Dáil debates

Tuesday, 3 November 2015

Travellers' Rights: Motion [Private Members]


8:45 pm

Photo of Michael ColreavyMichael Colreavy (Sligo-North Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann:extends its sincere condolences and sympathy to the Lynch, Gilbert and Connors families on the tragic loss of their loved ones in the Carrickmines fire and offers solidarity and support to the wider Traveller community;

recognises that Travellers experience endemic racism and discrimination in Irish society and suffer disproportionately in all the key social indicators including employment, poverty, health, infant mortality, life expectancy, literacy, education and accommodation;

acknowledges that many in the Travelling community are forced to endure intolerable substandard living conditions which have resulted in many Travellers being denied access to basic facilities such as sanitation, water and electricity;

further acknowledges that appallingly poor accommodation conditions have greatly contributed to widespread health problems and appalling premature death rates amongst the Travelling community;

recognises that a root cause of many of these problems is the widespread levels of prejudice, discrimination and social exclusion experienced by Travellers at institutional and other levels of Irish society and that the State has failed in its responsibility to treat Irish Travellers as full and equal citizens;

condemns the successive Government budget cuts to Traveller Programmes that have decreased funding for Travellers from €35 million in 2010 to €4.3 million in 2015, and in particular the erosion from €70 million in 2000 to €4.3 million in 2015 to the Traveller accommodation budget;

agrees that in the aftermath of the Carrickmines tragedy there is an urgent need for a farreaching and fundamental reappraisal of the way in which Travellers are treated in Irish society and that this will require a momentous shift in individual and community attitudes which can only happen with political leadership at Government level;

calls on the Taoiseach to make a statement to Dáil Éireann confirming that the State recognises the ethnicity of the Travelling community; and

calls on the Government to:

— implement the recommendations of the April 2014 Report by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality on the Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity before the end of this Dáil term;

— establish an all-Ireland forum involving Travellers and the settled community, including representatives of all political parties, central Government, local authorities, health and education sectors and representatives of media organisations, to be tasked with:
— reviewing the way Travellers are treated in society and by institutions of the


— putting forward policies that will ensure the State fully honours its responsibilities to the international conventions on human rights and truly values and protects our Traveller communities; and

— implementing the new positive duty (Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission [IRHEC] Act 2014) obliging public bodies to have regard, in the performance of their functions, to the need to eliminate discrimination and promote equality of opportunity and treatment;
— enact a series of measures to address the housing crisis affecting Travellers that will include:
— reform of all existing legislation that penalises Traveller culture and ways of life;

— amending the Planning and Development Act 2000 to make the Traveller Accommodation Programme a mandatory consideration on an application for planning permission;

— empowering the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee to take charge of the provision of Traveller accommodation, with an annual budget and targets and with a commitment to closer monitoring and mid-term reviews;

— frontloading funding to local authorities with a good track record of delivering Traveller accommodation and enacting legislation that will penalise local authorities that refuse to build needed Traveller accommodation; and

— incorporating local development plan zoning objectives with provisions of the Traveller Accommodation Programme (especially in relation to the use of temporary or transient halting sites).

I find it extraordinary that we are having this debate about whether the ethnicity of Travellers should be recognised. I cannot imagine us having this debate about any other minority in the country. I cannot figure out why we have to have this debate. It probably goes back to the foundation of the State. It is ironic that as we approach 2016 the State always seems to have had a problem with diversity.

To be Irish was to be white, settled and a Catholic who conformed to the norms in which the majority of society believed and people did not digress from that path. Perhaps one could pinpoint partition as a catalyst for the scenario in which the country was split along religious, if not political and ethnic, lines. Following partition, everyone south of the Border was to conform to a certain expectation and problems arose when some did not conform. That is exemplified in the State's refusal to recognise Traveller ethnicity and effectively to see them as a problem for the State. This is a situation that simply cannot be allowed to continue.

A report by the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality found that all the identifiable, potential excuses or concerns that could be deployed by the State which continued the denial of Traveller ethnicity should be rejected. There have been many of these during the years under successive Governments. The rejection of Traveller ethnicity has been accepted in the Six Counties and an overwhelming body of research supports Traveller ethnicity, yet the Government amendment, although it is a counter-motion, rather than an amendment, states, "the question of formal recognition of Travellers as a group in Irish society with a unique culture, heritage and ethnic identity is being considered". My God, how pathetic is that? After all the years, all the research and all the information we have, the Government states "it is being considered". Do we need another 50 years of worsening conditions for the Traveller community for a Government here to make its mind up?

What we are doing is not just about rights for a minority. What we are doing is providing leadership, while the Government, in its so-called amendment, its counter-motion, is pulling back that leadership. To state it needs more consideration is cowardly. It is not leadership but an act of cowardice. Granting ethnic rights to Travellers would lead to major improvements in the lives of members of the Traveller community. I always say good legislation is legislation that makes it easier for people to do the right thing and makes it damn hard for them to do the wrong thing. It is legislation which has respect from every citizen of the State. Travellers do not enjoy respect and there is no other group in society to whom the Government or the people would say, "Until 100% of you are behaving 100% of the time we will not show respect to any of you." That is what the Government amendment is all about. We are pandering to prejudice. We are not dealing with the problems but pandering to prejudice, which is why the Government is seeking more time. Is there leadership? It is leading us back to where we were 100 years ago.

The local authorities in their role in housing Travellers have been disgraceful. I was not aware until the recent tragic incident in which a family was virtually wiped out that local authorities had sent back money that had been granted to them by the Government to house Travellers. That is disgraceful and no Government should have tolerated it. All the local authorities are doing is reflecting the inertia of the Government. They are putting it off for another day, another year, another decade or another century, to deal with it then but not now because it might damage them politically.

8:55 pm

Photo of Joanna TuffyJoanna Tuffy (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn has agreed to share his time with other Members.

Photo of Pádraig MacLochlainnPádraig MacLochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein)
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During 2013 the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality held a number of hearings on the issue of the State recognising the ethnicity of the Traveller community. In compelling testimony to the committee, Brigid Quilligan, director of the Irish Traveller Movement, stated:

Through generations, where we were once a strong, proud people – and for some part still are - we have been devalued within society. Never before in my lifetime have I seen such hate as I have seen in the past five years. If one opens a newspaper or turns on the television, if one is in a shop or on a train, if one looks at Facebook, Twitter, thejournal.ieor anything at all, anti-Traveller sentiment is fired at one. As Travellers, we experience this in our daily lives and we try to set about changing that by making people aware of us and by working in partnership with people.

The devastating tragedy at Carrickmines and the response of a significant minority of the people can only have reinforced the deep concern of Brigid and all of the 40,000 men, women and children that make up the Traveller community across the island. The ugly racism of some towards the Traveller community reached a new low after the tragedy at Carrickmines. The fact that hundreds of citizens gave a thumbs down to expressions of sympathy to victims on the website thejournal.ieis deeply disturbing. Their hatred blackens their heart so much that even to the burning to death of ten human beings - ten Irish citizens, five of them children, one of them a pregnant mother - there is an empty shrug of the shoulders.

