Dáil debates

Thursday, 1 June 2017

Report on Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity: Motion


6:15 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I move:

That Dáil Éireann shall consider the Report of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality entitled ‘Report on the Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity’, copies of which were laid before Dáil Éireann on 26th January, 2017." I wish to thank all Deputies who have attended and participated in this special debate on the Report of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality entitled ‘Report on the Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity’ and published in January 2017.

Wednesday, 1 March 2017 was an historic day when a momentous step forward for equality in this country was taken by An Taoiseach when he formally recognised, on behalf of the State and the Irish people, the reality that the Irish Traveller community constitutes a distinct ethnic group. That declaration was the culmination of many years of tireless campaigning by the various Traveller organisations and others of goodwill. I commend all who worked so tirelessly and passionately on this most important issue for all of those years. Molaim sibh uilig.

Back in 2014, our predecessor, the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality of the Thirty-first Dáil published a report entitled Report on the Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity. Its key recommendation was that this State recognise the ethnicity of the Traveller community, and that steps be taken to implement any necessary legislative change to reflect this. The current joint committee was very keen that this issue would remain firmly on the political agenda.

We undertook to supplement and reinforce the valuable work and recommendations put forward by the previous committee by conducting our own hearings and adding a fresh report to the body of work already in place on the recognition of Traveller ethnicity. While two of our three recommendations have been implemented it is the third that is now critically important. It states, on the formal recognition of Traveller ethnicity that: "The Government should then conduct a review, in consultation with Traveller representative groups, of any legislative or policy changes required on foot of the recognition of Traveller ethnicity." This recommendation is crucial.

From the outset it is important to note, and I place strong emphasis on this, that formal recognition of Traveller ethnicity brings no new rights and likely needs no new legislation. Traveller people have always had rights.

They are full and equal citizens in all circumstances. Their rights and entitlements, like the Minister's and mine, have been there over all time, but the crux of the issue is that they have not been properly respected. Legislation has failed them. This State has failed them. From here on out, we must ensure that legislation on the rights of citizens is robust and strictly adhered to by all in both public service and private business in order that all citizens are treated equally. We must ensure that Travellers are treated as full and equal citizens in all circumstances with access to the same services and opportunities in place for all who call Ireland home.

The Irish Traveller people have been treated abominably by this State. The Commission on Itinerancy report of 1963 was probably one of the most shocking and disgraceful reports ever written in Ireland. We need only look at its terms of reference to see the level of racism and total ignorance that existed towards the Traveller community. To give an example, I quote from the terms of reference that governed that report. It states:

(1) to enquire 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 promote their absorption into the general community.

It is difficult to believe that such a report was ever written. Unfortunately, the ingrained racism toward the Traveller community has permeated through a significant section of the so-called settled community over many years and, sadly, I have to say, continues to this day. A case of the dislike of unlike has trundled on and on. Let us not be fooled. Despite having the Traveller community recognised as a distinct ethnic group and acknowledging how far we have come, Travellers are still not treated as equals or with the respect they deserve. They remain grossly disadvantaged. We need only look at the statistics to see the ripple effect of the deplorable policies of this State in days gone past.

Traveller-specific accommodation is a massive issue. For clarity's sake, when we talk about Traveller-specific accommodation we are talking about, as the Irish Travellers Movement has described it, "Culturally appropriate accommodation provided, with families living in resourced accommodation of their choice, including nomadic provision.” We do not need to cast our minds too far back to remember the Carrickmines tragedy of 2015 that resulted in the deaths of ten members of the Traveller community. At the time, Traveller organisations raised their concerns at overcrowding on Traveller halting sites around the country due to the lack of provision of Traveller-specific accommodation. It became clear from photographs of the site that portakabins were situated close together due to lack of space. We also remember how, in 2016, we witnessed the disgraceful eviction of Travellers from a halting site in Dundalk in the centenary year of the declaration of the Irish Republic. I, for one, felt ashamed.

It is both worrying and an utter disgrace that many local authorities are not spending allocated funds for Traveller accommodation. Figures obtained in October 2016 showed that only €1,607,946 of €5,500,000 in allocated Government funding for Traveller accommodation had been drawn down by that date. That is very concerning given the pressing need to ensure that safe Traveller accommodation is made available across the country. Indeed, some local authorities had not even drawn down any of their allocated funding. Clearly, there are serious issues in that regard and a change of approach is urgently needed. The funding available needs to be utilised and we must do more to ensure that adequate Traveller accommodation is provided. Central government must do more to encourage councils to draw down the maximum Traveller accommodation allocation available and to spend it appropriately.

Another aspect that needs to be urgently addressed is the health inequalities experienced by Travellers. The All Ireland Traveller Health Study in 2010 found that there were substantially higher levels of mortality and morbidity among Travellers. Life expectancy for male Travellers was found to be 15 years lower than for the general population and 11 years lower for females. In addition, infant mortality rates were calculated at more than three times the national average. Suicide accounts for 11% of all deaths within the Traveller community. It is clear and perhaps unsurprising that Traveller mental health has been hugely affected by racism, discrimination, poverty and social exclusion. All of what I have outlined makes for grim reading. Health inequalities among disadvantaged and marginalised groups must be addressed.

In terms of education, a recent ESRI report found that "Travellers are more likely to have left school at an early age, with 28 per cent ... having left before the age of 13, compared to only 1 per cent of non-Travellers”. Just 1% of Travellers have a college degree, compared with 30% of non-Travellers. It also found that the unemployment rate for Travellers was 82% in 2011, compared with 17% for non-Travellers. In that informative report it states that given the "sheer magnitude of the gap between Travellers and non-Travellers in terms of education, employment, housing and health," the community needs both mainstream services and highly targeted policies.

Fundamentally, recognition of Traveller ethnicity is about respect and inclusion. We had hoped that our report would add impetus to the issue and we have not been disappointed. However, we know that this recognition is not a magic wand for addressing the issues experienced by the Traveller community.

