Mr. David Joyce and I are here to represent the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and thank the committee for giving us the opportunity to do that. As Ireland's national human rights institution and national equality body, the commission not only has a statutory remit to protect and promote human rights and equality in Ireland but also a remit to promote a culture of respect for human rights, equality and intercultural understanding. A core part of our three-year strategy statement is the promotion of pluralism and the acceptance of difference and we are committed to encouraging a culture of respect for freedom, dignity and understanding of human rights and equality in the State.
Along with its predecessor bodies, the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority, the commission has consistently raised concerns about the human rights and equality protections afforded to the Traveller community in Ireland. We will continue to raise these matters at every opportunity domestically and internationally. The recognition of Travellers as a distinct ethnic group is not in doubt, yet for the purpose of international agreements and before the United Nations and other international bodies, overt recognition has continued to be denied by successive Governments. This is a serious and ongoing concern and the commission strongly considers that the time has come for the State finally to move on the recognition of Travellers as an ethnic minority.
The State is bound by the international consensus that self-determination forms the basis of a person identifying as belonging to a particular ethnic or racial group. International bodies have historically and continue to recognise the Traveller community as an ethnic minority and have consistently recommended the Irish State does likewise. We already see de facto recognition of Traveller ethnicity in our equality legislation. The definition of "Travellers" adopted by the Oireachtas for the purpose of the Equal Status Acts states: ""Traveller community" means the community of people who are commonly called Travellers and who are identified (both by themselves and others) as people with a shared history, culture and traditions including, historically, a nomadic way of life on the island of Ireland."
We also see implicit recognition in other contexts, such as the inclusion of Travellers as a specific group for the purposes of the Council of Europe Framework Convention for Protection of National Minorities, as well as the State's reports to the United Nations at the time of its examinations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and under the International Covenant for the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination.
Against this backdrop, the logic of the State's ongoing refusal to recognise Traveller ethnicity must be questioned. As recommended by the predecessor to this committee in its 2014 report on the recognition of Traveller ethnicity, "It is no longer tenable for this State to deny Traveller ethnicity".
Protections under the UN International Convention on the Elimination of all forms of Racial Discrimination, to which Ireland has been bound since ratification in 2000, are largely linked to ethnicity. Importantly, continued inaction by the State on Traveller ethnicity diminishes the State's international credibility with the UN. Ireland will be examined with regard to its obligations on the elimination of racial discrimination in 2017 through a written submission, followed by an oral examination before a committee in 2018. The commission believes the matter of Traveller ethnicity requires resolution well in advance of this important examination of our record on racial discrimination before the United Nations.
There is no legal impediment to the recognition of Traveller ethnicity. This important change to recognise our indigenous Traveller community does not require a referendum nor does it require primary legislation. The Government committed in front of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2011 to recognise Traveller ethnicity. What is required is not even a ministerial order but a statement in the Dáil. It, therefore, begs the question as to why this has not already happened.
The negative impact of non-recognition on the engagement between the Traveller community and State is unnecessary. With the unequivocal recognition of a distinct culture and identity, we can better anticipate and respond to the needs of the Traveller community. In late 2015, following the Carrickmines tragedy, we heard in political debates how several local authorities had not even drawn down moneys allocated for Traveller accommodation. It is perhaps more useful now to think about how recognition will be the catalyst for a rethink of how we spend public money on policies affecting Travellers and how priorities should be considered in a new light.
We can build on a strong foundation of equality of standing in the context of the relationship between the Traveller and settled communities. From that starting point, the issues which are important to our society can begin to be discussed in a more meaningful and mutually respectful context. With that, we can continue the work of understanding what needs to change in law and policy to support members of the Traveller community, for example, in accessing education, culturally appropriate and safe accommodation and health care, among other priority areas.
Respect for Traveller cultural identity must be reflected in Government policy decisions. How can this happen in the absence of recognition of Traveller ethnicity? It is the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission's position that it cannot. There continues to be a strong political argument in favour of recognition. We recognise the political leadership shown by this committee and its predecessor. There needs to be a significant and symbolic step in a longer conversation, however. The recognition of Traveller ethnicity must be placed in the broader international context of discussion of others, outsiders and division. This is an opportunity for us to show our national political leadership, setting ourselves as a standard bearer against those who would seek to hold back progress towards equality and human rights provision. We must show through our political actions, our Irish fortitude against international voices of intolerance and mark our determination to act positively.
The achievement of equality and respect for human rights must involve access to recognition, status and standing in society and to relationships of respect. The recognition of Traveller ethnicity is central to any equality of status or standing for the Traveller community.