How did we get to this point? The first major policy report in the State on Travellers was that of the commission on itinerancy in 1963. The commission was established in June 1960 and the publication of its report three years later established policy on Travellers for the following 20 years. It is one of the most shameful reports in the history of the State. If Members want any evidence of its agenda or views, the four terms of reference for the commission are all that they need to look at. They were: (1) to inquire into the problem arising from the presence in the country of itinerants in considerable numbers; (2) to examine the economic, educational, health and social problems inherent in their way of life; (3) to consider what steps might be taken to provide opportunities for a better way of life for itinerants and to promote their absorption into the general community and, pending such absorption, to reduce to a minimum the disadvantage to themselves and the community resulting from their itinerant habits; and (4) to make recommendations. They were dripping in racism and elitism and everything abhorrent to the 1916 Proclamation. It is ignorant; it is stupid; it is ill informed, yet it forms the basis for the hatred we see today.

I say it again that human beings, citizens of this State, went online and gave a thumbs-down to the expression of sympathy to ten human beings who were burned to death in the most appalling circumstances.

The language used in the terms of reference of that report was instructive as to the State’s ideological approach to the Traveller community at that time. It is also instructive that no representatives of the Traveller community sat on the commission. In its report, the commission asserted:

Itinerants (or Travellers as they prefer themselves to be called) do not constitute a single homogenous group, tribe or community within the nation although the settled population are inclined to regard them as such. Neither do they constitute a separate ethnic group.

It reached this conclusion without any apparent explanation or evidence provided. In its 2013, 50th anniversary review of the Commission on Itinerancy report, the Irish Travellers Movement pointed out that in chapter 6 of the report, the commission states: "as it was not essential to the consideration of the Commission’s terms of reference, no special study was made of the origins of the itinerant population of this country." The commission stated that it was aware that “a period of long research” would be needed to answer this question and stated that this was a job for “trained historians”.

Despite these acknowledgements, the commission resolutely rejected the ethnicity of Travellers. There was no historical, sociological or anthropological basis; it was just prejudice and racism. That was our society. That is what set the scene for the following decades. That is the virus that infects too many of our citizens in this State when the look at the Traveller community.

The approach and recommendations found in the 1963 report of the Commission on Itinerancy remain deeply offensive to Travellers and are largely rejected by modern-day Ireland but the insistence by the State on not recognising the ethnicity of Travellers remains. Following our hearings the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality recommended the following:

Step 1:

That either the Taoiseach or the Minister for Justice and Equality make a statement to Dáil Éireann confirming that this State recognises the ethnicity of the Travelling community.

Step 2:

That the Government then writes to the relevant international bodies, confirming that this State recognises the ethnicity of the Travelling community.

Step 3:

That the Government build on these initiatives and commence a time-limited dialogue with the Traveller representative groups about the new legislation or amendments to existing legislation now required.

Tonight's motion calls on the Taoiseach and the Government to implement these recommendations immediately. I acknowledge that the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, has been a genuine friend to the Traveller community and a supporter. He was in attendance when we launched the report. I know he is advocating, but it needs to be delivered. I suppose I am not speaking so much to him but to his Government colleagues, to members of the Cabinet and senior departmental officials to do the right thing.

I want to outline why our committee made its recommendations. I want to put on record the relevant sections of the report:

This State has maintained a position for decades that amounts to ethnicity denial without having presented any evidence-based defence of this position to our international partners and indeed the Travelling community.

As part of our committee's deliberations, we examined a number of the excuses or concerns that are there to block this as we could interpret it. They are that it is not in the best interests of Travellers; that granting Traveller ethnicity would be too costly to the State; Traveller ethnicity is not proven; academic reasons; and the need for full consensus amongst Travellers.

We examined every one of them and dealt with them through the hearings we held and the visits to the Traveller community in different locations throughout Dublin. We found no legitimacy to any of the concerns. There was a 100% clear case for the recognition of ethnicity. In particular I acknowledge the input of Mr. Laurence Bond of the Equality Authority as it was then. He wrote a comprehensive report entitled Traveller Ethnicity back in the day. The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has also written in clear terms about these matters. I leaned heavily on its findings and on the findings of members of the Traveller community who have done superb work. There is an absolutely cast-iron case that there is no justification for delaying this anymore.

In response to the first issue, that "It is not in the best interest of Travellers", we found that the representatives of the Traveller community are best placed to know what is in their best interests and the support for the recognition of Traveller ethnicity from all four national Traveller organisations and the 99% support of Travellers in attendance at the 2012 conference organised by the National Traveller Monitoring Advisory Committee surely reflects their judgement on the question. Only one Traveller present that day expressed any concern about this matter, which is comprehensive.

In response to the issue that "Granting Traveller ethnicity would be too costly to the State", the committee pointed out that cost should not be a barrier to the State doing what is right by all its citizens or act as a barrier to justice or equality. However, the committee accepted the analysis of Laurence Bond from the then Equality Authority who advised he could not see any significant additional cost to doing this but that there would be an immense impact of recognising the distinct culture, the contribution of Travellers, their language, their music, of teaching their history to children in schools, of going into community centres with the Traveller community to explain what Traveller culture is and what has its contribution been and why it needs to be cherished and sustained, why we need to have Traveller specific accommodation, halting sites.

It is because we are enriched as a people if we embrace all the diversity of the fabric that makes up our nation. We are only enriched by embracing that, cherishing that and reaching out to some of our most vulnerable citizens and saying, "You are loved and valued by this Republic", and then dealing with the issues that exist with any aspect of society.

In response to the issue that "Traveller ethnicity is not proven", we looked at this issue in terms of the ground-breaking legal cases in Britain and the fact that in the North of Ireland the ethnicity of Travellers is recognised. The only place on these islands that does not recognise the ethnicity, the distinct culture and contribution of our Travellers, is this State. We need to throw that report from the Commission on Itinerancy into the fire or the bin. We need to bury the ghost of that report and start to heal the wounds that have been there in the decades that followed its publication. We have comprehensive evidence from the legal basis in Britain and the North of Ireland with the recognition of ethnicity.

In response to the issue of "Academic reasons", the committee leaned heavily on the report by Mr. Laurence Bond. I cannot mention him and the Equality Authority enough. It was a superb analysis of the sociological and anthropological case. It was an immense contribution to the debate.

In response to the issue of "The need for full consensus amongst Travellers", nowhere in the world is it necessary to find 100% consensus. It is up to a person to self-identify his or her race. In every way it was comprehensive.

I conclude with the words of Brigid Quilligan. She said:

We are not speaking about major changes; we are speaking about people who have been on the island of Ireland for as long as anybody can record and recognition for the valuable contribution we have made to Irish society. We are talking about having our own history recorded, rather than a history that has been written for us, imposed upon us and dictated to us. We are talking about setting the record straight and supporting our people to stand tall and feel they are a valuable part of Irish society.

I know the Minister of State is on the right side of history. We just need to get his Cabinet colleagues over the line. We then need to deal with all the other issues my colleagues will mention, including the resourcing of Traveller accommodation; the need for one national body to oversee Traveller-specific accommodation because local authorities have failed.

