Travellers to launch court challenge as trespass Bill becomes law

 

Traveller organisations have vowed to mount legal challenges against the controversial trespass law given presidential sanction yesterday.

Traveller groups greeted with deep disappointment the announcement yesterday that the President, Mrs McAleese, had signed into law the measure aimed at dealing with illegal Traveller encampments.

The Government has said the law is intended to deal with large-scale unauthorised summer Traveller encampments, largely by "trader Travellers".

Traveller organisations, however, have criticised the provision, which they claim is unconstitutional, racist and criminalises their nomadic way of life.

They say it will allow the authorities to evict Travellers from public land without having to fulfil their responsibilities to provide halting sites or other suitable accommodation.

The Irish Traveller Movement said last night it was concerned for the 1,200 Traveller families on unofficial camps who have nowhere to go. It called on the Minister for Environment and Local Government, Mr Dempsey, not to make the law operational.

The new provision makes trespass on land a criminal offence for the first time, with a new penalty of three months' imprisonment and/or a fine of €3,000. It will allow gardaí to arrest suspects without a warrant, order people to move and remove property such as caravans without the knowledge of the owners. Under existing laws, landowners must obtain civil court orders before removing individuals or groups from land.

Both the Irish Traveller Movement and Pavee Point Travellers' Centre said they would monitor the operation of the law and hoped to bring a constitutional challenge against it in the courts as soon as possible.

Pavee Point's director, Ms Ronnie Fay, said only 111 new units of Traveller-specific accommodation have been provided by local authorities out of the 2,200 units identified by a government task force seven years ago. This lack of progress highlighted the need for an independent Traveller accommodation agency, she added.

Mr David Joyce of the Irish Traveller Movement said the immoral law would "deepen the crisis in Traveller accommodation and will impact harshly on Travellers' lives".

The movement "will support its members to test the legislation and will be pursuing all options to combat the effect of the law," he added.

Mrs McAleese decided to sign the law yesterday after convening a meeting of the Council of State on Monday night to discuss whether to refer the law to the Supreme Court to test its constitutionality. Legislation requires the President's signature before it can take effect.

The Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Bill (No 2) 2001 will come into force only when a commencement order has been signed by the Taoiseach. A spokesman for the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment said there was no timescale for this order until his Department has had discussions with the Department of Justice about technicalities.

The law was passed by both houses of the Oireachtas before the Easter recess after the last-minute introduction of the trespass provision, which angered Traveller groups who said they had not been consulted about it.

Travellers in south county Dublin staged a silent protest at an event attended by the Taoiseach in Killinarden yesterday. Further demonstrations are planned for today outside the Tallaght offices of South Dublin County Council.