I thank the Chairman and other committee members for giving Pavee Point Travellers' Centre this opportunity to present some of the key arguments as to why Travellers should be recognised as an ethnic minority. The Tánaiste is on record as having said that same-sex marriage is the human rights issue of our generation and I would agree with that. I would also suggest, however, that for the Traveller community, the recognition of Traveller ethnicity is the human rights issue of our generation.
We are disappointed at the persistent refusal of successive Governments to recognise what is self evident, namely, that we Travellers constitute a distinct ethnic group. The Government has continued to ignore the opinions and recommendations of a range of eminent domestic and international bodies which have all said the Government should take concrete measures to recognise Traveller ethnicity. The same eminent human rights bodies have also said, very clearly, that Travellers meet all the legal and academic criteria in terms of what constitutes ethnicity.
In particular, I want to draw the attention of the committee to general recommendation No. 8 of the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, CERD, which is the principle of the right to self identify, if no objective justification can be put to the contrary. The Irish Government is immediately in breach of this principle because it has not explained or justified why it will not recognise Traveller ethnicity. The mantra we consistently get is that there is a divergence of views within the Traveller community.
While recognising that there are a number of individuals who disagree with the recognition of Traveller ethnicity, the four national Traveller organisations - the Irish Traveller Movement, the National Traveller Women's Forum, Pavee Point Travellers' Centre, and Mincéirs Whiden, a Traveller-only forum - all agree that Travellers do constitute an ethnic minority and should be recognised as such.
Last September, at a conference organised in Dublin Castle by the National Traveller Monitoring Advisory Committee, NTMAC, 99% of the Travellers in attendance also agreed that we do constitute an ethnic minority and should be granted that status. There was one dissenting individual.
Nowhere in international law does it suggest that a consensus is needed for the recognition of ethnicity to be granted to our people. In the final analysis, it is irrelevant whether one agrees or disagrees. It is about recognising that there are international objective criteria on what constitutes ethnicity. It is against this that assessments and decisions ought to be made. If this approach was adopted by the Government there is no doubt in my view that our ethnicity would be recognised.
The 1976 Mandla v. Dowell-Lee judgment in the UK is of significant importance to Irish Travellers. It gave a lengthy definition of an ethnic group. I want to convey two essential elements to this committee. One is that the group has a long shared history, of which it is conscious, distinguishing it from other groups and the memory of which is kept alive. The second element is a cultural tradition of its own, including family, social customs and manners, often but not necessarily associated with religious observance.
In 2002, this criterion was heavily relied on in the English courts in O'Leary and Others v. Allied Domecq and Others. After long deliberation, the presiding judge, Mr. Justice Goldstein, concluded that Irish Travellers met this criterion and therefore should be recognised as an ethnic minority. In addition, the 1997 Race Relations Order grants recognition to Travellers in the North of Ireland, yet in this jurisdiction we do not.
In that context, we also suggest that the Irish Government is in breach of the Good Friday Agreement which refers to an equivalence of rights. In other words, it is about harmonising legislation upwards. If there is a piece of legislation in the North of Ireland which is inferior to our legislation, there is an obligation on the Northern Ireland authorities to enhance their legislation upwards. Likewise, there is a corresponding obligation on the Irish Government to enhance our legislation. Unfortunately, however, it has not done so.
Our own Equal Status Act gives a very good definition of what constitutes ethnicity in all but name. Traveller organisations have provided evidence, both legal and academic, which clearly suggests that Travellers constitute an ethnic group. Therefore, under international law the burden of proof to the contrary now lies with the State, but it has failed to act. As I said, the mantra we get all the time is that there is a divergence of views in the Traveller community.
This is not some sort of academic or ideological debate. Not to recognise Traveller ethnicity has profound implications in terms of legal protection. It is questionable whether Travellers are afforded the full protection of the EU race directive. There are also implications concerning support for Traveller nomadism, language, culture, history and the inclusion of Travellers in intercultural and anti-racism initiatives.
As regards the ethnic question in our national census, we had to fight tooth and nail to get Travellers included in that because we were not recognised as an ethnic group. In the end, we reached a compromise. As well as practical implications, ethnicity also has a symbolic value. It would be good for Travellers' self-esteem and confidence, as well as being important for our people's overall status in Irish society.
In our opinion, there needs to be an unequivocal recognition of our ethnicity either by way of legislation or constitutionally, or both. In the absence of this unequivocal recognition, the subtext is that we are a dysfunctional, primitive community who need to be civilised and rehabilitated.
Ethnicity is fundamentally about recognition, respect and, by extension, inclusion. It is about recognising our history, culture and language. Let us be clear about it - this is not about saying that the more one claims ethnicity, the less one claims Irishness. We are very proud of our ethnicity and we are also very proud of our Irishness. We are willing, and demanding, to play our part in the Irish nation.