Thursday, 1 June 2017
Report on Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity: Motion
Tá áthas orm go bhfuilim ag labhairt ar an ábhar seo.
Last March, when the House recognised Traveller ethnicity, it was truly an historic moment for the 40,000 members of our Traveller community and for Irish society as a whole. This recognition must be the first step on the path for real and practical change. The formal recognition of Traveller ethnicity does not immediately deal with the challenges and discrimination faced by the Traveller community, but it is a major step in the right direction. We need to keep moving in this direction. I was very proud to be here to witness the joy of the hundreds who turned up to see this historic occasion. I pay tribute in particular to those who have advocated on behalf of the Traveller community for decades, from within the Traveller community and those in the settled community who have done so much to advance the welfare of Travellers . I also commend the committee, which conducted its own hearings and added a fresh report to the body of work already in place on the recognition of Traveller ethnicity.
At present, two out of three recommendations from the joint committee have been implemented. It is the third which is now important. It states, on the formal recognition of Traveller ethnicity, that the Government should conduct a review, in consultation with Traveller representative groups, of any legislative or policy changes required on foot of recognition of Traveller ethnicity. This recommendation is crucial. It is important to state formal recognition of Traveller ethnicity brings no new rights and likely needs no new legislation.
Traveller people have always had rights. They need to be treated with the full rights of the country, to which they are as entitled as anyone else. This is not the case, as we well know. I will take as an example Traveller accommodation. Last year, local authorities failed to spend a total of more than €1.2 million earmarked for Traveller accommodation. A number of local authorities drew down less than one third of the funding allocated last year by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. Local authorities in Kildare, Clare and Carlow did not spend any of the money set aside for Traveller accommodation, while city councils in Cork and Waterford only used a small portion of the available funding. How can this be the case? We would not allow any other group of people to become so marginalised from society. While efforts such as this charter on Traveller ethnicity are important steps, what is needed is a cultural change of attitude from us all.
It has been clear for many years that there has been a concerted campaign to integrate the Traveller community into so-called settled housing. Many families and individuals have been coerced into housing through the use of rent supplement and the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, with the excuse that there is nothing else available, even though funds were not spent or even handed back to the Department by local authorities. This policy must stop. It is ethnic cleansing.
I recall the marginalisation of, and discrimination against, Travellers by the State in Dublin North-West over the years. Dunsink Lane between Finglas and Castleknock was blocked almost 18 years ago with huge concrete structures, thus isolating the hundreds of men, women and children living there and depriving them of all services, connectivity and proper policing. The excuse given was that there were some criminal elements there. At the time I warned about the damage it would do. It led to civil disturbances, serious rioting and, unnecessarily, a breakdown between the Garda, the Traveller community and local people. Luckily, however, the local community always got on very well with the Traveller community in Finglas, so there was no lasting damage. However, it was a disastrous mistake by the State and the politicians at the time. I warned that it would cause a problem, and it did. In contrast, the feud that is taking place in the inner city, which has led to so many deaths, has not led to such a drastic approach. We can only measure how far society has moved when we look at what is happening around us.
Poverty levels in the Traveller community are massive. The community has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. The rate is higher than that in any other section in society. Employment is a major problem. There is no incentive to try to work with the Traveller community to increase employment. The attitude is, "We will leave it to yourselves. We will throw a few small things into your community and that is it". That is not good enough. Health is also a serious problem, as are discrimination and racism. People in the Traveller community die younger. It is up to all of us to break down these barriers. St. Margaret's, one of the Traveller sites in Ballymun, and Avila Park in Finglas are bursting at the seams to get people housed. There is no sign of that changing. There is a need for more Traveller-specific accommodation as well as accommodation to cater for Travellers with disabilities, which is a big problem.
Recognition of ethnicity is a huge achievement, but actions are of primary importance. Carrickmines and Louth have shown us the task that is before us. If our society is to call itself a just and caring society, we must break down those barriers. We must reach out to all our communities, not just the Traveller community, but also the so-called settled community. I do not like the word "settled" but it is often used. I thank Deputy Ó Caoláin, the committee and all who supported this cause over the past number of years. This has been a long time coming. I recall this matter being raised ten and 15 years ago and speaking to the Traveller community about it. However, there is still a large amount of discrimination. It is important to get rid of the myths that are voiced about the Traveller community and other minority groups, particularly the Roma which is targeted by many myths told about them. The myths are disgusting and unacceptable. Society needs to learn. We must get out in society and get a better message across. We must be get the word across to the community that this is unacceptable.
The Traveller community is a huge and welcome part of our community. We hope to see it expand and have its own identity. That is what it deserves.