We will resume with our programme of business for the evening, statements on Traveller ethnicity. I call the Taoiseach to make his statement under Standing Order 45. On this historic occasion, he has ten minutes.
Traveller Ethnicity: Statements
On a point of order-----
I have spent the past half hour out at the gates, where there are approximately 150 to 200 Travellers who have come from all over Ireland to witness this historic occasion. It is unusual. The AV room and Gallery are full. They have been patient, having been outside for hours, and they are excited about this most historic occasion in the life of their community. Would anyone blame them?
I have asked the Ceann Comhairle and the ushers whether it is possible to open up the coffee dock or some of the party rooms to allow the Travellers inside to hear these proceedings. They are emotional and many of us will discuss why we believe that is the case. However, the least that we can do is make a plea to any settled people in the Gallery to give up their seats for the Travellers who have come all this way.
Could we postpone proceedings and ask the staff, not lean on them, whether there is any way to find more space to allow Travellers inside to witness this on CCTV? Some of us could supply our services to help patrol and provide security. I am willing to forgo my opportunity to speak so as to help with ushering people in and out and ensuring there is no hassle. If there are not enough staff, Deputies would be more than willing to do that.
I thank the Deputy, but we cannot get into a lengthy debate on the matter. The Deputy has made her point of order. I take it that Deputy Coppinger has a similar point of order. I will come to Deputy Adams shortly.
This is an historic occasion. I have never heard of a time when so many people have shown up for a debate. I have tried to speak with the Tánaiste. We cannot cite any precedent. Travellers have come to Leinster House from far and wide, but I submitted a list of names approximately 36 hours ago of people in the Irish Traveller Movement and other associations, for example, the Blanchardstown Traveller Development Group, which had fought for 30 years for this day. It seems unfair that this could not have been planned better. I raised the matter earlier. Now that people are outside, can we take a break to facilitate them and make an exception instead of turning away those who have already been marginalised in society? I appeal to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Superintendent to bear with us and try to facilitate that.
We decided not to raise the issue because we did not want to say anything that would cast a shadow over proceedings, but I agree, in particular with what the two previous Teachtaí have said. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh made representations on the matter last Thursday and preparations should have been made. We were engaged with the people who run this institution all day yesterday and all day today. We offered the use of our party room, which could accommodate up to 30 people, and I am sure other parties would do exactly the same. It is an especially historic and important moment of which the people at the gate should be a part. I urge that we would do that and a brief adjournment of 20 minutes would facilitate that.
My understanding is that it is not simply a question of space, it is a question of personnel to manage the unprecedentedly large crowd we have. All are welcome. We apologise to those who have been inconvenienced and who find themselves at the front gate. The advice I have at this point is that we do not have sufficient personnel on site to provide the level of management to ensure proper health and safety conditions prevail for everyone. It is a very important debate and it is important that we proceed. I do not think we should delay the matter any further. I would certainly like to hear the Taoiseach and I would ask-----
Could I just make another point please?
No, Deputy Bríd Smith has made her point.
Could I just make another point?
No, the Deputy cannot.
I would love to hear the Taoiseach but so would the people outside. There are 25 people from Labra Park in Ballyfermot. I am willing and I am sure Deputy Ó Snodaigh would also be willing-----
That is not a point of order.
-----to help to usher them in and to take care of them.
The Deputy should please resume her seat.
If there is a shortage of staff I am willing to do that and other Deputies are willing.
The Deputy should not be facile. She is not an usher.
I am not being facile. We should bend the rules for people who have had the rules broken on them for decades in this country.
I ask the Deputy please to resume her seat.
Thank you, a Cheann Comhairle, for making time in the House today for this historic and symbolic recognition of Travellers as an ethnic group within the Irish nation. Robbie is a 17 year old young man, the apple of his mother's eye, his future is ahead of him and the world is at his feet, yet he walks with his head down. No more. His mother, his family and his Traveller community want Robbie to feel the same sense of hope and opportunity as every other young person in this country. So do I. So does this Dáil, this House of public representatives. Today's statement of recognition of Travellers as an ethnic group will go some way to ensuring Robbie and his entire Traveller family have a better future with less negativity, exclusion and marginalisation.
As the House is aware, the Traveller community has for many years campaigned to have its unique heritage, culture and identity formally recognised by the State. In this State, Travellers make their contribution as gardaí, doctors, members of the Defence Forces, prison officers and in other occupations, so there should be no surprise that a person can identify as Irish and as Traveller. This is a deep and personal issue for many Travellers. On 6 February last, I invited representatives of the main Traveller organisations to the Cabinet committee on social policy to discuss the matter with the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton, and other senior Ministers. They said it took 30 years for a Government to listen to them across the table. The representatives spoke passionately about how this strong message from the State would be a very important symbolic and positive step in acknowledging the uniqueness of Traveller identity. They felt it would resonate strongly among the community and help counter the stigma and shame felt by many, particularly young people, and increase feelings of respect, self-esteem and inclusion.
I was deeply moved as members of the group spoke of their own personal experiences, including their personal hopes and dreams for their children to live their lives and fulfil their ambitions. We all want the same for our children, namely, to grow up and thrive in a society where we are all free to be who we truly are. No one should have to hide their religion, sexual orientation, race or culture to be respected or even accepted in society. As we discussed at the meeting, there are also darker elements across society that challenge the law of the land that must be tackled. The Traveller community is not immune from that. I hope that today will create a new platform for positive engagement by the Traveller community and Government together in seeking sustainable solutions which are based on respect and on honest dialogue.
That recent engagement and these statements from all party leaders in the House will further help generate mutual recognition and respect between the Traveller and settled communities. For some time Ireland has implicitly recognised Travellers as having a distinct ethnic identity. We have done so by reporting since 2000 to the Council of Europe on the situation of Travellers in Ireland in our periodic reports on the Council's Framework Convention on National Minorities. We have also done so by reporting on the situation of Travellers to the UN and the Council of Europe in our periodic reports on the main international conventions and monitoring bodies against racism. We have further done so by explicitly naming Travellers as a protected group in equality legislation.
Since the 1980s, Pavee Point, together with the Irish Traveller Movement, the National Traveller Women's Forum and Mincéirs Whiden have campaigned strongly on behalf of Travellers. They have worked hard with the community to improve living conditions, promote health and education and access to services. They have sought to empower Travellers and have not been afraid to help them address some of their own internal challenges.
The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is also finalising a new national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy which will be published shortly. The inclusion strategy is intended to bring about important changes to the lives of the Traveller and Roma communities in Ireland. The campaign for recognition of Travellers in Ireland as a specific ethnic group of the Irish nation, with its own unique heritage, culture and traditions has of course been part of the discussions for the new strategy. It does not surprise us, in the context of relationships and self identities within the island of Ireland that a person can identify in different and sometimes overlapping ways. We recognise as part of the Good Friday Agreement that a person can identify as Irish, Northern Irish or British and that this self identification can vary with greater emotional commitment to one or other element depending on the circumstances. Under the same Good Friday Agreement, we formally recognise the identity of people of Ulster Scots heritage, including in the three Border counties, and we support the development of their unique heritage and culture, without prejudice to their equal citizenship in and loyalty to this Republic.
