There are very few areas where the instinct to be compassionate, the obligation to be supportive, inclusive and humane are as compromised as at the interface of the rights and expectations of much of society — the settled community — and the rights and expectations of Travellers.
Sections of one group are intolerant and frightened but, unfortunately, sections of the other group sometimes justify that intolerance and those fears. That we skirt those experiences can serve to fuel this unease.
We seem reluctant to have a frank exchange leaving the issue to fester and be exploited by the most unsavoury forces. This silence, this determination to tell only part of the story, will never resolve the issue in even the most piecemeal way.
There are not, nor will there be, positive outcomes unless all areas of contention in this failing relationship are honestly addressed.
This two-sided dysfunction has led to some suggestions that seem unsustainable.
Just over a week ago an expert group suggested homeowners should lose the right to object to Traveller accommodation. It is hard to think of any other context in which that suggestion might be made, much less taken seriously.
Ask any community in the shadow of a humming wind farm or one losing its privacy and peace to road expansion. Ask any community fighting proposals to build, say, an incinerator. It is symbolic of the flaws of this debate that any community that objects to proposals to house Travellers in their area is excoriated as reactionary NIMBYs.
All citizens, including Travellers, are entitled to live in security and argue against proposals and actions that might undermine that security — even if those arguments are based on unfounded bias.
The planning process, and local democracy too, exists to balance proposals, to organise the hierarchy of needs and rights underpinning a cohesive society. Putting the development of facilities for one section beyond general oversight would set an unwise precedent.
It is an established feature of this debate that any reference to Traveller criminality is dismissed with the argument that only a minority is involved. But it is likely that homeowners will have their opinions formed by headlines and social media more than statistical arguments.
Just this week a firefighter was injured when his crew was attacked at a rubbish fire at a halting site in Cork city. The Spring Lane site has been overwhelmed by illegal dumping for many years.
Cork City Council cleared several hundred tonnes of illegally-dumped rubbish this year and a security hut was put in place to try to curtail illegal dumping. It was burnt out and security staff were threatened by a masked and armed gang.
A few days ago, a Garda/CAB raid in Rathcoole in Dublin seized 12 caravans, three generators and power tools, all believed stolen. These are episodes and images, characteristic or not, fairly or unfairly concluded, which can resonate with potential neighbours and which will not disappear by signing away their access to balanced planning processes.
The Citizens’ Forum helped resolve one of the most contentious issues this society faced. Maybe it’s time that opportunity was used to try to resolve other issues with a full and open engagement.