Pavee Point holds to the principle that to achieve equality for Travellers and Roma, attention must be paid to the structural determinants and issues that impact on them, including education, employment, poverty, health, discrimination and racism. This means that policy and practice must be underpinned by an intercultural approach and by principles of equality, diversity and anti-racism. I could not agree more.

The number of usual residents present in the State and enumerated as Irish Travellers in Census 2016 increased by 5.1% from 29,495 to 30,987. As legislators, we have a duty to ensure that all those 30,987 Traveller people have the very same access to services, have a chance to lead a full and healthy life, to live in appropriate and safe settings and to be treated as equals, exactly as they should be. The recognition of Traveller ethnicity, finally, gives us a real opportunity to do just that.

6 o’clock

This brings me back to the main point of my contribution, namely, the implementation of the third recommendation of our report. The Government has, I understand, been engaged with Traveller organisation representatives in its preparation for the publication of the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy. I acknowledge the work of the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, the former Chairman of the justice and equality committee, who is steering this important strategy. I know that Deputy Stanton recognises the need to work in partnership with Travellers to address the serious issues that face the Traveller community in areas such as health, employment, education and accommodation. I look forward to the publication of this new strategy and, most importantly of all, its implementation.

The announcement on 1 March put us as a nation on a new pathway. It opened the door to a new relationship with our fellow Irish nationals and co-equal citizens of the newly ethnically recognised Irish Traveller community based on mutual respect, requiring an awareness by those who administer our State services and all of us from what is ofttimes referred to as the "settled community" of the needs and rights of our fellow Irish citizens, our Traveller people.

Ar aghaidh linn le chéile. Go raibh maith agaibh.

6:35 pm

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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I acknowledge the Chairman of the justice committee and Members present and I am delighted to be here to speak to the committee's report on Traveller ethnicity which was published on 26 January 2017. I note that the report contained three recommendations, which I will address with Deputies today.

As all Deputies will be aware, there was a long-standing campaign by Travellers to have their identity, culture and unique position in Irish society recognised and valued by formal recognition of them by the State as a distinct ethnic group. Such recognition would be without prejudice to their also being part of - and self-identifying as part of - the Irish nation. Deputies may recall that in 2014, the then Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn brought a proposal to the joint Oireachtas justice committee to recognise Traveller ethnicity. In my then role as Chairman of the committee, I invited Deputy Mac Lochlainn, as he was then, to act as rapporteur and to prepare a report for the committee on the issue. We sought submissions and held hearings, which led to an all-party report. This report on the recognition of Traveller ethnicity was presented in April 2014. Emphasis was placed by the committee on the fact that recognition of Traveller ethnicity would reflect an acknowledgement of the distinct place of Travellers in Irish society. The report that we, the then joint Oireachtas committee, issued recommended that either the Taoiseach or the Minister for Justice and Equality make a statement to Dáil Eireann confirming that this State recognises the ethnicity of the Traveller community. The report indicated cross-party support for taking this step.

In taking up my role a year ago as Minister of State at the Department of Justice with special responsibility for equality, immigration and integration, I stressed to my officials my interest in pursuing this issue. The Attorney General advised my Department some time ago that it would be possible to make a political statement acknowledging the distinct ethnic identity of members of the Traveller community without any requirement for legislative change. Subsequent discussions with all relevant Departments also confirmed that there were no anticipated expenditure implications or implications for how public services are delivered involved.

In May 2015, following discussions with my Department, the four national Traveller NGOs agreed the text of a statement setting out what they were seeking in terms of ethnic recognition and what they considered the benefits of such recognition would be for them. This statement by the four Traveller national NGOs confirmed that it is also their view that there are no legal, legislative or expenditure implications arising from the ethnic recognition of Travellers - in other words, it is a stand-alone statement and issue.

As Deputies will be aware, the then Government indicated in its response to a Sinn Féin Dáil motion in November 2015, and in its amendment to that motion, that the question of formal recognition of Travellers as a group in Irish society with a unique culture, heritage and ethnic identity was being considered in the context of the development of the new national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy. My Department co-ordinated a comprehensive public consultation on the drafting of the forthcoming national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy. This consultation involved the relevant Departments, Traveller and Roma representative groups and advocates as well as interested members of the public.

The consultation process for the inclusion strategy comprised three distinct stages. Phase 1 helped to identify the priority themes to be addressed in the inclusion strategy. These themes include education, health, accommodation, anti-discrimination and employment, as Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin has just outlined. There were ten themes in all. In phase 2, we identified and agreed specific objectives under each of the themes set out in phase 1. During phase 3, we have been working on the development of precise and measurable actions and timescales for achievement of each of the objectives that emerged from phase 2. During phase 3, I decided to hold back on the finalisation of the inclusion strategy pending the Government decision regarding recognition of Traveller ethnicity. I continued to work with my Oireachtas colleagues to discuss the question of State recognition of Traveller ethnicity and to engage with them on the potential value of such State recognition in terms of a gesture of good faith to the Traveller community.

At this point, I wish to point out that much work on this issue had been carried out by my predecessor, the then Minister of State, now Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin. Senators Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and Colette Kelleher have also done continued excellent work on this issue, for which I am grateful to them. I met the three Senators on a number of occasions to try to identify a way to drive this issue forward at an all-party level, and this approach was very successful. In this regard, I also commend the current joint Oireachtas committee for showing such interest in, and commitment to, Traveller ethnicity by listing the issue high on its agenda for 2016 and issuing the report we are discussing today. It helped to maintain a focus on the issue and build momentum towards the decision by Government. Most particularly, it helped to ensure there was cross-party support in the Houses regarding this issue.

