Sunday 17 June 2007

Councils pay price of failure with Travellers' windfall

EVERY local authority in Ireland is legally bound to draw up plans to house all members of the travelling community in its area. This legislation came into effect nine years ago, but despite this, there are now more families living on the side of the road than there were in 1998.

The issue of Travellers' rights was brought into sharp focus last week when it emerged that Fingal County Council has agreed to pay Traveller David Joyce 1.1m in compensation for the land he has been living on for more than 12 years in Dunsink Lane in Dublin. The council wants the land for a major regeneration project.

The council accepts that there are more claims on the way, with some estimating that if the state wants to get the families to move, it could cost up to 20m. Some of the travelling families who live on Dunsink Lane have been there for up to 20 years. It has been home to up to 500 people at any given time. Now the council wants the land back, except the Travellers have nowhere to go and they have rights.

The law governing squatters' rights in this country says that anyone living on land for more than 12 years where no effort has been made to move them on can claim 'adverse possession' which entitles them to ownership.

It is, perhaps, easy to feel indignant about the cash windfall that the state may be forced to pay traveller families. After all, they didn't pay a mortgage every month to the bank for their home and isn't it their choice to live on the side of the road anyway?

But it could also be argued that the state has neglected this very vulnerable section of our community for far too long and they are entitled to every penny of the money they are set to receive for 'their' land.

Close to 1,000 families in Ireland live on the side of the road. For them day-to-day existence means no electricity, no running water and no toilet facilities. The average life expectancy of a member of the travelling community is about 10 years less than a member of the settled community. Only six Travellers of Leaving Cert age did the exam in 2002.

It may well be argued that living on the side of the road is a matter of choice, but that shows a blatant disregard for the culture of the travelling community. In the UK, Travellers are recognised as an ethnic group, whereas here, we do not even go that far and Travellers are officially referred to as a 'social grouping'.

Attempts at finding accommodation for Travellers have meant pushing them towards living a settled life. The state seems to want the travelling community to live in houses, thus denying their cultural identity. The Department of the Environment says 70m was spent between 2005 and 2006 on housing provision for the travelling community, but there seems to be a lack of understanding for the fact that many simply do not want to live in houses.

Traveller groups argue that the official halting sites which have been provided, are poorly resourced and sub-standard.

For many Travellers, living on the side of the road, in places like Dunsink Lane in Dublin is the only option they have while they wait for local authorities to live up to the promises they made to provide for this unique social grouping.

For Fingal County Council, this failure to consult with the travelling community and to provide suitable accommodation for them may prove to be a costly oversight.

The law is clear: if you have lived somewhere for more than 12 years and no one has made an effort to move you on, the land is yours.

The law is also clear on the other side of the fence. Local authorities are obliged to have plans in place to house the travelling community in their areas.

Inertia on both counts has led, inevitably, to the courthouse.

Claire Byrne presents 'The Breakfast Show' with Ger Gilroy on Newstalk 106-108.
Sunday Independent

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