9:15 pm

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal South West, Sinn Fein)
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I welcome tonight's debate, in particular the focus, attention and the contribution by Deputy Mac Lochlainn, who has been to the forefront of advocating on behalf of Travellers long before he got elected to this Chamber. Despite the fact that it might not be very popular in some areas he has never shirked his responsibilities to confront the racist views that are held by a minority.

I extend my sympathy to the Connors, Gilbert and Lynch families who lost loved ones in the Carrickmines tragedy, and to the wider Traveller community. We should be honest and say that a Bill supporting Travellers' rights is not going to be universally popular. There is a deep, ingrained ignorance throughout every class of society when it comes to Travellers and their rights. That bigotry must be faced head on. It must not be mollycoddled, excused, tolerated or even encouraged. It is a fact that some politicians have stooped to the lowest level in scapegoating or attacking the Traveller community. It should be a statement of intent that we would say that we will not tolerate that type of behaviour within our own ranks. We had a terrible situation in my constituency where a house that was being purchased by the local authority for a Traveller family was burnt down. A senior politician in the county said Travellers should live in isolation from the rest of the settled community. A Fine Gael councillor weighed in to support him and said that as far as he was concerned they should all be sent to Spike Island. When Deputy Dara Calleary was asked on the "Tonight with Vincent Browne" show to condemn the comments made by Seán McEniff, he refused to do so. Instead, he excused them and said it was a personal opinion. We should send a clear message that that is not acceptable.

On reading Deputy Mac Lochlainn's motion I hoped that all sides could support it and send out a positive message on behalf of the people to the Traveller community. Instead, the Government has proposed a counter-motion which strips the motion of the positive message. Instead, we have a reiteration of the kicking the can down the road attitude on which the State always relies when Travellers' rights comes up. There is nothing new in the counter-motion. There is no sign of a new commitment to equality for our fellow citizens from Labour or Fine Gael. We must compare that to the positive suggestions in the Sinn Féin motion which, in terms of Traveller accommodation, calls on the Government to amend the Twenty-six Counties' Planning and Development Act to make the Traveller accommodation programme a mandatory consideration for planning permission. It proposes that funding for local authorities should be based on how good their track record is in providing Traveller accommodation. It proposes that the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee should be empowered to take charge of providing Traveller accommodation with an annual budget and targets. Those are practical suggestions which have the potential to prevent another tragedy. They are suggestions designed to ensure that Traveller programmes work for Travellers.

The Traveller community is an all-Ireland one and that should be reflected in policy making. That is the reason the motion calls for an all-Ireland forum involving Travellers and the settled community, including representatives of political parties, central government, local authorities, health and education sectors and representatives of media organisations. This forum should review the way Travellers are treated in society and by the State. The forum should be empowered to put forward policies that make the State live up to its obligations under international law and international conventions.

The significant cuts to Traveller programmes must be addressed. They speak for themselves. A total of €30.7 million has been cut in funding for Traveller programmes since 2010. Since 2000 the accommodation budget reduced from €70 million to €4.3 million this year. The question must be asked whether Travellers created the economic collapse or if they are just easy victims, the soft touch, in the eyes of the State.

I note the recent media commentary on a number of local authorities that did not even apply to draw down funding for Traveller accommodation programmes. I wish to put on record that Donegal County Council did not receive any allocation from the Department but it did apply for funding. It applied for €240,000 in February of this year for four or five programmes but to date has not received any funding yet issues exist that require to be addressed. Traveller communities talk about the need to prevent other tragedies. For example, emergency sites are in place for eight to nine years and other related issues must be resolved. I urge the Government to ensure funding is made available to Donegal County Council in order that it can continue to deal with the issues that present in Donegal.

Sinn Féin's manifesto, policies and principles will always put Traveller rights front and centre, regardless of whether it is popular to do so. We will do it because it is the right thing to do. We will challenge every party to commit to doing that, and to end the tolerance for party representatives who take up anti-Traveller positions for the sake of votes. That is a message we should all send out tonight. The next person to take what he or she perceives to be a popular position in his or her community and attacks or stigmatises the Traveller community has no place in the political party system.

Photo of Aengus Ó SnodaighAengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central, Sinn Fein)
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Gabhaim buíochas le Pádraig as an rún seo a chur os ár gcomhair. Tá sé tábhachtach go bhfuilimid ag plé an rúin seo, go háirithe toisc a tharla go thragóideach i gCarraig Mhaighin an mhí seo caite. Déanaim comhbhrón arís leis na clanna a chaill daoine sa tine agus leis na daoine a chaill cairde. Ní cóir go dtógfadh sé a leithéid de thragóid chun a léiriú gur chóir dúinne díriú isteach ar an gceist seo. Tá roinnt daoine tar éis díriú isteach uirthi thar na blianta. An fhadhb is mó ná nach bhfuil an córas ina iomlán tar éis díriú isteach uirthi. Chun díriú air sin, tógfaidh mé roinnt samplaí as mo cheantar féin.

It is a pity that it takes a tragedy such as the awful one in Carrickmines to focus our minds. It shows how small a focus we have had on a major issue that has been growing in terms of its awfulness in many ways in recent times. I will give an example of a Traveller site in my area. When I was walking in today, by chance I stopped at a bookshop, which is one of my pleasures, and I saw a photographic book on Travellers. I presume the photographs are from the 1960s but I have not had time to read it. Many of the photographs are from my area and show Labre Park and Cherry Orchard. It reminded me of many things. Members of the Furey family are in it and others people know also. The scandalous circumstances in which people lived in Labre Park and Cherry Orchard 40 years ago are the same today, bar a few bits of wall erected in the meantime. I know Labre Park very well. I have worked with the Ballyfermot Traveller Action Group and many others to encourage Dublin City Council to live up to its commitment. We are now on the fourth regeneration programme for Labre Park, yet not one brick has been laid. There has been no movement in any shape or form.

The situation has nothing to do with austerity or the crisis, as it predates it. Families are living in absolute squalor in this city but that is fine because they live outside of the norm. They live on the edge of an industrial estate. That is the problem with the vast majority of the sites which have been chosen over the years for Traveller accommodation. They are marginalised and on the edge - out of sight and out of mind. It is high time the situation ended and that we embrace fully our responsibility as legislators and focus on the responsibility of local authorities to deliver. That is the key message we should take from the debate. It is a pity the Sinn Féin motion is not being accepted but we will not leave it at that. We will continue to press to ensure that not only is Traveller housing addressed but also educational and other issues. I know the major effects of the cuts to Traveller education programmes in Ballyfermot. The situation has served to discourage many Traveller children from travelling to school, staying in school or to continue, as some have done, to university. I congratulate those who have succeeded and received awards from universities despite all the adversity.

For anyone who wishes to ascertain the full effects, only today I read the Travelling with Austerity report commissioned by Pavee Point and the scale of cuts facing every aspect of Traveller society is a disgrace. This Government and its predecessor have much to answer for.

