Wednesday, 17 October 2018
Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2018: Committee Stage
I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, and congratulate him on his elevation to full membership of the Cabinet. I know he has been around the Cabinet table for some time as Chief Whip.
Amendments Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, are related and may be discussed together. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I move amendment No. 1:
In page 3, line 12, to delete "traveller" and substitute "Traveller".
I welcome the newly-appointed Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, to his first week in the job, or first week in school as it were. I acknowledge the work of his predecessor, Deputy Bruton, whose support was evident in the progressing of this Bill. We have many visitors from the Traveller community here today because this is a significant event since the recognition of Traveller ethnicity.
This amendment proposes to capitalise the "t" in Traveller in this section and throughout the Bill. This is an important adjustment to a simple drafting error, a necessary and important rectification.
On 1 March 2017, the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, said in Dáil Éireann, "I now wish formally to recognise Travellers as a distinct ethnic group within the Irish nation." In that same speech, the then Taoiseach acknowledged, "Our Traveller community is an integral part of our society for over 1,000 years, with its own distinct identity – people within our people." The same sentiment was echoed by Deputy Micheál Martin, leader of Fianna Fáil, during the debate on Traveller recognition on 1 March 2017 in Dáil Éireann. He said, "As recent research and work has shown, Travellers have been a distinct part of our history for as long as written records exist."
Since March 2017, Travellers have been formally recognised by the State as a distinct ethnic group, Ireland's only indigenous ethnic group. The inclusion of Traveller culture and history in the curriculum of Irish primary and post-primary schools is a logical and necessary continuation of the State's historic recognition of Traveller ethnicity. It is surprising that Traveller culture and history is not already taught, and taught well, in our schools. Listening to the recent ill-informed, ignorant, insulting, ill-advised, and close enough to incitement, remarks of a presidential candidate about the recognition of Traveller ethnicity, mercifully at 1% in opinion polls for the presidential election, these dangerous remarks are yet another argument and reason for Traveller culture and history to be taught and taught well in our schools, for all of us, including those who would be our President, our Head of State. I know what side of history I want to be on. I know that I prefer to align with, not attack, the least powerful and most marginalised, and not side with the rich and the millionaires. I understand the presidential candidate in question, Peter Casey, made further comments this afternoon. He should consider withdrawing from the race.
Last week, Dr. Karl Kitching, an educationalist and director of equality at UCC, said at an Oireachtas briefing held on this Bill that it is difficult to overstate the historic importance of the proposed amendments to the Education Act that the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill would bring to all children in all our schools. He also spoke of the impact of this Bill on young Travellers at school with worryingly low levels of educational completion and attainment. The numbers really are striking. Secondary school completion among young female Travellers stands at 13%, as opposed to almost 70% in the general population, while only 167 Travellers have ever completed third level education out of a population of 40,000 people. Dr. Kitching said that in the school curriculum, young Travellers rarely see or hear narratives about their lives that are not paternalistic. I would go further in that Travellers rarely see or hear narratives which are not negative, inaccurate or even downright prejudiced, as the recent remarks of a presidential candidate confirm.
At the same Oireachtas briefing last week, Hannagh McGinley, a Traveller, a mother, a teacher and PhD candidate at NUIG, spoke about the fact that Traveller children's literacy and numeracy are behind those of their settled peers. She said that we cannot improve their maths and literacy if we do not improve their overall well-being and sense of self. She added that if we do not instil a sense of pride in them, then everything else is a waste of time.
The mainstreaming of Traveller culture and history in the curriculum, taught well of course, is key to this. Dr. Kitching cited relevant international precedents in curricula development in New Zealand, Australia and Ontario, Canada, and successful examples of where states have mandated the teaching of indigenous contributions, histories, cultures and perspectives across primary and secondary curricula. He concluded his presentation by underlining his support for this Bill. He said that we need to deeply recognise what Travellers have to teach and contribute to the settled majority in society because the story of Travellers in school is engaging the story of Ireland.
Dr. David Edwards, a historian at UCC, also speaking at last week's Oireachtas briefing on this Bill, emphasised this point too. He said that Travellers were among the oldest of the Irish and the last vestiges of an old, Gaelic, tribal society. He added that during the Middle Ages, the Irish were a semi-nomadic, pastoral people but that this way of life was knocked sideways by the imposition of direct English rule with its insistence on a sedentary life in the 16th and 17th centuries. He said the majority of the Irish population today is an acknowledgement of the success of the English plantation project while the Travellers resisted, stayed on the margins and managed to retain a semblance of the old way of life. In Dr. Edwards's view it would be quite easy to incorporate the story of Travellers into the history of Ireland because it is, in many ways, the story of Ireland. I am sure Dr. Edwards would be available to give a history lesson to the presidential candidate and to give him some background of which he ill-advisedly speaks.