I brought a paper to the Cabinet committee in December 2016 seeking agreement that a formal statement be made to announce that the State recognises Travellers as an ethnic group having a distinct heritage and identity. In what was, I think, an unprecedented step, it was decided at that Cabinet committee meeting that the Traveller NGOs would be invited to present to the Cabinet committee at its next meeting. The four national Traveller NGOs and other Traveller representatives on the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy steering group selected a delegation of four persons, with two alternates, for this purpose. The four Traveller representatives met the Cabinet committee on 6 February 2017, and feedback received from Cabinet committee members following the presentation was very positive. Clear reference was made during that meeting to the then recent recommendations by the joint Oireachtas committee. The Traveller groups concurred that the proposal to conduct a review of any legislative or policy changes required on foot of the recognition by Government of Traveller ethnicity was not required. The decision to announce State recognition of Traveller ethnicity, announced by the Taoiseach on 1 March 2017, has brought great joy to Travellers. As I am sure Deputies will agree, it was a memorable and remarkable evening in the Dáil Chamber. I have been here as long as Deputy Ó Caoláin. We have both been here 20 years, I think, at this stage.

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Congratulations or commiserations.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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In all my years here, I have rarely seen such a happy and emotionally charged occasion-----

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I concur.

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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-----on which all sides of the Dáil came together to mark and celebrate this issue. I was delighted to note that an all-party consensus was reached on the issue. It was particularly special that the Visitors Gallery was filled with Travellers and advocates who had campaigned so hard for State recognition of Traveller ethnicity. I deeply appreciate the speeches made on that occasion, including that made by Deputy Ó Caoláin, as Chairman of the committee, supporting the Government decision. I truly hope that State recognition of Traveller ethnicity will act as the platform for transformative change for the Traveller community.

Today, I attended the Traveller Pride Awards 2017. I attended last year's awards in one of my first engagements in this position. I was hugely impressed by what I saw today. Seven young people received awards. Thomas Maughan works with Men's Sheds and does amazing work looking after men's health and Traveller men's health. Michael Power is the editor of Travellers' Voice magazine. He is a very impressive young man and spoke extraordinary well. Johnny McDonagh and Niamh Black work with youth groups in their area, such as Lucht Siúil Óga. Again, they are highly impressive speakers and the work they are doing developing leadership among young Travellers is amazing. Hughie Maughan, whom we all know from the television programme, also spoke extremely well. Lizzy Connors is a poet and a fantastic singer. Patrick Mangan never gives up and will represent Ireland in the European Amateur Boxing Championships in Ukraine. Ian McDonagh is 15 and has met Prince Charles and the President. He won an award at the BT Young Scientist & Technology Exhibition this year - amazing work and very impressive. It was great to see the positives and the potential.

I would like to speak to the positives and show what the future can be for Travellers, especially with regard to the inclusion strategy which we will publish shortly. We must all work together to make that happen. Deputy Ó Caoláin is correct about that.

I wish to refer to the recommendations contained in the committee's report of January 2017. Based upon the hearings and broader consideration of the issues, the committee made recommendations to the Minister for Justice and Equality. The committee stated it was of the view that Travellers are, de facto, a separate ethnic group. Furthermore, the committee stated that this was not a gift to be bestowed upon Travellers, but a fact the State ought to formally acknowledge, preferably by way of a statement by the Taoiseach to Dáil Éireann. The committee strongly encouraged that this step be taken and at the earliest date possible in 2017.

We can safely say that the Government has taken heed of the first two recommendations and has achieved what it set out to do in terms of the Taoiseach’s statement to the Dáil announcing State recognition of Traveller ethnicity on 1 March 2017. While not a legal or legislative issue, such a symbolically important gesture of respect by the State will, I hope, empower Traveller leaders to call on their community to rise to the challenge of transformative action on this and other issues, in partnership with the State and on the basis of an honest dialogue and a focus on solving real problems for the benefit of their community.

I have come across some Travellers who denied their ethnicity, history and the fact they were Travellers because they felt it was not prudent to admit to being Travellers. As I said today at the awards ceremony, it is to be hoped that from now on Travellers will no longer be ashamed of being Travellers. Deputy Ó Caoláin is correct - there is a lot of work to be done. This is a major start. He referenced the 1963 report, and I agree with everything he said. However, that chapter has now closed and we have opened a new one. We have to move forward and see what we can do to address all of the challenges the Deputy mentioned.

The key argument for ethnic recognition is that recognition of the distinct heritage, culture and identity of Travellers and their special place in Irish society is very symbolically important to Traveller pride and self-esteem and to overcoming the legacy of economic marginalisation, discrimination and low self-esteem with which that community struggles. This is not to ignore the real problems that the community faces, but such a symbolic gesture would create a new platform for positive engagement by the Traveller community and Government together in seeking sustainable solutions which are based on respect and on an honest dialogue to those problems, including anti-social behaviour and feuding by a minority within the Traveller community.

Clearly, a renewed law enforcement focus, as well as sustained resourcing for work with Traveller families, will be required for a serious impact on these issues, but strong Traveller participation and leadership is also an essential element for an intervention that will be successful over time. Ethnic recognition has the potential to create the circumstances whereby my Department and other Departments and agencies, including An Garda Síochána, can engage with Travellers on, and Traveller leaders can credibly call on their community to participate in, the development of an action plan to tackle and seek to solve key problems facing the Traveller community.

In preliminary discussions with Traveller leaders, my Department has identified feuding as a pivotal issue that could be put centre stage in such an approach, in that its negative ramifications impact directly on mental and physical health, the position of women and children, employment and accommodation issues. Following the announcement by the Taoiseach on 1 March 2017 of the State’s recognition of Traveller ethnicity, I directed my officials to recommence the process of development of the new national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy. In implementing such an inclusion strategy, it will be important to build on the wave of positivity arising for Travellers from the Taoiseach’s statement.

All of the issues and themes I have mentioned, including health, accommodation, education, employment, Traveller culture, anti-discrimination, gender equality, public services, feuding and anti-social behaviour, will be addressed in the national Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021. I am happy to advise the House I presented the draft inclusion strategy to Cabinet on 30 May 2017 and the strategy was approved for publication. I will launch the inclusion strategy on 13 June 2017. I have stressed that it must be regarded as a living document, with monitoring of its implementation and reporting of same a key and integral part of its potential success.

