The inquest is over but is anything going to change for Travellers?

Number of Traveller families living in unsafe conditions has risen since Carrickmines fire

From left, Lisa Algan, a friend of the Connors family, and Maggie Connors, sister of Thomas Connors, leave the Dublin Coroner’s Court. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

From left, Lisa Algan, a friend of the Connors family, and Maggie Connors, sister of Thomas Connors, leave the Dublin Coroner’s Court. Photograph: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

The jury’s verdict on the deaths that took place at the Carrickmines halting site were delivered quickly, but the questions left by the tragedy will take far longer to answer.

How long do Travellers’ homes have to be “temporary” before they can hope for something permanent? And how much of a relationship does a council tenant have to have with their local authority before their basic health and safety become part of it?

Given what we have heard at the Dublin Coroner’s Court over five days, a legislative response to these questions must come from the Department of Housing.

Ten people, including five children, died of carbon monoxide poisoning due to smoke inhalation as they slept in a mobile home on a “temporary” halting site on the Glenamuck Road in Carrickmines, on October 10th, 2015.

The jury at the inquest into the deaths of Thomas Connors (27) and Sylvia (nee Lynch, 30), three of their children, Jim (5), Christy (3) and six-month-old Mary, Willy Lynch (25), his partner Tara Gilbert (27), her daughter Jodie Gilbert (9) and their daughter Kelsey (4), and Jimmy Lynch (39) returned verdicts of death by misadventure for all 10.

The inquest had heard about a multiplicity of factors that led to their deaths. A chip-pan left on an electric plate was the fire’s source; the five adults had been drinking alcohol that night – a factor which may have affected their capacity to react.

The Connors, Lynch and Gilbert families issued a joint statement through a solicitor thanking the emergency services, as well as family, friends and members of the public for their support.

They said: “To lost loved ones they are always missed, always loved and never forgotten.”

It also heard the Glenamuck site, where Sylvia and Thomas Connors made their home with their five children, had been established by Dún Laoghaire Rathdown County Council in 2008 under “emergency powers”. As an “emergency temporary halting site” it was not subject to the same health and safety regulations as permanent sites.

No commitment

The Connors had been without any commitment from their council to their health and safety for 11 years by the time of the fire. And the young lives lost that night were not the first tragedy to befall them on an unofficial site.

From 2004 they had been living by the side of the road in Sandyford. In 2007 Michael (21), brother of Thomas, died in a bike accident there. Soon after they moved to a piece of land in Rathmichael nearby. The council moved them from here to Glenamuck some months later. Some 29 people were sleeping at the site on the night of the fire.

The inquest heard the families paid rent to the council to live at Glenamuck; a council caretaker visited regularly; the site had an electricity and a water supply, provided by the council; and the council laid hard ground for the mobile homes.

When Thomas and Sylvia moved back in 2015, after a year’s absence, the council agreed to extend and upgrade the site. Surely health and safety should have been at the heart of the relationship between the council and these tenants, no matter the status of their homes.

Permanent homes

Following the tragedy the council moved quickly to re-house them – albeit for some time on a former car park next to a recycling centre. The council prioritised the construction of safe, permanent homes on a site adjacent to the “temporary” Glenamuck site, and the families moved there in 2017.

In the face of an unspeakable tragedy the council was able to do this. And did it.

To then, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council was one of 15 local authorities that drew down no funding for Traveller accommodation in 2015.

Since then the number of Traveller families living in unsafe or overcrowded conditions has increased. There are now 585 families living by the side of the road and 1,115 in “shared housing”, accounting for 15 per cent of the Traveller population.

The jury made five recommendations at the inquest. First among them was that the “exercise of emergency powers in Traveller accommodation should be for the shortest period of time practicable to ensure the development of well-planned Traveller sites”. It’s past time this was put into legislation.