Travellers bring accommodation action to Europe

Irish Travellers are taking a class action over what they say is the State’s failure to provide them with adequate accommodation

Inadequate accommodation: Mary McCarthy outside her caravan  at Bawney’s Bridge  halting site  in Limerick. Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22

Inadequate accommodation: Mary McCarthy outside her caravan at Bawney’s Bridge halting site in Limerick. Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22

Sat, Aug 3, 2013, 11:25

Irish Travellers are taking what amounts to a class action against the State, alleging persistent failure to provide adequate accommodation for the estimated 30,000 Travellers in the Republic. The complaint will be adjudicated by the European Committee of Social Rights, part of the Council of Europe.

Working with the Irish Traveller Movement, the European Roma Rights Centre, which is based in Budapest, made a “collective complaint” to the committee against Ireland.

The complaint was lodged with the committee in April; the committee, under the auspices of the Committee of Ministers on the Council of Europe, monitors compliance with the European Social Charter, which seeks to protect economic, social and cultural rights. The State will make submissions, and the case is likely to come to a full hearing, involving senior counsel on each side, next year.

The European Roma Rights Centre’s complaint, which runs to 34 pages, also alleges that “actions and omissions” by the State have “violated the rights of child Travellers to social, legal and economic protection”.

If the action is successful, Irish Travellers would not be awarded financial compensation, but the Government would be under pressure from the Council of Europe, which is separate from the European Union, to address its allegations.

Among those hoping the complaint will be upheld is 79-year-old Mary McCarthy, who has lived at Bawney’s Bridge halting site in Limerick with her 11-year-old granddaughter, Lisa, for almost 10 years.

The site is home to 13 Traveller families. It is supposed to accommodate just eight families, so caravans are packed tightly together and it’s difficult to drive into and out of.

McCarthy and her granddaughter share a van parked in the lane that enters the site. Mary sleeps in a bed at one end of the van; Lisa sleeps on two seats that turn into a single bed at night. They have a small fridge and electric cooker that work off a petrol generator. Five years ago Limerick City Council put a small steel toilet and a tiny steel wash basin in a galvanised shed next to their van.

There is no bath or shower, so the pair wash with water in the van or use one of the showers provided to other families on the site.

“In the winter the van is like an icebox,” says McCarthy. “To heat it’s very expensive in gas bottles in the winter, so we just can’t have the heat on all the time.”

The nearest shop is a branch of Centra, a 20-minute walk away. There is no park, green or play area anywhere nearby. A low wall separates the site from Dock Road, which is busy with trucks and other heavy traffic day and night. On the adjacent area is an animal-feed and fertiliser plant, which is noisy, unsightly and the source of health concerns for Traveller families.

Despite the conditions, McCarthy says she would prefer to stay at Bawney’s Bridge. Limerick City Council served an eviction notice on her and the owners of the three other vans in the entrance lane. Séamus O’Connor, a senior social worker with the council, says the families in the lane are there without permission and the council wants to refurbish the site, which it cannot do unless it clears the lane for access.

McCarthy and the others say they will go if they can continue to live together on one site. O’Connor says this is not possible. What is on offer is “standard local-authority housing”, he says. Space on an alternative halting site was offered, but he and the families agree this was rejected because the family living there already was not “compatible” with the McCarthys. Mary says she could not bear to live in a standard settled housing, having lived in halting sites most of her life.

“Housing is fundamental,” says Dr Pádraic Kenna of the school of law at NUI Galway. “It is the basis on which other rights can be built. From a Traveller point of view, culturally appropriate housing is fundamental to their wellbeing.”

He says the collective complaint is a new strategy that can work and will put pressure on the Government – particularly the Department of the Environment, which oversees local authorities – to deliver on Traveller accommodation.

The 1998 Housing Act mandates local authorities to provide Traveller-specific accommodation that meets the distinct needs of Traveller families. It provides no sanctions on local authorities that do not, however.

Susan Fay, the legal officer of the Irish Traveller Movement, says it has made efforts over many years to use domestic remedies to challenge the failure of local authorities. “While there has been significant success in this regard, the State has continued to fail to provide Traveller-specific accommodation and has persisted in evicting families without providing suitable alternative accommodation. In the end, this year we and the European Roma Rights Centre concluded there was little alternative but to take this complaint.”

The complaint alleges a policy of assimilation. It says Traveller families are being forced into private rented or local-authority housing as halting-site provision falls steadily. “Co Cavan does not have any halting sites, and Cos Longford, Laois, Louth, Limerick, Clare, Donegal, Wexford, Kildare, Monaghan, Kerry and Sligo have shown decreases of between 28 per cent and 100 per cent” in halting site provision.

Just four local authorities – Donegal, Westmeath, Leitrim and Sligo – have transient sites.

The complaint examines legislation that empowers local authorities to evict anyone entering public land without permission, to remove “temporary dwellings” and remove Travellers from the side of a road, and alleges that these laws discriminate against Traveller families and children and breach sections 16 and 17, and article E, of the European Social Charter.

Kenna points to the high levels of suicide, depression, unemployment and ill-health among Travellers as stemming from entrenched discrimination against Travellers. The apparent refusal of the State to get to grips with the accommodation needs of Travellers is, he says, the official expression of this.

“The difficulty is that what exactly Traveller-specific housing is has never been legally set out. But there are guidelines and it’s not rocket science. Most want to live next to their extended families in halting sites or group housing schemes, with space for their caravan and space to keep a horse or do a bit of outdoor work . . . There seem to be such barriers to delivering that at local level. ”

Mary McCarthy says she and her granddaughter want to live with the rest of the family. “I’d like a kitchen and a proper shower and a place to pull up the caravan. I don’t think it’s a lot, and I don’t think it would cost much.”