9:25 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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The tragic loss of life in the Carrickmines fire has brought a renewed focus on the issue of Travellers' rights. This indigenous minority has been part of Irish society for countless centuries but for far too long has been marginalised and has suffered the worst forms of discrimination that cannot and should not be tolerated in any modern society. While examples of discrimination and marginalisation are plentiful, one of the most telling examples of how Travellers suffer disproportionately is demonstrated in the widespread health problems and appalling premature death rates recorded among their number. Life expectancy has grown across Ireland in recent years but serious health inequalities still exist. The All Ireland Traveller Health Study published in 2010 makes for grim reading. The extent of the inequalities that exist between the settled and Traveller people are utterly damning and this study, among other things, found that Traveller men and Traveller women have four times and three times, respectively, the mortality rate of the general population. In other words, life expectancy for male and female Travellers was found to be 15 and 11 years lower, respectively, than for the general population. The infant mortality rate for Traveller children is 3.5 times the rate of the general population. More than 52% of Travellers aged between 40 and 60 years who were interviewed had been diagnosed with high blood pressure in the previous year, compared with 35% of the general population and more than 42% of Travellers were diagnosed with high cholesterol in the previous year compared with 30% of the general population. Social determinants such as accommodation, education, employment, poverty, discrimination, lifestyle and access to and utilisation of services were the main causes of the gaps in levels of morbidity and mortality between Travellers and wider Irish society. One should make no mistake but the issues of mental health and suicide are tearing the heart out of Traveller communities. Suicide among Travellers is six times the rate of the general population and accounts for approximately 11% of all Traveller deaths. The suicide rate for Traveller women is six times higher than that for settled women and the rate for Traveller men is seven times higher. While shame and stigma regarding mental health is, sadly, still rampant across society as a whole, it appears that within Traveller communities, it is even worse. In addition, those affected and who seek help are left completely frustrated as service providers often do not understand Traveller culture. Culturally appropriate counselling services across Ireland are needed urgently to stem this tide of suicide.

All these issues must be addressed. Pavee Point has advocated for policies and practices to be underpinned by an intercultural approach and by principles of equality, diversity and anti-racism. This absolutely is what is needed. The Traveller community should be front and centre in the development of health services and practices designed and geared to its service. While I acknowledge and welcome the establishment of new structures under Healthy Ireland to address the health needs of all groups experiencing health inequalities, including Travellers, I believe the only way this issue can really be tackled is by the Government recognising Travellers as a distinct ethnic group and I seek the establishment of an all-Ireland forum including Travellers, political parties, local and central government, as well as representatives of the health and education sectors and the media to review how Travellers are treated in Irish society and to bring forward policies to ensure the State truly values and protects Traveller communities.

In conclusion, it is sad and most regrettable that Members are to divide on this issue in the Chamber tomorrow evening. That will not be a good day for Irish politics or Irish society in general and certainly not for the Traveller community. Consequently, I make this final appeal to Deputies from all parties and none to give their support to this motion. It is not too late to withdraw the amendment and surely, in the aftermath of this most recent dreadful tragedy at Carrickmines, Members can speak with one voice on this issue.

Photo of Marcella Corcoran KennedyMarcella Corcoran Kennedy (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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Two speakers, namely, Deputies Crowe and Stanley, are listed to speak. However, the time has ticked away, as I am afraid the previous speakers took up excess time. Do the Deputies wish to divide it evenly between them?

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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I do not know whether this will surprise the Minister of State but for the past number of elections, a leaflet has gone around an estate in my constituency stating that Seán Crowe voted in favour of Traveller accommodation. It pops up at every election despite there never having been any problems from the Travellers in that accommodation. Nevertheless, this unsigned letter gets sent out. It originally was supposed to have come from a residents' association but it gives an idea of what goes on in some local authority areas and some electoral areas.

I hope this Private Members' debate will create some dynamic and positive action to improve the rights and social indicators of Travellers. As Deputy Ó Caoláin outlined, a report from the Economic and Social Research Institute shows that Travellers fare poorly on every indicator used to measure disadvantage, including unemployment, poverty, social inclusion or exclusion, health status, infant mortality, life expectancy, accommodation and living standards. Members are aware the Traveller community experienced savage cuts in recent years but was also affected by knock-on social spending cuts. When I was the Sinn Féin spokesperson for education, I raised with the Minister at the time, Deputy Quinn, the negative effect the withdrawal of 800 resource teachers for Travellers would have, as well as the loss of the visiting teacher service for Travellers. These cuts basically tore apart the Traveller education supports, which were replaced with absolutely nothing. There was no uproar, no editorials in the respectable newspapers and the issue disappeared. Traveller support was cut and no one kicked up a fuss.

Photo of Brian StanleyBrian Stanley (Laois-Offaly, Sinn Fein)
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As my time is brief, I will try to focus on the key points I wish to make. The Carrickmines disaster provides an opportunity to face up to this issue once and for all. The sight of ten people, two families, perishing in that fire to be followed by two extended families becoming homeless and not having anywhere to go means we really must look at ourselves as a society and wonder how we got here. Moreover, we must get out of that position. The situation in Carrickmines highlights the precarious nature of Traveller accommodation. While much of it is temporary in nature, there are simple things that can be done such as putting in place proper fire screens, having fire safety equipment on site and putting in place proper measures to make sure the men, women and children who are living on sites, be they transient or permanent sites, are safe. Safety must be the issue for everyone and this includes Travellers.

On the all-Ireland forum that Sinn Féin proposes, one thing I have learned in my adult life is that sometimes, when one does not know people, one can have huge suspicions about them and so on. However, I make this point to both the Traveller and the settled communities, when people come together and get to know one another and to understand one another, it helps to break down those barriers. If one good thing comes from the Carrickmines tragedy, I hope we can do that. It is a pity the Government intends to reject Sinn Féin's motion. The all-Ireland forum is the key and the beginning to trying to resolve this issue.

It would be great if we could get that up and running despite the Government's rejection of this motion.

9:35 pm

Photo of Marcella Corcoran KennedyMarcella Corcoran Kennedy (Laois-Offaly, Fine Gael)
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I understand the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, is sharing time with Deputies Tuffy, Conway and Durkan. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Aodhán Ó RíordáinAodhán Ó Ríordáin (Dublin North Central, Labour)
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I move amendment No. 1:

To delete all words after “Dáil Éireann” and substitute the following:

"extends its sincere condolences and sympathy to the Lynch, Gilbert and Connors families on the tragic loss of their loves ones in the Carrickmines fire and offers solidarity and support to the wider Traveller community;

agrees that in the aftermath of the Carrickmines tragedy there is an urgent need for a far-reaching and fundamental reappraisal of the position of Travellers in Irish society and that this will require a significant shift in individual and community attitudes to inculcate mutual respect and understanding as between Travellers and the settled community;

recognises that:— Travellers experience poorer outcomes in key social indicators including employment, poverty, health, infant mortality, life expectancy, literacy, education and accommodation and face enduring discrimination; and

— a further effort by Government Departments, agencies and Traveller organisations at national and local level working in partnership is required to address the root cause of these problems and to bring about greater mutual understanding and respect as between Travellers and the settled community;recalls the recommendations of the April 2014 Report by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality on the Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity;

notes that accommodation for Travellers is provided through a range of measures and that it is open to Travellers to opt for any form of accommodation, including:— standard local authority housing, financed from the Department of Environment, Community and Local Government capital allocations for social housing;