I support this amendment to capitalise the "t" in Traveller. We also need to capitalise Travellers in general in terms of their knowledge, their understanding and their contribution. We need to acknowledge their cultural and social capital and the history they have brought to Ireland.Today I heard the comments of the presidential candidate, Mr. Peter Casey. I do not want the debate today to focus on him but his comments signified the ignorance that still exists in this society; that he felt it was okay to make those remarks. If we were talking about people of another race or ethnic origin, he would be called quite clearly a racist. We need to come out very strongly and say that his remarks were clear discrimination and racism against a very important part of our community and society.
The reason the Bill is so important, and why it is so important for me as someone who is not from the Traveller community, is that I can understand my own history because our history is Traveller history too. I teach in NUI Maynooth on a Monday. It is an Access programme which allows students to enter and diversify the teaching profession. It was the former Minister, Deputy Bruton, who introduced the funding for the PATH 1 programmes and this comes under that programme heading, which is a really important initiative.
I realise that I must have internalised something because of my lack of education around Travellers. What I internalised was a fear of talking about Travellers in a setting, or a fear of attempting to tell their story for them. This became really obvious to me in the past few weeks because I have a young Traveller girl in the class and when we are talking about oppression, poverty and lack of education, I have not once said the word "Traveller". Why am I afraid to say the word "Traveller"? This is something that should be celebrated but I am afraid to draw attention to this wonderful young girl in the classroom. That comes out of some fear inside me of what may happen if attention is turned to her and she is on her own in that classroom and nobody else understands the history, culture and importance of her presence in that room. We as teachers and politicians have missed out. Travellers not only miss out by not being able to be fully active in society, but we miss out by not having Travellers fully participate in our society. We are missing out by not having them in that space with us.
When I heard Peter Casey, I thought of the four county councils who put their weight behind him. Are those four county councils going to come out and completely reject his comments on the Traveller community? They should do so. Every Senator in this House that has connections with those local authorities should be standing up also and rejecting his comments and ask their county council to reject his claims, the discrimination and the hate cited by Peter Casey.
I hope the new Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, will be a champion of this legislation. We have recognised Traveller ethnicity and that is for nothing if we do not have policy initiatives. These policy initiatives are the least we can do in terms of making it up to the Traveller community. The State destroyed the Traveller community and its participation in a way of life. It destroyed their identity and rejected them. We forced Travellers into situations where they had to descend on cities and could not travel or carry on their identity. We forced them to reject their identity. We owe it to them to not only introduce legislation to reject any racism that comes from any person with a public platform-----
-----we need also to make sure that we push the legislation through the Oireachtas and that we initiate other Bills that allow Travellers to have a rightful place in society. Education is where it starts. It is very clear that people such as Peter Casey would benefit greatly from some education.
I welcome the Minister, Deputy McHugh, and congratulate him on his appointment. I compliment Senators Kelleher, Ruane and Grace O'Sullivan on bringing this Bill forward. It is very important legislation. I am aware that the former Minister, Deputy Bruton, had asked the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, for reports. I am aware that Bill is pending as well. The Bills will be complementary but we do not know what will come out of the NCCA Bill.
I also wish to pay tribute to the Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy Stanton, who has been doing tremendous work in terms of Traveller authenticity. I served for ten years on the Traveller consultative group when I was a member of the local authority. I had a great deal of interaction and I made good friends with people who originally came from the Traveller community, some of whom went on to college and others became role models for their community. I know of one man who through sport and education became a role model for Travellers. He left school at an early stage but through his involvement with Pavee Point and a teacher from his school days who encouraged him to return to education, he went back to education and educated himself and his wife. His children are in education and one of his children is doing the leaving certificate examination this year. Though his involvement in sport and education he has worked with many in the Traveller community who live near him and he has been a fantastic role model for them.
That really fits into what the Senators are proposing in this Bill. It is about encouragement, participation and getting involved. Education plays a significant role. I can understand the reason we give the word "Traveller" a capital letter. There is so much heritage and culture associated with Travellers and that was very much to the fore. The Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, was in Limerick recently on the day a report was being launched on the culture and background of Travellers. It was a fantastic day. There were more than 200 people there, though not all were originally from the Traveller community but had connections to them. It was a positive report and I know that representatives from Pavee Point were there as well. It was all about inclusivity.