Our Traveller community is an integral part of our society for over 1,000 years, with its own distinct identity - people within our people. It a great privilege for me to be the person that has the honour of making this statement. I acknowledge the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, at the Department of Justice and Equality and the national Traveller organisations who undertook substantial work to bring clarity to the debate, and all of the other public representatives who have assisted in any way in the work that brought us to this point. Together, we agreed that recognition of Travellers could have a transformative effect on relations between Travellers and wider society, and will create no new individual, constitutional or financial rights. Because, of course, Travellers already enjoy all the human rights and responsibilities that are afforded all people under the Constitution and laws. The acceptance and implementation of those rights and responsibilities has to work both ways in order for society to function effectively, inclusively and with mutual respect for all citizens.
We recognise the inequalities and the discrimination that the Traveller community faces and has faced and have a range of special programmes and interventions to help deal with this. The development of the new national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy will build on this. Mar sin, mar Thaoiseach, aithním go hoifigiúil gur grúpa eitneach é Lucht Taistil na hÉireann. As Taoiseach, I now wish formally to recognise Travellers as a distinct ethnic group within the Irish nation. It is, therefore, a historic day for Travellers and a proud day and a day of maturity for Ireland. Lá iontach tábhachtach é seo do Lucht Taistil na tíre. Lá dár saol, mar a déarfá. May all the people of our nation live in the shelter and never in the shadow of each other. Or as the good Traveller man taught me how to say in Cant, this is a borradh táileasc for the mincéir.
I wish to share time with Deputy Jim O'Callaghan. Is ócáid den scoth é seo. Déanaim comhghairdeas le Lucht Siúil na tíre as ucht an aitheantais atá bronnta orthu inniu i nDáil Éireann ar son Comhaltaí na Parlaiminte seo. Tá an lá seo tuillte agus is ócáid ceiliúrtha é do Lucht Siúil na tíre. On behalf of Fianna Fáil, I warmly welcome today's formal recognition and declaration by An Taoiseach on behalf of everyone in Dáil Éireann of Traveller ethnicity. I welcome all the representatives from the Traveller community who have travelled far and wide to attend Dáil Éireann. I was delighted to meet many whom I have met in different contexts in the past, particularly health and education. I welcome them and congratulate them on this achievement and the realisation of their ethnic identity in Dáil Éireann today. In many ways, today should challenge us as legislators and representatives to realise the aspirations and ambitions of the people here and of the Traveller community for the younger generations so that they can be fully part of Irish society without discrimination and exclusion and meaningfully participate in employment, education, health and all the various services.
I recognise the work of the Traveller organisations that have called for the acknowledgement of their unique identity and place in Irish society for the past 30 years. This first step will bring positive momentum to addressing the damaging impact of marginalisation, exclusion and discrimination against Travellers. As recent research and work has shown, Travellers have been a distinct part of our history for as long as written records exist. They are today just as they always have been - a very important, distinct and valuable element of the broader mosaic of Irish culture and society. Yet there has also been an inescapable history of incomprehension, distrust and far too often, tension between the rest of society and this ethnic community. It is a depressing reality that the overwhelming tendency has been for us to discuss the Traveller community here and in the wider public sphere at times of tragedy or in the context of issues defined as problems and challenges. The most important thing we can do is to move towards showing respect for cultural difference within our overall identity and to understand that recognising the distinct ethnic identities of Irish people does not undermine Irishness. Rather it strengthens Irishness.
Over the past two decades in particular, there have been important developments in terms of both the legal recognition of the rights of Travellers and the reform of State services designed to help Travellers to benefit from wider opportunities. I have been part of Governments that enacted clear legal protections for Travellers in the Employment Equality Act and the Equal Status Act. I have also been engaged in targeted strategies which have made some difference in terms of tackling health inequalities and significantly increasing educational achievement but not enough by any yardstick. I am delighted to have met Missy Collins and Rosaleen McDonagh who worked on the Traveller health strategy committee - I will not say many years ago but some years ago - and who had a very significant input into that strategy. There were many challenges in officialdom against a specific focused Traveller health strategy. The degree of challenges we had to get through to get that over the line was unacceptable. An awful lot more needs to be done in education in terms of completion of national and second-level education in particular. We must also remember that only 1% of Travellers go on to third-level education. I recently met a young Traveller named T. J. Hogan who told me that he was one of three young Travellers in Cork Institute of Technology. One of the three was his sister. He is an outstanding individual and today is a great day for him because he came to talk to me about this recognition but also about how we can do more. I think he would like a career in politics. That is what this day is about - that it leads to young people getting involved in politics. I was delighted to meet Ian McDonagh, a young man in the Public Gallery who won the Jack Restan Display Award in the recent Young Scientist competition. I met him at this competition. He has a brilliant, inventive mind and a great future ahead of him. I am delighted he can be here today as a young man witnessing this historic occasion.
We all have a duty in this House to facilitate and encourage events like this to enable members of the Traveller community to progress through our education system and secure employment. As we know, according to the all-party report, Traveller mortality rates are still three times the national average and suicide rates are six times the national average. We need to make a meaningful impact on those issues. The recognition of the distinct ethnicity of Travellers represents and should represent a watershed in how we as a State approach these key issues. People will say that there has been a de facto recognition of Traveller ethnicity. I do not think this is strictly true. What we have had up to now is a recognition that many people by virtue of being Travellers need to be protected from discrimination but what we have not had is a positive statement, which we have had today from the Taoiseach and the House, that we recognise and value the fact that Travellers represent a distinct ethnic group in our society. That will have positive impacts, particularly in terms of giving the community greater confidence and security and ensuring that this is the end once and for all of any suggestion or implication that the objective of State policy is to dissolve a distinct ethnic group into wider society. Many people from the community have told me that this recognition will help to reinforce self-pride and reflects a dual identity - one that is maintained by many with Irish roots in other countries. We must avoid the patronising and damaging stereotyping of Travellers that comes from defining this community solely in terms of challenges. I believe we can create a much more positive story into the future.
I acknowledge the work of the Oireachtas Committee on Justice, Equality, Defence and Women's Rights in 2014 and the recent all-party Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality. Their reports have been comprehensive, inclusive and important catalysts for this declaration of ethnicity. It is entirely right that we have reached a stage of formally recognising the ethnicity of Travellers based on a non-partisan approach and reaching consensus. It is about being willing to recognise and value difference and there are many within this House whose work we should acknowledge. On our side, I thank Deputies Jim O'Callaghan and Jack Chambers for the detailed work they did for our parliamentary party. However, it is not about politicians this evening. It is about those who lobbied hard and who brought this day about through persuasion, professionalism and dogged campaigning. Pavee Point, the Irish Traveller Movement, the National Traveller Women's Forum, Mincéirs Whiden and others have worked incredibly hard to bring this about. We are thankful to them for developing this. I was particularly impressed by what Bernard Joyce said when he summed up what today means to him as a Traveller. He said that:
Ethnicity is not the same as race, nationality or place of birth. Recognising Traveller ethnicity will not make us less Irish. It will, however, acknowledge our dual identity of being both Irish and Traveller, similar to Irish Americans and African Americans. Having my identity recognised, defined and included would enhance my pride of place in Irish society my sense of being part of rather than separate from it.