— Traveller-specific accommodation, also financed by the Department;

— private housing assisted by the State, including local authorities, or voluntary organisations; and

— through Travellers’ own resources;recognises that, while there has been a general decrease in Traveller-specific accommodation funding, some €400 million has been invested in the provision and support of Traveller-specific accommodation over the last 15 years. The 2015 allocation totalled €4.3 million and an increase in the budget for 2016 has been agreed to €5.5 million;

recognises and supports the continuing valuable work of the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee, NTACC, including the advice and supports it provides to the Local Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committees, LTACCs;

notes the continued delivery of Traveller-specific accommodation through the provision of funding to local authorities through the Traveller Accommodation Programme, supported at national level by the NTACC. The implementation of the Traveller Accommodation Programme of each local authority, including the drawdown of funds, is in accordance with the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998, a matter of each individual authority;

recognises that local authorities are already mandatorily required under section 10 of the Planning and Development Act 2000, as amended, to incorporate zoning objectives to provide for Traveller-specific accommodation in their development plans;

notes:— that additional resources provided in the educational system for all children, including members of the Traveller community, are allocated on the basis of identified individual educational need; that a key objective of the Traveller Education Strategy is the phasing out of segregated Traveller provision; and that additional resources have been provided to assist with the transfer of Traveller children and young people to mainstream provision, including additional pupil capitation, together with additional resource teacher posts to support the approximately 11,000 Traveller pupils in primary and post-primary education; and

— the substantial investment made in building the capacity of the Traveller community, through the Local and Community Development Programme, LCDP, with funding of €1.17 million for the National Traveller Partnership in 2015; notes and welcomes that funding of approximately €1.35 million will transfer from the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government to the Department of Justice and Equality as from 1 January 2016 as part of a new National Strategic Framework being put in place by the latter Department to support the work of the local Traveller Interagency Groups, TIGs, Traveller community development projects and national organisations and to ensure that Traveller interests are strongly represented in local economic and community planning by local authorities;

welcomes:— the consultation process led by the Department of Justice and Equality which is underway to develop a new National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy; notes that phase 1, identification of key themes for the new Strategy has been completed, that phase 2, identification and agreement of high-level objectives under each agreed theme, will commence shortly and that phase 3, identification of detailed actions to achieve each agreed objective, with associated timescales, key performance indicators, institutional responsibilities and monitoring arrangements, will commence in early 2016; and

— that the new National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy is due to be completed and published in the first quarter of 2016 and welcomes the Government’s commitment that it will contain clear commitments and timeframes to address the accommodation, health, education and other issues the Traveller community faces; and further notes that:

— the role of the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy Steering Group, which monitors delivery of the strategy, has been strengthened, including in relation to commissioning of independent evaluations of implementation;

— the question of whether revised institutional arrangements for delivery of services to Travellers are necessary to bring about greater coherence in and improve the effectiveness of statutory services for the Traveller community has been raised during the ongoing consultation process and will be considered in the drafting of the new National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy; and

— the question of formal recognition of Travellers as a group in Irish society with a unique culture, heritage and ethnic identity is being considered in the context of the development of the new National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy."

I thank Deputy Mac Lochlainn and Sinn Féin for tabling this motion. I join with Deputies in this House in expressing my condolences to the Connors, Gilbert and Lynch families who lost their lives in Carrickmines.

I have been, and have continued to be since my election to this House, an advocate for Traveller ethnicity. I have worked with people on all sides of this House to make Traveller ethnicity a recognised reality. However, my efforts in this regard have been somewhat frustrated because, I am told, I must take account of public opinion. I do not accept the premise that we should deal in the terms of popular opinion when advocating the rights of a minority. Outside of a referendum, I do not believe we should deal in focus group equality or that we should rely on polls in regard to how we should proceed on issues of equality. The fact that advocating for the rights of a minority might be unpopular is surely the reason we should collectively strive to ensure that equality is realised.

As alluded to earlier, since the foundation of this State we have experimented with what may be termed "sameness". Sameness is a lie. Since the foundation of this State people with mental health challenges have been incarcerated. Approximately 200,000 people with mental health issues were incarcerated in the 1950s. Young mothers who were unmarried were told that they were wrong and had to be placed in laundries. People who had troubled backgrounds and behavioural difficulties were also told that they were wrong and had to be sent to industrial schools. As stated so eloquently tonight by Deputy Mac Lochlainn, in 1963 Travellers were told that they were wrong and that they had to become settled people. Sameness is a lie while diversity is the truth. Diversity is the only truth that existed in the past. It is the only truth that can exist now and it is the only truth that can exist in the future. Members of this House, regardless of our political differences, should stand by truth. The truth is that the Traveller community in this State is a distinct ethnic group. They are a people and a part of this nation and they deserve recognition in that regard. This move does not require legislation or a constitutional amendment. It is just as well it does not require a constitutional amendment. One can only imagine the type of debate we would have in this country if that question were put to the people, considering that in this country one can pretty much say in public discourse, polite conversation or print media anything one wants about the Traveller community and get away with it.

There is no more reviled a community in our history, from the settled perspective, than the Traveller community. Is it any wonder that they feel isolated and disconnected? All they are asking for at this point in time is a new platform of interaction with their common citizens in this republic. Michael McDonagh, who is a long term advocate for Traveller rights, has spoken about how young Travellers do not know what role they play or what space they should start from. Surely a positive acknowledgement from this State of what we all know to be true would be the best move we could make. We need to acknowledge the distinct - not separate - culture, heritage, language and tradition of our fellow citizens who are Travellers. From there we can move to a whole new conversation about where we go in the future. We cannot have a commemoration of 1916 next year unless we fully subscribe to the idea of this republic guaranteeing equal rights and equal opportunities for all citizens, such that there is no repeat of a situation about which I heard recently, namely, the opening of two books of condolences in public buildings in this country, one of which was signed while the other was rejected. The fact that this measure would not be popular, would not do so well in a poll or might be rejected by a focus group is the very reason we have to support it. Let us reject focus group equality.

I am working hard to realise the day when a member of Government, with the support of everybody in this House, can recognise the truth of diversity, put to bed the lie of sameness and say to our Traveller community, which on one level will be an apology for the lives they have led and the discrimination they have had to endure, that from a settled perspective we, this State, this republic, recognises them as a people and wants to work with them to build a new relationship. When that day comes, it will be a proud day for the many people who have campaigned for it, including the Irish Traveller Movement, Pavee Point, the Irish Traveller Women's Forum and the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, members of which, cross-party and unanimously, have acknowledged that this has to happen. I believe that will be a proud day for this republic. We could then, collectively, celebrate a new dispensation and a new road to travel together in what would be termed a real republic.

Photo of Joanna TuffyJoanna Tuffy (Dublin Mid West, Labour)
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I wish to express my sympathies to the families of those who died in Carrickmines. I hope that they get every support they need in the aftermath.

I would like to focus specifically on the housing aspect of this motion. Deputy Pearse Doherty said earlier that local authorities have failed in the provision of Traveller accommodation. That is not true.

