Thursday, 1 June 2017
Report on Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity: Motion
I acknowledge the Chairman of the justice committee and Members present and I am delighted to be here to speak to the committee's report on Traveller ethnicity which was published on 26 January 2017. I note that the report contained three recommendations, which I will address with Deputies today.
As all Deputies will be aware, there was a long-standing campaign by Travellers to have their identity, culture and unique position in Irish society recognised and valued by formal recognition of them by the State as a distinct ethnic group. Such recognition would be without prejudice to their also being part of - and self-identifying as part of - the Irish nation. Deputies may recall that in 2014, the then Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn brought a proposal to the joint Oireachtas justice committee to recognise Traveller ethnicity. In my then role as Chairman of the committee, I invited Deputy Mac Lochlainn, as he was then, to act as rapporteur and to prepare a report for the committee on the issue. We sought submissions and held hearings, which led to an all-party report. This report on the recognition of Traveller ethnicity was presented in April 2014. Emphasis was placed by the committee on the fact that recognition of Traveller ethnicity would reflect an acknowledgement of the distinct place of Travellers in Irish society. The report that we, the then joint Oireachtas committee, issued recommended that either the Taoiseach or the Minister for Justice and Equality make a statement to Dáil Eireann confirming that this State recognises the ethnicity of the Traveller community. The report indicated cross-party support for taking this step.
In taking up my role a year ago as Minister of State at the Department of Justice with special responsibility for equality, immigration and integration, I stressed to my officials my interest in pursuing this issue. The Attorney General advised my Department some time ago that it would be possible to make a political statement acknowledging the distinct ethnic identity of members of the Traveller community without any requirement for legislative change. Subsequent discussions with all relevant Departments also confirmed that there were no anticipated expenditure implications or implications for how public services are delivered involved.
In May 2015, following discussions with my Department, the four national Traveller NGOs agreed the text of a statement setting out what they were seeking in terms of ethnic recognition and what they considered the benefits of such recognition would be for them. This statement by the four Traveller national NGOs confirmed that it is also their view that there are no legal, legislative or expenditure implications arising from the ethnic recognition of Travellers - in other words, it is a stand-alone statement and issue.
As Deputies will be aware, the then Government indicated in its response to a Sinn Féin Dáil motion in November 2015, and in its amendment to that motion, that the question of formal recognition of Travellers as a group in Irish society with a unique culture, heritage and ethnic identity was being considered in the context of the development of the new national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy. My Department co-ordinated a comprehensive public consultation on the drafting of the forthcoming national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy. This consultation involved the relevant Departments, Traveller and Roma representative groups and advocates as well as interested members of the public.
The consultation process for the inclusion strategy comprised three distinct stages. Phase 1 helped to identify the priority themes to be addressed in the inclusion strategy. These themes include education, health, accommodation, anti-discrimination and employment, as Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin has just outlined. There were ten themes in all. In phase 2, we identified and agreed specific objectives under each of the themes set out in phase 1. During phase 3, we have been working on the development of precise and measurable actions and timescales for achievement of each of the objectives that emerged from phase 2. During phase 3, I decided to hold back on the finalisation of the inclusion strategy pending the Government decision regarding recognition of Traveller ethnicity. I continued to work with my Oireachtas colleagues to discuss the question of State recognition of Traveller ethnicity and to engage with them on the potential value of such State recognition in terms of a gesture of good faith to the Traveller community.
At this point, I wish to point out that much work on this issue had been carried out by my predecessor, the then Minister of State, now Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin. Senators Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and Colette Kelleher have also done continued excellent work on this issue, for which I am grateful to them. I met the three Senators on a number of occasions to try to identify a way to drive this issue forward at an all-party level, and this approach was very successful. In this regard, I also commend the current joint Oireachtas committee for showing such interest in, and commitment to, Traveller ethnicity by listing the issue high on its agenda for 2016 and issuing the report we are discussing today. It helped to maintain a focus on the issue and build momentum towards the decision by Government. Most particularly, it helped to ensure there was cross-party support in the Houses regarding this issue.
I brought a paper to the Cabinet committee in December 2016 seeking agreement that a formal statement be made to announce that the State recognises Travellers as an ethnic group having a distinct heritage and identity. In what was, I think, an unprecedented step, it was decided at that Cabinet committee meeting that the Traveller NGOs would be invited to present to the Cabinet committee at its next meeting. The four national Traveller NGOs and other Traveller representatives on the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy steering group selected a delegation of four persons, with two alternates, for this purpose. The four Traveller representatives met the Cabinet committee on 6 February 2017, and feedback received from Cabinet committee members following the presentation was very positive. Clear reference was made during that meeting to the then recent recommendations by the joint Oireachtas committee. The Traveller groups concurred that the proposal to conduct a review of any legislative or policy changes required on foot of the recognition by Government of Traveller ethnicity was not required. The decision to announce State recognition of Traveller ethnicity, announced by the Taoiseach on 1 March 2017, has brought great joy to Travellers. As I am sure Deputies will agree, it was a memorable and remarkable evening in the Dáil Chamber. I have been here as long as Deputy Ó Caoláin. We have both been here 20 years, I think, at this stage.