There was nothing to show that the land adjacent to the car park had housed seven traveller families. New concrete bollards had just been laid. They blocked the entrance to the piece of waste land, behind the KFC outlet at the Dundalk Retail Park. Until a few hours earlier that had been their temporary home.
I arrived a short time after An Garda Síochána had carried out the eviction. Some of the families, who are among 23 evicted from the Woodland Park halting site in January by Louth County Council, had already moved around the corner onto land in the nearby IDA (Industrial Development Authority) complex. Others were on the road – slowly driving around Dundalk searching for somewhere to park. All know that wherever they park it is only for a short time until they are told to move on again. For the parents and for their children this is a confusing, enormously stressful and difficult time.
At Woodland Park I met Rebecca Quinn, who is the spokesperson for all of the families. We discussed recent developments and what progress has been made by the Council on renovating the site. Woodland Park is a depressing, poorly designed concrete complex of connecting bays for mobile homes that was built as a halting site for Traveller families. It lay vacant for 8 years until early last year when families moved back on to it.
In January the Council evicted the families. Some have been temporarily rehoused in B&Bs, others moved in with relatives, and some have illegally occupied other sites.
Louth County Council undertook to refurbish Woodland Park. Since then trees have been cut back and tons of rubbish, mostly dumped while the site was vacant and vandalised, has been removed. It is a spartan, austere, unfriendly place. Not somewhere you would want to live.
The decision by Louth County Council to renovate the site and to undertake a review of the numbers and circumstances of the Traveller community in Louth is welcome. The funding for Woodland Park will come from the government so the Council’s resources for housing for the settled community is unaffected. However, it will take some time, perhaps another year, before the Woodland Park site will be reopened. It will accommodate four permanent bays and ten transient bays for a maximum of 14 families – plainly more sites are needed.
In the meantime Traveller families are being pushed from one illegal site to another. There is an absence of compassion or empathy in their treatment. There is little or no understanding of the Traveller way of life. It reminds me of how nationalists in the north were treated under unionism. In 1969 Prime Minister Terence O Neill infamously remarked: "It is frightfully hard to explain to Protestants that if you give Roman Catholics a good job and a good house. they will live like Protestants because they will see neighbours with cars and television sets; they will refuse to have eighteen children. But if a Roman Catholic is jobless, and lives in the most ghastly hovel, he will rear eighteen children on National Assistance. If you treat Roman Catholics with due consider and kindness, they will live like Protestants in spite of the authoritative nature of their Church ... "
No attempt to understand Irish nationalists. No empathy with us as human beings. Unionists wanted us to fit into their view of the world.
And so it is frequently between the agencies of the Irish state and the Traveller community. Earlier this week in a landmark judgement by the European Committee of Social Rights the committee found that the Irish government has failed to provide enough accommodation for Travellers, that many of the sites provided are in a poor condition and that legal safeguards for Travellers threatened with eviction are insufficient. Specifically, the ECSR found that the government was in breach of Article 16 of the revised European Social Charter which it signed up to in 2000.
This judgement has implications for the treatment of the Travelling community in not just in Louth but across the state. It arose because of a complaint brought in April 2013 by the European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) for alleged breaches of the Revised European Social Charter linked to Travellers’ rights to housing and accommodation.
The ECSR found a number of violations of Travellers rights, including; insufficient provision of accommodation for Travellers. It pointed out that of 1,000 “transient bays” identified as needed by a 1995 task force there are only 54 in existence and not all function as proper transient sites; the Traveller community has also grown in the meantime.
The European committee also found that many Traveller sites are in an inadequate condition. The committee concluded that a “not insignificant number” of sites are in poor condition, lack maintenance and are badly located. There is also a lack of water, poor refuse collection and problems with damp, flooding and sewage.
Significantly, in light of the use of forcible evictions against the Traveller families in Dundalk, the European Committee determined that the legal safeguards for Travellers threatened with eviction are inadequate. The committee added that the relevant legislation fails to provide for adequate consultation or notice or a requirement to propose alternative accommodation; there is also no legal aid available and limited access to judicial review.
It is also worth noting that the budget for Traveller specific accommodation was slashed from €40 million in 2008 to €3 million in 2014 and the European report identified ‘chronic underspending by local authorities.’
All of this was done at a time when the number of Traveller families living in unsafe, unserviced, and authorised sites has increased by almost 50% in the last two years and that those living in overcrowded accommodation has increased by 30%.
The Irish government has also failed to recognise the distinct culture, traditions and ethnicity of the Traveller community. Their ethnicity is recognised in the north, as well as in England, Scotland and Wales but not in southern the Irish state.
In April 2014 the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality recommended that the Irish State should recognise the ethnicity of the Traveller community.
In November 2014 the then Minister of State for Equality Aodhán Ó Riordáin told an audience at an event to promote understanding between Traveller and settled children that the government planned within six months to formally recognise Travellers as a distinct ethnic group.
It would be the Minister proclaimed “one of the greatest things we can do to finally celebrate and acknowledge the rich and vibrant culture that the Traveller community have in Ireland.”
Over two years on from the recommendation of the Oireachtas Committee and 19 months after the Minister’s six month deadline, there has been no progress on this issue and the government again failed to include it in the recently published Programme for Government.
At the same time living conditions for many Travellers continue to deteriorate. Media reports this week showed images of sites with piled rubbish, leaking water pipes and inadequate sanitation.
I met new Minister for Housing, Simon Coveney on Thursday morning. It was a useful meeting. Our discussion focussed on finding a solution to the issues in Louth, including the provision of an emergency and temporary halting site to resolve in the short term the scandal of families being evicted from illegal sites because they have nowhere else to go. But a longer term strategic approach is urgently needed. This must include the recognition of Traveller ethnicity.