That sums up what today is all about. I congratulate all involved for bringing it about.
As Fianna Fáil spokesperson on equality, I congratulate members of the Irish Traveller community who are here today and those around the country on the fact that today, for the first time, the State has recognised their unique ethnicity. I commend the Taoiseach on taking on that responsibility on behalf of the State in recognising the unique ethnicity of Irish Travellers.
I commend the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, under the chairmanship of Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, that held hearings at the end of last year and which produced a report in January this year calling on the Government to recognise the unique ethnicity of Irish Travellers and I welcome the work that was done by that committee. I also recognise the role played by its predecessor, the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, under the chairmanship of the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy David Stanton, for also producing a report in respect of the State recognising the unique ethnicity of Irish Travellers.
It is important, now that we have acknowledged the unique ethnicity of Travellers, that we go further as a State. The report produced by the ESRI in January this year entitled, A Social Portrait of Travellers in Ireland, reveals that there are many challenges that not only Travellers face, but that the State faces, to ensure Travellers have the same rights as other citizens. We need to ensure, in respect of education, health care and housing, that Travellers have full citizenship and are given full rights in the same way as every other citizen in this country.
I again congratulate Travellers on the recognition of their ethnicity.
Tá mé fíor-bhuíoch as an deis labhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach anocht. Is lá agus oíche fíor-thábhachtach don Lucht Taistil é. Cuirim fáilte roimh na grúpaí anseo, na daoine sa Gallery and elsewhere in Leinster House and I extend solidarity to all Travellers on this historic day. It is their day, and a momentous step forward for equality.
Some are outside and I am sure we all regret that. Perhaps, if the Taoiseach's schedule allows, he could address them. I understand there are 70 members of the Traveller community in Buswells and some of us could go and give them some sense of what has happened here this evening.
On behalf of Sinn Féin, I very much welcome this and thank the Taoiseach for recognising Traveller ethnicity. I pay tribute, in particular, to those who have advocated on behalf of the Traveller community, from within the Traveller community itself but also those from the settled community, who have done so much to advance this cause. Some have done so for decades, for which we are thankful to them.
We need to be mindful also of those who have suffered because they were Travellers. I particularly remember the Lynch, Connors and Gilbert families who died in Glenamuck.
I pay tribute to the women of the Traveller community. Like their sisters in disadvantaged sections of the settled community, the women of the Traveller community have been the great heroines and champions who have kept their families going through thick and thin. I acknowledge the work of Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy David Stanton. Maith thú, a Aire Stáit Stanton. Táimid buíoch duitse feasta.
I commend also the work of the justice committees, both the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, chaired by Deputy Stanton, in the previous Dáil which adopted a report by Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn recommending the recognition of Traveller ethnicity, and also the current committee, chaired by Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.
Today's decision to recognise Traveller ethnicity is the right thing to do. The Taoiseach's statement finally brings the Irish State into line with existing recognition already in place in the North, as well as in England, Scotland and Wales. The distinct culture, traditions and ethnicity of the Traveller community need to be cherished and valued.
One of the main characteristics of Irish Travellers is their nomadic lifestyle. This was particularly the case until the 1950s and 1960s. Until then, many earned a living from repairing and making household utensils which were usually made from tin. The rapid pace of new technologies, the use of plastic and other cheap goods brought about major changes in Travellers' lifestyles.
The Commission on Itinerancy report of 1963 also had a huge bearing on the lives of Travellers in this State. The report established policy on Travellers for the following 20 years. It is one of the most shameful reports in the history of the State. If Teachtaí want an insight into its agenda or views, they need only look at the terms of reference for the commission. These were: (1) to enquire into the problem arising from the presence in the country of itinerants in considerable numbers; (2) to examine the economic, educational, health and social problems inherent in their way of life [and] to promote their absorption into the general community. These terms were dripping in racism and elitism. They were ignorant, stupid and ill-informed.
It is little wonder, after decades of discrimination and demonisation, there is a sense of demoralisation, low self-worth and inferiority among some in the Travelling community. The prejudice and discrimination many Travellers face has worsened in recent years. We need only look to the opposition to a temporary halting site for those bereaved by the fire in late 2015, for example, or the treatment of Travellers in my own constituency who were evicted from a halting site in Dundalk this time last year.
There is that sense of a much wider institutional discrimination faced by members of the Traveller community in areas such as health and education provision. That has been a hallmark of the relationship between settled people and Travellers. That relationship has been blighted by suspicion, resentment and animosity based on false perceptions and fears. A lot of it is based on ignorance.
Ignorance breeds fear. The only cure for ignorance is knowledge and that comes from education and engagement. The Proclamation of 1916 should be the mission statement of a modern Irish republic. It addresses itself to Irishmen and Irishwomen. It does not state, "unless one is a member of the Traveller community".
All of us have rights. These include the right to receive equal service in shops and pubs, the right to access education, health services and work, and the right to accommodation, on the basis of equality. Every Irish citizen should enjoy the rights and entitlements that come with that citizenship. Regrettably, this has not been the case for our Traveller brothers and sisters.
The Traveller child born today faces a life in which he or she will be part of the most socially disadvantaged group in Irish society. That child will leave school earlier, have little prospect of work, will suffer ill-health and poverty, and will die younger. He or she will endure substandard living conditions. Many will have no access to basic facilities such as sanitation, water and electricity. They will face discrimination in employment and most will never work. Cutbacks in education, health and other services have impacted severely on the Traveller community. The suicide rate for Traveller women is six times that of the settled community. It is seven times higher for Traveller men. At the root of all these problems are the unacceptable levels of prejudice, discrimination and social exclusion experienced by Travellers at institutional and other levels. That has to be combatted, and it can be.
Alongside tonight's recognition of Traveller ethnicity, there needs to be a process established to improve relations between the settled and Traveller communities. Sinn Féin has called in the past for the establishment of a national forum, across the island of Ireland, involving Travellers and the settled community, including representatives of all political parties, of government, local authorities, health and education sectors, and representatives of media organisations to plan a way ahead. I repeat that call this evening. Such a forum could discuss openly, and in detail, how discrimination and prejudice against Travellers can be confronted, including prejudicial attitudes facilitated by the actions of some politicians and media outlets.
Despite those decades of discrimination, the Traveller community are a proud people. They are a resilient people. I acknowledge, in particular, the significant contribution and influence on Irish traditional music by Irish Traveller families, particularly uilleann pipers and fiddlers.
