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Mica-affected Donegal residents say, ‘If this happened in Dublin, it would already be fixed’

“Dublin needs empathy, they need to understand how difficult this is for us. We can’t even widen our doors for Declan’s wheelchair, or add a handrail to the wall for him — because the whole roof could collapse.”

Yvonne McLaughlin with five of her seven children, Sarah (11), JP (10), Grace (7), Áine (5) and Clara (3) on the hill behind their mica-affected home at Isle of Doagh, Co Donegal. Photo: Joe Dunne

Yvonne and Paul McLaughlin with five of their seven children outside their mica-affected home in Isle of Doagh, Co Donegal. Photo: Joe Dunne

Tommy and Marie Walsh in their mica-affected home in Carndonagh, Co Donegal. Photo: Joe Dunne

Sharon with her husband Kevin and son Sam in their mica-affected home in Letterkenny, Co Donegal. Photo: Joe Dunne

Tommy and Marie Walsh outside their home in Carndonagh. Photo: Joe Dunne

Rodney EdwardsSunday Independent

There is growing unease in Donegal at the length of time it is taking the Government to fix mica-affected homes.

Fifteen months after Housing Minister Darragh O’Brien agreed to a €3bn scheme to rebuild and remediate an estimated 7,500 homes damaged by defective blocks, many residents feel they are getting nowhere.

A similar €2.5bn scheme to pay for repairs of Celtic Tiger-era defects in apartments was signed off last month, and that irks Donegal homeowners.

Yvonne McLaughlin’s mica-infected house on the Isle of Doagh in Inishowen is crumbling around her. She first lodged her complaint with the authorities two years ago — and is still waiting for it to be acknowledged.

“Our house has been condemned. Our engineer has said our structure is at risk of sudden collapse and I am scared. I say a prayer at night that it doesn’t collapse.

“Donegal County Council tells me they are looking at the backlog of applications — but they have had ours sitting on their desk since 2020,” she says.

The wavy sand dunes and rugged landscape make for an idyllic backdrop in this small peninsula on the north coast. However, it is anything but.

We meet on a stormy morning — and as we talk, the roof shakes and a squealing noise is heard from the rafters. There are visible cracks beneath the window sills. My hand can fit between one of the ledges and the exterior wall. A piece of plaster hits the ground in front of us and turns to dust.

“I hope my family and I are not being naive by staying here, but we have nowhere else to go. I need help — but I have seen nothing from the Government, apart from sweeping statements.”

She has been allocated €15,000 as part of the scheme to relocate while her home eventually gets rebuilt — but insists the money is not enough to accommodate her, her husband Paul, and their seven children, Megan (17), Elisa (15), Sarah (11), John Paul (10), Grace (7), Áine (5) and Clara (3).

“I have a family of nine — where will that €15,000 take me? We have looked for somewhere to go, but there’s nowhere to rent. We also looked at cabins. Imagine putting a caravan out there, it would be in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.”

Nestled between Pollan Bay and Trawbreaga Bay, this area of the Isle of Doagh sits opposite the Malin Head shoreline where Ms McLaughlin grew up.

“I love looking out at that rugged view and don’t want to leave. But now the house is shaking on it. We have no shelter. We have to tape up the kids’ rooms, and our ceilings and tiles are cracking.

“The lights don’t work because of the cracks, the dishwater doesn’t work because the electrics are damaged, there is mould in the kids’ rooms and black residue around most of the windows.”

She says her children are “constantly complaining about how cold it is” — yet the heat is never off.

“The heat doesn’t heat the house, we are going around with quilts and duvets. One of my daughters goes in every night to sleep with her younger sister because she is too cold. Another daughter is being tested for asthma. It’s getting worse for us,” says Ms McLaughlin.

Yvonne and Paul McLaughlin with five of their seven children outside their mica-affected home in Isle of Doagh, Co Donegal. Photo: Joe Dunne

The wheelchair user

Mary Lafferty-Fowley lives in a mica-damaged home in Figart with her husband Donal and their three sons, Eoin (18), Pearse (15), and Declan (14), who uses a wheelchair.

“Declan’s joints are locked, his legs and arms don’t bend. I always took it for granted not having to worry about a house, but now I know it’s nowhere near suitable for Declan’s needs.

“We can’t rent. A mobile home is not suitable. There is no way we’ll be able to find suitable accommodation,” she says, with tears in her eyes.

Despite promising to act, Ms Lafferty-Fowley also feels she has been let down by the Government.