I welcome this Bill and support it overall. We have to work together towards furthering not only education but bringing everybody with us. It is about inclusivity as well.
I welcome the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy McHugh, to the Chamber. I join my colleagues in wishing him well and the very best of luck in his new role. Education and skills in an enormously important brief and has a significant impact on the shape of our society and the values we hold.
I see the Bill as a clear recognition of that fact. I assure the Acting Chairman that as we are on Committee Stage, I will speak only on the amendment which I see as very important. When the Bill was first debated in the Chamber on 11 July, I was also introducing a Bill and was not able to speak at that point. I warmly welcome the Bill and commend Senator Kelleher, fellow Senators and the team who have been involved, the individuals and civil society groups who worked so hard on it. I am so proud to support them.
I will now address amendment No. 1. As a member of the Joint Committee on Justice and Equality, I will never forget the meetings we held in 2016 where the witnesses who made presentations to the committee were people who work with and are members of the Traveller community. Those presentations were so powerful and one could hear the passion from people as to why recognition of Traveller ethnicity was so important symbolically and as a concrete step towards real equality and inclusion. I was delighted to support the call for recognition at the time and was proud to be there in March 2017 when the former Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, took the historic step of formally recognising Travellers as a distinct ethnic group in the Irish nation.
This amendment to the Bill is an extension of that spirit. It is not just about capitalising a letter "T" for drafting sake, it is about making sure that recognition is explicit in everything we do. We are stating very clearly that the Traveller community is a valued and cherished part of Irish identity. We are making the point that if we talk about Irish history and culture, then Traveller history and culture is central to it.It has been pushed to the margins and stigmatised but, through a meaningful and inclusive education system, we can change that. We can begin to transform attitudes throughout society and tackle the discrimination and racism that sadly still exist, as we have seen today. My colleague, Senator Ruane, spoke very clearly about that.
I think most about the impact this measure can have on schools and on how they welcome young members of the Traveller community. Speaking at a briefing this week, Dr. Karl Kitching from University College Cork stated Traveller young people rarely see themselves represented in the media in a positive way and, indeed, children across the country are not given the opportunity to connect with realistic and positive narratives of Travellers' lives. This is what we are trying to change. Can one imagine the difference it would make for young Travellers and their classmates if we could begin to dismantle the us-and-them mentality that has been present in our society for too long? In a real republic, the classroom should be an inclusive and a welcoming place. This is a really important step towards that. Dr. Kitching went on to refer to research from Stanford University on the knock-on effects of such a change and how it could help to tackle dropout rates and increase academic progression. As he noted, it is difficult to progress academically in a certain environment when one does not feel one belongs.
I am working with the Traveller community at present as part of a RISE Foundation programme we run every Friday. My experience of this community is mind-blowing. The women working in the group are almost warrior women. Their power and passion for their families, children and grandchildren are just unbelievable. I will never forget the excitement among them two weeks ago when there was talk of this legislation being introduced. They were coming in asking, "Oh my God, did you hear the news, did you hear the news?" The rumour that people would be talking about and teaching their culture in schools generated such excitement among them because they believed and hoped that, at last, their culture would be respected. Their culture is so important to them. It is part of their identity. We can learn from the Traveller community. We can learn so much about how powerful they are and what they have to go through living in an environment where they are subjected to what is almost racism. That is really what it is. That is why they are so strong and empowered. They really do stick together.
This legislation is a matter of tackling stigma, marginalisation and discrimination. I commend the Bill to the House. I am proud to support it and the amendments proposed by my colleague, Senator Kelleher. I really hope the Minister will support us today. I really hope, for sake of the Traveller community, that what has been outlined becomes a realistic theme for it because it would be absolutely fantastic.
This is my first public opportunity to congratulate my colleague from Donegal, Deputy McHugh, on his appointment as Minister for Education and Skills. I have known him for a long time. While we do not agree on everything, I have a lot of regard for him personally. He is a very sincere, decent person. I have no doubt that, in light of the very welcome statement of his predecessor, he will implement the legislation in the spirit in which it is intended.
Mr. Peter Casey resides on the Inishowen Peninsula, where I am from. He has been widely condemned, and rightly so, but let us not fool ourselves. He said out loud what a very significant section of public representatives in this country privately believe but do not say out loud, although some have done so in the past. A very significant number of public representatives across this country share Mr. Casey's views. Those views are ignorant and demonstrate ignorance of Irish history.
