Emotions run high as attempts to house a man who abused a child fail, writes Caroline O’Doherty.
IT’S the kind of story where everybody gets reduced to stereotype.
Local residents protest at a local authority’s attempt to house a convicted sex offender in their neighbourhood.
In the fourth town where an attempt is made, the earmarked house is mysteriously burnt out.
County councillors pass a rushed motion declaring the council no longer has a responsibility to house sex offenders or anyone consorting with them.
Put it all together and you have mob rule, reactionary public representatives and hapless council officials.
At least that’s how it looks at first glance. But the real story of what’s been happening in Co Wicklow in recent weeks is complicated far beyond glib summaries.
The need to protect the identity of victims means many details of the saga cannot be disclosed but the context can be explained.
Earlier this year, a 63-year-old Wicklow town resident and local authority tenant was convicted of sexually assaulting a 10-year-old girl. The man has a serious medical condition and despite receiving a seven and a half year sentence, he was not jailed because the prison authorities could not cater for his medical needs.
It was intended instead that he would live at home, only being allowed out between certain hours of the day or for medical appointments.
The judge remarked that the man remained a threat to women and deserved a lengthy sentence. It was also brought up in court – and was news to many – that in 1969 the man was convicted of the rape and attempted murder of a woman in Dublin and spent time in the Central Mental Hospital.
When he arrived home in May, a protest outside his house forced his removal under Garda escort. He is now staying in accommodation, the court heard, provided by the HSE.
At almost the same time, his next-door neighbour and friend, also a sex offender with a conviction going back 18 years, and his partner, with whom he has four children, applied to the HSE and the local authority to be reunited as a family and re-housed as a single unit.
They were living in separate local authority houses and surrendered both when they were allocated a house 3km away in Rathnew.
With feelings running high over the first man, the decision to move the second man in with his partner and children raised eyebrows.
Rightly or wrongly, the view formed locally that sex offenders were being treated with kid gloves while the concerns of the law-abiding members of the community were being ignored.
Protests followed in Rathnew and the attempt to move the family there had to be abandoned. They were then moved into a house in an estate in Kilcoole, 20km north of Wicklow, but after a few nights of protests, they were moved again.
This time the woman and children were put up in a hotel while her partner moved in with a relative. That brings us up to a fortnight ago when residents in Redcross, a rural area south of Wicklow town, found out the council planned to buy a house there for the family.
A public meeting followed, attended by some 300 people – a huge number given the small population of the area – and in the face of the opposition expressed, the purchase was abandoned.
The woman at the centre of the storm then told the council she wanted to be housed alone with her children and signed a tenancy agreement with conditions prohibiting her from letting her partner into the house.
With that agreement in place, the council sought to move her into a local authority estate in Ashford, 3km from Rathnew.
Local people staged a protest as the woman and her children moved in some belongings on Friday last week and the council were again forced to withdraw them.
A vigil began, with residents setting up a tent on the green opposite and taking it in turns to keep watch in case the council returned.
It was members of the Sunday night vigil who rang the emergency services shortly before midnight to say the house was on fire. It is now uninhabitable.
On Monday, protesters gathered outside the monthly meeting of Wicklow County Council where councillors passed a motion freeing the council of any obligation to house sex offenders or those who “consort” with them.
The motion is of doubtful legal status. It has to be approved by the Department of the Environment before it can be implemented and while the department says its guidelines on letting priorities are “broad”, there is an inclusive spirit to them that the motion may breach.
Michael Nicholson, director of services with Wicklow County Council, doesn’t believe the motion will survive scrutiny. Either way, until it is passed by the department, he says the council remains responsible for housing all involved, and considers the needs of the woman and her children to be particularly urgent.
“At the moment we are letting things calm down. The whole county is in a state of anxiety. Every vacant house is being watched. Every house that is for sale is being watched.”
Nicholson is right about the county being on high alert. In another town, Newtownmountkennedy, residents blocked the path of a house following suggestions that it was earmarked for the family – something Nicholson denies – and a public meeting was arranged for Aughrim on Thursday night amid rumours of a deal being done on a property there.
“I even have a petition in from Avoca – there was never any suggestion of Avoca. It’s getting ridiculous.”
Adding fuel to the fire, a Facebook page set up following the protests over the first offender now has almost 1,500 followers, many of them venting fury.
