Thursday, 3 June 2021
Traveller Accommodation: Statements
Cian O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay North, Social Democrats)
The report published last week has a number of quotes from children that I want to read into the record. A 12-year-old girl said, “Walking up to school you see all the rats ... they would be running up and down the walls of the trailer”. A 14-year-old girl said, “People ask why I’m dirty, but I’d be ashamed to say. I don’t want to say it was from walking out of the site”. A boy aged seven said, "We only play in puddles" while a 16-year-old girl said, “When you put your hands out of the bed in the mornings, the blankets are all wet”. A girl aged seven said, "Sometimes the electric goes off and then it's black". This, sadly, is not the first report on poor conditions in Traveller accommodation and on halting sites. Reports have been published over many years and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, correctly critiqued the 1963 report which did not include Traveller voices and tried to push a policy of assimilation. Even that report, with all of its faults and limitations, recommended that local authorities "should be required as soon as possible to ascertain the number of [Traveller] families regularly in their areas and decide whether they are in a position to consider them for housing within a short period". The 1963 report goes on to say that if they cannot provide housing within a short period, they should provide suitable halting sites and the sites "should have hard-topped surfaces properly drained, and be provided with a piped water supply, sanitary arrangements and an electricity supply". These are all very basic requirements for people's basic human rights and dignity but almost 60 years on, as a State, we are still failing in that regard. We are failing children in particular, who are growing up in conditions that do not meet their most basic needs.
A 2012 report into Spring Lane found that there was raw sewage on the site and the communal toilets were being used by 140 residents. An engineer's report from 2012 highlighted faults with the site's drainage system and said it created a very large lagoon of water and raw sewage up to 80 cm deep, with human excrement clearly visible at its edges. The report said it posed a danger to the health and well-being of residents and could also pose a drowning risk. A 2012 report from the public health nurse focused on high infection rates among children, including upper respiratory tract, lower urinary tract and skin infections. It found that there was a high percentage of children with special needs, speech and language and learning difficulties. The HSE environmental health officer found that the site was not fit for human habitation. All of this was reported almost ten years ago. The Ombudsman for Children's report should not have been needed.
In 2015, ten Travellers died in a fire in Carrickmines and a review following that incident found that separation distances between Traveller units was a matter of concern in 50% of sites inspected. This is a particular cause for concern in Spring Lane. Last week, Ms Bridget McCarthy from Spring Lane told The Irish Times that she fears a fire there. She said, "The caravans are really close to each other. If one went on fire they would all go on fire". She added that she would be happy to show the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, around Spring Lane to see for himself. She said she would "like him to see how we live. Waking up every morning in the cold and the damp. It is hell. The kids are getting sick from the cold and the germs.” Another resident, Ms Michelle Delaney, told The Irish Timesthat electricity wires have been chewed by rats. She said, "I could be electrocuted here, as could my child." The report from the Ombudsman for Children found the danger of fire spread has not been addressed and that the site is grossly overcrowded.
We all have a political responsibility here. Ten years ago councillors voted against a proposal from Cork City Council to rezone land to extend the chronically overcrowded site at Spring Lane. Under-investment in Traveller-specific housing and in social housing has had a disproportionate effect on Travellers. Between 2008 and 2013 the Traveller accommodation budget under Fianna Fáil, the Green Party, Fine Gael and the Labour Party was cut by 90%, from €40 million down to €4 million.
I acknowledge the commitment of the Minister of State and assure him that in terms of cross-party support for his work on this, I am strongly committed to that approach. Indeed, that is the best approach to take.