25 July 2002 Edition
Travellers hounded by racist law
On Tuesday, more Travelling families sought sanctuary on the lawn of Bishop Walsh's Episcopalian Residence in Ennis to escape the Guards and the Department of Justice, who last week began to enforce the criminal trespass legislation brought in by the government just prior to the election.
"No one thought they would actually implement this disgraceful law - they thought it was just an election stunt to draw votes on a racist ticket," commented one Traveller. But last week the guards arrested Traveler men and took away their homes, the trailers, and left their families and their children homeless. Some slept in cars. Another family, with nine children, was accommodated in a local community centre. Their trailers are now parked up behind the Garda station, while Ennis enjoys its flower show.
The Bishop of Killaloe, Willie Walsh, who has been concerned about the Traveller issue over the past 30 years, is reported as saying that "I do have difficulty with the idea that people are being told to move where there is no place for them to go." He has asked Clare County Council to provide land. "I know they do have land."
The new law, known as the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002, was the subject of a seminar organised by Trinity College Law Centre on Tuesday 23 July. The Act makes it a criminal offence to enter and occupy land (or bring onto or place on it any object) where those actions are likely to cause some specified detrimental effects.
The Act gives powers to the Guards to arrest and charge people committing this offence with trespass, to fine them up to €3,800 and/or send them to jail for one month, and to confiscate their caravans.
Over 1,000 Travellers, according to David Joyce of the Irish Traveller Movement, who spoke at the seminar, are currently camped on public land awaiting accommodation. Many more camp on public land because no transient sites have been provided.
The Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act of 1998 stipulated that local authorities had a statutory obligation to provide this accommodation. But local authorities have singularly failed in this. The 1995 Task Force identified the need to provide 3,100 new units of accommodation. Since 1995, only 886 units have been provided.
"The reality of this situation is that there are at least 1,017 Traveller families living in unofficial camps without access to water, toilets or refuse collection, who face eviction and have nowhere to go," said Martin Collins, Human Rights Commissioner and a founding member of Pavee Point Travellers Centre. "They have no legal place to camp.
"The arrest of the four families in Ennis, the movement of a family in Lucan and the forced eviction of a family parked on public land for nearly a year by the gardaí in Cork, only weeks after signing into effect this Act, show how this act will be implemented and the real intentions behind it.
"The act is a direct, blatant attack on Traveller culture. It is the criminalisation of Traveller identity. It is deliberately designed to eradicate the culture of nomadism and to enshrine the property 'rights' of those who have property, over and above the rights of Travellers to have a home and enjoy their nomadic way of life. Worse, the Act protects and even encourages anti-Traveller, racist attitudes amongst local authorities which have failed to implement the legislation requiring them to provide Traveller accommodation within their areas."
"The impact of this Act is reminiscent of how Travellers were treated in the past," said David Joyce. "Over the last 60 years Travellers have faced continuous eviction from camps and recognition of the nomadic identity of Travellers has won little consideration by the state. Far from accommodating nomadism, the issue has been one of how to control it."
It has been the same all over Europe with the persecution of the Roma, the gypsies, the Travellers - a saga of racist abuse which the horrors of the Holocaust allowed people to push under the carpet of modern Europe.
"This law sends a message to Travellers that they are not wanted in Ireland today," said Joyce.
It may be the message of the former housing minister, Bobby Molloy, who introduced the Act, and of the new Minister of Justice, Michael McDowell, who has wasted no time in enforcing it. Will the Irish people stand by and let them make it their message?
TD slams first seizure
Sinn Féin Spokesperson on Equality, Aengus Ó Snodaigh TD, has criticised the first seizure of Traveller caravans under the new law. He has called on the Minister for Justice, Equality, and Law Reform to rescind the law.
Speaking in advance of his attendance at the Trinity seminar, Ó Snodaigh said:
"This law is discriminatory, and Sinn Féin therefore opposed it from its introduction. Taken in conjunction with the utter failure to tackle the Traveller accommodation crisis throughout the state, the only way to interpret this law is that it makes Traveller culture illegal. As such, it violates Travellers' human rights and equality rights that the government is legally bound to protect.
"This law targets the symptoms of the Traveller accommodation crisis, but will not solve it - indeed, it will only aggravate the situation by confiscating homes. The law also does not serve settled communities well, as it stands to increase tensions between the Traveller and settled communities. The first seizure case in Ennis highlights perfectly the potential problems of this law.
"The Travellers were forcibly evicted from an encampment on public property, despite the fact that there is no serviced halting site available to them in Ennis. Their caravans were seized following pressure from settled residents. What this legislation effectively introduces is a mechanism for the enforcement of settled residents' anti-Traveller prejudices. As such, it undermines recent anti-racist initiatives, and cannot be allowed to continue.
"I call on Minister McDowell and this government to do the right thing. Honour the commitment to equality-proof all legislation. Rescind the anti-Traveller law. Enforce existing trespass and littering laws when necessary. Accelerate the Traveller accommodation programme.
"I believe that the government should advance a new, comprehensive and serious initiative to improve cross-community relations, to defuse existing tensions, and to promote reconciliation between Travellers and settled communities."