Photo by Caroline Brady

Last week, Sinn Féin Councillors Daithí Doolan and Ray McHugh tabled a motion to ask for a review of fire-prevention standards on Traveller accommodation sites in the Dublin City Council area.

Also in the motion was the request that “any required work be carried out as a matter of urgency”.

Dublin City Council officials, though, said that they were already on it. Prompted by the tragic fire in Glenamuck, Carrickmines earlier this month, they had already organised for an audit of fire standards to be carried out at all halting sites in Dublin.

Campaigners for the Traveller community have been calling for the council to take health and safety on these sites seriously for a long time. But now that it finally is, they are wary.

Not-So-Secret Safety Issues

A week before the Carrickmines fire, Lorraine McMahon of the Ballyfermot Traveller Action Project talked about fire safety in Labre Park with council representatives.

In January, one of the sanitary units in Labre Park had caught fire. Luckily, nobody was injured, but it took months of lobbying and a protest outside City Hall before the issue was addressed.

“That [protest] was absolutely on health and safety grounds,” says McMahon. “As well as everything else, but urgently and utmost on health and safety grounds. Because what we had anticipated was a tragedy waiting to happen. Unfortunately, a tragedy has happened on another site, and it has the potential to happen anywhere else.”

Last month, Dublin City Council finally began to replace the sanitary units at Labre park; the first to be renovated was the fire-damaged prefab.

The blaze in Carrickmines spread rapidly, taking ten lives and leaving 15 people homeless.

If a fire were to take hold elsewhere, it would likely cause a similar level of devastation; most halting sites have a problem with overcrowding. For example, there are nine trailers packed into one of Labre Park’s yards. Nineteen adults and 24 children live there.

Fire safety isn’t the only problem, says Catherine Joyce of the Blanchardstown Traveller Development Group. Water, sewerage and septic tanks cause health and safety problems too. She has called on the council to address all of these matters.

A Welcome Inspection?

Now that Dublin City Council is addressing fire-safety issues, Joyce isn’t as enthused as you might expect.

She declines to comment on sites that might be particularly at risk of fire or overcrowding. That’s because she’s concerned. She is concerned that the council might cite unsafe conditions to make families move from sites without offering alternative accommodation.

“Unless [Dublin City Council] is proactively looking at accommodation, this is what will happen,” she says. She points out that, so far, promises for Traveller accommodation haven’t been fulfilled.

By now, the figures have been cited time and again, but they’re worth repeating. So listen up. Dublin City Council’s last Traveller Accommodation Programme promised 118 houses and bays. Only one was built.

The current programme for 2014-2018 hasn’t delivered any housing so far and prospects are bleak after the council’s funding for the programme was cut from €4.5 million to €366,299 for this year.

Overcrowding has become common, because accommodation needs haven’t been met by the council as promised, says McMahon. Electrical infrastructure upgrades were also promised for three of the city’s halting sites, but only provided one.

As Joyce sees it, the discovery of unsafe conditions is more likely to result in the council asking Travellers to move, than making improvements to sites.

McMahon is also concerned the audit might be used against the Traveller community. She is worried that trespassing legislation might be used to evict families that aren’t tenants; right now, roughly half of Labre Park is an unofficial site.

“There are spaces in Labre Park which could be opened by the council so people can spread out and move around but they can still live in Labre Park but in a much safer way,” she says.

A Change in Attitudes

Ten people lost their lives in the late-night blaze in Carrickmines earlier this month.

Willie Lynch (25), his partner Tara Gilbert (27) and their children Jodie (9) and Kelsey (4). Jimmy Lynch (39). Sylvia Connors (25), her husband Thomas Connors (27) and their three children, Jim (5), Christy (2) and Mary (5 months).

It also left 15 members of the Connors family homeless.

Lorraine McMahon was encouraged by the response from residents and organisations in Ballyfermot. A good turnout attended a Mass in Labre Park for the victims. And she hopes this may be the sign of a change in the local community’s attitude toward Travellers.

However, she is less than enthusiastic when it comes to the attitudes of local authorities.

“I mean, the fact that Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown backed down to a handful of protesters and have put a family in a car park is quite horrific, but what it also does very clearly show is that there’s no commitment from local authorities to address Traveller accommodation . . . even in the situation of utmost crisis and utmost emergency,” she says.

Says Joyce: “I don’t believe it’s in the power of local authorities to provide accommodation for Travellers.” Sometimes there’s an external reason for not providing it, like unhappy residents or locations unsuitable to Travellers. But sometimes, she says, it’s down to a lack of political will.

A Call to Protest

At one o’clock today, Travellers from around the country are planning to protest outside the Dáil to call on the Government to urgently improve living conditions and to recognise Travellers as an ethnic minority.

“Travellers across the country are saying we actually need to start expressing our anger at this,” says McMahon. She believes this will be the first protest of many.

We asked Dublin City Council what would happen if sites were found to be unsafe and if there was any risk of people having to leave sites due to unsafe conditions, but we did not receive a response at the time of publishing.

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