Thursday, 3 June 2021
Traveller Accommodation: Statements
Jennifer Carroll MacNeill (Dún Laoghaire, Fine Gael)
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to contribute a statement on this topic. I acknowledge the Minister of State's speech, his work in this area and the considerable progress he has made since coming into office. I thank Pavee Point nationally and, more locally in my own area, Southside Travellers Action Group, for their engagement with me over the past year in my role as equality spokesperson for Fine Gael and as a representative of Dún Laoghaire.
While I have had the opportunity to speak several times about education strategy, the impact of Covid-19 and other matters of concern to Travellers, I want to acknowledge that this is the first occasion on which I have been able to contribute a statement on an issue dedicated to Traveller accommodation. The first thing I want to do, therefore, with the permission of the House, is to pay my respects as a new Deputy for the Dún Laoghaire constituency to the people who lost their lives on 10 October 2015 in a halting site on the edge of my constituency in Carrickmines when a fire broke out. Ten Travellers, including a young mother who was pregnant, lost their lives. If I may, I would like to take the opportunity, as a representative of a constituency on the edge of the location of that event, to name them again in this House. We should never forget the victims of the fire. They were Tara Gilbert and her partner, Willie Lynch; their daughters, Jodie and Kelsey; Jimmy Lynch; Thomas Connors and his wife Sylvia; and their children, Jimmy, Christy and Mary. In January 2019, the Dublin Coroner's Court returned a verdict of death by misadventure in the case of these ten tragic deaths.
The report published by the Ombudsman for Children last week highlighted a specific issue with Cork County Council but the read-across from the report on broader, systemic issues is of importance. The Office of the Ombudsman for Children has recommended that local authorities engage with HSE social inclusion units, Tusla youth services and local schools to improve the lives of children living on that site. These are not new challenges, ideas or recommendations. We still do not have an implemented national Traveller health action plan or a national Traveller education strategy. I am pleased that the Government is committed to the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021, but we need to see action from the different Departments, particularly the Department of Education, on the national Traveller education strategy, which is persistently highlighted by Pavee Point and others, including me and many other Deputies in this House.
The issues in accommodation that were highlighted by the Ombudsman for Children and those I am highlighting on education impact vulnerable children more than anybody else. Their health and well-being and access to education were particularly compromised during the pandemic and the switch to remote learning. Their experiences of racism and discrimination are all contributors to further exclusion and damage. The Government must implement its own strategies and there is an opportunity for real momentum behind the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy but evidence of that will be seeing the education strategy and the full implementation of the independent expert group on Traveller accommodation. If the Government cannot deliver the implementation of those different strategies through its agencies and Departments, we will have to look at alternative models for delivery.
Last week, I saw a young Traveller boy and his father have a small altercation of words with a man at his home in my constituency. I do not pretend to know what the dispute was between the two gentlemen or what had gone before. It does not matter too much and I was not concentrating on that because I was just watching the boy. Whatever had happened before, what this boy saw was a man openly disrespecting his father. I was watching the boy watching this scene and I wondered how many times it had happened before and how that had been absorbed, or not, by that boy. Of course, I thought of my own boy, slightly younger, and how he had never seen his father disrespected in front of him. I thought of those two boys and the different challenges they faced, including, at their core, confidence and the impact that moment of conflict had on that young boy's psychosocial development.
We talk about inclusion and stamping out racism because we know it has been a persistent feature of Irish life for many years and because conflict between communities never helps anybody. I look then at Traveller accommodation in my council area. Despite the challenges of the past, I acknowledge the dedicated work that has been done by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council in recent years. It is the only council in the greater Dublin area to have drawn down more than its allocation over the past four years and, on a cumulative basis, over the past ten years. I have spoken to Ms Geraldine Dunne of the Southside Travellers Action Group on the status of Traveller accommodation in my own area and she has given me permission to attribute comments to her today. In her view, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council has made extremely good progress due to what she says is a great team in that section. She described that team as dedicated and respectful. She said that these dedicated and respectful staff have made a simply huge difference. I told her that I would faithfully report whatever she said about how things are going and it was heartening to hear that there are good local authority staff who have made a difference. I thank them and the chief executive for the emphasis they have placed on this issue. However, there is still more to do and there is a still a shortage of Traveller units, though Ms Dunne did observe that if the pace of redevelopment of sites and refurbishments continues, she would expect a positive outcome for Travellers in our area within five to ten years. That is still quite a long time. On the other hand, we are not sure that we have enough units in train for the younger generation. We estimate that another 40 to 50 young families will seek to avail of the next Traveller accommodation programme, TAP. Those are families who were not accounted for in the most recent TAP, although I am, of course, aware that the council wanted to sort out the immediate and serious issues.
It makes a difference if staff are dedicated and respectful. Those staff are actively putting in applications for funding and engaging in development and redevelopment. They have also held themselves to dedicated targets and timelines. They have put a timeline on their refurbishment programme and stuck to it. I acknowledge that the pandemic has created difficulties, as it has for everything else. Redevelopment has been good and a move forward. I look forward to visiting all of these developments in my area with Ms Dunne as soon as it is appropriate from a Covid perspective. I thank her for her continued work. I also thank Ms Ronnie Fay and Mr. Martin Collins from Pavee Point for their ongoing work and engagement with me.