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'I'm afraid it could happen again. I can't sleep at night'

The tragic loss of 10 lives at a camp site in Dublin has focused attention on the Republic's attitudes to Travellers and their needs, with some startling revelations. Graham Clifford reports

Published 17/10/2015

The Spring Lane halting site in Cork
The Spring Lane halting site in Cork
Spring Lane halting site in Cork
Some of Ann McCarthy’s children at the Spring Lane halting site in Cork

From the doorway of her two-bedroom caravan, with her one-year-daughter Annabella in her arms, Ann McCarthy looks out over the halting site she calls home and asks: "How are we supposed to live like this?"

Caravans and mobile homes are crammed into the Spring Lane site on the outskirts of Cork city. The site, opened in 1989, was said to be designed for 40 Travellers; at the latest count there were at least 160, including about 100 children. Locals call it "the nearest thing to a shanty town" that exists in Ireland.

Ann, a mother-of-five, says: "We have no electricity in our mobile home, so we run a cable to my brother-in-law's, but it's not safe and often overloads. The wiring in some of the older caravans is very dangerous and in recent years two or three have burned down; luckily no one was seriously injured."

As Travellers across the Republic come to terms with the tragic loss of 10 lives in the Carrickmines halting site fire, the spotlight is focused on accommodation regulations for the country's 40,000 Travellers, or 10,226 families, with a priority on safety.

"The caravans are so close together that if one goes up in flames it will take the others with it," says one father in Spring Lane, adding: "Unless the Government and local councils help us, I'm afraid there will be more tragedies like the one in Dublin. Our hearts break for those poor people. I haven't been able to sleep since it happened, our prayers are with them and their families." When I visited Spring Lane this week council workers were upgrading the electricity.

"It's good to see. Often you get shocks from the wiring and the system overloads, especially in winter. But when I see this work I can't help but think we will be here a long, long time and no other housing will be provided for us," says one young father.

But just three kilometres away, at St Anthony's Park on Hollyhill, Cork City Council during the summer opened a new state-of the-art housing facility at a cost of €5m (£3.6m). Sixteen Traveller families moved from a nearby halting site into the housing scheme, which includes seven one-bed bungalows, three three-bed houses and three-four bed houses, plus nine spacious bays where new caravans will be installed. The comfortable dwellings feature solar panels and stoves with back boilers to maximise energy efficiency, built-in wardrobes and fitted kitchens.

Such conditions seem a distant dream for Ann McCarthy in Spring Lane. She tells me through tears in her eyes: "For now, we'd just be delighted with a bay. We're here on the side of the road at the entrance to the site and it's not even safe for our children to play on the road. We go to bed every night praying a car doesn't crash into our home."

Those living on the periphery of the official 10 bays have no basic facilities such as a toilet, running water, shower or safe electricity supply.

The Traveller Visibility Group and Cork Traveller Women's Network have urged Cork City Council to review its accommodation plan for 2014-2018 and commit to more accommodation.

But how is a Traveller halting site designed, who is responsible for it, and why are there 15 local authorities in the Republic - including Dun Laoghaire-Rathdown, where the Glenamuck road tragedy occurred last weekend - which drew no funding for Traveller accommodation this year?

The Department of the Environment guidelines, under 'the statutory assessment of needs under section 9 of the Housing Act, 1988', states: "Sites are intended for short stays by transient Travellers only. Occupants will not wish to locate families in the particular area for an extended period of time and generally are on the move to fairs, festivals or trading from area to area."

However, temporary halting sites in Ireland have a habit of becoming near-permanent. Spring Lane has been running for 26 years and the electrical works point to it remaining so for many more. The temporary site in Carrickmines where the tragedy occurred was in operation for seven years. Department guidelines on accommodation also state "local authorities should take account of the expectations and aspirations of Travellers, subject to due regard to the need to provide for their nomadic identity at reasonable cost", and states that "all sites should be inspected, approved and reported on by the appropriate professional or technical officers of the local authority''.

Traveller welfare groups say this simply hasn't been happening across the country. When designing the sites, fire authority requirements are to be taken into account; as a rule no more than 20 families should be on a site at a time; pitches should be ranged around the site.

The guidelines also say "the fire safety provisions should be discussed and agreed with the chief fire officer of the relevant fire authority", though Traveller groups say these provisions are clearly not being met.

Councils are to ensure domestic refuse collection is extended to halting sites and must provide skips for the removal of more bulky items. In some cases, as in Spring Lane, a dedicated caretaker is employed by the council.

While funds have been available over the years to build Traveller housing schemes, improve halting sites and provide others, it seems problems in locating suitable areas mean that often nothing happens.

As one Mayo county councillor told me this week: "People don't want Travellers living near them, pure and simple. And if there's nowhere to put them, there's no point in taking the funding."

With just €4.3m (£3.1m) provided to local councils for Traveller accommodation this year - down from €70m (£51m) in 2008 - many like Ann wonder if there is any will to help them.

She tells me: "We are real, living, breathing Irish people. Our children are real children with needs and lives and dreams, and all we want is somewhere safe and warm to live. Surely to God that isn't too much to ask?"

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