The eviction and death of Bríd Cummins

Julie Grace has written a book about what she believes was an abuse of power by Galway City Council in their move to evict a vulnerable woman in 2004

Julie Grace was just 10 years old when she learned her best lesson about human feelings. She and her cousin Breda were having a giggle about a neighbouring young girl who wore very heavy black stockings that were “not of the time, even then”.

Her uncle Frank Burke, who lived a few houses away in the farming village of Ballyglunin, north Co Galway, heard the two cousins laughing. He took them aside, telling them to “consider yourselves lucky, ye clips”. The target of their humour was far more capable than either of them, he said. The young girl was minding her elderly parents on her own.

Grace never forgot it, just as she never forgot her late father’s mantra that everyone had a right to be happy, and that no one should be judged. Her grandfather, John Burke, was also a formative influence. Burke, who had returned from the US in the late 1940s, instilled in her the sense that everyone shared responsibility for questioning authority, including that exercised by the Catholic Church.

“He did not see age as a yardstick of intelligence,” she says, and he spoke frequently of the “controlling influence” of formal structures. “I suppose he was the ultimate democrat with a small ‘d’. . .”

Grace, who married a farmer and reared three sons, suspects her late grandfather may have been at her shoulder when she decided to self-publish a book. It begins with, and takes its title from, a reference by the late Bobby Kennedy to the eternal challenge in politics: “How to get men of power to live for the public rather than off the public.”

Abuse of Power: Because Councils Can is not an easy read, and not the sort of project Grace thought she would be embarking on when she took up a post with Galway City Council some years ago.

“I really like working with people, and appreciated my role as a public servant . . . making a positive difference in people’s lives,” she says.

After a stint as a community officer with the Western Health Board, she became a revenue collector with what was then Galway Corporation. She then took up a post as tenant liaison officer.

The experience of one of her tenants is the subject of the book. She describes how life changed dramatically for the “articulate and talented” Bríd Cummins, who was born the youngest of seven children in Clonmel, Co Tipperary, in 1956. After school, Cummins worked briefly as a civil servant, Grace says, and then pursued a career in journalism before taking up a post in the European Parliament.

She was in her early 30s when she moved to Galway and became involved in the arts community.

Her health suffered badly after a spinal injury sustained in a fall in a swimming pool, and her life thereafter was one of “disability, psychiatric illness and intermittent occasions of employment”. She was on medication for constant pain. At one point she secured a Fás placement with homeless organisation Simon, and edited an anthology of poetry published to raise funds for it.

Cummins had applied for housing accommodation on November 6th, 1994, Grace writes, and she made a number of subsequent pleas to be included on the housing list, informing the local authority in May 1995 that she was suffering from depression.

Eventually, in September 1998, she was appointed tenant at 5A Munster Avenue, very close to the city centre. The house had been divided into upstairs and downstairs flats.

However, a year after she moved in, Cummins complained of noise, mould, damp and rubbish dumped in the garden. On April 3rd, 2001, her solicitor wrote to the local authority on her behalf, requesting that defects in the property be rectified.

Potentially dangerous conditions

Increasingly desperate, Cummins contacted the city manager, on September 5th, 2001, describing how the flat was unsuitable, and how she felt she was being “neglected, because I am an outsider, because I am alone, because I am disabled and because I am poor”. In February 2003, she commissioned a chartered engineer to carry out an independent inspection.

His report stated that she was “living in substandard and potentially very dangerous [electrically] housing conditions” . The council conducted its own inspection, and found the residence to be in compliance with the 1993 regulations. Cummins initiated legal action in July 2003. Grace believes the local authority’s attitude to Cummins hardened as a result of this.

Grace remembers Cummins as a “young woman, well-presented”, who could not hide her physical disability and who had been immensely frustrated at the state of the garden and the “rubbish of old carpets and ashes dumped there before her tenancy”.

Grace also knew Cummins’s neighbours next door, although they were not local authority tenants. The couple, who had a daughter with a rare illness, were “excellent neighbours”.

In September 2003 Grace was asked to accompany one of them to an appointment with solicitors used by the council. She recalls that the man, who was elderly, did not realise until he reached the solicitor’s office that he was to be a potential plaintiff in eviction proceedings. Grace felt distinctly uncomfortable, believing it was “neither morally nor ethically right” for the local authority to offer that sort of service to a private citizen.

In December 2003 she made a recommendation to the city manager that Cummins be transferred. That didn’t happen. By the following March, the local authority was moving to evict Cummins for antisocial behaviour. Grace was asked to sign off on a statement made by a former neighbour, which was to be used in eviction evidence. She refused.

The eviction order against Cummins was granted in Galway District Court in November 2004. Cummins appealed the decision, and her solicitor, the late Jarlath McInerney, indicated that she would leave the flat voluntarily if she was allowed to stay there for Christmas. The council refused; the court order stated that she must vacate by noon on December 6th, 2004. On the day she was to quit, Cummins was found dead. She was 48.

At the official inquest into Bríd Cummins’s death the following year, in September 2005, the cause of death was found to be cardiac arrhythmia caused by the effects of a combination of drugs. Her death made national headlines, and Michael D Higgins, then a Galway West TD, called on the government to hold a public inquiry.

At the next city council meeting, in January 2005, minutes of which are also included in Grace’s book, councillors were told that it had “proved extremely difficult to resolve the many complaints” made by Cummins and said that a “pattern of behaviour of an antisocial nature . . . ran in tandem”. Both the ombudsman and the courts had inquired into the matter, they were informed.

Failed job application 

One aspect of the city council report really upset Julie Grace. “It said that a tenant liaison officer had not recommended a transfer to another property,” she recalls. “I had actually recommended two alternatives.” She asked for a correction, was unsuccessful, and subsequently failed in her application for a permanent position. She believes her stance on the Cummins case was central to this.

She decided to initiate legal action against the council, during which she gained access to Cummins’s full file and learned the extent of her illness. She believes to this day that if others had seen the medical information, including the judges who handled the eviction orders, there might have been a very different outcome.

Her wrongful dismissal action was unsuccessful, although there were grounds for pursuing a case over a potentially flawed interview process. She didn’t have the funds and agreed to settle. The council agreed that it could not dispute her evidence that she made an oral recommendation to the city manager for Bríd Cummins to be transferred. She in turn accepted that she did not put it in writing.

No apology

Grace, who says it took her four years to write her account, believes Galway City Council owes an apology to Bríd Cummins and her family. Galway City Council says Cummins’s untimely death has been the subject of a number of reports, issues relating to Grace’s employment with Galway City Council have been dealt with in the High Court, and it has “no further comment to make”.

NUI Galway law lecturer Dr Padraic Kenna, who is the author of a collective complaint to the Council of Europe on the management of local authority housing in Ireland, believes Grace has done valuable work. “Contrary to popular views, there is no right to a defence or even legal assistance, a situation which is particularly important where the person involved has a disability,” he says. “Indeed, Bríd Cummins had to pay for her own solicitor, creating a very unbalanced situation, whereas the local authority, as a State body, had access to endless legal resources.

“Of course, local authorities claim the need for powerful repossession procedures and, of course, there are instances where this is necessary. But in situations of vulnerable tenants, it is important that they don’t get it wrong.”

Dr Kenna explains that two Acts – the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003 and the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2014 – have changed the law since this case, but he notes that “any independent supervisory body [except the courts] is noticeably absent”.

In most other European countries, the evidence published by Grace would be at least referred to and investigated by an ombudsman, he says.

“We shouldn’t have another Bríd Cummins case, but there’s every possibility that we still might.”