Pandering to prejudice is unacceptable

PHIL HOGAN’S attempts to block a constituent family getting housing needs to be put in context.

Earlier this week it emerged that the Minister for the Environment — whose portfolio includes housing and community — made representations to Kilkenny County Council not to house the Carthy family. Hogan accepts he made the representations. His office contacted other constituents by letter on May 29 to assure them that the family wouldn’t be housed in their area of Bonnettstown. The family in question are Travellers.

Less than two months before that communication, on the morning of Mar 31, another house in another area of Hogan’s constituency was burned to the ground. The house was located in Kilmacow, near the M9, and was purchased by the county council during the construction of the motorway. At around 3am on the morning in question, two men were seen standing on the northbound carriage of the motorway, watching the house burn.

The previous day, Michael McDonagh and his five children had begun moving into their new home. The family had been living in rented accommodation in the village of Mooncoin. They didn’t sleep in the house that night, which is a blessing, but much of their worldly possessions were lost in the fire. Clothes, family photos, a television, and other sentimental possessions were destroyed in the embers of hate.

The McDonaghs are a family of Travellers. Some locals in Kilmacow objected to a Traveller family being housed in the area. Two local councillors went as far as to make representations to the council not to allocate the house to the family.

The McDonaghs had no record of anti-social behaviour. At the time, council officials confirmed to this column that there was nothing in the family’s background that would have generated such hate, apart from the fact that they are Travellers.

Later that week, the McDonaghs were the subject of a serious threat to their safety which the gardaí said was being treated with concern. Only one local politician, Malcolm Noonan of the Green Party, condemned the attack.

There was no hoopla on the national stage about the outrage. The local bigwig politician, Phil Hogan, one of the most powerful ministers in Government, had nothing to say about such an attack on his constituents. Whatever about local politicians rooting around in the gutter for a few votes, the idea that a national figure such as Hogan didn’t think the attack worthy of serious attention beggars belief.

Last week, we were offered an insight into perhaps why Hogan didn’t feel compelled to condemn the attack. Instead, he appears to have conducted himself as a local TD in amanner that completely ignored a recent arson attack based on nothing more than deep-seated prejudice.

Sometime in the weeks after the attack, his office made representations to the council not to house another Traveller family, the Carthys, in another house in Bonnettstown. Just as the councillors in the Kilmacow case asked the council to discriminate against a family, so too did Hogan’s office.

Patrick Carthy, his wife, and seven children were living on a halting site, and were in line for allocation of a house. Hogan claims the concerns he represented centred on anti-social behaviour, rather than the fact that the family were Travellers. Apparently, Carthy had grown up in the area, and his father was involved in a dispute with a local man 20 years ago, when Patrick Carthy was 12 years old.

On that basis, Hogan felt it reasonable to make a representation that he and his children not be housed there. Hogan did not suggest alternative accommodation for the family. He just wanted the council to know that some of his constituents didn’t want the family in Bonnettstown, and that was good enough for him.

The letter of assurance which Hogan’s office dispatched to the objectors had named the family, which is highly unusual, as the subject matter suggested there was something undesirable about them. An inference could be drawn from the letter that the contents were slanderous. Yet, far from taking great care with the correspondence — or possibly even consulting Hogan himself about its exact contents — his office actually got Patrick Carthy’s name wrong, describing him as “McCarthy”. On such a casual basis are letters dispatched blackening a man’s name in order to curry favours to be called in at election time.

In any event, Hogan’s representations were unheeded. For this, at least, the citizenry at large should be grateful. The culture of public representatives giving the impression to voters that they can provide a personal service in mediating with official bodies is long gone beyond a joke.

Some backbench TDs have literally made a career out of this smoke-and-mirror politics, but the revelation that a senior Government minister still feels compelled to do so in such a callous manner is a sad reflection on where we’re at.

But his role in this affair says much more. As Paul O’Brien pointed out in these pages on Thursday, Hogan had scant regard for the seven Carthy children who were living on a halting site, even at a time when the Government is leading the charge for the referendum on the rights of children.

Apart from that, how can Hogan properly discharge his brief? How can he oversee the housing and local government portfolios if he is actively attempting to prevent housing? How can any Travellers who experience problems with housing have any confidence of getting a fair deal when the man overseeing the portfolio has shown his colours in this regard? He claims that the case had nothing to do with discrimination and was all about anti-social behaviour, although the only issue he refers to had to do with Patrick Carthy’s father 20 years ago. How can the minister for community be involved in something that has, at the very least, the perception of prejudice about it? There are problems between Travellers and the so-called settled community around the country which manifest themselves in flashpoints. Undoubtedly, there is fault on both sides.

There are issues involving some Travellers having scant regard for the mores of the settled community. There are issues of particular crimes for which some Travellers are notorious, but law-breaking is not confined to their community. On the other hand, there is also blatant prejudice against Travellers as a whole, for no other reason than their ethnicity. In light of Hogan’s conduct, could any Traveller have confidence that the minister for community can reconcile differences with an even hand? Of course, in the scheme of the politics that prevails in this State, these issues don’t really matter. A senior politician in other western countries might well find himself ousted on foot of such conduct. Not here.

Locally, Hogan won’t lose any votes over the issue and might even harvest more. At the national level of government, it doesn’t even merit a ripple of discomfort. All the indications are that it is regarded as perfectly acceptable for a senior Government minister to pander to prejudice, rather than confront it.

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