AS PART of its duty to provide accommodation for Travellers under the 1998 Traveller Accommodation Act, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown Council is building 24 houses and 32 serviced halting site bays. Dun Laoghaire has one of the lowest populations of Travellers in Ireland and all the families being accommodated are law-abiding and cause no trouble.
The value of the accommodation, if measured in terms of property market values faced by the settled community, could be in the region of €30m.
Among the sites being developed are six houses nearing completion in land acquired from the Daughters of Charity at Temple Hill, Blackrock. A small house in the same location would cost a settled purchaser at least €1m. Three other houses are planned for land on the West Pier in Dun Laoghaire, a sea-front location that would, if it were on the market, be among the most expensive in the country.
Under the tenant purchase scheme, the Travellers have the right to buy the properties for a fraction of their market value, or pay nothing if they wait the requisite amount of time and claim possessory title - better known as the squatter's right. Meanwhile, Dun Laoghaire Rathdown County Council has a housing crisis with a housing waiting list which has almost 4,000 names on it.
The cost of property in south Dublin has also made it almost impossible for young families to buy, causing an exodus of much-needed young professionals like teachers, health workers and civil servants.
Exact figures were not available last week, but the last attempt to appraise the amount of money being spent by the Government and local councils was a "Traveller-specific" sum of around €100m, in a report in March 2006 by the High Level Group on Traveller Issues.
The amount does not take into consideration the millions being paid out on civil legal aid to Travellers taking cases against the State on a variety of issues, from equality to property rights and compensation. The report was an assessment of the work already done by the Government, to "enhance the quality of life" for Travellers in Ireland.
It found that little progress had been made for most Travellers. Two thirds of children are still leaving school at around the end of primary school; about 73 per cent of males and 63 per cent of females are claiming unemployment benefits; the Traveller population has risen by 50 per cent to around 25,000 in 20 years; and the numbers of families living on "unauthorised" sites is rising.
The example set by the Joyce family in Dunsink Lane in Finglas, who are receiving €2.6m to vacate the site they have been illegally squatting on, is likely to increase the number of squatter cases. Martin 'Ripper' Joyce, who is receiving the single biggest payment of €1.1m, is serving a three-month sentence for threatening a social welfare officer who was investigating fraudulent claims made by Joyce, who owns commercial property in Dublin and a house in Co Meath.
Fingal County Council is not commenting on the payments being made to Travellers squatting around Dunsink, other than to deny claims that they could amount to €23m. 'Ripper' Joyce's two brothers, David and Alan, are due to receive €750,000 to move from adjacent sites. Fingal County Council said it was unaware of 'Ripper' Joyce's wealth and the fact that he is facing a tax bill from the Criminal Assets Bureau understood to be €1m.
Other families remaining on the site are causing further destruction to the area, apparently in the hope that the council will be forced to pay them to leave as well. A community centre and houses specifically built for the Travellers on St Mary's Park at Dunsink have been gutted.
According to gardai, Traveller families at Dunsink are heavily involved in the drugs trade, the supply of firearms, laundering of illicit diesel and trading in parts from stolen cars. One of the families is said to be operating one of the biggest stolen parts operations in the country.
Gardai say that although Dunsink is a centre of criminality there are several law-abiding Traveller families who are as upset by the activities of the criminals as the settled community.
Fingal has the biggest Traveller accommodation programme in the country after South County Dublin. At present, Fingal is providing houses and halting sites for around 350 Traveller families, employing 16 full-time staff and providing high-spec new housing and serviced halting sites for up to 350 families.
The provision of accommodation, rather than encouraging many Traveller families to "build links with the settled community", as the 2006 Government report hoped, has started a major land grab, mostly by families involved in crime. Recent figures by the Department of Environment show that between 2005 and the end of 2006 the number of families squatting illegally in Ireland rose from 589 to 629.
One of the worst cases is in the Fingal area, on a five-acre site adjoining the MI near Lusk. The site has a potential value of around €15m for commercial development and as much as €30m for residential development.
The families who moved on to the council-owned site as soon as it was vacated by the construction firm SIAC, on the completion of the motorway two years ago, are understood to be demanding €6m to leave.
Several unsuccessful attempts have been made to move the eight extended families who have been squatting on the site, and all have been rebuffed. Two months ago gardai found a large amount of stolen goods during a search. Armed gardai were present because shots have been fired from the site.
Last April, Fingal County Council sought a High Court injunction to stop the Travellers from excavating land at the site - with the apparent intention of illegally dumping waste - as the digging was threatening the support embankment of a motorway bridge beside the site.
Ms Justice Laffoy told the Travellers that what they were doing could be dangerous to the public, and instructed them 'Several law-abiding Traveller families are upset by the activities of the criminals'
not to interfere with council officials entering on the land to inspect the potential damage to the bridge.
Counsel for the Travellers said they would agree to comply with the order. The judge warned that if there was any breach of the order, the council could seek orders for their committal to prison.
In the meantime, the Travellers have issued their own proceedings against Fingal Council and the Attorney General, seeking to prevent them from being moved on from the site. These cases are among a rapidly increasing amount of court cases involving Travellers, most of them backed by free legal aid. Gardai say that, as well as the disturbing growth in crime involving members of the Travelling community in the past decade, there is an emerging widespread conspiracy to acquire land, something that had never happened before.
According to gardai acquainted with the Travelling community, a number of rich Travellers found themselves with large quantities of cash they could not easily dispose of before the introduction of the euro.
They began buying land in cash transactions, often at or above the asking price. The increase in the value of property in the following years was suddenly seen as a way of making money, and the trend began to spread.
The same trend has emerged in England, where Travellers have been buying agricultural land at low prices and then setting up encampments which have often led to the creating of a major nuisance in surrounding areas. In several instances, local communities have clubbed together and asked to buy the land back, only to be quoted a massively inflated price.
The fact that land is already so expensive in Ireland has, it seems, led to the increase in squatting. The Government programme of providing accommodation for the entire Traveller community has greatly encouraged this trend.
The programme has also failed to see any marked change in the cultural and educational lifestyles of most Travellers or any noticeable moves towards "building links with the settled community".
At the same time crime involving Travellers has reached levels where several families are regarded as being in the top rank of organised crime gangs, and marauding packs of young male Travellers, uneducated and with little hope of any form of settled employment, are again causing widespread alarm across the State, as they embark on lives of crime.