In their excellent book, Free Spirits, Tommy Fagan and Oliver O’Connell make the point that "Ireland and Irish culture is richer because of the music and songs of the Traveller community". They say, "wherever Irish music is played, wherever Irish songs are sung, wherever Irish stories are told, and wherever Irish dances are performed the influences of the Dorans, the Keenans, the Fureys, the Dunnes, the Dohertys and other great Traveller and musical families will be very much in evidence". We can add to that Maggie Barry and the Pecker Dunne.
Christy Moore has consistently paid a tribute to John Reilly, who kept alive songs like "Well Below the Valley", which have been sung for 200 years. That is the Traveller community I know - creative, strong, resilient and generous.
In the summer of 1969, when sectarian evictions were incited in the North in reaction to the demands of the civil rights movement, I was one of a small group of activists who helped families to move their belongings from their homes. It should be noted that it was people from the Traveller community in Belfast who provided and drove the lorries, at great risk to themselves, which took these families out of danger.
Among Travellers today there is an articulate grassroots leadership well able to voice Traveller issues and who have consistently raised their community's awareness of their rights. Some of them are in the Visitors Gallery. I know they are up for the challenge of ensuring that all of us together resolve lingering issues and ensure our society embraces the differences that make up the diversity and uniqueness of our the people of our island.
Through strong and resolute leadership like that which was shown tonight and co-operation at all levels in political and civic society, and in our settled and Traveller communities, we can ensure a society that underpins equality for every citizen.
This debate is a major step in the right direction. We need to keep moving in that direction. It is a very historic moment for the 40,000 members of the Traveller community. It is an important symbolic acknowledgement but it must also pave the way for real, practical change. Action must follow ethnicity.
For too long, Travellers have been viewed as a problem by some in Irish society but I am so pleased that we here celebrating Travellers as a people.
Every report that was commissioned in the early days focused almost entirely on the negative, most notably the Commission on Itinerancy Report in 1963. Traveller groups and activists have long advocated a new platform for their people, a recognised place for them in the Irish family, in the Irish nation, not a separate ethnicity but a distinct ethnicity within the Irish nation.
It has been a long road and one that for groups such as Pavee Point, the Irish Traveller Movement, the National Traveller Women's Forum and Minceirs Whiden there were times when there was a temptation to lose faith, but they never did. They believed in each other, in their people and that the process would succeed. They believed also that the much maligned political process would deliver for them, and it has.
The Labour Party is proud to have played its part. A motion calling for the recognition of Traveller ethnicity was passed by our national conference in December 2013. I remember the passionate contributions of Martin Collins, Catherine Joyce and Brigid Quilligan on that occasion. We supported the all-party justice committee report on Traveller ethnicity, with Senator Ivana Bacik being one of the most vocal supporters.
As Tánaiste, I appointed my colleague, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, as a Minister of State to address this issue and to work with the community, among other things. I can only say that he put his heart and his soul into progressing the recognition of the community. He is in the great tradition of Irish teachers who have worked with the Traveller community and given all of those who have gone on to do well in education their start, supported by the mothers and the fathers of the families. As Minister of State, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin brought the issue to the point where all Departments, one by one, supported the move. In our hands it went from a lobbying call to the unanimous backing of the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Social Inclusion.
I recognise and welcome the statement made by the Taoiseach. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, in particular, who has brought the issue to the floor of the House, for which he is to be congratulated. I know that he has met regularly Senators Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and Colette Kelleher, in the best tradition of parliamentary bipartisanship, to keep the focus on the greater goal. Today, that goal is realised and all of our politics is enhanced.
Let us commit to mending the wounds of the past. There are people in the Gallery who I have known, on or off, for 30 or 40 years. I hope that for them tonight is a vindication of all of the different wrongs people experienced at different times.
We have a new start now in terms of tackling real issues that affect members of the Traveller community and their relationship with other communities. All of us have a responsibility to be leaders in our communities and for those in political office, that means an end to the distribution of racist literature or literature that stereotypes and typecasts people. None of us is perfect and in our own way we are all wonderful also. We have to live and let live. That is absolutely critical.
I salute all of the people in the Visitors Gallery, many of whom I have been privileged to know over the years. As I grew politically, I have seen them grow in enormous strength and confidence. They have been able to tell everybody, whether in government or in Departments, what is the right thing to do.
I thank in particular the people who were teachers in the Traveller community over the years such as Roddy Day in Corduff and in Blanchardstown and also the people who worked in the parishes of the Traveller community. It is not much more than a year since the awful fire and in all of those ceremonies, when people were being laid to rest, we saw all of those gifts that the Traveller community has when tragedy strikes to comfort other people.
I congratulate all those people in the community who have taken leadership roles. I hope this debate will formally mark the start of new opportunities, particularly for the young people in the community. I have had many conversations over the years, particularly with mothers who have fought so hard to persuade their children to stay in school, particularly the boys. All of us here should commit to try to ensure that people stay on to do well and be happy in primary school, to succeed in secondary school and, if it is their wish, to go to college, gain an apprenticeship or become a trainee. I know from the successes people in my constituency have had that it is possible to do that.
As Nelson Mandela said, in the end, it is all about young people and it is all about education. I hope these statements tonight will give the young men and the young women in the community their opportunity.
On my behalf and that of my family, I thank all the people in the Traveller community for all the music they have brought us and all of the culture and knowledge, as has been said, and all the songs and tunes they saved. We speak about people in the United States bringing it all back home to Ireland, but in fact the Traveller community kept so much of our musical heritage in Ireland. As we move into a new phase this is something we will surely continue to celebrate.
For the record, because of the points I made earlier, I make it clear that I bear no animosity towards the staff of the building. I have 1,000% respect for them, as do all my colleagues. It was not about the staff. It was an unfortunate set of circumstances which meant at least 100, if not more, Travellers and their children were excluded from this celebration and I really do regret this. It means this is a slightly bittersweet occasion. Nevertheless, I congratulate the Department of Justice and Equality, the Taoiseach and everybody involved in making this reality.
A huge part of why this is a reality is due to those present from the Traveller community. Many people have mentioned musicians and we have also had fine actors. John Connor's series "I Am Traveller" which was on RTE recently helped in a deep cultural way to break down many images and barriers. I will spend the few minutes I have speaking about my perception of culture. Culture is a very deeply embedded part of what we are and who we are, and what the Traveller culture brings to us is something very rich and wide. Without being facile, as the Ceann Comhairle said earlier, some of the best people I have ever met in my life come from the Traveller community because they give a sense of richness, culture and depth in their personalities and experience.
On the other hand, we must acknowledge that in our settled culture there is a deep, often racist and reactionary response to the Traveller community. This morning, I tweeted a big welcome for these events this evening, and within minutes my Facebook and Twitter had received responses with reactionary, racist and vile comments which I will not repeat. These were not from friends of mine, but from people out there who watch these events. I want to make a strong argument and I am not pointing the finger at any one individual but speaking about culture, that the fish rots from the head, and the culture in political society in Ireland has been NIMBYism towards Travellers, not in my back yard, and blaming them when an election comes around to try to get a few votes in a housing estate.