In the recent briefing organised by Senator Kelleher, an historian was present who made a number of very important points that all Irish people need to understand. They need to understand their own history. Irish Traveller culture dates back thousands of years. Travellers have continued with the nomadic ways. All our ancestors were nomadic. They lived lives aligned with cows and other livestock. They moved up to the mountains and down to the pastures at different times of the year. They moved from place to place, overseen by chieftains. That is ancient Gaelic civilisation. We are a nomadic people. Those are our Irish roots. Indeed, these roots reflect the roots of almost every civilisation in the world. The Traveller people have continued that tradition. That is what makes them a distinct ethnic group that we should value and cherish. I refer not only to their nomadic lifestyle but also to their association with Irish traditional music and Irish traditions. They maintain dearly a connection with our ancestors in a way that the rest of us no longer maintain.
To live a settled life was to embrace new ways. In Ireland, we were colonised. Increasingly over the years, those of us who settled were adapting to an English or European lifestyle and leaving behind the old ways. It is tragically ironic that the political leaders in the 1930s, 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, who presided over the new State that was apparently free from oppression of colonialism, went on to lead us to the Commission on Itinerancy, which produced one of the most appalling reports in the history of this State. It basically criminalised and demonised the Irish Traveller way of life. The political leaders to whom I refer would actually have regarded themselves as nationalists. As I said at the briefing, they would have championed the O'Neills, O'Donnells and the ancient Gaelic civilisation, and they would have sung songs about these. They would have told the tragic story of the flight of the earls from Lough Swilly, which is in my county and that of the Minister, Deputy McHugh, and the loss of the earls' civilisation. They were criminalising the very people who adhered to the old ways of Gaelic times. That is the reality of our history. That is why this Bill is so important. It is actually a beautiful story. It is a tragic story but it is a story with which we need to reconnect. By doing that, we give true value to Travellers' lives, particularly those of Traveller children across this island.
I yearn for the truth to be told in our schools. I yearn for our children to be told the true story of Irish Traveller people so they may love and embrace the culture Travellers held on to dearly in addition to their own history, truth and story. By doing so, we could end the horror Traveller children have faced. Traveller children have grown up with being bullied and called knackers, tinkers and dirt throughout the decades. Adults, privately in their own so-called polite society, have held conversations reflecting such thinking. What Peter Casey did in his ignorance was say out loud what many believe privately. That is the truth; let us not deny it. That is why this Bill is so important. The day of the recognition of ethnicity was an amazing and a powerful day. The people behind me fought long for it. I refer to the activists and leaders of the Irish Traveller community. The steps taken will not be enough, however, unless we continue to reverse the decades of ignorance. If we can teach our children the truth of our history and celebrate the Irish Traveller tradition and Travellers' immense and true contribution to our island, then all Traveller children can in ten or 20 years be truly proud of who they are, where they come from and how they held on to the old ways - the honourable ways of our people. Most of them are proud already.I thank Senator Kelleher and the Minister, Deputy McHugh. I have no doubt he will uphold the statement of his predecessor as Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Bruton, and implement this legislation to make sure history is taught in our schools. I refer to reversing all the years of ignorance and nonsense so that in future generations we will not have another Peter Casey, or some other politician, with these private views, and we will see the light instead of darkness.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach-Ghníomhach. Ba mhaith liom fáilte mhór a chur roimh an Aire, an Teachta McHugh go dtí an Teach seo inniu. Ba mhaith liom comhghairdeas a ghabháil leis as an bpost nua atá aige freisin. I welcome the Minister to the House and congratulate him on his appointment. It is good to see someone promoted from a Border county and particularly someone from my own native county of Donegal. I sincerely wish him well. I also extend a warm welcome to the people in the Gallery. They are very welcome to this discussion on this important issue. I also congratulate Senator Kelleher, and her colleagues, on bringing forward this legislation. It is disappointing that it has to be done but it is necessary. I compliment them on this.
From a Fianna Fáil perspective, we fully support the Bill, as we did on Second Stage. We look forward to the Bill travelling swiftly through the Houses. I have no doubt that the Minister, Deputy McHugh, will follow in his predecessor's footsteps by ensuring this legislation passes in both Houses without delay. It is sad that we have to bring this forward. I note the comments of my colleague, Senator Mac Lochlainn, on the remarks made by one of the presidential candidates this afternoon. I hope the picture is not as bleak as he has painted it. The people will have the opportunity and time to make their own decision in that regard. I am confident they will do the right thing.