“Dublin needs empathy, they need to understand how difficult this is for us. We can’t even widen our doors for Declan’s wheelchair, or add a handrail to the wall for him — because the whole roof could collapse.

“When will the Government do something? When will the scheme benefit us? At the moment we are paying a mortgage on a house that is worth zilch and could fall like a deck of cards.”

Tommy and Marie Walsh in their mica-affected home in Carndonagh, Co Donegal. Photo: Joe Dunne

Health problems

In the market town of Carndonagh, the Sunday Independent meets a group of mica-affected residents, including Tommy Walsh and his wife Marie. The couple sits solemnly as we discuss how they have been since the Government announced its scheme in 2021.

“I feel like I’m banging my head against the wall,” says Mr Walsh. “I submitted my claim on September 18, 2021, and I haven’t heard a dicky bird since.

“I’ve had two heart attacks and a cardiac arrest. I was told not to have any stress in my life,” he says, “but I am getting no farther and my money is haemorrhaging rapidly.”

Their home in Quigley’s Point is “freezing all of the time”.

“You are constantly using up the oil, and for what? I set the heating for an hour this morning before I got up — and it was still at 13C. I used to get undressed to go to bed, now I get dressed to go to bed,” he says.

He gets emotional when he looks at his wife. “I would like to leave her trouble-free when I pass on, but that will not be the case with our house,” he says. “And through all of this we’re not getting honesty or integrity from this Government — they don’t care about Donegal.”

Ali Farren, who lives in Malin Head with his wife Mairéad and their daughter Kate, nods his head.

“We are at a standstill — and I am nowhere near content with what I have heard from this Government. They are dragging their feet,” he says.

He believes if this issue was “dragging on in Dublin”, the affected properties “would be fixed”.

“That has been proved by the apartments scheme. There is a rural/urban divide, without a shadow of a doubt,” says Mr Farren.

Sharon with her husband Kevin and son Sam in their mica-affected home in Letterkenny, Co Donegal. Photo: Joe Dunne

The house is shaking

Sharon O’Connor and her six siblings also live in Malin Head. They all have mica-defective blocks in each of their homes, as do their elderly parents. It is “all we talk about”, says Sharon, adding that her husband Martin and their children Marty and Courtney no longer go upstairs.

“It is absolutely freezing all the time. It’s now so bad Courtney is sleeping in the sitting room. We’re filling the oil tank every six weeks — we close the back door and can feel the house shake.”

Does she feel progress is being made to rectify things?

“No, I don’t. I am sickened that we are still sitting here, that it is still going on, that nothing is being done to help us. It doesn’t even look like we are going to be any further ahead any time soon.”

After only finding out last year that they had mica, Linda McLoughlin says she and her husband Henry are “devastated”. They have borne the brunt of its impact in recent months.

“I am cold all the time, and find it very hard to sleep,” she says. “I now have osteoporosis, it’s on my spine. Henry has heart problems. If our health gets any worse we will not be able to cope with having to move.

“At night I go down to the hot press to change, because it is warmer.”

Mary Margaret McLoughlin and her husband Pat had to move out of their home after the chimney fell down.

“The Government does not care. There is no care and consideration given. They have pointed a finger at rural Ireland and are essentially saying: ‘You should be grateful to get this money.’ They are telling us to go to hell. Well, we are in hell, and we have nowhere else to go,” she says, in tears.

“Every single day we wake up, not knowing how to keep going. It’s hugely upsetting.”

When the nine people in the room were asked to raise their hands if their mental health has been impacted by the length of time it is taking the Government to sort their homes, everyone does so.

Mould in every room

Over an hour away in Letterkenny, Amber Piper says she and her husband Martin and their four children are living a day-to-day existence.

Mica in their home has resulted in mould in every room. It is even in the sofas, in wardrobes and on clothes.

Her daughter Lily, 14, has special needs and has had open heart surgery.

“That was the worst thing to happen us. She has a weakened immune system — and now our home and health have worsened since last summer. The internal cracking is now immense, compared to what it was previously.

“Every time we contact the authorities, we’re made feel like we are trying to scam them.”

Sharon Moss and her husband Kevin are trying to source a mobile home for their garden. Their home of 20 years is falling apart, her son Joshua (19), sleeps on the sofa and she needs a portacabin for her 17-year-old son Sam, who is studying.

“I am living in a house where only two electrical sockets are working. We now have to find someone to dig up the garden for a mobile home which we will need lifting over the roof.