Whether in national or local politics, there is a deep rotten culture in the attitude towards the Traveller community in Irish society. We will not break this down tonight, we will not break it down next week and we will not break it down next year, but we must work damn hard at making sure we break it down. This means everybody in the House, particularly Ministers, must give a lead. I refer to the 80% cut to the Traveller education budget when the Minister for Finance stated the low hanging fruit will be picked first when austerity hit us. This must be reversed immediately. The cuts to assistance for special needs in schools must be reversed immediately. The Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, must keep a strong eye on local authorities and how they underspend the allocation of money given for Traveller accommodation. I was shocked when I was a councillor and chairperson of the Traveller accommodation committee to discover that between 2009 and 2011 €14 million of the budget was underspent by local authorities for Traveller accommodation. This is a deeply rotten racist reactionary political attitude towards the community sitting with us this evening. This is what we must begin to break down. The fish rots from the head but the cure will also come from politicians giving a lead locally and nationally.
Despite the fact I have said some harsh words about the political culture in this country, it is changing and will change even further because of the massive contribution made by individual Travellers, communities such as those in Labre Park, community leaders and Traveller activists who are not necessarily all Travellers. There is a plethora of people whom I hugely admire who have given up their lives and careers to be activists in the Traveller community and to be advocates for it and this evening we should say hats off to them. The community, its supporters and advocates and the organisations who represent it have brought us to where we are now. Now, the ball is our court and it is up to us to ensure a fundamental change which must be brought about in NIMBYism and racism. The discrimination which I described earlier must end and the ending begins this evening.
The events earlier were unfortunate. I wish to speak about a woman who was excluded due to the oversubscription this evening. This is Catherine Joyce who has fought for approximately 30 years alongside many people who are here this evening for Travellers' right in the Irish Traveller Movement and the Blanchardstown Traveller Development Group. She stated Traveller ethnicity is the first step in acknowledging that denial of Traveller culture and that Travellers now look forward to working in partnership with the Government on the implementation of the Traveller and Roma strategy and working out the implications of this much needed announcement. She also stated it is absolutely vital that future legislation and policy to ensure Travellers are afforded equal rights as citizens of the State are tied in with this announcement today.
Today is an historic day for the Traveller community and it is long overdue. It has been fought for by many people over many decades. Malcolm X, who died 50 years ago, stated: "Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything ... you take it." This has been the experience of Travellers in this country. I must take up the Taoiseach on a point. His speech euphemised the situation. He stated Travellers enjoy the same human rights. Perhaps they do under the law, but not in reality and this has been extremely clear to them.
I want to mention Traveller culture because Travellers have not had their culture recognised in the way we know they should have with regard to their language, identity and music. They have been treated in a shameful manner since the foundation of the State. Politicians have used divide and rule. I hope this is the beginning of Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and some other Independents no longer opposing in particular Traveller accommodation behind the scenes, because this is what I saw when I was a councillor on Fingal County Council. We have all seen the leaflets produced throughout the country. This should be the end of it. This has to be not just something in theory but also in practice, and this message should be sent to councillors in local authority chambers.
Some so-called journalists who have written very bigoted articles in the past should take note today. I commend other journalists, such as Kitty Holland who is here this evening and who has played a sterling role in highlighting aspects of discrimination against Travellers. We must say that anti-Traveller bigotry is the acceptable racism in this country and this continues to be the case. While racism will be called out against other people often it is not called out when it is against Travellers, who identify with racism they see in other countries.
We must acknowledge the reality that Travellers still face the worst discrimination. The suicide rate is seven times higher than the national average for men, while the 87% unemployment rate among men and the 81% rate among women speak volumes about the marginalisation of Travellers since the State began. One third do not have access to basic sanitation and the death rate among those aged under 25 is incredibly high among Travellers. A total of 10% die before the age of two. These are statistics one would see in Calcutta, and in many cases Travellers are still living with them.
What is going to be done about it? We have to signal that today marks the end of the vicious cuts that were taken by the previous Government and the one before that to resource teaching for Travellers, that is, teachers who communicated between the school and Traveller families, which was scrapped. All the other attacks made against Travellers also have to end.
It is welcome that Travellers have become radicalised and have sent a message that they will no longer accept racism and discrimination. A protest took place at Fingal County Council in Blanchardstown a couple of years ago and it overwhelmingly comprised young Travellers. That is why we have been brought to this point tonight and I say to Travellers, "Keep up the fight".
There is extensive research to show that Travellers in Ireland stand out as a group that has experienced extreme disadvantage in education, housing, employment and health. According to the Economic and Social Research Institute landmark report, A Social Portrait of Travellers, published in January this year, almost 70% of Travellers live in caravans or overcrowded housing and 84% of caravan accommodation is overcrowded, with only 9% having Internet access. Just 1% of Travellers aged between 25 and 64 years have a college degree, compared with 30% of non-Travellers, and 97% of Travellers in the 25 to 34 age group left school without completing second level, compared to 14% of non-Travellers. Some 82% of Travellers are unemployed, compared with 17% of non-Travellers, and their health deteriorates more dramatically than non-Travellers as they age. Traveller women live 11 years less than non-Traveller women and the suicide rate is six times higher than the national average.
It is to be welcomed that Traveller ethnicity is finally to be recognised by the State and fair play to the Taoiseach for doing so but this token gesture must not distract from the fact that successive Governments have treated Travellers appallingly, and probably none more so than the Fine Gael-Labour Party Government with its austerity programme. Since the November 2011 austerity budget there has been a total cut of 86.6% to Traveller specific education supports. That is shameful. A review of the school completion programme has found that the removal of services such as visiting teachers and resource teachers for Travellers has had a negative impact on school retention for these pupils. Given that 28% of Travellers leave school before the age of 13, compared to 1% of non-Travellers, it is a bit soon for this House to be patting itself on the back.
This is not to diminish the importance of recognising Travellers' distinct ethnicity and identity. Traveller groups have argued that this measure will allow Irish Travellers to gain respect and recognition of the validity of their way of life, affirming Travellers as a group with a valid claim to be different and to expect to access services in ways that are consistent with their culture. The reality, however, is that recognition will not automatically or directly address the widespread structural inequalities and discrimination experienced by Travellers. It will not entitle Travellers to any additional legal rights or protections. The Government has argued this before the international committee for the elimination of racial discrimination but it must now reverse the cuts it imposed on Traveller education, accommodation and employment programmes. Recommendations for Government policy, including the task force on Travellers, the national Traveller education strategy and the national Traveller health strategy, should be implemented and harmful laws which discriminate against Travellers, such as the Trespass Act, should be repealed. The gesture of recognition of Traveller ethnicity will mean nothing if the Government does not change its policies relating to Travellers and if it continues to fail to discrimination-proof all new legislation and policy.