When we talk about any section of our society, it is important that every child, regardless of his or her background or history, should have an equal opportunity to achieve all he or she wants and all he or she is capable of in life. By bringing this Bill forward and, as Senator Mac Lochlainn outlined, by creating a platform where people can educate themselves about the history of the Traveller movement, perhaps then there might be better understanding of their journey and what they had to undertake to get this far. Much has been said by my colleagues in the House on this issue and I will not repeat all that has been said. We, in Fianna Fáil, fully support this Bill. It is unusual, if I can use that term, to bring in legislation to facilitate this. The National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, would normally facilitate this goal, as the previous speaker mentioned. Either way, however, that is a technicality and the main thing is that we all speak with one voice on this issue. We all want to see this legislation brought through as quickly as possible so that the comments Senator Mac Lochlainn referred to will be very much in the past.
I am delighted to welcome the Minister, Deputy McHugh, to the Upper House. I wish him the very best. He will, hopefully, have plenty of time to put his feet under the desk and get to grips with a really important brief in the Department of Education and Skills. I thank Senator Kelleher for having the drive, energy and guts to push on with this and to be able to involve others and get support across the House. I welcome everyone in the Gallery. Education and prejudice, it is easy. Senator Mac Lochlainn put his finger on something very pertinent here. Many people, and I cannot say I am not one of them or have not been one of them - we need to be honest about this - carry easy prejudice and at times we all do. People hold views and it is important to challenge them, but to challenge respectfully. Education is a powerful tool, as is the symbolism of this Bill. We know the power of symbolism on this island for good and ill. This Bill is a symbol and from it will come discourse, learning and sharing about identity, background and the contributions people can make.
I was working in a polling station back in the early 1980s when we had a slew of elections. I was somewhere on the northside of Dublin, in Coolock or that area. This woman arrived into the door, stood there foursquare and asked "Where do I vote for Charlie Haughey as he got me my tigín?". She was a Traveller woman and she could not write but she was doing something other people would not have got out of bed to do that morning. She was coming to vote. She understood the political process and the importance of it and that there was a value in it. I said to myself "I hope she is not coming to my table". We were not allowed to coach people. The big problem was Cathal Ó hEachaidh was not a candidate in that constituency, so how was I going to square that one? We had a Coolock solution to a Coolock problem and the woman was satisfied she got to vote for candidates that would have been her preference.
Somebody with that strength of purpose and that strength in herself did not give a damn. She was there to vote, she had a preference and she wanted to share it. I have never forgotten the power of that moment that morning. I suppose the woman had never been to a school. I refer to not just going to school but being in school as an equal.
The point I want to make is about prejudice. People will point to all sorts of things that Travellers do - crime, this, that and the other. We all do crime, this, that and the other. It is an issue in any society. We all have to face up that. It is not true to say all people do that or a class of people do that. There is a more benign way to talk about that. I have been involved in the area of disability for 40 years. People used to say that disabled people cannot do this and cannot do that. That was a prejudice that has had to be ground down and filed away slowly. This Bill is a new file or rasp to slowly, day by day, year by year, file away the roots of prejudice.
I have previously mentioned and spoken about the Nazis. They made 300,000 disabled people, of whom we know, disappear. They made countless thousands of people, who were nomadic travellers and gypsies, disappear. All that was be done for one simple reason. Strip people of their dignity and basic humanity and one can do whatever the hell one likes with them the next day. It took the Nazis a decade. They had to bring in the Nuremberg Laws to strip the humanity and dignity from people of the Jewish faith. They did not have to do that for people who were homosexual, travellers, gypsies or disabled.
There is something really big at play here. I do not say that in a negative way but in a positive way. This legislation is gold dust. It can go right to the heart of supporting children and families from the Traveller community and the wider community.Of course, there is prejudice but we must try to check ourselves on a daily basis and not denigrate groups of people.
I want to thank my parents. I remember Travellers coming to our door while we were having dinner and my parents inviting them in. Their attitude meant that I did not see a difference between us and Travellers. I remember an elderly farmer who lived near us and dealt in ponies and so on. On one occasion when returning from making hay we passed a Traveller camp. He knew the Travellers and we went in. That was the first time I sat around a campfire. I was only a young boy and found it very exciting. He chatted to them and they chatted to him. I am grateful to have had those two experiences because I could have had two very different ones which might have set me on a different course. I will not suggest what such experiences might have been as all present know to what I refer.
