Fine Gael's attitude to Travellers


There is another reason for not voting Fine Gael, writes Vincent Browne. It is Olivia Mitchell. Olivia Mitchell is identified, at least in her own constituency of Dublin South, with one issue: opposition to the accommodation of Travellers.

Over several years she has resisted virtually every attempt to provide halting sites for Travellers in the Dublin South area.

No other TD has been so identified with the denial of rights to a vulnerable group. And instead of embarrassment over that association, Fine Gael has celebrated it by exalting her to the party's front bench and allowing her promote a vicious piece of legislation, one recently and shamefully enacted by the Dáil.

Yes Fianna Fáil has Noel O'Flynn in its ranks, the TD who spoke about asylum-seekers in terms characterised by many as racist. But at least in that instance, Fianna Fáil disassociated itself from his remarks, and many expressed embarrassment. Not so with Fine Gael and Olivia Mitchell.

Olivia Mitchell has responded to charges of bigotry against the Travelling community by claiming she has always supported Travellers' rights, while acknowledging she has always opposed proposals to build halting sites for them in south Dublin (she has claimed of late that she supported a modest halting site proposal). But more tellingly, she has "explained" her opposition to accommodating Travellers on the basis that she cannot support the construction of halting sites until such time as she is given assurances that Travellers will respect the rights of their would-be neighbours - a mere camouflage for dogged and outright opposition.

Last autumn Olivia Mitchell, on behalf of Fine Gael, introduced a Bill intended to introduce further criminal sanctions on Travellers who occupied public or private lands without the consent of the owners.

This piece of legislation was contemplated in circumstances in which over 1,200 Traveller families live on the side of the road, without sanitation, without water, without heating, without electricity. And in the context in which only 100 additional accommodation units had been provided for Travellers since 1995 when a task force recommended the provision of over 2,000.

Asked recently in an interview where she thought Travellers evicted from unauthorised halting sites should go, Olivia Mitchell said "to the side of the road".

Disgracefully, on the 27th of March last, Dan Wallace, Minister for State at the Department of the Environment and Local Government, with virtually no notice moved an amendment to the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions No 2) Bill 2001, at the report stage, doing precisely what Olivia Mitchell and Fine Gael had argued for a few months before.

In the space of two hours the Bill was rushed through the Dáil. There was no discussion about this with representatives of the Travelling community and in response to criticism about the lack of consultation Olivia Mitchell said: "I do not agree that consultation is necessary."

Of course it is true that damage has been done to the cause of Travellers' rights by the despoliation of the Dodder Park, the GAA pitch at Ballyrogan and the Sugar Loaf over then last few years. But are the basic rights of Travellers' children, for instance, to be abrogated because of the delinquency of a few adult Travellers?

Is the despoilation of parkways worse than the despoilation of the lives of thousands of our fellow citizens?

Must a "balance" be struck between the accommodation needs of thousands of our most vulnerable citizens and the conveniences of the rest of us? There was a time when Fine Gael stood for the weak and vulnerable in society, the Just Society era of Fine Gael. How grotesque it is nowadays to hear the Just Society mantra invoked by those who go along with the denial of basic rights to the most vulnerable?

Postscript: In this column last week I stated that Sean Sherwin, an official in the Fianna Fáil party headquarters, became aware in September 1989 of a £50,000 donation to Padraig Flynn and that it did not occur to him (Sean Sherwin) to inform Bertie Ahern about this when the allegations of corruption generally started to proliferate. Sean Sherwin has contacted this newspaper to say that once he became aware of the donation he informed the head party fundraiser.

Now, I accept without reservation that Sean Sherwin behaved properly, whatever he did. I say this from knowing Sean Sherwin for many years and holding him in high regard. But isn't what he says most intriguing. He told the head party fundraiser. Who was this and what did the head party fundraiser do with the information? Did the head party fundraiser tell Bertie Ahern about it or remind him of it when the controversy over funding arose in late 1996.

If he did, what did Bertie Ahern do with that information? If he did not why did he not? And, anyway, why has there been no internal Fianna Fáil inquiry into money that may have been diverted and no attempt to get money back.

Is it because Fianna Fail fears that if the lid is lifted on corruption within the party, the story will be very much worse than is appreciated currently and will involve others who, so far, have escaped suspicion?

To be fair to Padraig Flynn, it has yet to be established that he got money from Tom Gilmartin and it has yet to be established that he did anything improper with it. But all this is yet another reason for not voting Fianna Fáil. Vote no.