I looked up the word "ethnicity" and found "a group having a common cultural tradition". Just below it I saw a description for "ethnic cleansing", involving the "oppression of an ethnic or religious group within a certain area". I looked up the word "assimilate", which is "to absorb and digest into the body". Attempts have been made to force an ethnic group to conform to a so-called "norm", refusing their right to be different and treated fairly. There is a correlation with what happened to the American Indians and the Aborigines, and what is happening to the Palestinians today. In a way, we have done that to our Irish Travellers. I am not throwing stones at anyone and I would be the first to hold up my hand and say I did not do enough to make a difference. I am sorry for that but I hope today makes a difference.
Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Taoiseach, an Aire agus an Rialtas as ucht an éacht atá déanta acu anocht. Amach anseo agus an Taoiseach i mbun machnaimh ar a thréimhse mar Thaoiseach, tá súil agam go mbreathnóidh sé siar ar an oíche thar a bheith stairiúil seo mar cheann de na buaicphointí dá thréimhse mar Thaoiseach. To misquote Yeats, when you are old and grey and nodding by the fire I am sure you will take down, not a book, but the transcript of today's debate and count it as one of the high points of your career as Taoiseach.
The Taoiseach and his Government deserve credit for having the confidence and the courage to take this step. I must also extend congratulations to the Travellers who are in the Visitors Gallery and to the international organisations that have forced all of us to grow up. Less than a week ago the Government was before the Committee on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women and was asked specific questions as to why it had not taken this step to give recognition to Travellers. It was about to face legal action from the European Commission for not taking action but, notwithstanding all of that, it deserves congratulations.
This is a start. I will not go into the recent figures from several reports, particularly from the ESRI, as this is an evening to celebrate. However, we cannot forget the statistics. As a Galway politician I am acutely conscious that elected members of the city council in Galway have failed to take their courage in their hands and pass a Traveller accommodation plan. This is not because of malice but because they lack the courage to face what it means in terms of votes. It helps us to face our own prejudices, to look in the mirror and see what is reflected back at us.
In terms of how we treat Travellers, our record is not very good. I pay tribute to the committees that have looked at this and a report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality stated that Travellers were a de facto separate ethnic group. It stated, "This is not a gift to be bestowed upon them, but a fact the State ought to formally acknowledge, preferably by way of a statement by the Taoiseach to Dáil Éireann".
In various contributions to the committees I have mentioned, the Taoiseach said there were no cost implications from recognition but that it was historic and symbolic. However, there will be cost implications and that is something we must embrace. There will be implications for providing appropriate accommodation throughout the country.
We cannot let tonight go without reflection on Carrickmines and the ten people who lost their lives there - five adults, five children and an expectant mother - in November 2015. We have taken action in the form of an audit of all sites throughout the country but it has not been completed and the recommendations of the audit have not been implemented. That is a reflection on all of us.
We have more to learn from our differences and absolutely nothing to be afraid of. I think there is a lesson to be learned. In ainneoin na ndifríochtaí go léir, tá go leor le foghlaim againn ón Lucht Siúil atá anseo anocht agus ó na daoine a thagann go dtí an tír seo as tíortha eile.
Our fear is based on our own lack of confidence in ourselves. The more that we grow confident in our own identity, the more we are able to embrace others. We have taken a step here in doing that. I hope it is a start for the way we treat people who are coming to our country under the most appalling circumstances. They can only enrich the country.
Gabhaim míle buíochas leis an Taoiseach, leis an Rialtas, leo siúd ón Lucht Siúil atá san Áileár Poiblí agus leis na daoine a bhí ag na cruinnithe agus a chur brú orainn é seo a dhéanamh ach atá lasmuigh den Teach anocht.
I thank the Taoiseach and acknowledge the work of his Government, as well as Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and all the others who have worked diligently on this matter over many years. I welcome each and every person that has travelled from around the country to be here tonight, those in the Visitors Gallery and others outside. It is important to acknowledge that they are there.
This achievement has been brought about by the work of a great number of people. I acknowledge the work of Pavee Point and the Irish Traveller Movement, as well as youth workers in the Traveller community who have worked diligently for many years to try to look after their own community. In my own small way, through my political work, I do my level best to represent all of the people from my community, including Travellers.
There are many important issues facing people from the Traveller community and in our wider society. Unfortunately, suicide statistics are worse for the Traveller community than elsewhere, as are the statistics for housing, homelessness, health, and lower life expectancy rates. In addition, young people from the Traveller community are not inclined to go on to third-level education in the same numbers as from the general population. That issue also needs to be addressed. We all have a big job of work to do.
I compliment members of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality who did great work both now and in the past. While one could be critical and say that previous Governments did not do enough, it is only right and proper to acknowledge the positive things they did, which have brought us to where we are. We should be open and broad-minded enough to thank everybody.
Housing affects everyone, including the Traveller community. Like every other county, Kerry has a housing crisis. I heard other speakers being uncomplimentary about their local authorities, but I wish to thank Kerry County Council's housing department for its work. The department always does its best. It does not matter whether one is from the Traveller community or elsewhere, our housing officers do their best with the limited resources at their disposal. They always try to provide a proper service.
I do not care where people come from, they are entitled to have a roof over their head. That applies to all communities, regardless of where they are from. I am being parochial but I compliment the great work of those in Kerry County Council's homeless unit. I will not embarrass anybody by naming them, but I also compliment retired people who do great work not just with the Traveller community but also with every other sector of society.
Local county councillors in Kerry do excellent work with the Traveller community, as well as with everybody else. I acknowledge their great endeavours. Resources are limited of course but we must try to use them to the best possible effect.
This is a good occasion, but tomorrow morning we must ensure that adequate resources are put into tackling health, housing and education issues. In that way we can put teeth and substance into this matter, thus ensuring that people will be treated with the respect they deserve, whether they are from the Traveller community or any other sector in society.
I welcome everybody who travelled here tonight. I appreciate that it was not easy for those who embarked on long journeys. I thank everyone in government and opposition who played a vital role in ensuring that we have reached this stage.
On behalf of the Green Party, I am so pleased for the people here that we have reached this day. One of the core Green principles is that in diversity there is great strength and richness. We are celebrating our Irish diversity here today and that is something that brings great joy.
If one thinks about it, it is shameful that it has taken us this long. God help us. The British courts and political system managed to do it about 15 years ago. This is something that concerns the State, as well as the Traveller community. I was reading about that judgment when the British courts were considering this matter. They said there were two questions that define ethnicity. First, if it is shown that there is a long, shared history of which the group is conscious, it distinguishes it from other groups and keeps that memory alive. Second, it is ethnicity if there is a cultural tradition of its own, including family and social customs and manners often, but not necessarily, associated with religious observance.
This is an important day for the State because that ethnicity always existed under those categories. It was always held among the Traveller community in their own hearts, a sense of identity and cultural connections. The State had to come to that understanding and recognition, and as a result we are better off today in recognising that diversity.
I commend the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, and those on the former Joint Committee on Justice and Equality. He handed the baton on to Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. Thanks to the work of all parties here we have got this over the line. The committee has done some good in recent years, but this is the highlight in the career of all those involved.