I would like to turn to the committee’s third recommendation, namely, that the Government should conduct a review, in consultation with Traveller representative groups, of any legislative or policy changes required on foot of the recognition of Traveller ethnicity. I have to admit this recommendation came as a surprise to my Department and Traveller organisations, as our agreed understanding is that recognition has no implications for public expenditure or legislation and does not require any legislative amendments.

As I stated, my Department does not believe any legislative amendments or policy review is needed arising from the State recognition of Traveller ethnicity. As set out by the four national Traveller NGOs, they do not feel that it is necessary. It was also stated by the Taoiseach on 1 March 2017 that:

Together, we agreed that recognition of Travellers could have a transformative effect on relations between Travellers and wider society, and will create no new individual, constitutional or financial rights. Because, of course, Travellers already enjoy all the human rights and responsibilities that are afforded all people under the Constitution and laws.

As I said during that debate: "To reiterate the point the Taoiseach made, this is a hugely important and symbolic gesture that is very important to Travellers, but it has no legislative implications, creates no new rights and has no implications for public expenditure." Traveller NGOs will, of course, continue to lobby for improved service provision and I, as Minister of State, will equally pursue improvements in critical areas such as health, accommodation, education and employment in the context of implementation and review of the new national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy but - I must stress this - ethnic recognition is an entirely separate matter. It has to stand on its own for what it is. It is very important and symbolic.

Of course, that is not to say that all of the other issues that we mentioned are also not important and do not need to be dealt with. That is why the strategy has been worked on in consultation and partnership with Traveller organisations, who had a major input into the strategy. It will be very challenging, but if and when it works, it will be transformative. We have done a significant piece of work which I contend stands alone.

The second piece of work is the inclusion strategy. It is not an integration strategy; it is an inclusion strategy, which is very important to point out. The strategy will be published on 13 July and I welcome the views of the committee on it. As I said, it is a living, rather than a static, document. I do not want it to be on a shelf; I want people to work on it. I want the steering group to come together every quarter and report on the challenges, obstacles and progress that have been made in the implementation of the inclusion strategy.

I again thank the committee for its work and support. Let us move forward together to see what other improvements we can make and how we can make the lives of the community better.

6:45 pm

Photo of Jim O'CallaghanJim O'Callaghan (Dublin Bay South, Fianna Fail)
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Unlike the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, and Deputy Ó Caoláin, I have not been a Member of the House for 20 years; I have only been a Member for 15 months. I agree with them when they said the events of 1 March last were memorable and historic. In my 15 months here, which is a small amount of time, it was the most memorable event I have experienced as a Member of the House. It was memorable because of the sense of excitement and expectation in the House on that evening. That may also be a reflection of how new politics does not provide much excitement, but it is the case that there was a genuine feeling of appreciation and power in this House on that evening.

It was an historic occasion. It is difficult for people involved in events to assess whether those events have been historic, but in years to come it will be recognised that the recognition by the State of the ethnicity of the Traveller community was, in fact, an historic step. On that evening, my party leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, spoke, and I also had the privilege to speak to a very full House and Gallery, which was one of the most memorable occasions of that night.

On that occasion, I commended and acknowledged the role of the Taoiseach in taking the step of acknowledging and recognising Traveller ethnicity. I want to do the same again now. He will presently be passing on to pastures new, but it should be recognised that when his legacy comes to be written by historians, very much on the credit side will be the fact that he was the Taoiseach who recognised the ethnicity of Travellers on behalf of the State. He could have fudged the issue and let it drift on to the next leader, but he made a conscious decision and for that he deserves to be commended.

Other groups need to be recognised for bringing forward that historic evening. In fairness to the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, when he was the Chair of the previous Joint Committee on Justice and Equality he produced a report in, I understand, April 2014 which called on the Government to recognise the ethnicity of Irish Travellers. I had not realised Deputy Pádraig Mac Lochlainn was instrumental in that. That committee, as chaired by the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, deserves recognition for doing that.

I do not know whether the Minister of State will remain involved in the justice portfolio after the events of this week or next. That is a matter for people beyond my and, indeed, his pay grade.

If he is not, I hope that whoever takes his place will continue to emphasise the important role he has played in seeking to advance the rights and entitlements of members of the Irish Traveller community. Hopefully, he will be kept on there.

I acknowledge also the role played by our own justice and equality committee, chaired by Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin. People might have thought there was no point having another hearing on Traveller ethnicity since a report had been produced in 2014. Deputy Ó Caoláin and the rest of the committee recognised that there was a benefit in having a further report and seeking to put further pressure on the Government to carry through on what we were led to believe was a commitment. It was important that the report was produced. The pressure it put on the Government was important. I commend and thank the members of the committee on being instrumental in that.

Of course, the people who deserve most credit for the recognition of Irish Travellers are not the Taoiseach, Ministers, Deputies or committee members, they are the members of the Traveller community who have put this item on the agenda for many years. Many people in Ireland were unaware of the significance or meaning of Traveller ethnicity. Sometimes, people confuse it with nationality. People asked why they needed to have their ethnicity recognised when they were Irish. That failed to recognise, however, the meaning of what ethnicity is. It also failed to recognise the rich tradition that lies at the heart of the Irish Traveller community. Like many other Members, I would not have been aware of that had it not been for the important statements and campaigning of members of Pavee Point and the Irish Traveller community who informed and educated us about it. We had the benefit and privilege in the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality to hear further evidence from members of Pavee Point and members of the Traveller community which was instrumental in educating us as to the importance of it. As such, the greatest recognition and thanks must go to those members of the Traveller community who continued to put this on the agenda and to canvass, harass and encourage politicians as to its importance. They succeeded, for which they deserve recognition.

