An Irishman's Diary

You have to hand it to Olivia Mitchell

You have to hand it to Olivia Mitchell. For more than a decade now, she has been pursuing the same negative campaign on Travellers, and still there is no sign of her wavering.

In her latest missive to this newspaper (November 9th), she cited civil rights reasons for supporting a Fine Gael Private Members' Bill which would see Travellers jailed for residing on private property. "Only those displaying the most extreme form of political correctness," she argued, could deny the need to re-strike the balance between the rights of Travellers to accommodation and the rights of all other citizens "to protection from gross disruption of their local amenities."

How Deputy Mitchell can believe the balance of rights currently favours Travellers, whose average life expectancy is 10-12 years less than the rest of the population, and who have an infant mortality rate double the national average, is staggering beyond belief. Yet, perhaps nothing should surprise us when it comes to this tenacious TD for Dublin South.

Local newspaper

Perhaps I'm more sensitive to this issue than most as I grew up in Ms Mitchell's constituency, and even worked for a local newspaper in which her salvos on all things Traveller formed the basis for many a front-page story. A quick scan over the history of some of those local controversies illustrates her uncanny ability to find new reasons to object to halting sites, even when all the old ones seem to have been used up.

As a Dublin County Councillor in 1988, it was a procedural matter which caused her to oppose a crucial amendment to the Dublin County Development Plan which would have allowed the construction of more halting sites. The proposal, she claimed, was the most blatantly Machiavellian ever to come before the local authority.

In 1995, by which point Ms Mitchell had moved to Dun-Laoghaire Rathdown County Council, lack of consultation was one of a series of reasons she cited to oppose a halting site at Blackglen Road in Sandyford. The county manager, she claimed, had not taken "compatibility of the Traveller families into consideration". Moreover, she said, she was "opposed to a halting site going up off a road that is one of the busiest in the country".

"Going nowhere"

Two years later, it was the nature of proposed sites which was bothering her. Moving a failed motion to cut the number of families planned for a halting site in Clonskeagh from five to three, she said the policy of developing multi-family sites was "going nowhere".

In 1998, Ms Mitchell objected to the county council's proposed accommodation plan for Travellers on the basis of "geographical distribution". The plan, she claimed, was biased against the western end of the council's administrative area.

Last year, she voted against a revised accommodation plan on a whole series of grounds. Green spaces were being used up, she said. Settled people in the area were not getting equal treatment. Oh, and then, the plan itself would face countless legal challenges, so "you would have to question the sanity" of it.

Earlier this year, she discovered yet another basis for her obstructionist policy: cost. Her target this time was a mixed-housing scheme in Ballyboden, which she claimed was priced at £400,000 per Traveller family. (South Dublin County Council put the figure closer to £160,000.) "This is an extremely wasteful and costly way to use land," she said in an RT╔ interview at the time. Asked what was the alternative to halting sites, she replied: "conventional housing in urban areas".

Ms Mitchell's message to the Traveller community, therefore, appears to be: you can have accommodation as long as you cease being Travellers.

Trumpeting "successes"

Lest anyone think I am being unfair to Ms Mitchell, highlighting her record in opposing halting sites is something many of her constituency colleagues would wish I did for them. Indeed, counsellors and TDs often make a point of trumpeting their "successes" in scuppering, or scaling down, Traveller developments in their localities.

Yet politicians can't have it both ways. Their local records can't be forgotten about just because they cross the threshold of Leinster House. As an Editorial on the Fine Gael Bill in this newspaper quite rightly pointed out, Ms Mitchell's "consistent opposition to the establishment of halting sites and the adoption of council plans to accommodate Travellers places a question mark over her impartiality in this matter."

An interesting footnote to Ms Mitchell's career is that her election to the Dail in 1997 came partly at the expense of Labour's Eithne Fitzgerald. This is what the losing candidate had to say on her defeat: "I have often taken unpopular decisions. If I got another 700 votes by opposing Traveller sites...I would prefer not to be elected than to get votes by opposing those particular stands."

Whoever said we get the politicians were deserve may have had a point.