Thursday, 1 June 2017
Report on Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity: Motion
I accept completely and totally the Minister of State's bona fides and genuine approach to the question of Traveller ethnicity. It was a momentous evening when we celebrated the recognition of Traveller ethnicity. I remember spending most of my time out at the gate trying to get more Travellers in. We were squashing them into the Gallery and, unfortunately, could not find enough space for them. I am very proud of one of them, Eileen Flynn. She did not come here today because she got so fed up not getting in the last night. Last week, she completed her degree course in Maynooth. She was one of two Traveller women who have gone to college and completed their course in Ballyfermot. We can be proud of these kinds of results but we have a long way to go.
I noticed a few points in the Minister of State's speech. I wish to flesh out a small argument without being overly critical of him as an individual. Over a year ago, Ronnie Fay of Pavee Point addressed the Committee on Housing and Homelessness on the issue of Traveller accommodation. She said:
Between 2008 and 2013, the Traveller accommodation budget was cut from €40 million to €4 million. This is a staggering 90%. Even more shockingly, there was an underspend of 36% of the allocated Traveller accommodation budgets by local authorities.
In that period, I was chairing the local Traveller accommodation consultative committee in Dublin City Council. Unbeknown to us, the council's housing department refused or failed - I would say a bit of both - to draw down the total funding that was allocated to it for housing by the Department. The reason became obvious to me when this was repeated over a number of budgetary years. If one does not spend the full budget in one year, one gets less the next year, and if one does not spend all that, one gets less the following year. The council's housing department justified to itself, even in the absence of austerity, its decision to drop the Traveller accommodation budget to the limit mentioned.
Ms Fay explained the extent of the accommodation crisis among the Traveller community. She said 361 Traveller families lived on unauthorised sites and that 188 Traveller families lived on basic service bays. I am sure the Minister of State is familiar with these. One can plug into electricity sometimes and there might be access to plumbed water sometimes but it is not always the case that one has both or either at these sites. Ms Fay also said 182 families shared permanent halting sites and 17 families shared basic service bays or transient halting sites. Startlingly, she said:
[R]oughly 5,500, or 18.6%, of the Traveller population are in need of proper accommodation provision. If one uses the census 2011 figures [there has been another census since that year], this would be the equivalent of 853,415 of the general population [almost 1 million] in need of housing.
We all know we have a housing crisis but we have an extreme one among the Traveller population. In his presentation, which I welcome, the Minister of State repeated five times that recognition has no implications for public expenditure or legislation and does not require any legislative amendments. He says the Government is developing an action plan to tackle and seek to solve the problems facing the Traveller community and working with Travellers to do so. I argue that, if any action is to be taken, money has to be spent.
The Government could not address the enormity of that problem without spending money if an equivalent number of people in the general population had such a crisis. By God, does this Government have to justify spending money on the Traveller population. It absolutely behoves us to spend money on them because we have starved them and underfunded them to a disgraceful degree, particularly over the years of austerity. I will not go over the facts about the years of austerity and how it unjustly and in an unbalanced way hit Travellers more than any other section of the population. However, I do remember when the criticism was made to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Noonan, at the time. I will never forget his words. He said that we have to pluck the low-hanging fruit first. That was another way of saying that it is easier to go after the most vulnerable and after those who are most exposed to take what they have from them. That way, one will get less of a kickback. To our eternal shame, we have done this and it is that part of the community that we now have to look after and ensure that they get their rights.
I do not know how Deputy Ó Caoláin stuck 20 years in this place, but he did. It is a great achievement that he recently got this report through. He has played a fine role for 20 years in the House. For the five years that I chaired the local traveller accommodation consultative committee, LTACC, I learnt a lot about how the State and the system works and where racism and discrimination come from. It was not necessarily that I sat across the table from a city manager or officials in the department of housing in Dublin City Council who absolutely hated Travellers or who thought they were all smelly or something. That was not the case. Rather, it is built into the system to use discrimination as a tool by which not to spend money, not to pay attention and not to deal with real problems. The lives of people working in these jobs are made easier by not tackling the depth and breadth of the problems these communities face. It is easier to send somebody into a halting site to say there is too much anti-social behaviour there, the doors cannot be repaired, the electricity cannot be fixed or the running water they require cannot be given as a result. They get away with when they do it to Travellers in a halting site, such as the places I am most familiar with like Labre Park in Ballyfermot or St. Margaret's in Ballymun. The systemic, in-built attitude of the State towards the Traveller community is going to have to be dug out in a serious way.
The best way to do that is to begin to change our legislative and structural framework and how we deal with it. For example, in the same contribution, Pavee Point recommended the establishment of a statutory Traveller agency with Travellers involved in it to deal with Traveller accommodation crises. Therefore, we would probably not need the local area Traveller committees like the one I sat on or the national Traveller committee, which we all walked out of in disgust over a year ago as it was utterly failing to deal with the national Traveller accommodation issue. I believe the committee is not having an AGM this year but is rather travelling around the country to consult with different communities. I believe it makes absolute sense to replace those two bodies, as they have utterly failed, and create a statutory agency that has powers of spending, creating budgets and delivering on the accommodation needs of the Traveller community.
Likewise, similar measures will have to be taken with education and health. Recognition of ethnicity does not require legislative changes but other changes might. The implications of dealing with all of these things correctly should require the review of the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998, the Trespass Act and a whole plethora of legislative and corrective issues in local authorities as well as at a national level.
I am very keen to see what the national Traveller and Roma inclusion report says when we come back here on 13 June. I believe Members should look at it carefully and work with the local Traveller activists, whom I must say are amazing people. They are some of the finest people I have ever met in my life. It is not patronising to say that those, both Traveller and non-Traveller, who work with the Traveller communities are extremely impressive, dedicated and decent people. They have really achieved this final result. Although Deputy Ó Caoláin and others helped them through, it has really been down to the activism, as has already been said, that this recognition has been achieved.
I look forward to the implementation of this. The body politic - all of us - owe it to the Traveller community to undo the injustices that have been imposed on them down through the decades in this State.