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Passing the buck, kicking the can

April 11, 2019

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Four years ago a horrific fire at a so-called “temporary halting site” at Carrickmines in County Dublin claimed the lives of ten people – five adults and five children.

Thomas and Sylvia O’Connor and their three children, Jimmy aged 5, Christy aged 2 and Mary aged five months; Willy Lynch, his partner Tara Gilbert, their daughters Jodie aged 9, and Kelsey aged 4, and Willy’s brother Jimmy, were all killed.

Tara was also pregnant at the time. It was the state’s biggest fatal fire since the Stardust night club disaster in 1981 which killed 48 people.

There was an outpouring of grief and solidarity in the weeks after the Carrickmines tragedy. Books of condolences were opened, public vigils were held, and flags were flown at half-mast. I attended the funerals in Bray, County Wicklow and Sandyford in County Dublin.

At Sandyford I arrived as the haunting lament from a lone Uilleann piper echoed around the church. The funerals were desperately sad.

At the inquest in January it emerged that a chip-pan was the source of the fire. But the inquest also heard that the site was originally established in 2008 as an “emergency temporary site.” Under Department of Environment Guidelines for Traveller Accommodation (1998) such “temporary sites” should not exist for more than five years. It also calls for at least six meters between mobile homes. At Carrickmines the structures were within one meter of each other.

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In the aftermath of the fire the government established an interagency group to agree a needs assessment for the survivors.

I met with Tánaiste Simon Coveney who promised to take the steps necessary to ensure that the surviving family members would be properly supported by the state.

Last July, Mary Lou McDonald and I visited the Connors family. We met Jim and Josie Connors who are the grandparents of the two surviving young sons of Thomas and Sylvia Connors.

Michael was six when his parents perished. He was staying with his grandparents the night the fire struck. Thomas, who is two years younger, was pulled from the mobile by 14-year-old John Keith Connors only seconds before a “flashover scenario” occurred which saw the burning chip pan explode in an inferno that engulfed the mobile home.

The inquest jury recommended that John should be nominated for a bravery award for his courage in rescuing his four year old nephew.

Josie and Jim – who has significant health issues – told us of the pressures they face rearing two active young boys. Their primary concern was the need for school transport to take Michael and Thomas to school each day. For Josie, who is also caring for her husband Jim, this means four trips each day. It is an exhausting experience.

Since our meeting I have tried to get a succession of Ministers to remove this burden from the family.

I wrote to Tánaiste Simon Coveney on July 12th 2018. The issue was referred by his office to the Minister for Housing, Eoghan Murphy.

I also wrote to the Minister for Education Richard Bruton and the Minister for Social Protection Regina Doherty on the basis that the provision of school transport for the children had the potential to be deferred to a number of different government departments.

Minister Eoghan Murphy responded with an acknowledgement in September 2018. He advised the issue was one for the local council.

A few months later he wrote to say it had been referred.

Minister Regina Doherty’s office phoned last September to advise that the matter was a matter for the Minister for Education.

I also made written representations to the Minister for Transport Shane Ross, having spoken with him personally in the Dáil last November. In a letter I received from him in February I was told that the provision of school transport for two young children had been referred to the Minister of State at the Department of Education, John Halligan.

I had already raised the needs of the two youngsters with Minister Halligan last November. I made further representations to him in January with no outcome. Despite significant contact by phone, no solution was offered, except to apply for School Transport scheme – which the family don’t qualify for.

In January, 2019 I again made written representations to Minister Shane Ross – with no response.

I have spoken in person with Minister Shane Ross and the Tánaiste Simon Coveney. There has been no progress.

In recent days I raised the matter in the Dáil with Tánaiste Simon Coveney during questions on Promised Legislation. I asked the Tánaiste when the commitment he made to me about fully supporting the Connors family would be honored. He said he would get back to me.

The prevarication, stalling, obfuscation, delays, evasion that have marked the government’s refusal to take the steps promised and provide the supports for Michael and Thomas, are a source of deep disappointment.

Their experience is indicative of the many challenges facing the Traveller community in terms of housing, health, and especially mental health services, employment opportunities, and indifference and hostility from state institutions and local government structures.

The European Committee on Social Rights has found that the Irish state is in violation of the European Social Charter on five grounds by failing to provide adequate Traveller accommodation. A report of the Traveller Accommodation Expert Group, which was established to look at this issue, will be published within the next few weeks.

It is vital that this report effectively confront the institutional racism which is at the heart of much of the objections to accommodation for Travellers.

The needs of young boys – survivors of a horrendous tragedy that claimed their parents and siblings – are being ignored by ministers who are passing this issue from one to another while doing absolutely nothing.

Two years ago the Irish government announced its decision to recognize Traveller ethnicity. It was the right thing to do. I said then that legislative protections needed to follow.

But if the institutions of the state cannot find within themselves the means to help two children – two survivors of a dreadful human tragedy – then what hope is there for those same institutions confronting the institutional racism that condemns the Traveller community as the most socially disadvantaged group in Irish society.

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