When I saw that the report was being debated this evening, I wondered if there was any point to it. I was concerned that it might become a back-slapping exercise where politicians would assemble to say "Aren't we great and didn't we do a great job in producing the report and getting the Government to recognise Traveller ethnicity?". Fortunately, it is not a back-slapping exercise, nor should it be. As Deputy Ó Caoláin mentioned, there is another very important job of work that needs to be done in respect of recognition of Irish Traveller ethnicity and that is contained in the third recommendation of our report. It states that the Government should conduct a review in consultation with Traveller representative groups of any legislative or policy changes required on foot of the recognition of Traveller ethnicity. It is important that we do not put ourselves in a comfortable position where we think that having recognised Traveller ethnicity we can sit back and do nothing about it into the future. One of the benefits of and reasons for recognising the Irish Traveller community is that it imposes on us an extra obligation to take legislative and administrative steps to ensure they can be recognised as equal citizens. They should be recognised as equal citizens while at the same time having their unique heritage respected and protected.

We cannot get away from the fact that Irish Travellers experience a disparity of treatment when it comes to such fundamental issues as health, education and accommodation. Deputy Ó Caoláin referred to the disparity between the morbidity and mortality rates on the part of Irish Travellers and those of other Irish people. It is a statistic of which we should be ashamed. It is not acceptable that a group in our society should have such a markedly different health outlook from the majority of the population. He also referred to the infant mortality rates which are also embarrassing, which is a polite way to put it, from the point of view of this country. We must ensure, having recognised Traveller ethnicity, that we take further steps to ensure that the disparities in the health of Irish Travellers no longer continue throughout the 21st century. There was no reason for those disparities to develop and it is essential that there is collaboration between the Government and members of the Irish Traveller community, along with experts, to ensure they cease.

We must also recognise that there are unique challenges presented to us as a result of the requirement for Traveller accommodation, taking into account Travellers' status and unique ethnicity. We must ensure that every local authority takes seriously the requirement to put in place a Traveller housing programme. We must also look at the whole area of education and the Traveller community. While that has improved in recent years, there is still a long way to go. We must get to a stage where it is not unique for a member of the Irish Traveller community to go to third level. Any member of the Irish Traveller community who wants to proceed and pursue a career which requires advanced education should be able to have it. It requires us to work in liaison with the Traveller community to ensure that is available. These are the three main and fundamental requirements not just of Travellers but of every citizen, namely health, education and accommodation, and we need to work on them.

Mention was made of issues regarding legislation and the need to update it. One of the things my party can be proud of was the introduction of the Equal Status Act 2000, which set out nine grounds upon which one is not allowed to discriminate against individuals. One of those grounds is the Traveller ground. People are not allowed to be discriminated against on the basis that they are members of the Traveller community. We also have the Employment Equality Act which sets out the same nine grounds and prohibits discrimination by employers against individuals on the basis that they are members of the Irish Traveller community. I conclude by recognising once again the important role played by the Taoiseach. Deputy Ó Caoláin mentioned the history of this country in its treatment of Irish Travellers. While he makes a valid point, we need to look to the future. There were many failings on the part of the State in the past and those failings exist not just in this State but in other countries as well. We are not an exception. People in different countries were treated shamefully by states and governments. We must now look into the future and see how best we can adapt our laws for the benefit of the Irish Traveller community.

6:55 pm

Photo of Mick WallaceMick Wallace (Wexford, Independent)
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As the Minister of State has just said, to define Travellers as an ethnic group does not entitle them to any additional rights and protections. While the recent decision to recognise Traveller ethnicity is a symbolic step and a well-deserved victory for the Traveller community who have fought so long and hard for it, it will be meaningless if the Government fails to follow through with targeted policy improvements. The fact remains that Travellers experience structural inequality and discrimination in all aspects and stages of life.

After visiting Ireland in November 2016, the Council of Europe's Commission for Human Rights, Nils MuiŽnieks, stated that he was deeply concerned at the persisting social exclusion and discrimination Travellers were confronted with in Ireland. Successive Governments have pursued policies of assimilation, often indirectly through, for example, disproportionate cuts to Traveller-related expenditure. From 2011, Traveller-specific education supports were slashed by 86%, which is a frightening statistic. The €36 million which was taken away from Travellers in 2011 through the termination of visiting teacher services and the specialised resource teachers for Travellers will cost young Travellers dearly in the long term. While the Minister's consultation document on the draft national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy contains several actions on education, including measures to enforce attendance, there is no commitment to bring back these vital educational supports which would help to keep many kids in school and provide them an improved equality of opportunity.

Deputy Ó Caoláin has gone through a lot of the statistics. Only 1% of Travellers aged 25 to 64 have a college degree. Only 8% have completed the leaving certificate compared to 73% of non-Travellers. According to the Economic and Social Research Institute's recent report, "A Social Portrait of Travellers in Ireland", Travellers have not benefited nearly as much as non-Travellers from improvements in levels of education since the 1960s. There are many barriers to education for Travellers. The 2016 census found that 73% of Travellers are aged 34 and under and they marry young. Some 22% of Travellers marry between the ages of 15 and 24 compared to 1.2% of the settled population. Another obstacle to education is the fact that 70% of Traveller children come from families in which the mother has no formal education.

Education is the key to improving the lives of Travellers in Ireland. Poor education attainment is a crucial factor in the disproportionately high unemployment rate among Travellers. Census 2011 found an unemployment rate of 82% among Travellers, compared with 17% in the settled population. Although the national unemployment rate has decreased since then, the rate among Travellers is not expected to have changed significantly.

With regard to Traveller accommodation supports, the situation is similarly grim. Between 2008 and 2013 the travel accommodation budget was cut by 90%. On 1 January this year, 91 Traveller families were on the social housing waiting list in Wexford. There was a recent issue whereby eight local authorities did not invest any money in housing for the Traveller community, despite being allocated hundreds of thousands of euro in funding to do so. Wexford County Council has a decent record in this area. What is plain is the allocated funding is simply not sufficient, in certain areas anyway, such as in Wexford. Then we have the situation in Cork, where the city council left more than €470,000 unspent over the past two years. One of the largest halting site in the country, Spring Lane in Cork, was originally built for ten families and now has 34 families and more than 150 people. Cork City Council has no existing plans to address overcrowding.