In recognising Irish diversity, I am interested in how that ethnicity, culture and connection goes back into the mists of time. It connects to something that is very Irish. It is true that in many ways all of us are travelling people. This goes right back into Irish mythology through reading the first records of travellers' lives. We have an underlying sense that we do not quite own the land. We are a people who have come to the land and have ourselves travelled all over the world, moving back and forth.
There is a richness that comes to this country from having a Traveller community which maintains a sense of connection to this land.
That is a richness that the Traveller ethnicity, in the Travelling community, brings to all of us. There is a real value in that resourcefulness in the Traveller community, in that ability, as they travel to work, to fix things or to have a different relationship in terms of using, keeping, storing and recycling objects. There was, and still is, a long tradition of that craft in the Traveller community. We could all learn a thing or two from it.
As I understand, the Traveller community also has a strong tradition of faith and a certain faithfulness that I think, again, brings us back to a different relationship with this land. From Lady's Well on the south-west coast of Wexford or to Croagh Patrick, where anyone who has climbed it on that August Reek day knows and fully understands this cultural tradition, it is there before them. It is still a strong connection point to our history on this island and to our deepest roots, but it is held in the strongest way in the Traveller community, which enriches us all.
I was taken with what Deputy Gerry Adams mentioned about culture and the various musicians. I have a particular interest in Donegal traditional fiddle music. I remember once being brought out on what was pretty much a whole week lesson on the great John Doherty, who had such influence on Altan and others and on the actual heart of Donegal music. We were brought to every place John Doherty had ever been, up and down the roads out of Glenties, Ardara and around. It was only at the end of the week someone mentioned the fact that actually he was a Traveller. There was such a deep and utter connection, a respect and a sense of that being a heart and cornerstone of Irish music. He, and that tradition, belonged to all the music community. We were recognising that he was a Traveller and that was part of where his musicality was coming from. It came from a respect for it. It was a part of something we could all treasure and benefit from as he passed on his tunes.
We need, as so many people have said here today, to move on from this historic day for the State and for the Traveller community and start reflecting the diversity. There are different ways of housing people. We need to provide different ways of housing people. What Deputy Ruth Coppinger said about Fingal County Council would be matched by anyone who has experience in county councils, certainly around the city that I grew up in. We have discrimination against Travellers on a consistent basis and we need to stop that. We need to change our ways and start thinking of housing and supporting housing with a whole range of flexible options, recognising that diversity is important and that it is good to serve it.
We need to do the same in our education system. God knows our education system needs reform. It seems impossible to get reform. It seems to be stuck. We need to encourage and make sure that it is not just 55% of Traveller students who stay on right to the end of secondary school. We need to get up beyond the 1% going on to third level education. Perhaps in doing and achieving that we could change the entire education system in a way that would benefit us all.
More than anything else we need to look at our judicial system. In my experience, during any time I have spent in the courts for various reasons, with the police or around the whole judicial system, there has been such a sense of a disconnect between our judicial system and the Traveller people. There was an almighty sense of two cultures that were not understanding each other and were not accommodating each other. In our courts and in our policing we got it wrong. Let us use this as a point to change how we police. We are looking at our police service currently. We are looking at our courts and that connection. Surely we can celebrate our diversity by thinking in different ways about the connection between the two communities so that we police and administer justice in a clever way that recognises the diversity of cultures in our country.
As I said, today is a great day for the Traveller community, for the people here and for the people who are unfortunately out in the rain outside. It is also a great day for the State and for thanking the Traveller community for giving us its ethnicity to make Ireland a richer, better place.
As Chairman of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, I very much welcome the opportunity to contribute to the statements on this very important and truly historic declaration. I wholeheartedly welcome the Taoiseach’s announcement this evening formally recognising, on behalf of the State and on behalf of the Irish people, the reality that the Irish Traveller community constitutes a distinct ethnic group.
From the outset, the new Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality identified the recognition of Traveller ethnicity as one of the issues it wanted to address in its work programme for 2016. The previous committee of the Thirty-first Dáil produced a report on this issue in 2014, with a key recommendation that the State recognise the ethnicity of the Traveller community. However, this had not materialised and the current committee was very keen to keep this issue firmly on the political agenda. We believed that further address followed by a new and complementary report would inject a new impetus into the case. The issue was given even greater poignancy by the Carrickmines tragedy of 2015 that resulted in the death of ten members of the Traveller community and we remember them and their grieving loved ones here this evening.
Representatives from the Irish Traveller Movement, the National Traveller Women’s Forum, Pavee Point and Mincéirs Whiden came before the committee to share their experiences. I acknowledge on behalf on the committee, in particular, Martin Collins and Ronnie Fay, Bernard Joyce, Jacinta Brack and Maria Joyce and Thomas McCann. They are all very special people and I know that this is a very special day in all their lives. Molaim iad. Well done. Ms Emily Logan, Chief Commissioner and Mr. David Joyce, commission member of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission also came before the committee to give evidence. The committee also heard evidence from Ms Anastasia Crickley, Chairperson of the UN Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination and from academic and Traveller rights campaigner Dr. Robbie McVeigh. I would like, in Anastasia’s absence, to remember her late partner John O’Connell who, with Anastasia, was a co-founder of Pavee Point.
I understand a number of those whom I have mentioned are in attendance and again take the opportunity to express my gratitude on behalf of the committee to all the witnesses who attended our public hearings to give evidence. Their contributions greatly assisted the committee in this important piece of work.
Many of those contributions were deeply moving, and the committee heard evidence from several speakers of how Travellers and other ethnic minorities can internalise a sense of oppression, with terrible consequences for their communities. For example, Mr. Bernard Joyce, on behalf of the Irish Traveller Movement explained:
One particular advantage to ethnicity recognition is the opportunity to enhance community esteem and address internalised oppression. Internalised oppression which supports the notion that the majority community is right, superior and the standard, leads to poor self-image, low self-esteem, a lack of pride in one’s cultural identity, stress, depression and in some cases alcohol and drug abuse. It can cause low expectations both of ourselves and of our community.
The point was reiterated by Thomas McCann of Mincéirs Whiden about the damage that internalised oppression and shame has done to the Traveller community:
Many Travellers, as a result of being told by their teachers and by the media, feel from the day they are born that they are failed settled people. That is the message the State has given to all Travellers. The State is saying that actually, the culture is not a valid culture, that really a Traveller is a failed settled person. We cannot have full equality for Travellers until Travellers are recognised as an ethnic group.
These sentiments have been repeated time and time again by Martin Collins of Pavee Point.
Based upon the hearings and broader consideration of the issues, the report that we produced contained three recommendations. The first was that the committee was of the view that Travellers de facto are a separate ethnic group. This is not a gift to be bestowed upon them but a fact the State should formally acknowledge, preferably by way of a statement by the Taoiseach to Dáil Éireann. The second was that the committee strongly encouraged that this step be taken and at the earliest possible time in 2017. The third was that the Government should then conduct a review, in consultation with Traveller representatives, of any legislative or policy changes required on foot of the recognition of Traveller ethnicity.