There has been a failure on occasion and in some cases it has been on the part of some councillors or councils, but it is wrong not to acknowledge that much progress has been made. Considerable support for the provision of Traveller accommodation has been shown by councillors in many councils, sometimes in the face of local pressure.

The other side of the equation is that the issue can be complex. When I was first elected as a councillor to South Dublin County Council, one of my earliest decisions involved a project that included social housing and some group houses for Travellers. There was fierce pressure locally against the project, including, in particular, against the group houses for Travellers, but some of the opposition came from Travellers located next to where the group houses were to be situated. That element was eventually removed. To this day, that is the one decision in which I was involved in the council that I regret. Deputy SEán Crowe will vouch for this, but we have since supported the Traveller accommodation programme. We have supported all of the new Traveller sites proposed. If there was the slightest bit of pressure, councillors stood firm together and, in the main, did not break ranks. I remember one case in which a person who was a candidate and subsequently not elected as a councillor went on a solo run, but councillors stood firm and the provision of a temporary Traveller site went ahead. We did this in the face of local pressure. When one shows leadership to the local community and explains what one is doing, its members come on board. In the South Dublin County Council area, particularly where I live in the Balgaddy area of Lucan and north Clondalkin, there was an unbelievable number of unauthorised sites when I was first elected as a councillor. They are no longer there. Many new permanent Traveller accommodation projects have been developed. At the time, when the needs of Travellers were assessed, most of them wanted to be accommodated in council houses. That was the greatest demand. This is very much borne out by the Department's information. Many Travellers were accommodated in social houses and I represent many of them. I know them and meet them.

There is an error in a figure included in the motion and there was an error in a figure given by Deputy Pearse Doherty. He said the capital budget was €70 million in 2000. The Department has advised me that it was just over €15 million. These things matter. That is a huge discrepancy in the figure Sinn Féin has included in its motion. We are all in favour of maintaining local democracy and when it comes to an issue such as this, it is bad for local democracy when we propose to take away power from councillors. These decisions should be made locally and many councillors will step up to the plate. We are all involved in political parties and can make sure of this. We should not have a kneejerk reaction on this issue because of the terrible tragedy that happened at Carrickmines or because of some bad cases. We should stand up to those who hand out leaflets opposing the provision of Traveller accommodation and show them up for what they are. I have seen instances where such persons have suffered electorally because of the bad publicity generated in handing out such material. It is not as simple a matter as described.

On Traveller education, people involved in the media have highlighted the fact that there have been cuts. The Traveller education strategy which was drawn up in consultation with Traveller development groups proposed to move Traveller education services to the mainstream; it was to be done on a case by case basis according to need. There is much support for Travellers within the education system. Recently I met a young Traveller woman who was in her third year in Trinity College Dublin studying occupational therapy. She attended an event for Travellers in north Dublin and wanted to tell other Travellers that there were supports in place. It is not all negative; there are many positives and she wanted to get that message out. The debate has been so skewed towards the negative and unbalanced that it undermines the cause of Travellers. It promotes the idea that there is no support for Travellers when, in fact, there is. Many support the provision of Traveller supports and accommodation.

9:45 pm

Photo of Ciara ConwayCiara Conway (Waterford, Labour)
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First, I extend my sympathy to the Lynch, Gilbert and extended Connors families who experienced such an unspeakable tragedy. I also think of the first responders who attended the site. What an appalling incident it was for anybody to have to experience. It is horrific to think the lives of ten citizens ended so quickly and in such a violent way. I cannot think of a worse way to die.

I have read some of the briefing information I have received form the Department. I could hear the frustration in the voice of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Aodhán Ó Ríordáin. It will be noted that he did not read from a script because I am not sure the Department is completely on board with what he had to say. We are not only talking about polling companies but even within the Department is there a willingness in this respect? In the briefing note I received three steps are outlined that need to be taken to recognise the ethnicity of the Traveller community. The first is that the Taoiseach or the Minister for Justice and Equality make a statement to the Dáil to recognise the ethnicity of the Traveller community; the second is that the Government write to the relevant international bodies, confirming that the State recognises the ethnicity of the Traveller community, and the third is that the Government build on these initiatives and commence a time-limited dialogue with the Traveller representative groups about the new legislation or amendments to existing legislation required. Essentially, we are waiting for someone to make a speech and someone else to write a letter, while people's lives hang in the balance. That is simply not good enough. If it involved any other group in society, we would not be waiting for someone to stand up and make a speech and for somebody else to write a letter. Ten people perished and died in an unspeakable and unthinkable way and in this forum we are still debating an issue that can be resolved - I am advised by the relevant Department - by somebody standing up, namely, the Taoiseach or the Minister for Justice and Equality, to make a statement recognising the ethnic minority that is the Traveller community which has a distinctive culture, language and heritage.

In my role as a social worker and a community worker before I was elected to the Dáil I worked side by side with members of the Traveller community who worked as health workers and were employed by the HSE in Clonmel, one of the first areas in the country where members of the Traveller community were employed as members of the public service. However, the Minister of State and I know that the only job a Traveller can find in Ireland is working for a Traveller's group. A Traveller cannot find work anywhere else. Is it any wonder, therefore, that members of the Traveller community feel segregated, isolated and have difficulty in engaging with systems? I agree also with my colleague, Deputy Joanna Tuffy, when she says help is available, but it is available if one is able to look for it. As a Government, we need to ensure such help is forthcoming when people need it.

I was very lucky at the weekend to be in my local library in Dungarvan, County Waterford where there were beautiful displays of artwork by members of the County Waterford Travellers women's group celebrating Traveller pride. I am not sure if there was much public fanfare about the artwork or if the mayor launched the art display, bearing in mind that one often sees a person wearing a chain of office cutting a ribbon and launching other displays of art, but I stand to be corrected. I did not know the art displays were taking place in the library. I just happened to be there with my daughter on Saturday and was delighted to see the artwork displayed.

It is a beautiful display and one with which I would encourage everyone to engage. Going back to my central point, in the wake of the most tragic and appalling deaths of ten citizens of this country, we are waiting for a speech, a letter and some amendments to be made. I do not believe the Traveller community should be made wait any longer.

9:55 pm

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Like other speakers, I offer my condolences to the victims of the recent horrific tragedy in Carrickmines. No words of consolation can adequately address that particular issue or can convey to the victims and their families the full extent of the recognition of the impact of it on them.

All tragedies serve to remind us of something. In this particular case, as in many other tragedies we have experienced in this country, it serves to remind us that there are people among us who are either isolated or feel they are isolated for one reason or another. By virtue of that isolation, they may find themselves isolated in another sense in regard to education, health and housing. In this particular situation, it was clearly recognition of the housing element, which affects many people in this country at this time. Ironically and inevitably, the Traveller community is going to be most affected in the situation where there is a scarcity of housing.

It is only some years ago that we were deemed to be one of the wealthiest countries in the world. In fact, there were those who suggested we were the wealthiest country in the world. I do not believe we were. We need to recognise that we have a social responsibility to ourselves and to the citizens to ensure we do our best, each of us individually and collectively, to spread whatever is required in terms of opportunity to those who do not have it.

