An independent review of the strained relationship between the settled and Traveller communities in Rathkeale, Co Limerick did not consult any Travellers, although efforts were made to do so.
The review forms the basis of a new response plan to the annual arrival of members of the Travelling community to the town from all over Europe at Christmas, which in past years has been associated with a rise in anti-social behaviour.
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Permanent residents of the small Limerick town, including members of both communities, have long been calling for an increased garda presence and proper planning to deal with the 3,000 visitors who arrive from December 8th each year.
Last year extra resources, including extra garda, were deployed in the area which led to a significant reduction in problems. Local authorities plan to step up the response this year which will include the deployment of armed gardaí on the streets, extra court sittings and a HSE “triage clinic”.
The plan is based on a report commissioned by Limerick City and County Council in 2017 into the arrival of people into the town at Christmas and the problems it causes. In drafting the report, an independent facilitator was tasked with speaking to various “stakeholders” in the town, including residents, businesses and members of the Travelling community.
The town has the highest ratio of Travellers to settled people in Ireland. It is thought the majority of Rathkeale’s some 1,500 residents are from the Travelling community.
According the report to the council in May 2017, “no direct meeting took place with a member of the Traveller Community in Rathkeale” despite the efforts of the facilitator.
“This is a significant gap in a process seeking to address the Christmas period and wider issues. Therefore, the views expressed in the following report cannot be regarded as providing a comprehensive overview based upon the full extent and experiences of all of the people of Rathkeale,” the report states.
The report found there is “considerable pride in Rathkeale” and much unexplored potential for the two communities living side-by-side.
However, it also found some respondents believed it had gone from a vibrant market town to one with question marks over its survival.
Most respondents raised health and safety concerns, especially surrounding the large numbers of caravans being parked in unsuitable places over the Christmas period.
Regular reference was made to the fire in a Carrickmines halting site in 2015 in which 10 people died, the author noted.
Another issue raised by respondents was access for emergency services. In one incident over Christmas 2016, paramedics were blocked from accessing a person having a heart attack until gardaí and members of the local Traveller community intervened.
Many respondents stressed the difference between permanent residents of the town and those treating it as a holiday destination at Christmas. “Comparisons were made with places like Magaluf,” the report stated.
Violent behaviour and intimidation, especially among youths, was also a major issue. There were violent feuds between visitors to the town in 2016 and locals were concerned this could become a growing issue.
Dr Salter Sterling, who chairs the faith-based Rathkeale Pre-social Cohesion Committee said the report was a good starting point but would have been more successful if the Travelling community had taken part.
He said the relationship between the two communities has improved in recent years. “The groundwork has been done to allow for more avenues of cross-community activity to be explored.”
Local Fine Gael councillor Richard O’Donoghue said last Christmas was much quieter because of the extra garda presence and he expects the same for this year. In 2017, 95 per cent of the west Limerick Garda budget over Christmas was spent in the town.
He said traffic-calming measures, including speed ramps installed at a cost of €180,000, will cut down on young people in high-powered cars speeding around the town.
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