Carrickmines tragedy shows we all have empathy, but it gives way when it comes close to our backyard

Ireland’s dirty secret is that the Carrickmines tragedy could happen in any parish in the country, writes Donal O’Keeffe.

LAST WEEK, RESIDENTS of Rockville Drive in Carrickmines issued a statement to justify their blockading a proposed temporary, emergency halting site for survivors of the catastrophic fire which claimed the lives of five adults, five children and an unborn baby.

Residents object to a lack of consultation and pointed out that the previous site – there for eight years – had been “temporary” too. They describe the previous site (correctly) as “totally inadequate for travelling families”.

An Irish Times online poll of 4,800 readers saw 78% say the residents were right to protest. Not three days after the Carrickmines tragedy, empathy gave way to NIMBYism (not in my back yard).

Depths of hostility

“I have never witnessed such depths of hostility and hate towards my community as I have on this occasion,” said Pavee Point’s Martin Collins.

Five adults, five children and an unborn baby burned to death. The attitude seen says, sorry for your troubles, now move along.

Ireland’s dirty secret is that the same thing could happen in any parish in the country.

14/10/2015. Fires at Halting Sites Tragedies Mark Stedman Mark Stedman

According to the most recent polling (2010), three out of four Irish people would be reluctant to buy a house next-door to a Traveller. If you think that’s depressing, one in five of us would actually deny Irish citizenship to Travellers. Imagine that.

Travellers experience multiple barriers to the right to adequate education, healthcare and housing. Councils deliberately under-spend Traveller accommodation funding to see it cut the following year, while 12% of Travellers remain ghettoised in dangerously overcrowded sites.

Today, Traveller children have an infant mortality rate four times that of the general population. Life expectancy for a male Traveller is 61.7 years, 15.1 years less than other Irishmen. Female Traveller life expectancy is 70.1, 11.5 years less than other Irishwomen.

Suicide rates are six times that of the wider community, accounting for one in eleven Traveller deaths.

Funding decimated 

Funding toTraveller services were cut by up to 90% in the recession and as “Travelling with Austerity” highlights, the range of cuts to Traveller services were disproportionate to the type of austerity the rest of Irish society faced.

If education is the silver bullet to society’s ills, how do we treat young Travellers? Around 2011, we introduced a system to mainstream Travellers into the education system at the same time Senior Traveller Training Centres, Traveller resource teachers and Visiting Teachers for Travellers were all cut.

In other words, kids who couldn’t read or write because they were never taught were shoved into a system that required them to be of the same standard as others. Most Travellers couldn’t meet that requirement because they hadn’t had the same access to education as other kids.

14/10/2015. Travellers Halting sites Vigils

By 2011, 115 Travellers had attained a third level degree. Less than 0.5% of their population.

We’re failing Travellers 

Among settled people, it’s over 30%. We’re failing Travellers in such a way as to guarantee the perpetuation of the symbiotic problems which have haunted the Traveller and settled communities for generations.

The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has told the United Nations Human Rights Council that Travellers should be recognised by the Irish Government as an ethnic minority as a priority.

We persistently deny Travellers’ ethnicity, despite overwhelming historical, social and genetic evidence to support it. Recognition would extend a basic respect to a community we’ve forced onto the margins since the foundation of the State.

As many of us struggled with the enormity of the Carrickmines tragedy, others were less moved. An elderly man I know lives alone in a remote part of the countryside which has lately been plagued by break-ins. He told me: “My number one fear is Travellers.” (He didn’t say “Travellers”.)

Undercurrent of racism 

I replied “Well, no, your number one fear is criminals”. “Same thing,” he replied. “It’s not the same thing! You can’t just write off 40,000 Irish people because of a criminal minority.”

The argument went back and forth and left both of us feeling frustrated. But lines of communication remain open and I’ll keep working on him.

I don’t believe my friend’s opinion is a minority. If you think such attitudes can be changed by simply shouting that they’re racist – and they are racist – then I would ask what it is you are trying to achieve.

Do you think you can change anyone’s mind by shouting them down? Do you want to change minds or do you just want to feel good about yourself?

14/10/2015. Travellers Halting sites Vigils

We had an equality referendum recently and we shouted nobody down. We won by gentle persuasion and by telling real stories about real lives. We appealed to Irish people’s better nature and we won.

The long road ahead of us 

Marriage equality was a wonderful victory but no-one is equal if anyone is unequal. All of us, Traveller and settled, need to work on changing hearts and minds and we have a long road ahead of us.

For a start, there’s an election coming. Ask those canvassing where they stand on Traveller ethnicity.

Thomas Connors, 27, Sylvia Connors, 25, Jim, 5, Christy, 3 and Mary, five-months-old. Willie Lynch, 25, Tara Gilbert, 27, Kelsey, 4, and Jodie, 9. Tara was four months pregnant at the time of her death. Jimmy Lynch, 39. He was Sylvia and Willie’s brother.

Rest in peace.

Donal O’Keeffe is a writer, artist and columnist for You can follow him on Twitter here

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