Thursday, 1 June 2017
Report on Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity: Motion
Like other speakers, I commend the Deputies and Senators on the joint committee who contributed to this important debate and to the report on the recognition of Traveller ethnicity. I have difficulty pronouncing the word "ethnicity", although I have no difficulty with what we are discussing. It is one of those words that cause difficulty and I have no doubt that it will probably arise about 100 times in my speech.
It is important that Irish society recognises this huge step. I commend Deputy Ó Caoláin, chairperson of the committee. As somebody said earlier, he is now 20 years a Member of the House. I congratulate him. I do not know if I can look forward to that length of time in the House, but we will see what happens. It is important to recognise the role he and the Minister of State have played in this. Other speakers have mentioned various Deputies but I wish to mention Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, who had a huge part in this. Others from other parties also played a role but I particularly commend him. He was a champion for this issue and the work he did on it has delivered. He has moved all of us along this road.
The date of 1 March last was a historic day for the State. On that day, there were just a few words from the Taoiseach, which meant so much to Travellers, recognising Traveller ethnicity. It was a momentous step forward for equality and we all accept that it was long overdue. Until 1 March, the State had maintained a position for decades that amounted to denial, without ever presenting any evidence-based defence of that position to international groups and partners who had spoken out or, indeed, to the Traveller community. The lack of recognition of ethnicity was a matter of deep concern for the Traveller community. It is estimated that there are 40,000 men, women and children in the community across the island. The distinct culture, traditions and ethnicity of the Traveller community should be cherished and valued. The formal recognition was an important and momentous step forward for equality on the island. It is also a positive re-alignment of the relationship between what is called the settled community and the Traveller community in Ireland.
However, formal recognition by the State of ethnicity will not be the magic wand or formula that alone will address the ongoing challenges of inequality and discrimination faced by Travellers. That has been mentioned by every speaker in this debate. Although the policy of the State towards the Traveller community has come a long way since the Commission on Itinerancy, much work remains to be done. This is the start, but there is a long journey ahead before we can say that Travellers are included and fully part of Irish society. There is much wider institutional discrimination faced by the Traveller community in areas such as health and education, as has been mentioned. A number of reports have been mentioned here tonight. The Travellers are probably sick and tired of the different reports that have been published over the years. People talk about being embarrassed about the fact that Travellers experience discrimination.
We should be embarrassed and ashamed. This should be a spur for us to do something. Embarrassment and expressing shame are no use in themselves, however; what the Traveller community wants is action.
The ESRI report was mentioned in respect of the numbers who are disadvantaged in education and employment. I mentioned this a couple of times in the House. In 2011, in the days of austerity, Travellers were affected severely by the cutbacks affecting health, education and other services. The cuts affected all communities but particularly Travellers. The austerity agenda of the Fianna Fáil, Labour and Fine Gael Governments targeted the weak and most disadvantaged in society. We were told the austerity programme was the way forward at the time, for whatever reason. The then Government took its decision probably in the knowledge that there would not be a huge kick-up about it. I do not remember a huge kick-up in this House. The educational supports were done away with. The then Government aimed specifically at targets and the supports were eliminated overnight. They included the posts for visiting teachers for Travellers, who supported Traveller pupils and their families, and additional resource teachers and resource hours for Traveller children. Specialised training centres for teenage and adult Travellers were also closed down overnight, with nothing to replace them.
Worryingly, Pavee Point made the point that, since 2008, State funding of Traveller education had fallen by 86%. Only 15% of Travellers completed second level education, compared to 92% in the rest of society. In disadvantaged areas, only a handful are breaking through. It should be no surprise that fewer than 1% of Travellers proceed to third level. What can we learn from this? Most obviously, if one removes supports and services, it will impact directly on the most vulnerable. It is not rocket science but, unfortunately, policy makers keep repeating these approaches.
The suicide rate for Traveller women is six times that among women in the settled community, and that of Traveller men is seven times higher. We have all experienced a spate of Traveller suicides in our communities and we are all fully aware of what is happening. At the root of all these problems are the unacceptable levels of prejudice, discrimination and social exclusion of Travellers.
The comments of Mr. Nils MuiŽnieks, the EU Commissioner for Human Rights, were mentioned. He talked about the discrimination against Travellers and the inequality they face. I am a member of the committee and talked to him directly about this. I informed him that the Irish Parliament had come to a decision to recognise Traveller ethnicity.
Sinn Féin has called in the past for the establishment of a national forum across the island of Ireland involving Travellers and the settled community, including representatives of all political parties, the Government, local authorities, the health and education sectors and media organisations to plan a way forward. It needs to be established.
I have served at local authority level. We have all come through that process. At AGMs councillors used to fight to get on various committees but I do not ever remember people fighting to get on the Traveller accommodation committee. People should note this if they want to talk about shame.
I am proud, to some extent, of some of the work of my local authority. We have not done enough but we collectively agreed a programme to roll out housing. Unfortunately, however, much of that accommodation provision has stopped. Hardly a week goes by without someone from the Traveller community coming to my advice centre looking for housing support. This is affecting the Traveller community along with everyone else.
I thank all those who have been involved in formulating the policy at the committee and all others who have taken part. As I stated, we are starting a journey. There is such a huge amount of work to be done by us. Collectively, if we approach it in the appropriate manner, we can, I hope, start to get things done and make society more inclusive for Travellers.