The sad part of the housing situation for the unfortunate victims in Carrickmines is that it was not first-class accommodation. There is much accommodation on offer which is not first-class and it affects Travellers and even the settled community. It is a point to which we should be alert because there may be more tragedies like this which will come back to haunt us, unless we do something about it. I go along with Deputy Joanna Tuffy in that I do not believe the local authorities failed completely. They have done a great deal but it has not always worked out. They have tried and have provided halting sites. In the cases in which I have had dealings, there have been very effective and well-run halting sites with good quality accommodation. There were no problems in those places.

Ironically, good quality housing, good medical attention and access to education lift that community. It gives it an insight into something better that it can do. It should not be forgotten that there are quite a number of people in the Traveller community who want to settle down, have access to good health services, to housing and to education. Eliminate education from that area, then one eliminates the possibility of allowing people to evolve and to take their place in society.

Reference has been made already, and it goes without saying, that there is some prejudice in various places. There are situations where things did not go right. If we are to improve the situation, however, we must recognise the fundamentals required to address the issue to help those who are members of the Traveller community. I acknowledge the work of Pavee Point, Ronnie Fay and all those who have been involved in that work for many years.

We often hear in the House that the poor suffered during the downturn in the economy. I hope no one expected that the poor, or anybody else, were going to get richer during the downturn. That is not the way things work. Those who are hardest hit in terms of housing, access to education and access to health services are obviously the poor. That subculture, as seen in the minds of some people, and the Traveller community is the worst affected and hit to the greatest extent. It impacts severely on its members and tends to lead them into thinking that they are not and never will be recognised. We have a duty to ourselves and to our society in terms of social justice and recognising the need to look after those who are not as well placed as the rest of the community. The community in which we all work generally recognises that they want to help out, that there is a need to do something of a helpful nature and that there is a need to be constructive. They do so on a regular basis. We all have members of the Traveller community who come along to our clinics and explain their cases to us. This is something from which we have all learned.

As to the question of whether local authorities have failed, some have. The extent to which help is being made available is highly questionable. There is a need now, as there has been for some time, to recognise the fundamentals required to address the subject. That subject is to try to ensure the opportunities are made available. If one comes down on one side in recognising that the Traveller community will remain forever Travellers, one eliminates then the possibility for those within the community who wish to change from that life over time. That happens with the education and the children. I see Deputy Gerry Adams smiling about that.

Photo of Gerry AdamsGerry Adams (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I am astonished.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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Deputy Gerry Adams should not be astonished at all. He should not encourage me to go into that area because I could depart into another lecture but I will not.

There are people within the Traveller community who want to settle and we need to encourage that. We then need to address the other issue of those who want to travel and have that culture recognised as part and parcel of their society. I do not see any reason we should not do that. Whatever we do on accommodation, we need to recognise that there is no sense whatever in putting anyone into substandard accommodation or in putting anyone into a situation in which one would not live. It is a golden rule that we, as public representatives, should always take on board. Would we live in these conditions ourselves? Some will say there are those in the settled community in similar situations. There are but there should not be. Some of us have spoken about it in this House for many years. In the good times, when the resources were available that could have easily dealt with these situations, nobody bothered. People stood idly by, wrung their hands, tore their hair out, beat their breasts and talked and thought about it but did nothing.

The fact of the matter is that it still remains. That will be the same in five years’ and in ten years’ time, unless we as a society, as well as our society and community leaders, recognise we have a role to play. We can evolve and influence that evolution. If we do not influence that evolution, things will remain as they are. What part of our society, what part of the population of this country, should we regard as being incapable of moving ahead and tasting the fruits and benefits of society as it progresses. If we were all to remain as we were in the 1940s and the 1950s, we would be a peculiar race of people now.

Unfortunately, the thinking in some quarters has not changed. Instead of it being a them-and-us situation, we have to get to the point where we all have a role to play. We need to play the role and not play off each other. We do not need to suggest that some of us have the answer and others are not aware of that. Often people say to me that I do not know what it really is like but I am not so sure about that. I have been dealing with this, as has everybody else in this House, for a very long time now. If I do not know what it is like out there at this stage, I should not be here.

Photo of Pádraig MacLochlainnPádraig MacLochlainn (Donegal North East, Sinn Fein)
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That is one point on which we can agree.


Hear, hear.

Photo of Bernard DurkanBernard Durkan (Kildare North, Fine Gael)
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That goes for Members opposite too.

10:05 pm

Photo of Niall CollinsNiall Collins (Limerick, Fianna Fail)
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I commend my colleague, Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, for tabling this motion concerning Travellers. On my behalf and that of Fianna Fáil, I extend our sympathy to the Lynch, Gilbert and Connors families following the recent tragic losses at Carrickmines. I am sure the relatives of those who died and the community in Carrickmines are still suffering grievously in the wake of the enormous loss of life in the tragedy. Everyone in the country was shocked at and numbed by this terrible event. They felt for the families, as did I.

Fianna Fáil is committed to the rights of Travellers and believes the Traveller and settled communities must work together. We all live in the real world and have to recognise that both sides have rights and obligations. Like many other Deputies and public representatives, I represent Travellers week in, week out. I deal with them in my clinics, as does everyone else. There is a significant Traveller community in my constituency in County Limerick. We help them with everyday issues, as we do the settled community. These issues include those relating to social welfare, education and health. Both communities face the same issues and challenges and the same service and help is afforded them, which is an obligation on all public representatives.

In April 2014, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality called on the State to recognise Traveller ethnicity. I am a member of that committee and I subscribed to and support the report, as did the Acting Chairman, Deputy Corcoran Kennedy. The committee recommended that the Government should write to the relevant international bodies confirming that the State recognises the ethnicity of the Traveller community. It further recommended that the Government build on various initiatives and commence a time-limited dialogue with the Traveller representative groups about new legislation or amendments to existing legislation that was required. It was disappointing that the then chair of Fine Gael, Deputy Charlie Flanagan, disagreed with the recommendation that Travellers are Irish like the rest of us. That did not serve any constructive contribution to the debate.

The then Irish Human Rights Commission submitted that "Traveller ethnicity is essentially a legal reality that the State is bound by, irrespective of any formal act of recognition". The commission recommended that a statement be made by the Taoiseach or the Minister for Justice and Equality, on the record of Dáil Éireann, recognising the Irish Traveller Community as an ethnic group within the State. I support that recommendation and call on the Taoiseach and the Minister for Justice and Equality to comply with it. We should have a session in the Dáil to discuss the statement. The commission also stated, "At an international level the State could confirm to relevant international human rights bodies that it accepts that Travellers are an ethnic group under the relevant legal frameworks, and continue this practice through its State Reports as they arise."It further stated, "At a legal level clarification in the law, such as the equality legislation, that Travellers are an ethnic minority could be a useful precedent, and would remove any doubt as regards the legal protection the State affords to this vulnerable community." The commission went on to state:

At a deeper level, it would be recommended that the State communicate its recognition to the Traveller community. Of course recognition must go beyond mere rhetoric, and the State's engagement with the Traveller community must be fully informed by its human rights obligations regarding that community as an ethnic minority in the State, in seeking to ensure the human rights of Travellers, which the State consistently asserts that it seeks to achieve. At a practical level ... this may require the State to consider carefully those aspects of law and policy that have a disproportionate negative impact on the Traveller community with a view to their removal.

