Last Friday, and with only 48 hours notice, Louth County Council began a process to evict 23 Traveller families from a halting site at Woodland Park in Dundalk.
Those evicted included at least 22 children, some of them babies only days old, and two pregnant women. This was a shameful action.
A large force of An Garda Síochána were present, including members of the Armed Response Unit. I have no complaints about the Garda although I do believe the numbers involved were excessive and that the response was inappropriate.
The distress and trauma for the families as a result of this decision by the Executive of Louth County Council and especially for the children was unreasonable and unnecessary. It was also the coldest weekend of the winter.
The decision to evict was taken without consultation with councillors.I raised this issue with Louth Chief Executive in November and visited the Woodland Park site in December. During Christmas week I made representations about conditions on the site to the Council and other agencies. There was no mains electricity, no mains water, no sewerage or other necessary services.
The basis on which Louth County Council said that it was carrying out these evictions was a fire safety inspection.However Louth County Council, like all other councils, was given the Programme to Review Fire Safety in Traveller Accommodation report that was prepared early last December.
This report which was produced by the Department of the Environment and the National Directorate for Fire and Emergency Management, was initiated after the tragic fire at a halting site on the Glenamuck Road in Carrickmines in which ten people, five of them children, from the same extended family were killed. According to a note at the beginning of the report the document was distributed to all local authority CEOs on December 3rd 2015.
The project’s objective was to ensure that practical and appropriate fire safety measures were introduced.The report acknowledged that there was, and I quote, “a fear that fire safety may be used as a basis for seeking changes in accommodation arrangements.”
It makes it clear that “nothing in this fire safety review process is intended to be used to address the broader Traveller accommodation issues in a negative way.”In other words it was not a green light to evict Travellers from halting sites which do not meet fire safety standards. It is about providing health and safety measures.
The last five families on the Woodland Park site are being evicted today and tomorrow.Some have had to sell their mobile homes for small amounts of money because of the Council’s eviction process.This has added to the trauma of some of the families.
Yesterday the families were also told that the Council would provide an auctioneer to assist their alternative accommodation in residential housing. Today when they met him they were told there was no availability.Some of the women, including at least one pregnant woman have had to sleep in cars for the past three nights. This is outrageous.
There is already a homeless crisis in Louth. Five thousand people are on the housing waiting list. The Chief Executive’s action adds to this crisis. The Chief Executive also banned one of my constituency representatives and the Traveller’s solicitor from attending a meeting on Tuesday. This was unhelpful.The common sense and most cost efficient resolution to this issue is to urgently bring the halting site up to health and safety standards.
This would have allowed Traveller families to remain in their home and would be in keeping with their culture and ethnicity.I understand from the Woodland Park Travellers representatives today that Louth County Council is saying that it will now have to review its Traveller Accommodation Programme and that this will take three months.
Only at the end of that process will the Council consider applying for funding to upgrade Woodland Park.I fail to understand why the Council are imposing this delay. Their Traveller Accommodation Programme is supposed to run from 2014 to 2018. They are not half way through it yet.
During Topical issues in the Dáil today I raised this issue with Minister Paudie Coffey. In his response the Minister spoke of short term solutions having been discussed and agreed with the Travellers. This is not what I have been told by the representatives of the Traveller families. The Minister also says that he is satisfied that the Council is committed to working with the families and their representatives. I remain to be convinced of this.Today I understand that some of those evicted from the site have had their social welfare payments stopped because they are no longer resident at the addresses they had given to the Social Welfare department. So families have suffered the indignity and trauma of eviction by the council and the state has now stopped their welfare payments.
The treatment of the Woodland Park families in this centenary year of the Proclamation has been deplorable.Last year the Minister for Equality Aodhán Ó Riordáin promised that traveller ethnicity would be a reality. He gave a firm commitment that it would happen within months.
Minister Ó Riordáin rightly acknowledged that this didn’t need legislation, constitutional change or a referendum.
His commitment came after the Oireachtas Committee on Justice also recommended this step which is supported by the United Nations and the Irish Human Rights Commission.
There are only weeks remaining of this Dáil. Will the government commit to honouring Minister Ó Riordáin pledge or will this be another broken promise?