Thursday, 1 June 2017
Report on Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity: Motion
I am happy to reply to the debate. I know that Deputy Ó Caoláin will speak after me. I have listened carefully to everything that has been said. The programme of research commissioned and funded by the Department of Justice and Equality has been mentioned on a number of occasions. It is entitled A Social Portrait of Travellers in Ireland, was drawn up by the ESRI and published in January last. I launched it. At the time, I commented on the contents of that report and how on almost every level, Travellers were not doing well to put it mildly. I launched that last January.
Mr. Ronnie Fay from Pavee Point was very much involved in that report, as was Mr. Déaglán Ó Briain from the Department of Justice and Equality. I pay tribute as well to Professor Dorothy Watson, Ms Oona Kenny and Professor Frances McGinnity who compiled it. It was a major and very important report. I hope that the next time such a report is done we will see major improvements. That will be very important. I also recognise members of the Traveller community in the Visitors Gallery this evening and I welcome them here.
The report of the committee contained three recommendations. The first two have been fulfilled by virtue of the Taoiseach's statement on 1 March 2017 regarding the State's recognition of Traveller ethnicity. With regard to the third recommendation, I explained that in order to recognise Traveller ethnicity, legislation was not necessary. It was not necessary to have any extra resources. It was not necessary for that to happen. This is a view shared with the national Traveller NGOs. Legislation does not automatically flow from the statement of recognition. Neither does the need for extra resources. However, that does not mean that there is not a need for them. I am just breaking the link between the two. I believe that the recognition issue, as colleagues have said, was such an issue on the night that it has to stand on its own and be recognised for what it is. It is an historic change. We will let it stand on its own. All the other issues have to be dealt with and addressed as well. I just want to make this clear. I do not think we should be using the recognition issue as some kind of a lever to get other stuff. The other stuff should happen anyway. Let it stand on its own for what it is as a very powerful, unanimously agreed statement of recognition. I remember on the night there was a standing ovation in the House for the Travellers in the Visitors Gallery. The Travellers and everyone in the Visitors Gallery gave a standing ovation back. In the 20 years myself and Deputy Ó Caoláin have been here, I have never seen anything like it. It was a good night.
Reviews of legislation and policy are undertaken by my Department and across Government on an ongoing basis. Such reviews are a necessary and integral part of having a public sector that is flexible and adaptable to the evolving demands and challenges of a modern democracy. My own Department keeps equality legislation under constant review and puts forward amendments whenever necessary and appropriate. That particular piece of research was commissioned and paid for by the Department of Justice and Equality. The ESRI is independent. We wanted to know independently what was going on out there. A further example of such legislative reviews in the nature of business is the forthcoming review of Traveller accommodation legislation, recently announced by the Minister of State, Deputy English. A prime example of policy review is the development by my Department of the new national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy. In a way, the third recommendation calling on the Government to conduct a review in consultation with Traveller representatives groups of any legislative or policy changes required is already happening because the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy is being developed. It is actually happening anyway. It is not on foot of or because of recognition of Traveller ethnicity. I just wish to make that clear. These reviews would have been done even if the statement announcing Traveller ethnicity had not happened. They should have been done anyway.
What we achieved by working together on a cross-party basis in terms of achieving State recognition of Travellers as an ethnic group in Ireland is clear. I believe that we can and should use that type of co-operation to move forward with actions that will make a tangible improvement to the quality of life of Travellers in Ireland. From this point forward, I believe that our focus should be on the implementation of the forthcoming national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy for 2017 to 2021.
I look forward to Deputy Bríd Smith's constructive criticism of that strategy when it comes forward and support for many of the proposals in it.
To make a truly living document that makes a real difference to people, we must work together to implement the actions set out in it. We need to monitor the progress of that implementation and report so it will not just be left on the shelf. We need to suggest new ideas and initiatives as they occur. Crucially, we need to build on the positive platform and momentum that State recognition of Traveller ethnicity has given us. It is imperative to take advantage of this opportunity now and as elected representatives, continue to demonstrate good faith to the Traveller community. We can do this by working together and in partnership with Travellers to strive constantly to show practical ways that Travellers are a valued part of our society.
Deputy Bríd Smith mentioned finances earlier on. The Minister and I managed to get an increase of €1 million in the allocation to my Department for Traveller and Roma community development programmes and initiatives this year so we need to build on that again. Extra money is being made available. We now need to focus our efforts to ensure that this money is invested wisely in ways that will give rise to an improved standard of living for Travellers and Roma. This will need to be done in conjunction with Traveller and Roma organisations and at a cross-departmental level. Today, at the National Traveller Pride Awards 2017, I witnessed the talent, skills and potential of Travellers. It was amazing. Next year, if Deputy Ó Caoláin is still Chairman of the committee, and I hope he will be, he might get the committee to attend because it is an uplifting experience.
It is also important to come back to a point I raised earlier today about feuding and anti-social behaviour in the Traveller community because it is a two-way street. Such behaviour is carried out by a small minority in the Traveller community but is very damaging in terms of reputational damage to Travellers as well as intimidation of members of the Traveller community. It also increases Traveller marginalisation and exclusion from the rest of society. One of the key initiatives I want see implemented during the course of the new national Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021 is the development of a culturally appropriate intervention to bring feuding and anti-social behaviour to an end within a definitive period of time. My Department will be leading on this initiative, which has the potential to be very successful and improve the quality of life of many Travellers. I would welcome the support of the House in respect of this intervention. As I mentioned earlier, the negative ramifications of feuding and anti-social behaviour in the Traveller community impact directly on mental and physical health, the position of Traveller women and children, employment and accommodation issues. We urgently need to address this but it will be challenging.
I welcome the report and thank the committee and Chairman for their support of Government decisions regarding recognition of Traveller ethnicity. I also acknowledge the contribution of the committee's work to taking the debate forward and thank colleagues for comments about the small input I had into this. It was building on work done over many years. The publication of the inclusion strategy is the next step. As I said, it is an inclusion strategy, not an integration strategy. That is quite important and is the difference between the 1963 statement and this one. There are many other differences as well. There has been an entire change of attitude. I believe education is key. The report by the ESRI mentioned that as well, as did a Member earlier on. It was mentioned today during the National Traveller Pride Awards. We must support young Travellers to help them stay in education as much as possible. One of the Travellers today said that at the least, they should be encouraged to stay to the leaving certificate. There are so many other avenues open to them because there are so many skills there that are being wasted. If a person has education, things like employment, health and accommodation follow. Everything else flows from that.
I look forward to working in whatever capacity I will be in this House after the publication of this report to see it as a blueprint for the next four years. We can change it as we move along if we discover new things in it. I thank the committee for its work on this issue.