Travellers should invite Pope Francis to a substandard halting site during his visit to Ireland next August, homeless campaigner Fr Peter McVerry has suggested.
The Traveller community should also engage senior church figures as allies in the campaign for culturally appropriate accommodation, Fr McVerry told a conference in Galway.
“You should demand of bishops that they stand by you . . . the church should be on your side,” Fr McVerry, the founder of the Peter McVerry Trust, told a “Traveller accommodation inquiry” hosted by the Galway Traveller Movement (GTM) and National Traveller Women’s Forum. The inquiry was described as the first of its type and involved Traveller groups from across the State
The inquiry heard the findings of newly published research from the University of Limerick outlining "widespread disaffection" and poor trust in local Traveller accommodation consultation committees.
The committee system within local authorities is “tokenistic and dysfunctional”, while there has been a 90 per cent reduction between 2008 and 2015 in funding allocated for Traveller-specific accommodation, the research said.
Lack of respect
It also cites instances of lack of respect by public officials and elected representatives and “open and hidden prejudice” towards Travellers, now recognised as a distinct ethnic group.
The siting of a transient halting site, which has no planning permission, beside a waste company at Carrowbrowne outside Galway city reflects that lack of respect, resident Angela Delaney told the conference.
Ms Delaney described in detail how her family and 12 other families at the Carrowbrowne site lived with constant odours from the waste facility, rat infestations and water contaminated by sewage.
“They put you beside a dump because they think you are rubbish – we are eight years living next to a landfill,” she said.
Galway City Council has said it was committed to implementing its 2014-2018 Traveller accommodation programme. But it has failed to reach agreement on alternatives to Carrowbrowne, and the overcrowded Cul Trá site in Salthill, due to opposition from councillors.
Fr McVerry said responsibility for housing should be removed from local authorities and transferred to a non-political organisation such as the Northern Ireland’s Housing Executive.
Local politicians were under “too much pressure” to oppose sites for Travellers, he said. A move to transfer responsibility would depoliticise the issue and oblige settled communities, he added.
Fr McVerry said he never lost the capacity to be shocked by housing conditions of settled and Traveller people. He also said he was shocked at the descriptions he had heard from contributors to the inquiry.
Council staff may be initially full of enthusiasm, but “compassion is drained out of them” by a “system with no compassion”, he said.
Fr McVerry said the right to a home should be incorporated into the Constitution to exert pressure on governments to introduce timelines and meet targets.
NUI Galway law lecturer Padraic Kenna said it was "shocking" in 2017 to know that young families such as those at Carrowbrowne lived with the experience of toxins and gases, fire safety and health risks, overcrowding and rodent infestation.
“This is not just a local issue, this is a European issue,” he said.
The conference initiated a #TravellerHomesNow campaign which will be rolled out across the State, according to GTM co-ordinator Margaret O’Riada. She said politicians had been invited to the hearing, but most declined.
Kathleen Delaney-Ward and Kathleen Maughan were among several Traveller women based in Galway who participated in the hearing.
Groups from Donegal, Mayo, Cork and Dublin, along with several non-governmental organisations involved in housing and the Galway 2020 cultural designation attended the one-day event.