Thursday, 1 June 2017
Report on Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity: Motion
Unlike the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and Deputy Ó Caoláin, I have not been a Member of the House for 20 years; I have only been a Member for 15 months. I agree with them when they said the events of 1 March last were memorable and historic. In my 15 months here, which is a small amount of time, it was the most memorable event I have experienced as a Member of the House. It was memorable because of the sense of excitement and expectation in the House on that evening. That may also be a reflection of how new politics does not provide much excitement, but it is the case that there was a genuine feeling of appreciation and power in this House on that evening.
It was an historic occasion. It is difficult for people involved in events to assess whether those events have been historic, but in years to come it will be recognised that the recognition by the State of the ethnicity of the Traveller community was, in fact, an historic step. On that evening, my party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, spoke, and I also had the privilege to speak to a very full House and Gallery, which was one of the most memorable occasions of that night.
On that occasion, I commended and acknowledged the role of the Taoiseach in taking the step of acknowledging and recognising Traveller ethnicity. I want to do the same again now. He will presently be passing on to pastures new, but it should be recognised that when his legacy comes to be written by historians, very much on the credit side will be the fact that he was the Taoiseach who recognised the ethnicity of Travellers on behalf of the State. He could have fudged the issue and let it drift on to the next leader, but he made a conscious decision and for that he deserves to be commended.
Other groups need to be recognised for bringing forward that historic evening. In fairness to the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, when he was the Chair of the previous Joint Committee on Justice and Equality he produced a report in, I understand, April 2014 which called on the Government to recognise the ethnicity of Irish Travellers. I had not realised Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn was instrumental in that. That committee, as chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, deserves recognition for doing that.
I do not know whether the Minister of State will remain involved in the justice portfolio after the events of this week or next. That is a matter for people beyond my and, indeed, his pay grade.
If he is not, I hope that whoever takes his place will continue to emphasise the important role he has played in seeking to advance the rights and entitlements of members of the Irish Traveller community. Hopefully, he will be kept on there.
I acknowledge also the role played by our own justice and equality committee, chaired by Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. People might have thought there was no point having another hearing on Traveller ethnicity since a report had been produced in 2014. Deputy Ó Caoláin and the rest of the committee recognised that there was a benefit in having a further report and seeking to put further pressure on the Government to carry through on what we were led to believe was a commitment. It was important that the report was produced. The pressure it put on the Government was important. I commend and thank the members of the committee on being instrumental in that.
Of course, the people who deserve most credit for the recognition of Irish Travellers are not the Taoiseach, Ministers, Deputies or committee members, they are the members of the Traveller community who have put this item on the agenda for many years. Many people in Ireland were unaware of the significance or meaning of Traveller ethnicity. Sometimes, people confuse it with nationality. People asked why they needed to have their ethnicity recognised when they were Irish. That failed to recognise, however, the meaning of what ethnicity is. It also failed to recognise the rich tradition that lies at the heart of the Irish Traveller community. Like many other Members, I would not have been aware of that had it not been for the important statements and campaigning of members of Pavee Point and the Irish Traveller community who informed and educated us about it. We had the benefit and privilege in the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality to hear further evidence from members of Pavee Point and members of the Traveller community which was instrumental in educating us as to the importance of it. As such, the greatest recognition and thanks must go to those members of the Traveller community who continued to put this on the agenda and to canvass, harass and encourage politicians as to its importance. They succeeded, for which they deserve recognition.
When I saw that the report was being debated this evening, I wondered if there was any point to it. I was concerned that it might become a back-slapping exercise where politicians would assemble to say "Aren't we great and didn't we do a great job in producing the report and getting the Government to recognise Traveller ethnicity?". Fortunately, it is not a back-slapping exercise, nor should it be. As Deputy Ó Caoláin mentioned, there is another very important job of work that needs to be done in respect of recognition of Irish Traveller ethnicity and that is contained in the third recommendation of our report. It states 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. It is important that we do not put ourselves in a comfortable position where we think that having recognised Traveller ethnicity we can sit back and do nothing about it into the future. One of the benefits of and reasons for recognising the Irish Traveller community is that it imposes on us an extra obligation to take legislative and administrative steps to ensure they can be recognised as equal citizens. They should be recognised as equal citizens while at the same time having their unique heritage respected and protected.
We cannot get away from the fact that Irish Travellers experience a disparity of treatment when it comes to such fundamental issues as health, education and accommodation. Deputy Ó Caoláin referred to the disparity between the morbidity and mortality rates on the part of Irish Travellers and those of other Irish people. It is a statistic of which we should be ashamed. It is not acceptable that a group in our society should have such a markedly different health outlook from the majority of the population. He also referred to the infant mortality rates which are also embarrassing, which is a polite way to put it, from the point of view of this country. We must ensure, having recognised Traveller ethnicity, that we take further steps to ensure that the disparities in the health of Irish Travellers no longer continue throughout the 21st century. There was no reason for those disparities to develop and it is essential that there is collaboration between the Government and members of the Irish Traveller community, along with experts, to ensure they cease.
We must also recognise that there are unique challenges presented to us as a result of the requirement for Traveller accommodation, taking into account Travellers' status and unique ethnicity. We must ensure that every local authority takes seriously the requirement to put in place a Traveller housing programme. We must also look at the whole area of education and the Traveller community. While that has improved in recent years, there is still a long way to go. We must get to a stage where it is not unique for a member of the Irish Traveller community to go to third level. Any member of the Irish Traveller community who wants to proceed and pursue a career which requires advanced education should be able to have it. It requires us to work in liaison with the Traveller community to ensure that is available. These are the three main and fundamental requirements not just of Travellers but of every citizen, namely health, education and accommodation, and we need to work on them.
Mention was made of issues regarding legislation and the need to update it. One of the things my party can be proud of was the introduction of the Equal Status Act 2000, which set out nine grounds upon which one is not allowed to discriminate against individuals. One of those grounds is the Traveller ground. People are not allowed to be discriminated against on the basis that they are members of the Traveller community. We also have the Employment Equality Act which sets out the same nine grounds and prohibits discrimination by employers against individuals on the basis that they are members of the Irish Traveller community. I conclude by recognising once again the important role played by the Taoiseach. Deputy Ó Caoláin mentioned the history of this country in its treatment of Irish Travellers. While he makes a valid point, we need to look to the future. There were many failings on the part of the State in the past and those failings exist not just in this State but in other countries as well. We are not an exception. People in different countries were treated shamefully by states and governments. We must now look into the future and see how best we can adapt our laws for the benefit of the Irish Traveller community.