“The accommodation money from the Government isn’t enough. I tried to rent a house a few doors down — it was €1,400 per month.

“Eventually we will have to spend all our own money. This is our kids’ money for the future. Our second child wants to go to college, do we not send him?”

She says she “panics” every time she hears a noise.

“The whole house is twisting, the concrete is coming off in handfuls. There is dampness everywhere — and we are breathing that in. The whole house is ready to fall. If I hear a noise in bed at night, I panic. I’m stressed, I feel like I’m failing my family. Who is helping us? Not Dublin anyway.”

“To listen to the Government, you’d think our homes are all sorted — that is misinformation,” says Lisa Hone.

‘We still pay mortgages’

Lisa Hone, the current chairperson of the Mica Action Group lives in Ramelton, 20 minutes away from Letterkenny, with her husband Gerry and teenage daughter Gráinne.

The couple have three older daughters, one of whom has graduated and is working in London — the other two are at college in Dublin and come and go sporadically.

“Our house is cracking inside and out and is visibly worsening every year,” she says, fearing that very soon her home will be “destroyed and become uninhabitable”.

“All the while we have to continue to pay our mortgages, whatever the condition of our home — or the banks will repossess whatever is left.

“No additional help is given, despite the banks being one of the main beneficiaries, in restoring the value of their balance sheet, if we ever manage to rebuild our homes.”

The recently announced apartment redress scheme is a difficult pill to swallow, admits Ms Hone, adding that she is “astonished at the discriminatory treatment of those living in defective concrete homes”.

“Whether it be defective apartments, defective concrete homes or the Leinster pyrite issue, all affected homeowners find themselves in such dire and distressing situations for the same reason.”

She says state governance, which should have protected homeowners like her and others, “failed persistently and nationally to effectively regulate a core industry, exposing thousands unknowingly to defective homes which were destined to fail.”

“The fact that the wrong done to families in defective concrete homes comes at a higher price to restore than other defects in other types of homes should not penalise the homeowners — but that is effectively what the Government is doing, by the use of exclusions, caps, grant rates based on obsolete regulations, and no scheme support and management structure.”

She adds that many of the elements mica campaigners “fought so hard for and were given a flat ‘no’ from government, have now found their way into the defective apartment owners’ redress scheme”.

Rebuilding is one of the “most complicated, financially demanding and emotionally charged processes for those affected”, adds Ms Hone.

“Despite this, those affected, including the most vulnerable, are advised by government ministers to just get on with it.

"It displays an utter disconnect with the life-shattering reality families are facing into,” she says.

‘Different laws for different cases’

The Government has said it is “committed to helping affected homeowners to get their homes and lives back together” and will inform residents of its plans in the coming days.

A spokesperson for Darragh O’Brien said the housing minister had “moved decisively to develop the necessary legislation as quickly as possible to deal with two separate issues”, namely mica-hit homes and apartment defects.

“Different defects are being addressed in different types of buildings requiring separate bespoke legislation for both,” the spokesperson said.

The Defective Concrete Block (DCB) scheme is administered on a per-home basis, with 100pc of costs covered to an upper limit of €420,000.

Work on completing the necessary regulations to facilitate the commencement of the 2022 Act is “ongoing”.

The intention is to roll out the new scheme early this year after consultation with key stakeholders via the homeowners’ liaison officer this week.

The decision from the Government is that existing applicants under the current grant scheme will not be disadvantaged by being early movers and will benefit retrospectively from the increased grant amounts and allowances under the enhanced scheme.

As of last December, Donegal County Council has notified the department it has now cleared 30 mica-related applications that were awaiting approval and is working through further pending applications from the current DCB grant scheme.

On legacy defects in apartments, remediation will take place on a “whole of building” approach, meaning it is “per apartment block rather than per individual unit”, the spokesperson said.

It is envisaged that Owners Management Companies (OMCs) will be funded through the scheme to carry out the necessary safety works, and the average cost is estimated at €25,000 per apartment as set out in the report published last July.

Work is now under way to draft the required legislation, which will include the scope, eligibility and conditions of the remediation scheme that will become operational following the implementation of the required legislation.

There are many details in relation to how the scheme will operate in practice that will need to be considered.

The report from the working group to examine defects in housing found that fire safety, structural safety and water ingress defects in purpose-built apartments and duplexes built between 1991 and 2013 are widespread issues affecting apartments or duplexes in each local authority area.

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