By Margot Garnier
On the morning of Saturday 10 October, a fire claimed the lives of ten Travellers, five of them children, at a halting site in Carrickmines, south Dublin.
Willie Lynch (25), his partner Tara Gilbert (27) and their children Jodie (9) and Kelsey (4), Willie’s brother Jimmy Lynch (39), Thomas Connors (27), his wife Sylvia Connors (25) and their children Jim (5), Christy (2) and Mary (five months) perished in the blaze. Tom Connors (4) and John Connors (14) were hospitalised and released recently from hospital.
The tragic event has provoked a wave of emotion across the country – and highlighted the hypocrisy over the treatment of Travellers by mainstream society in everyday life.
Discrimination against the Traveller community reveals did not take long to rear its ugly head when Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council announced plans to relocate 15 Travellers that where living in the destroyed halting site to a field on nearby Rockville Drive.
The council explained that the move was temporary, only for six months, in order to prepare a more suitable site.
But that wasn’t enough for some residents in the area who were categorically opposed to the council’s decision, going so far as to obstruct entry to the field with their cars.
They argued that the halting site where the families were living before the fire was also supposed to be temporary, eight years after the first Travellers halted there. They also said the field was “not suitable” for living.
And then they pointed the finger at alleged anti-social behaviour in recent months – something that has been refuted by a local Traveller organisation, the Southside Traveller Action Group.
Discussions between the council and the residents took place over eight days, leading to a decision to relocate the bereaved families in a council-owned car park adjacent to the Ballyogan Works Depot.
In the light of this tragedy and the subsequent controversy, Traveller organisations like Pavee Point and the Irish Travellers Movement have been even more vocal in their demands to be recognised in Irish society as an ethnic group.
In Fingal, the council has already made one step in this direction, passing a motion in support of recognition for the Traveller community as a designated ethnic group, after such as tabled by Cllr Ted Leddy and drafted with the help of councillors and Traveller accommodation board members.
According to Pavee Point, this recognition will help “Traveller culture and identity to be acknowledged as something distinct from the settled community. Travellers’ experience of discrimination will be recognised for what it is: racism. To achieve recognition of Traveller ethnicity, simply, the Government needs to bring this recognition into legislation.”
Pavee Point says it wants to address a letter to the Taoiseach Enda Kenny to change Travellers’ status, change their living conditions, make progress in the fight against racism and discrimination, and establish a Traveller agency to drive urgent improvements in accommodation and implement existing policy in Traveller health, education and employment.
The group has also welcomed Minister’s Alan Kelly’s decision to set up a fire safety community initiative “that will look at all aspects of this issue in conjunction with Travellers and Traveller organisations”.
Indeed, one of the big questions surrounding this tragedy is whether it could have been avoided entirely were Travellers not marginalised so much from mainstream society to the point where their safety was of no concern, until the worst happened.