Travellers clearly have a shared history, culture and language, as well as their own customs and traditions that are recognisable and distinct. They share all of the essential characteristics of an ethnic group identified by Lord Fraser in the British case law. In any case, it is self-evident that they identify as an ethnic group and are seen as a separate group by others.
From an academic perspective, Robbie McVeigh, in his evidence to the committee, explored in more depth the issue of Travellers and ethnic identity. He argued that all of the elements that make Travellers an ethnic group in Britain and in the North of Ireland, including the essential characteristics of an ethnic group such as a long shared history and a cultural tradition of its own, hold in this State, and all the evidence suggests there is no good reason for Traveller ethnicity not be recognised here. He stated:
[In] all the time I have been working on this issue, there hasn’t been a substantive case made against Traveller ethnicity ... [T]his reality suggests that the continued prevarication is a political act based on assertion rather than an examination of the evidence. It is not a position which stands up to legal or sociological scrutiny. Indeed, it is intellectually frustrating that the case against Traveller ethnicity is so rarely and so poorly made. From this perspective, the ongoing prevarication on Traveller ethnicity looks particularly ill-judged.
Fundamentally, recognition of Traveller ethnicity is about respect and inclusion. We had hoped that our report would add impetus to the issue and today we can honestly say we have not been disappointed. We have clearly come a long way since the report of the Commission on Itinerancy in 1963. In its report, the commission concluded:
Itinerants (or travellers as they prefer themselves to be called) do not constitute a single homogenous group, tribe or community within the nation although the settled population are inclined to regard them as such. Neither do they constitute a separate ethnic group.
Dear, oh dear. How wrong can one be?
The language used in that report was instructive as to the State’s ideological approach to the Travelling community at the time. It is also instructive that no representatives of the Traveller community sat on the commission. The approach and recommendations found in the 1963 report of the Commission on Itinerancy remain deeply offensive to Travellers and, thankfully, are finally and rejected outright today.
While it is clear that formal recognition of Traveller ethnicity is not a magic wand for addressing the issues experienced by the Traveller community, it is nevertheless an important step towards righting a lot of the wrongs of the past. Today's declaration puts us as a nation on a new pathway. It opens the door to a new relationship with our fellow Irish nationals and co-equal citizens of the new ethnically recognised Irish Traveller community based on mutual respect requiring an awareness by those who administer State services and all of us from what is ofttimes referred to as the settled community, of the needs and rights of Traveller people.
I again commend the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton. They listened and acted and we applaud their decision. As I stated at the launch of our committee’s report in the audiovisual room on 26 January, this must not be yet another false dawn for the Traveller community. It was not and it is not. It is a new dawn and due cause for celebration.
I thank the Taoiseach for making this very historic day for the Traveller community in Ireland happen. I also acknowledge the huge support that the Tánaiste has given to this event and decision, the Ministers who were unanimous in their support and everybody who spoke during the debate. There was unanimous and enthusiastic support for this decision from everybody who spoke. There were no dissenting voices. People have raised other issues, which I will come to, but this is historic. In my 20 years here, I have rarely seen such agreement, enthusiastic and positivity - if only we could go on like that.
We have had long discussions to tease out exactly what is involved in the recognition of Irish Travellers as an ethnic group of the Irish nation. I stress the term "recognition"; nothing is being granted because it is already there.
These discussions most recently culminated in the first ever presentation to the Government at the Cabinet committee on social policy by a delegation from Traveller organisations. At that meeting, Traveller representatives presented the case for their recognition as an ethnic group in a most impressive, dignified and convincing fashion. I understand this was the first time that Traveller or, indeed, any NGO representatives made a presentation to the Government directly across the table in that way, which was historic.
I thank the four representatives selected by the Traveller representative NGOs to meet the Taoiseach and Ministers, namely, Martin Collins from Pavee Point, Brigid Quilligan from the Irish Traveller Movement, Maria Joyce from the National Traveller Women's Forum and Michael McDonagh from the Meath Travellers Workshop. I should also give a special mention to Thomas McCann and Kathleen Sherlock who stood on call valiantly as alternatives in case one of the other four could not make it.
Not long after my appointment as Minister of State, one of the first roles I had was visiting Traveller Pride and I was blown away by what I saw. Deputy Micheál Martin mentioned T. J. Hogan. I met Mikey Kelly, who is the national under-11 handball champion and a lovely young man. Ian McDonagh, who is in the Visitors Gallery, recently represented Ireland in Finland and excelled in the Young Scientist and Technology Exhibition. I recently met Ian in his school, Coláiste Mhuirlinne, in Galway. He is a credit to his school and parents. Many other young Travellers are doing the same kind of work, for which they should be recognised.
I also recognise the contribution of my predecessor, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin, in advancing the issue during his tenure as Minister of State in the Department. At the time, I was Chairman of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality and we presented the report on the recognition of Traveller ethnicity in April 2014. The rapporteur was Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn who is present and did sterling work. The current committee, under the chairmanship of Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, presented a report in recent weeks.
I also acknowledge his contribution and that of the current members of the committee, which was extremely useful and welcome. This is an issue on which all parties are united, which is important.
The key argument for what we have done today is that recognition of the distinct heritage, culture and identity of Travellers and their special place in Irish society will be hugely and symbolically important to their pride and self-esteem and overcoming the legacy of economic marginalisation, discrimination and low self-esteem, with which the community struggles. This is not to ignore the real problems that it faces, but such a symbolic gesture will create a new platform for positive engagement by the Traveller community and the Government in together seeking sustainable solutions based on respect and an honest dialogue on these issues and challenges. To reiterate the point the Taoiseach made, this is a hugely important and symbolic gesture that is very important to Travellers, but it has no legislative implications, creates no new rights and has no implications for public expenditure. However, it is still hugely important. I am working to complete a new Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy and we are examining issues relating to health, employment, education and accommodation which colleagues have raised. I personally want to see real improvements in these areas. In that context, the recent ESRI social portrait of Travellers in Ireland which my Department commissioned and I launched recently is stark in showing just how poor health, life expectancy and education outcomes are for Travellers. Traveller NGOs will continue to lobby for improved interventions on these issues and I am determined to bring about real improvements in that regard.
Today is the culmination of a long-standing campaign by Travellers to have their identity, culture and unique position valued by their formal recognition as a distinct ethnic group. As the Taoiseach stressed, this is without prejudice to their being part of and self-identifying as part of the Irish nation. It is an historic day, but it is also a new beginning and the start of the work we need to do as a society to address the real and stark issues that face the Traveller community in areas such as accommodation, health, employment and education. I will present my plans to address these issues in the new inclusion strategy which we will, in consultation with other Departments and Traveller representatives, finalise shortly. The Tánaiste and I will present the strategy very soon. I look forward to working with Travellers as part of this ambitious work.
I congratulate and thank everyone for bringing about this historic occasion.
Now that we have concluded statements, I have been in the House for many years and the sound of applause from the Visitors Gallery was never customary. However, this is not an ordinary debate but a very special one. I applaud and say, "Well done," those in the Visitors Gallery and all involved with the Traveller community for the dignified manner in which they have conducted themselves.