That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality entitled ‘Report on the Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity’, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 26th January, 2017." I wish to thank all Deputies who have attended and participated in this special debate on the Report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality entitled ‘Report on the Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity’ and published in January 2017.
Wednesday, 1 March 2017 was an historic day when a momentous step forward for equality in this country was taken by An Taoiseach when he formally recognised, on behalf of the State and the Irish people, the reality that the Irish Traveller community constitutes a distinct ethnic group. That declaration was the culmination of many years of tireless campaigning by the various Traveller organisations and others of goodwill. I commend all who worked so tirelessly and passionately on this most important issue for all of those years. Molaim sibh uilig.
Back in 2014, our predecessor, the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality of the Thirty-first Dáil published a report entitled Report on the Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity. Its key recommendation was that this State recognise the ethnicity of the Traveller community, and that steps be taken to implement any necessary legislative change to reflect this. The current joint committee was very keen that this issue would remain firmly on the political agenda.
We undertook to supplement and reinforce the valuable work and recommendations put forward by the previous committee by conducting our own hearings and adding a fresh report to the body of work already in place on the recognition of Traveller ethnicity. While two of our three recommendations have been implemented it is the third that is now critically important. It states, on the formal recognition of Traveller ethnicity that: "The Government should then conduct a review, in consultation with Traveller representative groups, of any legislative or policy changes required on foot of the recognition of Traveller ethnicity." This recommendation is crucial.
From the outset it is important to note, and I place strong emphasis on this, that formal recognition of Traveller ethnicity brings no new rights and likely needs no new legislation. Traveller people have always had rights.
They are full and equal citizens in all circumstances. Their rights and entitlements, like the Minister's and mine, have been there over all time, but the crux of the issue is that they have not been properly respected. Legislation has failed them. This State has failed them. From here on out, we must ensure that legislation on the rights of citizens is robust and strictly adhered to by all in both public service and private business in order that all citizens are treated equally. We must ensure that Travellers are treated as full and equal citizens in all circumstances with access to the same services and opportunities in place for all who call Ireland home.
The Irish Traveller people have been treated abominably by this State. The Commission on Itinerancy report of 1963 was probably one of the most shocking and disgraceful reports ever written in Ireland. We need only look at its terms of reference to see the level of racism and total ignorance that existed towards the Traveller community. To give an example, I quote from the terms of reference that governed that report. It states:
(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;
(3) ... to promote their absorption into the general community.
It is difficult to believe that such a report was ever written. Unfortunately, the ingrained racism toward the Traveller community has permeated through a significant section of the so-called settled community over many years and, sadly, I have to say, continues to this day. A case of the dislike of unlike has trundled on and on. Let us not be fooled. Despite having the Traveller community recognised as a distinct ethnic group and acknowledging how far we have come, Travellers are still not treated as equals or with the respect they deserve. They remain grossly disadvantaged. We need only look at the statistics to see the ripple effect of the deplorable policies of this State in days gone past.
Traveller-specific accommodation is a massive issue. For clarity's sake, when we talk about Traveller-specific accommodation we are talking about, as the Irish Travellers Movement has described it, "Culturally appropriate accommodation provided, with families living in resourced accommodation of their choice, including nomadic provision.” We do not need to cast our minds too far back to remember the Carrickmines tragedy of 2015 that resulted in the deaths of ten members of the Traveller community. At the time, Traveller organisations raised their concerns at overcrowding on Traveller halting sites around the country due to the lack of provision of Traveller-specific accommodation. It became clear from photographs of the site that portakabins were situated close together due to lack of space. We also remember how, in 2016, we witnessed the disgraceful eviction of Travellers from a halting site in Dundalk in the centenary year of the declaration of the Irish Republic. I, for one, felt ashamed.
It is both worrying and an utter disgrace that many local authorities are not spending allocated funds for Traveller accommodation. Figures obtained in October 2016 showed that only €1,607,946 of €5,500,000 in allocated Government funding for Traveller accommodation had been drawn down by that date. That is very concerning given the pressing need to ensure that safe Traveller accommodation is made available across the country. Indeed, some local authorities had not even drawn down any of their allocated funding. Clearly, there are serious issues in that regard and a change of approach is urgently needed. The funding available needs to be utilised and we must do more to ensure that adequate Traveller accommodation is provided. Central government must do more to encourage councils to draw down the maximum Traveller accommodation allocation available and to spend it appropriately.
Another aspect that needs to be urgently addressed is the health inequalities experienced by Travellers. The All Ireland Traveller Health Study in 2010 found that there were substantially higher levels of mortality and morbidity among Travellers. Life expectancy for male Travellers was found to be 15 years lower than for the general population and 11 years lower for females. In addition, infant mortality rates were calculated at more than three times the national average. Suicide accounts for 11% of all deaths within the Traveller community. It is clear and perhaps unsurprising that Traveller mental health has been hugely affected by racism, discrimination, poverty and social exclusion. All of what I have outlined makes for grim reading. Health inequalities among disadvantaged and marginalised groups must be addressed.
In terms of education, a recent ESRI report found that "Travellers are more likely to have left school at an early age, with 28 per cent ... having left before the age of 13, compared to only 1 per cent of non-Travellers”. Just 1% of Travellers have a college degree, compared with 30% of non-Travellers. It also found that the unemployment rate for Travellers was 82% in 2011, compared with 17% for non-Travellers. In that informative report it states that given the "sheer magnitude of the gap between Travellers and non-Travellers in terms of education, employment, housing and health," the community needs both mainstream services and highly targeted policies.
Fundamentally, recognition of Traveller ethnicity is about respect and inclusion. We had hoped that our report would add impetus to the issue and we have not been disappointed. However, we know that this recognition is not a magic wand for addressing the issues experienced by the Traveller community.
Pavee Point holds to the principle that to achieve equality for Travellers and Roma, attention must be paid to the structural determinants and issues that impact on them, including education, employment, poverty, health, discrimination and racism. This means that policy and practice must be underpinned by an intercultural approach and by principles of equality, diversity and anti-racism. I could not agree more.
The number of usual residents present in the State and enumerated as Irish Travellers in Census 2016 increased by 5.1% from 29,495 to 30,987. As legislators, we have a duty to ensure that all those 30,987 Traveller people have the very same access to services, have a chance to lead a full and healthy life, to live in appropriate and safe settings and to be treated as equals, exactly as they should be. The recognition of Traveller ethnicity, finally, gives us a real opportunity to do just that.
This brings me back to the main point of my contribution, namely, the implementation of the third recommendation of our report. The Government has, I understand, been engaged with Traveller organisation representatives in its preparation for the publication of the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy. I acknowledge the work of the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, the former Chairman of the justice and equality committee, who is steering this important strategy. I know that Deputy Stanton recognises the need to work in partnership with Travellers to address the serious issues that face the Traveller community in areas such as health, employment, education and accommodation. I look forward to the publication of this new strategy and, most importantly of all, its implementation.
The announcement on 1 March put us as a nation on a new pathway. It opened the door to a new relationship with our fellow Irish nationals and co-equal citizens of the newly ethnically recognised Irish Traveller community based on mutual respect, requiring an awareness by those who administer our State services and all of us from what is ofttimes referred to as the "settled community" of the needs and rights of our fellow Irish citizens, our Traveller people.
Ar aghaidh linn le chéile. Go raibh maith agaibh.