10 December 1998 Edition

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Changing times for Travelling people

By Laura Friel

Traveller support groups are cautiously hopeful of a breakthrough in the provision of accommodation for Travelling people in the Six Counties. They expect that responsibility for Travellers accommodation will be taken away from local councils and given to the Housing Executive.

Michael Mongan, a spokesperson for Travellers in West Belfast said, ``accommodation for the settled community was taken away from district councils years ago because of sectarian discrimination, yet the fate of one of the most discriminated sections of Irish society, Travellers, remained in district councils' hands. It's been many years but I believe change can happen and will.''

The Belfast Traveller population is the largest in the north and nearly all the Travellers in Belfast are in West Belfast. Nowhere is the inadequacy of current provision more graphically illustrated than in West Belfast. There are just under 400 Travelling people living in the west of the city in just over 90 family units. This figure does not include Travelling traders or nomadic Travellers who periodically work in Belfast without a permanent base.

Official statistics almost invariably underestimate the number of Travelling people within the north and as a consequence, their needs. A recent NIO document admits that projected population figures for 2007 may be inaccurate by over 200. Traveller support groups say the disparity is even greater. With just two serviced sites in Belfast each providing 21 pitches, there is a shortfall of over 50 families without provision. In other words the majority of Travelling people in West Belfast are still living in unserviced sites often in appalling conditions with only minimal amenities.

Two years ago, in the summer of 1996, An Phoblacht visited Travelling people encamped at the foot of Sliabh Dubh along the busy Monagh bypass on the outskirts of Turf Lodge. In what remains one of the most scandalous wastes of public money, a newly constructed site at Windy Gap, built by Belfast City Council without consultation and against the wishes of the Travelling families who were supposed to live there, had to be abandoned. The council cited a design fault but the truth was far more insidious. The council had paid the East Belfast firm, Burns and Stewart to oversee the construction of 18 concrete pitches with a toilet amenity at a price of over £30,000 each. The only design requirement was that the concrete was flat. It was not. Shoddy workmanship left gradients so steep and uneven that it wasn't just unsafe, it was impossible to stand a caravan on many of the pitches.

Windy Gap was demolished and earlier this year Belfast City Council was found guilty of gross maladministration. Burns and Stewart, under-insured and facing legal action by the Council, went into liquidation and is now operating under a different name.

Millions of pounds down the drain and two years later Traveller families will be spending another Christmas along the Monagh bypass, facing conditions which have not been improved by as much as a penny's worth.

In the dust and heat of summer, the Monagh encampment, already massively overcrowded with caravans packed together nose to tail, was a fire disaster waiting to happen. In winter life at the Monagh site is even more precarious.

``Most of the trailers are heated by solid fuel, one accident and it would be only minutes before the whole site was engulfed,'' says Michael Mongan, himself a resident at the site. When it rains, water gushes down the mountain side, through the encampment and out onto the road below. Along the wet uneven ground, electricity cables criss cross from caravan to caravan. When it freezes the dual carriageway below becomes ``an ice rink,'' says Michael. Cars taking the bend too fast regularly career into the site. ``A couple of weeks ago a car crashed into a barrier at the site and burst into flames,'' says Michael, ``fellas from the site dragged two people from the car and put out the fire.''

Michael Mongan and his extended family have lived in similar conditions for most, if not all of their lives. First on an unserviced site on the Glen Road, then on wasteground in the Markets and finally, after being intimidated out of Poleglass, along the Monagh bypass. ``We've lived in these conditions so long settled people imagine this is how we want to live,'' says Michael, ``but we've been asking for proper provision for years.''

Travellers at the Monagh site see the solution to their particular needs in terms of group housing. ``We want to live together, not within the settled community but not too far out either,'' says Michael.

Within current statutory arrangement, the provision of accommodation for Travelling people is ``unreal'', says Paul Noonan of the Belfast Travellers Education and Development Group. The present regional development strategy drawn up by the Department of the Environment relies on district councils to carryout site provision but there are no powers to compel councils.

Following a reduction in its budget, the DOE cut all funding from Traveller site provision. ``Even if a council wanted to address provision for Travelling people they couldn't,'' says Paul. The DOE strategy document ``is not worth the paper it's written on,'' he says.

Traveller support groups are equally critical of the recent consultative document, pointing to the lack of a comprehensive strategy and the failure to address the need for transit site accommodation. Despite the fact that the newly created Commission for Racial Equality has given some priority to Travellers, present official policy has an undercurrent of anti-nomadism. ``It's alright to be a Traveller,'' says Paul, ``but not to travel.''

However, the outlook is not all bleak. Powers of designation given to district councils to evict Travellers on the basis that they were additional to the number of Travelling people for which the council accepted responsibility can no longer be enforced. Designation clashes with recently enacted Race Relations legislation. It's a fine distinction but councils can no longer evict Travelling people just because they are Travellers; they can only evict on the basis of illegal encampment.

At the Monagh bypass site, Michael Mongan and his family remain hopeful. During a recent on-site meeting with the NIO Minister, Lord Dubs accepted suitable provision of accommodation was a matter of urgency. ``You only need to look at this site,'' says Michael, ``it's third world deprivation at the heart of a thriving city.''

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