This is a powerful issue. We should not underestimate the life and death value of celebrating people and their dignity and helping to heal the intergenerational wounds that a group of people carry in their hearts and which can be so easily opened by a simple remark on the street or in public.
I thank Senator Kelleher for bringing forward the Bill. I wish the Minister every success. It is wonderful to see the Gallery full of people who have a great stake in this issue and the future of what should be a true republic for everybody.
Gabhaim buíochas don Aire as a bheith linn agus cosúil le achan duine eile guím comhghairdeas leis as an bpost nua. Go n-éirí go geal leis ann. I welcome the Minister and, like other Senators, I congratulate him on his appointment.
I commend Senator Kelleher on the Bill before us on Committee Stage this evening. As all Members know, she is a strong champion of and advocate for the marginalised, disenfranchised and those who in many instances have been forced onto the fringes of our society. I stated last week on Second Stage of the Mental Health (Capacity To Consent To Treatment) Bill brought forward by Senator Devine that it and legislation such as this Bill prove what an active, experienced, committed and passionate Seanad with Members of the calibre of Senator Kelleher can do. The Bill appears to have the support it will need. This Chamber is a great platform for initiating and contributing to the necessary debates which must happen in the public arena.
As other Members have mentioned, events in the past 24 hours prove that when prejudice, nastiness and racism raise their heads in the public forum we must face them down, challenge them and ultimately stamp them out. On the side of St. Patrick's school on the Antrim Road in Belfast there used to be a quote which I think might be from William Butler Yeats: "Education is not the filling of a pail, but the lighting of a fire". A Bill such as this has the capacity to do just that. Although we rightly recognise and appreciate the significance of the Government's recognition of Traveller ethnicity, very often in this House the Minister in his various guises will hear Senators stating that such recognition is all well and good but there being a need to resource it. This Bill seeks to affirm that expression by Government in a practical way and, while acknowledging that the statement of the Taoiseach was good, positive and welcome, asks what we are going to do about it. How will we realise that vision and expression in a practical and tangible way in Irish society?
My experiences are somewhat different from those of Senator Dolan. When I was a young boy in Belfast there was a Traveller site on East Bridge Street, close to my home, and another on the Glen Road near where I went to school on Bóthar Seoighe. There was a site at the Monagh bypass, close to where my grandmother lived in Ballymurphy. None of those sites remains. Although we have come some way on this issue at a political level and perhaps more so at community and grassroots level, and although it is possible that we have fallen behind slightly, we certainly have a significant distance to go to recognise and address it fully. While I do not want to sound patronising, we have a political responsibility to address the reasons which were far more eloquently expressed by Senators such as Senator Mac Lochlainn for the Traveller community having been pushed to the fringes of our society through ignorance, prejudice, hatred and, worse again, as mentioned by Senator Mac Lochlainn, the former institutional policy of demonising our Traveller people. The Bill can form a significant part of that attempt. Let us take this opportunity. It is to be hoped that the implementation and adoption of the Bill will go some way towards bringing a positive representation and reflection of Traveller culture and history to our schools, schoolchildren and students. It is crucial that we recognise that. Listening to the remarks of Senator Mac Lochlainn was an education for me in terms of a greater understanding of Traveller culture.
Along with appreciating the cultural practices, historical legacy and so on of the Traveller community, we must look at, understand, embrace, cherish and support the Traveller community that exists within our society and what they continue to bring to our lives, whether at community or political level. I have no doubt that is central to Senator Kelleher's intention in the legislation. It is to be hoped that there can be increased Traveller involvement in politics; perhaps we will have a Traveller Senator. The Government could affirm its intentions in this area by the Taoiseach appointing a Traveller to the Seanad. We need to understand, support, develop and invest in the Traveller people and their needs and requirements in 2018.
I do not wish to finish on a negative point. When I am blowing my top and flying off the handle, Mr. Jim Gibney who works in my office says to me, "Do not curse the dark; light a candle." This Bill seeks to light a candle, but I will curse the dark when Travellers suffer not because of ignorance but rather hatred or prejudice. While Senator Mac Lochlainn outlined the negative and shameful aspects of our history and other speakers probably did likewise before I entered the Chamber, we have a very proud history of facing down that kind of extreme prejudice. No matter where it emanates from or where we are, we should continue to challenge such prejudice. I will allow Senator Kelleher to light the candle and I will curse the dark.
