Funerals can occasionally be surprisingly joyous events. A celebration of the life of someone who has lived it to the full, and made a unique contribution to family, community or society. But mostly they are sad. Last week was a particularly sad time for funerals.
As readers will know the week before I had attended the funeral of my good friend Paddy McGeady in Donegal. But last week there were two distressing funerals for the ten victims of the Carrickmines fire at a temporary Travellers halting site. Five adults and five children.
On Tuesday I was in Bray for the funerals of Tara Gilbert, her partner Willy Lynch, their daughters Jodie (9) and Kelsey (4) and Willy’s brother Jimmy.
Two days later I was in Sandyford for the funerals of Sylvia and Thomas Connors and their children Jimmy (5), Christy (2) and Mary (5 months). Sylvia was the sister of Willy and Jimmy Lynch. Ten members of one family gone in a few brief minutes of horror. The haunting, beautiful laments of a lone Uilleann piper echoed over the church grounds and the nearby car park of a shopping centre as Mary Lou and I arrived.
Sylvia, Willy and Jimmy’s brother John spoke at Thursday funeral. His voice frequently broke as he tried to hold back the raw emotion evident in his face. He described the last day they had all been together. “We had a lovely day. The kids were playing in my garden… “But the next morning came the call. I thought it was a hoax call. Then, in a moment, I realised all my family was gone. My brothers, my sister, my sister-in-law, my brother-in-law, my nephews and nieces. The whole lot gone in one go.”
Mary Lou and I and local Sinn Féin Councillors and activists were there to extend our condolences and solidarity to the Lynch, Gilbert and Connors families and to the Traveller community.
But it is time that Irish society went beyond mere sympathy and solidarity. The treatment of the Traveller community by the settled community over many centuries has not been good. The response of governments and the health and educational institutions of the state has not been good.
In the north nationalists were treated as second class citizens for longer than the existence of the state. The Orange state, in which sectarianism and discrimination in housing and jobs and political representation was endemic made it an apartheid state. Almost two decades after the Good Friday Agreement we are still trying to reverse the social, economic and political legacy of the policies and attitudes which led to that. That is why equality and parity of esteem are so fundamental to the process.
But Travellers have been treated as even less than that and the prejudice and discrimination they face has for many worsened over the years.
The opposition to the erection of a temporary halting site for those bereaved by the Carrickmines fire is a case in point and deeply disappointing.The decision to provide the families with a site on a parking lot that is inadequate for their needs and which lacks basic amenities is an indictment of this and successive governments and their inaction in providing for the needs of the Traveller community.
Some people in the settled community blame Travellers for anti-social behaviour, crime and other misconduct. But even if some Travellers, like some in the settled community, behave badly that is no reason to demonise and exclude an entire community.
What must be acknowledged is that ignorance breeds fear. The only cure for that is education and engagement. It’s about people getting to know each other and learning to respect and tolerate one another.
Travellers are citizens. They have rights. Those rights are being denied to them.
Travellers are among the most socially marginalised and disadvantaged groups in Irish society today.
These citizens fare badly in all key indicators of disadvantage including employment, poverty, health, infant mortality, life expectancy, literacy, education and accommodation.
Many Travellers are forced to endure intolerable, substandard living conditions with around a third living without access to basic facilities such as sanitation, water and electricity, leading to widespread health problems among Travellers.
Unemployment is huge. Most estimates put it around 75% while to be a traveller means your life expectancy is significantly reduced by as much as 15 years. Cutbacks in education, health and other services have impacted severely on the Traveller community. The suicide rate is six times that of the settled community.
At the root of all these problems are the unacceptable levels of prejudice, discrimination and social exclusion experienced by Travellers at institutional and other levels. Fundamentally, Travellers are not treated as full and equal citizens. There is an underlying racism at work which has created a form of apartheid. This is at odds with the generosity and inclusiveness evident by Irish society in the recent marriage equality campaign, or the solidarity demonstrated with refugees from the Middle East or the amazing amounts of money raised each year by charities for international relief programmes.
The widespread expressions of sympathy following the fire that killed ten people, including five children at the temporary halting site on Glenamuck Road, provided hope that this situation could begin to be turned around.
Unfortunately that hope has been dented by the reappearance of familiar negative attitudes and problems as attempts have been made re-house the families of the victims of this tragedy.
What this has underlined is the need for an urgent, far-reaching and fundamental reappraisal of the way in which Travellers are treated in Irish society.
In April 2014 the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality recommended that this State recognises the ethnicity of the Traveller community.
The government needs to build on the solidarity which has been evident since the Carrickmines fire, by demonstrating political leadership and declaring that the State recognises Traveller ethnicity.
Of course, such a development would not of itself solve the problems which confront the Traveller community but it would demonstrate leadership on this issue by the Government and set a clear and positive example.
But much more needs to be done. I believe that we now need to establish a national forum, across the island of Ireland, involving Travellers and the settled community, including representatives of all political parties, of Government, local authorities, health and education sectors and representatives of media organisations to plan a way forward.
Such a forum would discuss openly and in detail how discrimination against prejudice against Travellers can be confronted, including prejudicial attitudes facilitated by the actions of some politicians and media outlets. It would examine and make recommendations on how the wider community can be educated about Traveller culture.
And importantly it would tackle those areas which have frequently resulted in conflict between Travellers and the settled community.Last week, when I put this to the Taoiseach in the Dáil he rejected it. His view is that the existing structures can meet this need. Patently from the statistics available they cannot not.
If we are to build an inclusive society in which equality is real and meaningful and not something that is occasionally given lip services then we need a sea change in attitudes and legislation. Travellers must be treated and regarded as full and equal citizens of Ireland. This will only happen with political leadership and must be led by Government.