Most of last weekend’s coverage of the speech on housing by President Higgins focused on the political football: Was the President criticising the Government? Is that allowed? Should the Government fight back?
ome of the coverage moved on to the underlying issue of the housing crisis. None of the coverage I saw moved on to the precise issue that provoked the President’s strongest words — Traveller housing.
Higgins referenced a halting site in Galway he knows well, “next to the rubbish dump out the Curragh Line as you head to Headford”. Travellers there were living in conditions that were “as bad as it was 50 years ago”. “It is immoral, wrong, irresponsible to leave people in the conditions we have left some of our Travelling people,” he added.
The site he was referring to is the Carrowbrowne site, next to the Barna Recycling waste plant. It is a “temporary” site, originally built to allow for the relocation of families while the supposedly “transient” site they were living on nearby was being redeveloped. That was 12 years ago, and both sites are now full of permanent residents. The temporary site’s planning permission was extended for a year in 2013. Since that expired, it has not had planning.
Galway City Council’s 2009-2013 Traveller Accommodation Programme undertook to provide two permanent halting sites. Neither was built. The 2014-2018 programme committed to building one new halting site a year from 2016 to 2018. None was built.
The 2019-2024 programme gave up on building halting sites. No permanent halting site has been built in Galway city since 1996, the programme noted. Progress on meeting Traveller accommodation targets has been “abysmally slow”, council chief executive Brendan McGrath told councillors earlier this year. Meanwhile, there are 35 families with as many as 70 children living between the two Headford Road sites, Margaret O’Riada of Galway Traveller Movement told me.
Their quality of life “has deteriorated beyond all belief”, she said. The Traveller Accommodation Programme itself notes that the Carrowbrowne site is “in extremely poor condition”.
The housing crisis in Galway is, in substantial part, a Traveller accommodation crisis. Martin O’Connor of the charity Cope Galway estimates that, at any given time, 60pc to 70pc of the families in emergency accommodation in Galway are Travellers.
Cope also provides services for older people, but doesn’t see much take-up of those services from Travellers. Why? “Life expectancy in the Traveller community is much lower than it is for the wider community,” O’Connor said.
A year ago, another halting site was in the news — Spring Lane in Cork. A damning report by the Ombudsman for Children revealed the site was horribly overcrowded, with 38 families on a site with only 10 mobile-home bays and 140 people using toilets and washing facilities designed for 40.
The site had been a travesty for years. An HSE environmental health officer reported in 2012 that it was “not fit for human habitation”.
I asked Breda O’Donoghue of Cork Traveller Visibility Group if there had been progress since. Things were “pretty much the same” on the site today, she said. Some emergency works have been done, she acknowledged, and the council has advanced plans for the site’s redevelopment, which are due to be presented to councillors next month.
But she has seen Spring Lane go through this process twice before, and both times the plans were shot down by councillors. “We haven’t had any addition to Traveller accommodation in Cork city in over 30 years,” she said. Two sites have been built to replace existing sites, but did not add to the stock.
There was further insight into the State’s attitude to Traveller accommodation in a report published on Thursday by the University of Limerick, titled Irish Travellers’ Access to Justice. Half of the Travellers questioned had experienced gardaí entering their homes uninvited in the past five years — mostly (in 89pc of cases) without search warrants. One in five of these reported this had happened more than five times.
There are approximately 9,000 Traveller households in the country. If this data is representative (and the authors say they followed best practice in obtaining a representative sample), that would mean something like 4,000 Traveller homes had been “raided” by gardaí without production of a warrant in the past five years.
Article 40.5 of the Constitution says: “The dwelling of every citizen is inviolable and shall not be forcibly entered save in accordance with law.” Such wholesale disregard for this would be a scandal on a par with those that have rocked An Garda Síochána in recent years. It is an appalling vista. It demands, as the report recommends, an independent investigation.
Whatever respect there may once have been for Traveller lifestyles has long been lost, and halting sites are now considered anachronistic. But it didn’t need to be that way. The Land Commission oversaw an extraordinary redistribution of land rights from people who owned land to those who didn’t — there was never anything comparable for the Travellers.
Today’s halting sites are the last vestiges of a culture of “stopping places” that had been established by custom over centuries, Padraic Kenna, law professor at NUI Galway, told me. But there was never any attempt “to integrate these stopping places into any national structure for Travellers travelling”. In theory, today’s “transient” sites maintain this custom; in practice, transient sites — like that on the Headford Road — are typically filled with permanent residents who have nowhere else to go.
Yet many of these traditional stopping places still exist, as unused road-side land, often blocked by boulders. Could they be mapped? Could an argument be made for the existence of a right of access to them, comparable with the “right” the people as a whole had to a share of redistributed land?
The problem of garda entry to homes is, at root, the same as the failure to develop and maintain halting sites. It is a lack of respect. “There needs to be a value put on Traveller lives,” Margaret O’Riada told me.
“There is a powerful word — home,” President Higgins said. “Sometimes it is only a very simple thing, but it is where personalities develop, where relationships with others are developed. It is a place to come back to, a place to depart from.”
For too many Travellers, for decades, that notion of home has been thwarted or violated by the State. Respecting Traveller homes sounds like a simple thing. Too often, it has eluded us.