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Larry Donnelly: Donegal takes a strident stand for justice over mica with Boston at its back

The Donegal diaspora in the US is mobilising in support of homeowners seeking compensation for mica damage to their homes.

Larry Donnelly Law lecturer, NUI Galway

“I’VE JUST DROPPED in to see you all…I’ll only stay awhile…I want to hear how you’re getting on…I want to hear you smile…I’m happy to be back again…And greet you big and small…For there’s no place on earth just like…The homes of Donegal.”

So begins singer/songwriter Paul Brady’s poignant ode – “The Homes of Donegal” – to what is regularly described as Ireland’s forgotten county.

Its natives and those of us who have been lucky enough to spend time there will wholeheartedly endorse the sentiments expressed in the song. Stunning scenery, a uniquely warm welcome and good fun have always been the hallmarks of my sojourns to the furthest northwest.

It is Donegal’s homes that have been dominating the headlines lately. Indeed, a massive rally took place this past week in Dublin for which a substantial contingent of the county’s people boarded buses and got into private cars to make their voices heard by the politicians.

Thousands of houses in Donegal, on the Inishowen peninsula specifically (as well as some in Mayo and Clare), must be demolished or radically refurbished because of the presence of mica in the bricks.

Sense of abandonment

The whole country now knows the heartbreaking stories of young families, older retirees and others who purchased homes in good faith and, through no fault whatsoever of their own, either are living in or have had to vacate what are the equivalent of ticking time bombs as structural deterioration continues apace. The common theme in the harrowing tales related by these men and women is abandonment.

They feel abandoned by the builders, by the insurers, by the law and legal system and by the government insofar as the relevant regulations were lax and the remedy currently on offer from it does not suffice to meet the enormous costs they must bear in order to again have a safe dwelling in which to live.

It bears repeating: those affected find themselves in this dreadful situation through no fault whatsoever of their own.They are blameless. And they are desperate.

Unfortunately, this is not the first occasion on which I have seen the proud people of Inishowen worn down, alienated and driven to despondency by myriad factors, including geographic isolation, dearth of opportunity close to home and what they argue, not without some justification, has been a longstanding policy of benign neglect from the government of a country that has become even more Dublin-centric in recent decades.

When I have been back in Boston over the last few years, my experience has been that the overwhelming majority of the young undocumented Irish I encounter are from Donegal, most of whom are from Inishowen. Our conversations are equally revealing and saddening. The common theme is that, although the pre-pandemic economic figures here were all very strong, they can’t envisage a future in or around their birthplace.

Those who I have come across identify more promise in lucrative, albeit insecure, employment in Boston-area Irish pubs and restaurants, as nannies for wealthy families or on construction sites – despite the fact that crossing the Atlantic entails living in the shadows and perpetually being aware that their American Dream could reach a swift and sorry end at any moment. They hear of these options from the large, established community in the city of Inishowen emigrants who left long ago owing to similar considerations and want to extend a lifeline.

The Boston connection

It is no surprise, then, that their acquaintances, friends and relatives in Boston have mobilised to assist the aggrieved homeowners. The Donegal diaspora in the most Irish corner of the United States helped to fund transport to the Dublin protest march; the Donegal Boston Gaelic Football Club distributed signs urging full government reimbursement for all of the costs incurred to spectators at a match against Connemara Gaels held at the GAA’s large facility in Canton, Massachusetts.

Tens of thousands of dollars have already been pledged by building contractors with Donegal roots, and a group is registering as a non-profit organisation to ensure that theirs is a sustainable effort for as long as it takes.

Back in Inishowen, a sports reporter for the peninsula’s Independent newspaper, Gerard McLaughlin, accompanied the marchers in Dublin on Tuesday. He was struck by the extraordinary sense of solidarity on display. Yet the Buncrana resident doesn’t sugarcoat what he sees as the full extent of the problem. McLaughlin believes that “there are well more than 5,000 houses with mica and the total bill here is likely to be a multiple of the figure of 1 or 1.5 billion euro that’s being bandied about.”

Numerous speakers at the Dublin gathering indicated that the proposed 90%-10% bailout scheme from the government, because it fails to take into account the rent that will need to be paid by homeowners awaiting repairs or rebuilds, as well as storage and additional attendant expenses, actually means that individuals and families will be footing roughly 30% of the overall sum.

McLaughlin agrees and suspects that, as it now stands, most “would have to come up with in the neighbourhood of €70,000 when everything is said and done.” He credits Paddy Diver of Carndonagh with being the driving force behind this burgeoning movement, but acknowledges that “there is a long road ahead for them and, while many are hopeful, some have doubts as to whether the ultimate solution will satisfy their needs.”

As the nation emerges from Covid-19 and confronts its harsh economic repercussions, the government is unquestionably in a difficult position. Redress in this instance will not be cheap and, no matter how sympathetic one is inclined to be, broader realities must be brought into the equation. In this regard, it is worth noting that the amount required to compensate Dubliners impacted by pyrite was a fraction of what’s involved here.

That said, in an ideal world, the price tag finishes the race a distant second as a concern when it comes to doing justice. And justice is precisely what is being sought.

Anything that does not go a long way toward rectifying the manifest suffering that homeowners on Inishowen have endured would be perceived as another kick in the teeth from an uncaring government by Donegal people on this island, in Boston and everywhere else they have migrated to. And the consequent cost to the State of their potentially deeper still resentment and estrangement cannot be quantified.

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Larry Donnelly is a Boston attorney, a Law Lecturer at NUI Galway and a political columnist with TheJournal.ie.

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Larry Donnelly  / Law lecturer, NUI Galway

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