was an increase of 671 of the overall number of Traveller families, which was almost 1,300. With almost 700 extra families going in, we brought back the figures to less than 800.

A total of €100 million in capital funding was provided to the local authorities in the first four years of the programmes for new and refurbished halting sites and group based houses. A further €40 million was available last year. The overall figure for services this year is over €100 million. This is in addition to expenditure on standard local authority houses provided to Travellers under the local authority housing programme which is a very good scheme.

In October of last year, the Cabinet committee on social inclusion established an interagency action group with the remit to ensure the relevant statutory agencies involved make progress in delivering services across the Traveller sites. The Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Fahey, has been extremely active in trying to drive co-operation and these efforts.

An Ceann Comhairle

The Taoiseach’s time has concluded.

The Taoiseach

In addition to ensuring a cohesive and proactive approach to Traveller issues, the group has also provided a mechanism for driving delivery services to Travellers where the rate of progress is unsatisfactory. We will continue to do that throughout next year, as indicated in the Estimates a few weeks ago.

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December 2005