Census 2011 shows that 12% of Travellers live in a caravan or mobile home, and 84% of this accommodation is overcrowded. It is more common than standard accommodation to lack central heating, piped water and sewage facilities. According to the ESRI, 56% of Travellers in Ireland live in overcrowded accommodation. Travellers, as a recognised ethnic minority, should now have their right to culturally appropriate housing honoured. Emily Logan, chief commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission, IHREC, has argued that local authorities should be penalised if they do not spend the total money allocated for Traveller housing in a given year. Failing to do so will lead to very little change.

The consultation paper on the national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy does not seem to have any measures to address this problem. Perhaps I am wrong.

7:05 pm

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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We have not seen it yet.

Photo of Mick WallaceMick Wallace (Wexford, Independent)
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Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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It is not published yet.

Photo of Mick WallaceMick Wallace (Wexford, Independent)
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The strategy states the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government will ring fence the budget for Traveller accommodation and put in place robust mechanisms to monitor expenditure and delivery, including periodic reviews to assess progress in meeting needs, and that the Department will assess whether there are any barriers to Travellers accessing social housing. There is no mention of sanctions on local authorities that fail to provide accommodation or refuse to use the allocated funding.

As was reported in the media, Waterford City Council was given €676,000 to develop Traveller housing over the past two years but spent just €13,500. Carlow County council spent none of the €130,000 it was granted to fund Traveller housing. The council had estimated 109 new Traveller families would need accommodation in Carlow between 2014 and 2018, but spent it has spent no money since 2013 and does not plan to invest in additional Traveller housing in 2017. There does not seem to be any measure or concrete plan in place to address what appears to be a point-blank refusal by some local authorities to make use of the funding. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has promised an extra €3.5 million will be allocated for Traveller accommodation this year, but what is the point if local authorities will not even engage with programme?

Poor education and inadequate living conditions have a huge impact on health outcomes for Travellers. The ESRI report found the health gap between Travellers and non-Travellers increases rapidly after the age of 35, with 50% of Travellers in poor health compared to 22% of non-Travellers. The report concludes the disproportionate poor health of Travellers is due to a disadvantage that worsens over the course of a lifetime.

Irish politics has been on a neoliberal trajectory for decades, but it is going in a particularly worrying direction at present. There is an ideology among some in higher levels of Government who see society as binary in nature. On the one hand are the honest hard-working taxpayers who get up early in the morning and earn a good wage, and on the other are the entitled scroungers. There is a danger the Government feels that in recognising Traveller ethnicity it will have done its bit for Travellers. Indeed, Travellers are notably absent from much of the literature in the current Fine Gael leadership campaign. There has always been an expectation on Travellers that they should somehow be grateful for what they get, but this is a group which has been consistently discriminated against and abused by a system that facilitates casual and institutional racism against them. The Government now needs to take concrete steps to write these grievous wrongs.

Recently, I met four Traveller women in Wexford, two of whom were almost as old as myself and two young women. It was an absolute breath of fresh air to listen to them. They were looking for funding to set up an organisation to help Travellers work for fairness in the areas where they live. It is something they do not get at present. I hope the State will take a different approach to how we treat Travellers in every way. What we have seen for many years is nothing short of apartheid. We look at other countries and we can see clearly when something such as apartheid or genocide takes place, but very often when it is close to home we seem to be blind to it.

I commend the Minister of State for his interest in this. I also commend Deputy Ó Caoláin, the Chairman of the committee. As Deputy O'Callaghan said, the people who deserve the most praise are those in the Traveller community who have worked so hard to make a change and make a difference.

I hope when the new Ministers are selected, the winner will put talent before those who jumped on the favourite bandwagon fairly quickly at the start. I hope the Minister of State is treated well.

Photo of Dessie EllisDessie Ellis (Dublin North West, Sinn Fein)
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Tá áthas orm go bhfuilim ag labhairt ar an ábhar seo.

Last March, when the House recognised Traveller ethnicity, it was truly an historic moment for the 40,000 members of our Traveller community and for Irish society as a whole. This recognition must be the first step on the path for real and practical change. The formal recognition of Traveller ethnicity does not immediately deal with the challenges and discrimination faced by the Traveller community, but it is a major step in the right direction. We need to keep moving in this direction. I was very proud to be here to witness the joy of the hundreds who turned up to see this historic occasion. I pay tribute in particular to those who have advocated on behalf of the Traveller community for decades, from within the Traveller community and those in the settled community who have done so much to advance the welfare of Travellers . I also commend the committee, which conducted its own hearings and added a fresh report to the body of work already in place on the recognition of Traveller ethnicity.

At present, two out of three recommendations from the joint committee have been implemented. It is the third which is now important. It states, on the formal recognition of Traveller ethnicity, that the Government should conduct a review, in consultation with Traveller representative groups, of any legislative or policy changes required on foot of recognition of Traveller ethnicity. This recommendation is crucial. It is important to state formal recognition of Traveller ethnicity brings no new rights and likely needs no new legislation.

Traveller people have always had rights. They need to be treated with the full rights of the country, to which they are as entitled as anyone else. This is not the case, as we well know. I will take as an example Traveller accommodation. Last year, local authorities failed to spend a total of more than €1.2 million earmarked for Traveller accommodation. A number of local authorities drew down less than one third of the funding allocated last year by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. Local authorities in Kildare, Clare and Carlow did not spend any of the money set aside for Traveller accommodation, while city councils in Cork and Waterford only used a small portion of the available funding. How can this be the case? We would not allow any other group of people to become so marginalised from society. While efforts such as this charter on Traveller ethnicity are important steps, what is needed is a cultural change of attitude from us all.