Fianna Fáil - as do I - supports the Irish Human Rights Commission's statements and the move towards formal recognition of Traveller ethnicity.

We must remind ourselves of some of the groups and committees that sat over the past 20 years and the decisions and legislation which flowed from this House as a result. It would be useful to have a proper analysis of how legislation and various committee reports impacted, both positively and negatively, on the Traveller community. We have had lots of legislation and reports. Some of them were good and some were well-intended. Some, however, did not have a positive effect despite the intent. This needs to be examined.

The Equal Status Act 2000, of which we are all aware, was introduced to protect against discrimination outside the employment field. The Traveller health unit was established in 2004. Local authorities have often been mentioned during the debate. We had the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 and the Planning and Development Act 2000. The Part V obligation of the 2000 Act provided for a social dividend in terms of housing for local authorities, which includes housing for the Traveller community. Unfortunately, in many instances local authorities up and down the country took cash in lieu of provision of Part V housing units. We need to examine that situation and see what can be learned from the shortcomings in the legislation.

The tone of the debate has not been political, nor should it be, but during those years local authorities were controlled by various political parties. My party had the least level of control over them because it was in a minority on most authorities during those years. That situation changed in the local elections last year. Local authorities are to blame and all the political parties represented in this House which are also represented on local authorities have played a part in not implementing the county Traveller accommodation programmes. The parties in question also played a part in local authorities taking cash payments from developers in lieu of the provision of housing units to meet Part V obligations.

There was a national Traveller consultative committee which ran parallel with the local Traveller accommodation consultative committees. We need to study the work of those committees to see what they came up with that was good and what they came up with that was not.

The concept of social partnership has been ongoing in this country for some time. We have had various programmes over the years. The trade union movement has been involved in social partnership with different Governments. The programme for prosperity and fairness, which ran from 2000 to 2002, committed to monitoring and evaluating the efforts to meet Traveller accommodation. The next social partnership programme, sustaining progress, which ran from 2003 to 2005, underlined the need to pursue an equality agenda for all minority groups and Travellers. We need to do an impact analysis of all the social partnership programmes and how they either positively or negatively impacted on the Traveller community.

It is incumbent on us, as a society, to recognise the identity of the Traveller community and those who want to remain in it. There are challenges and obligations. All of us, as citizens of this country, have an obligation to live and abide by the law. Some of the narrative which is unfairly levelled at the door of the Traveller community is exceptionally unwarranted. People in the Traveller community have to abide by the law, as do the rest of us.

Unfortunately, some of the narrative emerging from debates recently is exceptionally weighted against the Traveller community, without any evidence or facts to support the narrative being spun against members of that community. This is important for all public representatives throughout the country, including public representatives within my party, in all other parties and, indeed, of no party. People look to their public representatives for leadership and guidance, and we have an obligation and a role to fulfil in terms of harmonising both communities.

10:15 pm

Photo of Finian McGrathFinian McGrath (Dublin North Central, Independent)
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I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on this important motion on the blatant discrimination against Travellers in Irish society, and the urgent need to end all forms of racism and to build a more inclusive country which respects and supports the rights of Travellers. I commend Deputy Mac Lochlainn and Sinn Féin on bringing forward the motion.

The motion follows the aftermath of the horrific fire in Carrickmines in Dublin which caused the deaths of ten members of the Traveller community. Reactions following the fire highlighted the ongoing discriminatory attitudes throughout Irish society towards the Traveller community. The motion calls on the Government to lead a fundamental review of the treatment of Travellers in Irish society. That is the important aspect of this debate.

The other important issue is that we must rally around and support the Travellers' rights movement, particularly groups such as Pavee Point and the Irish Traveller Movement. All of us expressed sympathy following the Carrickmines fire tragedy. It was horrific and very sad for the families and for Travellers in general. However, there is no use having sympathy if we do not talk about introducing services or bring forward action on equality. One in ten Travellers die from suicide. There is a lack of funds for Traveller counselling services. Last year they got €14,000 from the HSE. The All Ireland Traveller Health Study, which cost approximately €1.5 million, was published in 2010, yet no action was taken. Traveller men die 15 years earlier than members of the settled community. Services are failing at local and national level.

The 40,000 Travellers in Ireland deserve respect and equality. Damn charity, they want justice and we should support them. There must be a complete re-think on the Travellers' rights issue. The Government must hear the voices of Travellers directly. We need Travellers in the Dáil and in the Seanad, because they will speak out for themselves and we can act as support groups for them. I met them today and I saw their hurt, anger and pain. Quite honestly, I was ashamed and embarrassed to see the hurt and pain in their eyes with regard to this issue and their demands. They require a national agency to deal with the accommodation issues. We must take it out of the hands of local politicians.

We are now approaching the 1916 commemoration. If we wish to talk about equality and justice, we will support the Travellers' programmes on education and accommodation.

Photo of Maureen O'SullivanMaureen O'Sullivan (Dublin Central, Independent)
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It was the death of Jonathan Corrie that brought the issue of housing and homelessness onto the Dáil agenda in a stark way. It is alarming and disturbing that it took another terrible tragedy at Carrickmines, for the Lynch, Gilbert and Connors families and for the wider Traveller community, to bring about a debate on Traveller issues in the Dáil.

We are aware of the statistics which show the inequalities experienced by members of the Traveller community in terms of life expectancy, illnesses, rates of suicide and infant mortality. We are also aware of the inequalities in education. In that regard, I ask Traveller parents to be more proactive and supportive of their children continuing in school beyond leaving certificate into third level education. In the secondary school where I taught, too often I saw very bright Traveller girls leaving school at the end of first year.

We have become complacent with regard to Travellers. Successive governments and Irish society have ignored the glaring inequalities that persist. What was common at the briefing today from the Travellers' rights activists was the total alienation they feel when they enter Leinster House. Leinster House has not respected their culture, history or ethnicity. Irish people are against racism and discrimination. We have a strong voice with regard to human rights. Ireland is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council. We believe we have a social conscience, but too often that stops when it comes to Travellers. The academic research on Travellers over recent decades supports the case for recognition of their ethnicity, which is supported by the majority of Travellers. Accepting their ethnicity is simply respecting difference and diversity.

If what had happened in Carrickmines and its aftermath had occurred in another country, we would have been horrified. While there was great support and sympathy from Irish people, there was not the same sense of outrage and horror that we would express if it had occurred somewhere else. Yes, there is anti-social behaviour by a small minority in the Traveller community, but there is major anti-social behaviour by many people in the settled community. I listened to the Minister of State, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, and heard his views, aspirations and outrage. It is very disappointing that this debate will become divisive and that we will vote against each other tomorrow night.

We said we did not want another death like that of Jonathan Corrie, but there were other deaths of homeless people. For the future, we should revert to the seanfhocal, ní neart go cur le chéile.

Debate adjourned.

The Dáil adjourned at at 10.05 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Wednesday, 4 November 2015.