Good morning. While we say that we are frustrated at having to attend yet another Oireachtas committee meeting, we welcome that this committee is keeping the issue on the political agenda. At this stage, it is up to the State to explain its rationale for refusing to grant recognition despite the recommendations of a range of UN treaty monitoring bodies, European institutions and Irish equality and human rights organisations, as well as a report of the previous Oireachtas justice committee.
It is ironic that Irish Travellers are recognised as a minority ethnic group in Britain and Northern Ireland whereas that recognition is yet to be afforded here in their country of origin. I will not restate many of the arguments because Mr. Collins has summarised them and many committee members agree with them and understand the evidence. Our sister organisations and the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, articulated them in detail at the committee's previous sitting. Instead, Pavee Point would like to focus on three policy areas where the non-recognition of Traveller ethnicity has profound implications.
First, Pavee Point disputes the assertions of many Governments since 2005 that recognising Travellers as a distinct ethnic group would have no beneficial implications for Traveller status in Irish society. They told the UN committee: "To define Travellers as an ethnic minority would not entitle Travellers to any additional rights or protections". The Government is only correct in so far as being a Traveller is named as a distinct ground for protection under Ireland's equality legislation and is thus offered the protection against discrimination afforded by the legislation. However, the Government's assertion that there would be no effect misconstrues our position and misses the point about the importance of respect for cultural identity. Pavee Point contends that the Government's persistence in not recognising Travellers as an ethnic group reveals or reflects a mindset and policy project that continues to be assimilationist. This begs the question that, if Travellers are not a distinct community, then ipso facto they should be treated the same as the general population and incorporated into the general Irish population and they and their needs will become invisible, which is patently not the case.
Pavee Point contends that the persistence of this mindset has been a major contributory factor in ensuring that many of the key recommendations of the Government's policies, including the task force, the national education and health strategies, the findings of the all-Ireland health study and so on, have not been implemented. It is most evident in local authorities' assimilationist approaches to Traveller accommodation and their unstated policies to persuade or force Travellers to move into houses instead of implementing stated Government policy of a commitment to the development of Traveller-specific accommodation.
This assimilationist mindset has more recently been presented as mainstreaming, particularly by the Department of Education and Skills, and is used to justify disproportionate cuts in public investment in Travellers. I have provided a chart that uses the Government's figures to show these cuts. For example, education was cut by 86.6%, from €76.5 million in 2008 to €10.2 million in 2013.
This June, the European Commission assessed Ireland under the EU framework for Roma integration strategies. Wherever one reads "Roma", Irish Travellers are included. The Commission stated:
A mainstreamed approach is sufficient when outcomes are identical for all components of the target groups; when evidence shows a clear gap between the situation of Roma and Travellers versus the rest of society (e.g. regarding their health and housing situation), policies should be adjusted and specific measures should also be developed.
Given the demographic profile of Travellers, it is clear that neither the so-called mainstreaming approach nor denial of cultural ethnicity is serving Travellers well. My submitted presentation highlights some of the key facts, for example, 84% unemployment, many Travellers without access to running water, a mortality rate that is 3.5 times the national average, which includes child mortality and a suicide rate that accounts for 11% of all deaths at six times the national average, or seven times in the case of men. Only 13% of Travellers complete secondary schooling and less than 1% of Travellers go on to third level education. I am trying to show the link between the denial of cultural identity and its impact on outcomes.
Second, the lack of recognition of Travellers as an ethnic group demonstrates a continuing reluctance by the Government to acknowledge that Travellers experience racism. The Government position is that it acknowledges that Travellers suffer discrimination, but that they are protected as a specific ground in equality legislation and that this should be sufficient. The implicit Government position is that Travellers suffer a discrimination that is unique to Travellers and is unspecified but is not racism. Accordingly, Travellers have been excluded from important Government and other initiatives to tackle racism over the years, including proposed legislation on hate speech. This was clearly evidenced when, in 2005, Pavee Point had to lobby the Government and embarrass it at the hearing in Geneva at the first International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, ICERD, report, citing how Travellers had been excluded from the Know Racism public awareness campaign and lobbying to be invited to be part of the national steering committee for the action plan against racism.
Since the Government axed the effective National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism, responsibility for anti-racism and interculturalism lies with the integration unit in the Department of Justice and Equality. This unit specifically deals only with migrant integration and excludes Travellers. How then can Travellers be included in anti-racism and intercultural initiatives as a right?
A further example of this was the potential exclusion of Travellers from the census question on ethnicity. Pavee Point lobbied for this question for many years. Ironically, when it was finally introduced, the only group that was to be excluded was the Traveller community because the State did not recognise its ethnicity. We had to lobby and get a compromise question, that being, "What is your ethnic or cultural background?" The cultural bit ensures that it is inclusive of Travellers.
Third, the Government position on Traveller ethnicity is contradictory and confusing to many outside observers. There are numerous examples of stated Government policy recognising Travellers as an ethnic group in all but name. The definition under the Equal Status Act 2000 is:
"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.
While the question of what constitutes an ethnic group has not been defined in Irish law, the language used to define Travellers under the Equal Status Act is virtually identical to, and is clearly drawn from the definitions of, what constitutes an ethnic group under British law. In the landmark case that Mr. Martin alluded to, the British courts stated that, for a group to constitute an ethnic group, it must fulfil a number of conditions, including a long shared history and a cultural tradition of its own. It is ironic that Travellers are recognised as an ethnic group in the other jurisdictions but not in the Republic of Ireland. Personal accounts from Travellers in England show that they felt more respected as a result of the recognition of their ethnicity.
Pavee Point contends that the continued lack of recognition of Travellers as an ethnic group and the lack of explicit acknowledgment that they experience racism have much deeper consequences than an abstract sociological or ideological debate and are major contributing factors to the slow pace of change and the confused and sometimes contradictory policy approaches of Government interventions relating to Travellers in recent years. We are also mindful that recognition of ethnicity, in and of itself, will not be a panacea for Traveller inclusion in Irish society. However, it is an essential part of the jigsaw for creating the conditions where Travellers can feel respected, their cultural identity can be celebrated and the State can no longer discount the lived experiences of anti-Traveller discrimination and racism.