It is good to be back in the Seanad, of which I was previously a member for almost five years. During my time in the Seanad I was afforded many opportunities to discuss various issues and it was always a pleasure to be here. I am particularly delighted to be here today on this issue.
I thank Senator Kelleher for bringing forward the Bill. I will support its passage through Committee Stage, mindful that following receipt of the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA, report further amendments may be necessary.
Having listened to the contributions today, I think there is something more powerful going on in terms of what this Bill seeks to achieve. Deputy Gallagher spoke about the precedent and mechanics of introducing primary legislation to bring about curriculum change. This Bill is more a statement of intent. The timing of it is excellent in terms of the day that it is in it. When listening to the radio this morning I heard of the statements made by Mr. Peter Casey, with which I disagree, and it brought me back to 1989 when I was studying sociology in Maynooth University, my alma mater and Senator Ruane's current place of work and to the work of Mícheál Mac Gréil's, Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland. He was the champion at a time when prejudice was rife within this country. He conducted analytical research in this area, which I am sure many people have taken the opportunity to read. On listening to the discussion on radio this morning, Mícheál Mac Gréil came to mind and I reflected on just how far we have come. As a glass half full politician, I am of the opinion that we have come a long way. During my time as a member of Donegal County Council I participated in the Traveller Consultative Forum and as a youth I worked with settled Travellers. At that time, we were acting as leaders for the Traveller community. There are now many within the Traveller community that have obtained bachelor's and masters degrees and are now leading their own communities. As I said, much progress has been made.
I believe that what Senator Kelleher is trying to do by way of this Bill is an acknowledgement of Traveller ethnicity since 2017. I am happy to work with her and this House in this regard. Following receipt of the NCCA report in four months' time I will work with Senator Kelleher on it. I note the Senator has also met the NCCA and as such she will be aware that it is conducting research on the place of Traveller culture and history in existing curriculum, the current intercultural education guidelines and other resources for schools in regard to the Traveller community and the opportunities to teach Traveller history and culture and how it is incorporated into existing curricular subjects. As pointed out by Senator Byrne, the Minister of State, Deputy Stanton, is also doing work in this area. There is a broad spectrum of work under way. All the contributions made today were interesting. One of the most beautiful Irish words which I learned in the last couple of years is "oidreacht", which means both heritage and legacy. We are duty bound to promote all of our heritage and I will supportive of that endeavour.
Senator Ruane spoke about the cultural aspects of the Traveller community. Senator Mac Lochlainn will be aware of the wonderful piece of art at Letterkenny fire station, which was commissioned and delivered by members of the Traveller community in a workshop. If Senators are ever in Letterkenny they should go to the fire station to see it. I acknowledge that Senator Mac Lochlainn is also a strong advocate of the rights of the Traveller community and that he too spoke about the leadership issue. He will be aware of the great work that is ongoing in our county. The powerful leadership being provided by women was referenced in the context of the resilience of the Traveller community.
Senator Gallagher spoke about equality of opportunity. Following my engagement with the Taoiseach, Deputy Varadkar, on Friday night I expected the first question from the media would be what is my vision for education, which I knew I would have only approximately six seconds to answer. My vision for education was articulated by a number of Senators today, including Senator Dolan. I want to create an environment where everybody can realise their potential in the education system, including members of the Traveller community. I will work to ensure that every person has the opportunity to realise their full potential.
Senator Ó Donnghaile spoke about the link between legacy and heritage and what we need to do in real time to support communities, of which I am conscious. The Department of Education and Skills has a role in the Creative Ireland programme, in which the Department of Culture, Heritage and the Gaeltacht is also involved. There may be provisions relative to this area within that programme on which both Departments can work together.
Senator Dolan spoke about dignity. He is correct that if one strips people of their dignity one strips them of their freedom. St. Columbanus, who he left Bangor, County Down, to go to Rome once said, "If you take away liberty, you take away dignity". He never made it to Rome but he did get to Bobbio in Italy. When I get to visit Rome, I will definitely go to St. Peter's Basilica to see the mosaic on which his quotation is inscribed. The dignity aspect is important and I am very conscious of it.
Earlier, I was at the Department of Education and Skills in Marlborough Street, where I met my officials and staff for the first time. My new brief is a fairly wide one. My head is about to explode with all of the information I was given this morning. By way of background, I am a former secondary school teacher and I previously worked in the community with members of the Traveller community. I am happy to come to the Seanad on aspects of education, time permitting. As we all know, education is what is left when everything else is forgotten. I am happy to work with Senators on education matters.