It has been clear for many years that there has been a concerted campaign to integrate the Traveller community into so-called settled housing. Many families and individuals have been coerced into housing through the use of rent supplement and the rental accommodation scheme, RAS, with the excuse that there is nothing else available, even though funds were not spent or even handed back to the Department by local authorities. This policy must stop. It is ethnic cleansing.

I recall the marginalisation of, and discrimination against, Travellers by the State in Dublin North-West over the years. Dunsink Lane between Finglas and Castleknock was blocked almost 18 years ago with huge concrete structures, thus isolating the hundreds of men, women and children living there and depriving them of all services, connectivity and proper policing. The excuse given was that there were some criminal elements there. At the time I warned about the damage it would do. It led to civil disturbances, serious rioting and, unnecessarily, a breakdown between the Garda, the Traveller community and local people. Luckily, however, the local community always got on very well with the Traveller community in Finglas, so there was no lasting damage. However, it was a disastrous mistake by the State and the politicians at the time. I warned that it would cause a problem, and it did. In contrast, the feud that is taking place in the inner city, which has led to so many deaths, has not led to such a drastic approach. We can only measure how far society has moved when we look at what is happening around us.

Poverty levels in the Traveller community are massive. The community has one of the highest suicide rates in the country. The rate is higher than that in any other section in society. Employment is a major problem. There is no incentive to try to work with the Traveller community to increase employment. The attitude is, "We will leave it to yourselves. We will throw a few small things into your community and that is it". That is not good enough. Health is also a serious problem, as are discrimination and racism. People in the Traveller community die younger. It is up to all of us to break down these barriers. St. Margaret's, one of the Traveller sites in Ballymun, and Avila Park in Finglas are bursting at the seams to get people housed. There is no sign of that changing. There is a need for more Traveller-specific accommodation as well as accommodation to cater for Travellers with disabilities, which is a big problem.

Recognition of ethnicity is a huge achievement, but actions are of primary importance. Carrickmines and Louth have shown us the task that is before us. If our society is to call itself a just and caring society, we must break down those barriers. We must reach out to all our communities, not just the Traveller community, but also the so-called settled community. I do not like the word "settled" but it is often used. I thank Deputy Ó Caoláin, the committee and all who supported this cause over the past number of years. This has been a long time coming. I recall this matter being raised ten and 15 years ago and speaking to the Traveller community about it. However, there is still a large amount of discrimination. It is important to get rid of the myths that are voiced about the Traveller community and other minority groups, particularly the Roma which is targeted by many myths told about them. The myths are disgusting and unacceptable. Society needs to learn. We must get out in society and get a better message across. We must be get the word across to the community that this is unacceptable.

The Traveller community is a huge and welcome part of our community. We hope to see it expand and have its own identity. That is what it deserves.

7:15 pm

Photo of Seán CroweSeán Crowe (Dublin South West, Sinn Fein)
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Like other speakers, I commend the Deputies and Senators on the joint committee who contributed to this important debate and to the report on the recognition of Traveller ethnicity. I have difficulty pronouncing the word "ethnicity", although I have no difficulty with what we are discussing. It is one of those words that cause difficulty and I have no doubt that it will probably arise about 100 times in my speech.

It is important that Irish society recognises this huge step. I commend Deputy Ó Caoláin, chairperson of the committee. As somebody said earlier, he is now 20 years a Member of the House. I congratulate him. I do not know if I can look forward to that length of time in the House, but we will see what happens. It is important to recognise the role he and the Minister of State have played in this. Other speakers have mentioned various Deputies but I wish to mention Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, who had a huge part in this. Others from other parties also played a role but I particularly commend him. He was a champion for this issue and the work he did on it has delivered. He has moved all of us along this road.

The date of 1 March last was a historic day for the State. On that day, there were just a few words from the Taoiseach, which meant so much to Travellers, recognising Traveller ethnicity. It was a momentous step forward for equality and we all accept that it was long overdue. Until 1 March, the State had maintained a position for decades that amounted to denial, without ever presenting any evidence-based defence of that position to international groups and partners who had spoken out or, indeed, to the Traveller community. The lack of recognition of ethnicity was a matter of deep concern for the Traveller community. It is estimated that there are 40,000 men, women and children in the community across the island. The distinct culture, traditions and ethnicity of the Traveller community should be cherished and valued. The formal recognition was an important and momentous step forward for equality on the island. It is also a positive re-alignment of the relationship between what is called the settled community and the Traveller community in Ireland.

However, formal recognition by the State of ethnicity will not be the magic wand or formula that alone will address the ongoing challenges of inequality and discrimination faced by Travellers. That has been mentioned by every speaker in this debate. Although the policy of the State towards the Traveller community has come a long way since the Commission on Itinerancy, much work remains to be done. This is the start, but there is a long journey ahead before we can say that Travellers are included and fully part of Irish society. There is much wider institutional discrimination faced by the Traveller community in areas such as health and education, as has been mentioned. A number of reports have been mentioned here tonight. The Travellers are probably sick and tired of the different reports that have been published over the years. People talk about being embarrassed about the fact that Travellers experience discrimination.

We should be embarrassed and ashamed. This should be a spur for us to do something. Embarrassment and expressing shame are no use in themselves, however; what the Traveller community wants is action.

The ESRI report was mentioned in respect of the numbers who are disadvantaged in education and employment. I mentioned this a couple of times in the House. In 2011, in the days of austerity, Travellers were affected severely by the cutbacks affecting health, education and other services. The cuts affected all communities but particularly Travellers. The austerity agenda of the Fianna Fáil, Labour and Fine Gael Governments targeted the weak and most disadvantaged in society. We were told the austerity programme was the way forward at the time, for whatever reason. The then Government took its decision probably in the knowledge that there would not be a huge kick-up about it. I do not remember a huge kick-up in this House. The educational supports were done away with. The then Government aimed specifically at targets and the supports were eliminated overnight. They included the posts for visiting teachers for Travellers, who supported Traveller pupils and their families, and additional resource teachers and resource hours for Traveller children. Specialised training centres for teenage and adult Travellers were also closed down overnight, with nothing to replace them.

