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Opinion: The critical finding of the Carrickmines inquest was not emphasised by media enough

Much of the media reporting focused on the alcohol intake of the victims but that it is not how fire inquests are normally reported, writes Jacinta Brack.

Jacinta Brack

EARLY ON 10 October 2015, I received a call from a journalist who told me that 10 people had lost their lives in a halting site fire in South Dublin.

I was shocked and, of course, the first thought that raced through my mind was – did I know the people involved?

An emergency response committee formed, made up of local Traveller support groups and cross-service representatives, which worked to address the immediate physical and emotional needs of the family.

I was asked by that committee to deal with all the media queries in relation to the tragedy. The phone rang from early morning until late at night, in the days after the Carrickmines fire tragedy in which members of the Connors, Gilbert and Lynch families died.

No crisis media plan could have predicted either the magnitude of the loss or shockingly, the diversion two days later from tragedy to turmoil – when local residents objected to the council’s proposals to provide a temporary site for the survivors. 

Among my most visceral memories of that time was seeing, in the hours and days after the fire, the 14 members of the extended Connors family, parents, aunts, uncles and children, deeply traumatised and raw with shock as they gathered in a business park (where the Southside Traveller Action Group, which had taken them in, is located) – homeless.

I will never forget witnessing their loss and vulnerability. 

Reporting

At first, the media response was engaged with the tragedy; and journalists sought updates on the hospitalised children, naming and personalising the deceased, the community response, the funeral scheduling and the vigils to the site. 

But then came the subsequent chaos when local residents’ opposed the families being rehomed, which detracted from that initial outpouring. 

The power imbalance of this extraordinary, unprecedented tragedy was reinforced over the coming weeks and years, culminating in the Carrickmines inquest this week.

There were days during the inquest that the alcohol levels of the deceased adults, who were said to have had between four and six drinks each, were subject to media reporting, often without sensitivity. 

I can’t recall another fire tragedy, the Stardust among them, where the media reports focused on the alcohol levels of the victims. 

A chip pan was identified as the cause of the fire and some media outlets also reported on which adult had eaten chips that night. That was repeated on the broadcast news bulletins throughout that night and it must have been difficult for the family to hear it again and again.

I thought the reporting was insensitive and inappropriate.

I’ve studied lots of other inquests and when non-Travellers die in a fire, there doesn’t seem to be the same impetus to apportion blame to the victims. 

The critical finding of the inquest – which should have been emphasised by the media – was that emergency accommodation for Travellers is exempt from fire and safety regulations.   

Lessons learned

In the aftermath of Carrickmines, we all heard the predictable rhetoric of ‘lessons to be learned’ but more than three years on, little has really changed.  

While the Government reacted swiftly after the event, by commissioning a national fire safety audit of Traveller accommodation, there has been no subsequent national monitoring to ensure that local authorities have fulfilled the requirements of that audit. 

In the year after Carrickmines three other fires occurred in halting sites, in Ballyfermot, Limerick and Wicklow, thankfully there was no loss of life. But safety remains a major concern especially in overcrowded sites and it has not been adequately addressed.

Seven months after the Carrickmines fire, the European Committee of Social Rights found that Ireland has violated five grounds of the European Social Charter related to Traveller accommodation.

They pointed to insufficient provision, and inadequate quality, of Traveller accommodation and to legislation (and practice) where Travellers were threatened with evictions without the necessary safeguards. 

Just last week, the Committee of Social Rights in its monitoring report said that the Irish government has failed to redress those violations and is still out of conformity with the Charter. 

That finding indicates that the government has not learned lessons from the Carrickmines tragedy. 

From the point of view of the Traveller community, they have learned two things – that extreme tragedy is not a safeguard from racism and that European directives have little authority in redressing basic human rights entitlements.

Increased overcrowding

The numbers living in unauthorised sites and in situations of overcrowding is increasing, the latest figures available are for 2017 when there were 585 families living in unauthorised sites and 1,115 families sharing accommodation.

Since the year 2000, the number of Traveller families in need of accommodation has more than doubled. There are five times more families sharing facilities now and approximately 5,000 people are now inadequately accommodated. 

Not surprisingly there is a direct correlation between local authorities who have underspent Traveller accommodation budgets and those who have the highest number of Traveller families who are living in shared accommodation, or on unauthorised sites, or sometimes both.  

Review

In June 2017, the Government’s report Review of Funding for Traveller-Specific Accommodation and the Implementation of Traveller Accommodation Programmes (2000-2016) confirmed consistent failings at local authority level.

That report found that there was substantial under delivery, consistent underspending throughout the period (€55 million unspent) and it identified a lack of accountability and transparency.

It is indisputable that non-Travellers’ interests have dominated the decisions about whether new Traveller accommodation sites go ahead.

Some local representatives have played a role too by opposing plans and overriding their statutory functions without sanction or legal implication. 

Very often, council plans for Traveller accommodation fail at the first hurdle – the public consultation process often stops them abruptly. 

Temporary sites and overcrowded sites will continue to exist as long as locals and their representatives are allowed to block the development of adequate, safe accommodation for Travellers, whether that be in halting sites or group housing developments. 

Minister Damien English has shown a commitment to righting the inadequate supply of accommodation with a review of the Traveller Accommodation Act currently underway.

That review must be brave and robust in its proposals if it seeks to accelerate homes for Travellers and thereby ensure that all those sites are fire safe.  

Jacinta Brack, is the Communications and Advocacy Coordinator of the Irish Traveller Movement. 

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