I thank the Minister for being here. I am delighted that his first day as Minister for Education and Skills is an interesting one. As a fellow community and youth worker in the past we have much in common already. The Minister spoke about the concerns raised by Senator Gallagher regarding the potential politicisation of the curriculum suggested in this Bill. I took on board these points when previously made inside and outside of this House and I received advice in this regard from Mr. James Kane, barrister, who helped with the drafting of the Bill. As the Minister mentioned that he may be bringing forth amendments on Report Stage, it might be useful if I share that advice with him.
The Bill does not envisage that the Minister would prescribe the syllabus in a vacuum. Under the Bill, as currently drafted, the Minister would take advice from only entities that he or she feels necessary, including parents' organisations and the NCCA, which the Minister's predecessor has already asked to do some work on this. As mentioned by the Minister I have met the NCCA and that work is already in train. The position envisaged by the Bill, as currently drafted, is clearly not that the curriculum would reflect a Minister's personal agenda or personal beliefs.Obviously none of us would wish that to happen. What I suggest through this Bill does not contravene that convention.
The Minister's role in this process does not render the process politicised. Rather, it ensures there is a person who is responsible and accountable for the content of the syllabus of recognised schools. This Bill is fully consistent with the existing state of affairs where the Minister prescribes the content of the syllabus of recognised schools. In that regard, as things stand currently in the Education Act 1998, the following provisions show that the role of the NCCA is advisory in nature only and that the Minister is responsible for prescribing the syllabus. Section 41(1) of the Education Act 1998 states: "The object of the Council shall be to advise the Minister on matters relating to - (a) the curriculum for early childhood education, primary and post-primary schools," and section 41(2) of the Act states: " ... it shall be a function of the Council: (a) from time to time to review the curriculum, or any part of the curriculum, for schools and the syllabuses taught and to advise the Minister;". Section 30(1) of the 1998 Act provides that: “The Minister may, from time to time, following such consultation with patrons of schools, national associations of parents, recognised school management organisations and recognised trade unions and staff associations representing teachers, as the Minister considers appropriate, prescribe the curriculum for recognised schools, namely - (a) the subjects to be offered in recognised schools, (b) the syllabus of each subject". Section 30(3) of the 1998 Act contains an express power for the Minister to “consult with the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment and such other persons or bodies of persons as the Minister considers appropriate on any matter relating to the curriculum for recognised schools.”
As appears from the provisions just mentioned, any amendment to this Bill that proposes that the Minister does not prescribe the curriculum is, in fact, a deviation from the present position as set out in the Education Act 1998. It does not appear to be justifiable to have one approach for the current curriculum, which the Minister prescribes in consultation with other bodies, and a different approach for Traveller culture and history. If the Minister is not to prescribe the syllabus, the question arises as to who is responsible for prescribing the content. The Bill would be toothless without stipulating that a particular person or entity is responsible for making this change to the syllabus.
In case there is any argument of floodgates whereby it is feared that other people, or groups, might want to initiate Bills to reflect further changes to the syllabus to reflect their own culture and history, a number of points can be made. Travellers are an ethnic minority and ,therefore, specific considerations arise from this. It should also be noted that there are numerous EU recommendations in existence dealing specifically with Traveller education. Any future Bill would have to be considered and debated on its merits in the normal way and it may well be found that the curriculum is lacking in other areas and requires amendments. If that turns out to be the case, so be it. This is no reason to hold back on this Bill. It is inconsistent with the provisions of Article 42(1) and 42(2) of the Constitution for the Oireachtas to foreclose on, or to express hostility towards, parental choice with respect to the education that their children receive. The Oireachtas must, if it is to act consistently with Article 42, remain open to the voice of parents in articulating important changes to the curriculum. Accordingly, the Bill should not be attacked on the basis of a floodgates argument. I hope this addresses some of the concerns voiced in this House today, or other concerns that might arise from the amendments. The barrister whose advice I quoted is available to meet with the Minister and his officials while we wait for the NCCA's approach, which I have been promised will be delivered by the end of March.
On Report Stage I may wish to introduce an amendment around a timeframe for the Bill. Senators will be glad to hear that I will not give a big speech on it. I am concerned that there have been significant policy time lags on Government commitments for the introduction of Traveller culture and history. I may introduce that on Report Stage.