Thursday, 1 June 2017
Report on Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity: Motion
-----on which all sides of the Dáil came together to mark and celebrate this issue. I was delighted to note that an all-party consensus was reached on the issue. It was particularly special that the Visitors Gallery was filled with Travellers and advocates who had campaigned so hard for State recognition of Traveller ethnicity. I deeply appreciate the speeches made on that occasion, including that made by Deputy Ó Caoláin, as Chairman of the committee, supporting the Government decision. I truly hope that State recognition of Traveller ethnicity will act as the platform for transformative change for the Traveller community.
Today, I attended the Traveller Pride Awards 2017. I attended last year's awards in one of my first engagements in this position. I was hugely impressed by what I saw today. Seven young people received awards. Thomas Maughan works with Men's Sheds and does amazing work looking after men's health and Traveller men's health. Michael Power is the editor of Travellers' Voice magazine. He is a very impressive young man and spoke extraordinary well. Johnny McDonagh and Niamh Black work with youth groups in their area, such as Lucht Siúil Óga. Again, they are highly impressive speakers and the work they are doing developing leadership among young Travellers is amazing. Hughie Maughan, whom we all know from the television programme, also spoke extremely well. Lizzy Connors is a poet and a fantastic singer. Patrick Mangan never gives up and will represent Ireland in the European Amateur Boxing Championships in Ukraine. Ian McDonagh is 15 and has met Prince Charles and the President. He won an award at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition this year - amazing work and very impressive. It was great to see the positives and the potential.
I would like to speak to the positives and show what the future can be for Travellers, especially with regard to the inclusion strategy which we will publish shortly. We must all work together to make that happen. Deputy Ó Caoláin is correct about that.
I wish to refer to the recommendations contained in the committee's report of January 2017. Based upon the hearings and broader consideration of the issues, the committee made recommendations to the Minister for Justice and Equality. The committee stated it was of the view that Travellers are, de facto, a separate ethnic group. Furthermore, the committee stated that this was not a gift to be bestowed upon Travellers, but a fact the State ought to formally acknowledge, preferably by way of a statement by the Taoiseach to Dáil Éireann. The committee strongly encouraged that this step be taken and at the earliest date possible in 2017.
We can safely say that the Government has taken heed of the first two recommendations and has achieved what it set out to do in terms of the Taoiseach’s statement to the Dáil announcing State recognition of Traveller ethnicity on 1 March 2017. While not a legal or legislative issue, such a symbolically important gesture of respect by the State will, I hope, empower Traveller leaders to call on their community to rise to the challenge of transformative action on this and other issues, in partnership with the State and on the basis of an honest dialogue and a focus on solving real problems for the benefit of their community.
I have come across some Travellers who denied their ethnicity, history and the fact they were Travellers because they felt it was not prudent to admit to being Travellers. As I said today at the awards ceremony, it is to be hoped that from now on Travellers will no longer be ashamed of being Travellers. Deputy Ó Caoláin is correct - there is a lot of work to be done. This is a major start. He referenced the 1963 report, and I agree with everything he said. However, that chapter has now closed and we have opened a new one. We have to move forward and see what we can do to address all of the challenges the Deputy mentioned.
The key argument for ethnic recognition is that recognition of the distinct heritage, culture and identity of Travellers and their special place in Irish society is very symbolically important to Traveller pride and self-esteem and to overcoming the legacy of economic marginalisation, discrimination and low self-esteem with which that community struggles. This is not to ignore the real problems that the community faces, but such a symbolic gesture would create a new platform for positive engagement by the Traveller community and Government together in seeking sustainable solutions which are based on respect and on an honest dialogue to those problems, including anti-social behaviour and feuding by a minority within the Traveller community.
Clearly, a renewed law enforcement focus, as well as sustained resourcing for work with Traveller families, will be required for a serious impact on these issues, but strong Traveller participation and leadership is also an essential element for an intervention that will be successful over time. Ethnic recognition has the potential to create the circumstances whereby my Department and other Departments and agencies, including An Garda Síochána, can engage with Travellers on, and Traveller leaders can credibly call on their community to participate in, the development of an action plan to tackle and seek to solve key problems facing the Traveller community.
In preliminary discussions with Traveller leaders, my Department has identified feuding as a pivotal issue that could be put centre stage in such an approach, in that its negative ramifications impact directly on mental and physical health, the position of women and children, employment and accommodation issues. Following the announcement by the Taoiseach on 1 March 2017 of the State’s recognition of Traveller ethnicity, I directed my officials to recommence the process of development of the new national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy. In implementing such an inclusion strategy, it will be important to build on the wave of positivity arising for Travellers from the Taoiseach’s statement.
All of the issues and themes I have mentioned, including health, accommodation, education, employment, Traveller culture, anti-discrimination, gender equality, public services, feuding and anti-social behaviour, will be addressed in the national Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021. I am happy to advise the House I presented the draft inclusion strategy to Cabinet on 30 May 2017 and the strategy was approved for publication. I will launch the inclusion strategy on 13 June 2017. I have stressed that it must be regarded as a living document, with monitoring of its implementation and reporting of same a key and integral part of its potential success.
I would like to turn to the committee’s third recommendation, namely, that the Government should conduct a review, in consultation with Traveller representative groups, of any legislative or policy changes required on foot of the recognition of Traveller ethnicity. I have to admit this recommendation came as a surprise to my Department and Traveller organisations, as our agreed understanding is that recognition has no implications for public expenditure or legislation and does not require any legislative amendments.
As I stated, my Department does not believe any legislative amendments or policy review is needed arising from the State recognition of Traveller ethnicity. As set out by the four national Traveller NGOs, they do not feel that it is necessary. It was also stated by the Taoiseach on 1 March 2017 that:
Together, we agreed that recognition of Travellers could have a transformative effect on relations between Travellers and wider society, and will create no new individual, constitutional or financial rights. Because, of course, Travellers already enjoy all the human rights and responsibilities that are afforded all people under the Constitution and laws.
As I said during that debate: "To reiterate the point the Taoiseach made, this is a hugely important and symbolic gesture that is very important to Travellers, but it has no legislative implications, creates no new rights and has no implications for public expenditure." Traveller NGOs will, of course, continue to lobby for improved service provision and I, as Minister of State, will equally pursue improvements in critical areas such as health, accommodation, education and employment in the context of implementation and review of the new national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy but - I must stress this - ethnic recognition is an entirely separate matter. It has to stand on its own for what it is. It is very important and symbolic.
Of course, that is not to say that all of the other issues that we mentioned are also not important and do not need to be dealt with. That is why the strategy has been worked on in consultation and partnership with Traveller organisations, who had a major input into the strategy. It will be very challenging, but if and when it works, it will be transformative. We have done a significant piece of work which I contend stands alone.
The second piece of work is the inclusion strategy. It is not an integration strategy; it is an inclusion strategy, which is very important to point out. The strategy will be published on 13 July and I welcome the views of the committee on it. As I said, it is a living, rather than a static, document. I do not want it to be on a shelf; I want people to work on it. I want the steering group to come together every quarter and report on the challenges, obstacles and progress that have been made in the implementation of the inclusion strategy.
I again thank the committee for its work and support. Let us move forward together to see what other improvements we can make and how we can make the lives of the community better.