Kalinda Healy was one of the organisers of the Redcross protest and makes no apology for her strong feelings.
“The house they were going to buy looks directly over ours. You could look down on our trampoline and swings,” said the mother of three little girls.
“We’re very rural here. We’ve no mobile phone coverage, we’ve no public transport and we’ve no post office. How was a family of limited means supposed to access services? And how would the authorities monitor that man down here?
“People can be civilised to a point but when you put a threat to my children, well, I’m a mama lion when it comes to my children.”
There is another unfortunate aspect to the timing of this whole furore. Rapist Larry Murphy, a suspect in the disappearance of three young women in the Wicklow-Kildare area, is due for release from prison within weeks and there are fears he will return to his home in Baltinglass in west Wicklow.
“There is another reason people are so worked up,” Healy offers. “After all the child abuse cases, people feel there is an onus on them not to be one of the people who stand by and let it happen. In the past there were good people who didn’t get involved. People won’t take that chance now.”
Conal Kavanagh, the Labour councillor who put forward the motion on housing sex offenders, is also unapologetic despite the controversy it has attracted.
“It is hard law,” he concedes. “But the county council has lost control and credibility in this situation. If ultimately the change is accepted, it allows the council to say we have a zero-tolerance approach.
“We have 4,000 people on the housing list in the county and the way this has been handled is not fair on them because the council has funding to buy a dozen houses a year for families with different needs and now every time they look at a house, people are going to think it’s for a sex offender and object.”
Kavanagh also feels too much is expected of the council when it comes to dealing with families with tricky social circumstances.
Michael Nicholson agrees with that part at least. “We do need the involvement of other agencies and when things quieten down we want to organise a case conference and see is there any way we can house the woman and her children in a fully open and transparent way and pledge all the supports to make it work.”
Getting things to quieten down will be a challenge. In Ashford, residents are indignant at remarks Nicholson made when he said housing policy could not be dictated by an “angry mob”.
Patsy Bradshaw, a mother and childminder who was one of the organisers of the Ashford vigil, says the residents are seeking a retraction. “We are not a mob. We’re concerned parents. We may have mouthed off but that’s because we needed to be heard.”
Nicholson sees it differently. “My staff were subjected to venom out there. There were people shouting in their faces and a lot of jostling.”
Patsy Bradshaw says residents are also annoyed because they feel they are being blamed for the fire.
The 84-year-old woman living next door had to be evacuated and she has not yet been able to return because of smoke damage.
One theory is that the house was attacked because the vigil was disrupting drug dealing in the area. Last year homes were evacuated because of a bomb scare which was also linked to drugs gangs. “Whoever started the fire has damaged our cause so it wasn’t anyone to do with us,” Bradshaw says.
She says local people would accept the woman and her children in the community but don’t believe it’s possible for her to guarantee her partner would stay away.
“Normally I look out on the green and see 20 kids playing there. There isn’t a child in sight these last few days because parents are nervous. How sad is that?”
Along with friction between the council and local communities, there is also tension among the elected members.
John Snell, a Sinn Féin councillor from Rathnew, feels Monday’s motion removing sex offenders from the housing list was a panic reaction.
“It was said it passed unanimously but there wasn’t a vote and hardly any debate. I don’t think a whole lot of thought went into it. There has been a lot of hysteria.
“I understand why people are upset but I think the handling of the situation has been the main problem. Bear in mind this man and the family were living in Wicklow a long time and whether people liked it or not, they accepted it. It’s the way it’s been handled lately that’s caused upset.”
An effort to improve the council’s handling of future cases lay behind a second motion passed at Monday’s meeting, which requires officials to give the elected members 10 days’ notice of any housing transfer.
Labour’s Nicky Kelly who proposed the motion says it will give councillors more time to brief local residents, address their concerns and ensure that the necessary supports are in place if the tenants involved have particular needs.
“There are lessons to be learned from this case for the whole lot of us. There must be similar situations in privately rented houses none of us know about so people should take some comfort that at least when the local authority is involved, there is some outside agency looking on.
“But it requires more than the council. It needs the Gardaí, the probation services and the HSE who have the social workers and psychotherapists and other experts. We have neither the resources nor the know-how to deal with a case like this.”
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