Worryingly, Pavee Point made the point that, since 2008, State funding of Traveller education had fallen by 86%. Only 15% of Travellers completed second level education, compared to 92% in the rest of society. In disadvantaged areas, only a handful are breaking through. It should be no surprise that fewer than 1% of Travellers proceed to third level. What can we learn from this? Most obviously, if one removes supports and services, it will impact directly on the most vulnerable. It is not rocket science but, unfortunately, policy makers keep repeating these approaches.

The suicide rate for Traveller women is six times that among women in the settled community, and that of Traveller men is seven times higher. We have all experienced a spate of Traveller suicides in our communities and we are all fully aware of what is happening. At the root of all these problems are the unacceptable levels of prejudice, discrimination and social exclusion of Travellers.

The comments of Mr. Nils MuiŽnieks, the EU Commissioner for Human Rights, were mentioned. He talked about the discrimination against Travellers and the inequality they face. I am a member of the committee and talked to him directly about this. I informed him that the Irish Parliament had come to a decision to recognise Traveller ethnicity.

Sinn Féin has called in the past for the establishment of a national forum across the island of Ireland involving Travellers and the settled community, including representatives of all political parties, the Government, local authorities, the health and education sectors and media organisations to plan a way forward. It needs to be established.

I have served at local authority level. We have all come through that process. At AGMs councillors used to fight to get on various committees but I do not ever remember people fighting to get on the Traveller accommodation committee. People should note this if they want to talk about shame.

I am proud, to some extent, of some of the work of my local authority. We have not done enough but we collectively agreed a programme to roll out housing. Unfortunately, however, much of that accommodation provision has stopped. Hardly a week goes by without someone from the Traveller community coming to my advice centre looking for housing support. This is affecting the Traveller community along with everyone else.

I thank all those who have been involved in formulating the policy at the committee and all others who have taken part. As I stated, we are starting a journey. There is such a huge amount of work to be done by us. Collectively, if we approach it in the appropriate manner, we can, I hope, start to get things done and make society more inclusive for Travellers.

7:25 pm

Photo of Bríd SmithBríd Smith (Dublin South Central, People Before Profit Alliance)
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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.

7 o’clock

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.

7:35 pm

Photo of David StantonDavid Stanton (Cork East, Fine Gael)
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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.

7:45 pm

Photo of Caoimhghín Ó CaoláinCaoimhghín Ó Caoláin (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I thank all Deputies who have attended and participated in this special debate on the report of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice and Equality entitled Report on the Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity published in January 2017. I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, for attending and for his contribution. I thank all the Traveller organisations and their representatives for their engagement with us over the series of hearings we held in October and November last year. I extend a special word of thanks to the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission for its participation and to both Anastasia Crickley and Robbie McVeigh for their respective contributions. I wish to also recognise the presence in the Visitors' Gallery of a number of interested parties, including the Irish Traveller Movement, Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre, Minceirs Whiden, the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission and others from various Traveller representative groups. They are all most welcome in this House.

While I accept and note the acceptance of the Traveller organisations that the formal recognition of Traveller ethnicity does not confer any new rights on the Traveller community, I am very much of the view that it is the State’s responsibility to ensure that all discriminatory practices and any identifiable negative dispositions towards Traveller people are rooted out of our public services. Government, through the Office of An Taoiseach, should advise all Departments, all State agencies and local government across the board of the importance of the recognition of the needs and wishes of Traveller people. There is also a need to ethnically-proof all new legislation and regulations. I do not want to hear again the reply I received on the last occasion I asked a director of services to advise me of the range of Traveller accommodation options provided by that local authority. The reply was "we put them in houses" - as stark and blunt as that. Our delivery systems, be it through local authorities, Departments or the agencies of State, can and must do better than that.

Another area that needs to be addressed is the disposition and-or lack of awareness of Traveller culture, needs and aspirations among the Judiciary. Some judges demonstrate an appreciation of the Traveller community and its unique way of life while some show scant regard and little empathy with defendants and complainants from the Traveller community coming before them. Will the Minister for Justice and Equality take appropriate steps to urge and indeed insist on all members of the Judiciary having at the very least a broad knowledge of all equality legislation?

The media is another sector that has a serious job of work to do. The labelling of crimes carried out and-or those responsible as "Traveller related" or "of the Traveller community" smears all members of that community. This is wrong. The vast majority of the Traveller community are good, decent and law-abiding citizens who have no truck with criminality. This labelling hurts and further contributes to the personal sense of being of less worth that all too sadly is strongly in evidence within the Traveller community. This might require a re-visiting of the Broadcasting Act where there is no specific reference to Travellers.

Whatever the new national Traveller and Roma inclusion strategy may present - because we still do not know - there is and will be a need for the State to up its game in dialogue with Traveller representatives and with the wider Traveller community. I want to see, we want to see, a much more intense engagement that covers all key areas that impact on the daily life condition of Traveller people. This must include address of the key areas of accommodation, education, employment, health, media and political representation. Look at the representation in these Houses and how few, if any, of Traveller stock are represented among our number. It must also include the areas of culture and heritage. It has to be meaningful and the only litmus test of that is in the implementation of agreed measures that will impact positively on the lives of all who are proud to proclaim their Traveller ethnicity. I want all Travellers to have that pride, to be proud to be Travellers and proud to be a part of the Irish nation that properly respects them and affirms their dignity as co-equal citizens of our country.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, the Minister of State and Members for their participation here this evening. I wish the Traveller representatives and friends in the Visitors Gallery yet another happy evening following this debate.

7:55 pm

Photo of Pat GallagherPat Gallagher (Donegal, Fianna Fail)
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Like the other Members, I want to take the opportunity - because I remember the last debate we had, which was historic, and the Gallery was full - to welcome the visitors to the House who have a special interest in this debate. Fáilte romhaibh.

Question put and agreed to.

The Dáil adjourned at at 7.25 p.m. until 2 p.m. on Tuesday, 13 June 2017.