Wednesday, October 17, 2018

Traveller Ethnicity and their contribution to Irish Society

March 1st last year witnessed the formal recognition by the government and the Dáil of the ethnicity of Travellers. It came after a long and difficult campaign and those of us who were part of that knew that recognition was only one step - albeit an important step - in challenging discrimination and achieving equality for Travellers. 
For those who don't accept Traveller ethnicity I publish again my remarks in the Dáil on that important occasion.
Traveller Ethnicity
Tá mé fíor-bhuíoch as an deis labhairt ar an ábhar tábhachtach anocht. Is lá agus oíche fíor-thábhachtach don Lucht Taistil é. Cuirim fáilte roimh na grúpaí anseo, na daoine sa Gallery and elsewhere in Leinster House and I extend solidarity to all Travellers on this historic day. It is their day, and a momentous step forward for equality.
Some are outside and I am sure we all regret that. Perhaps, if the Taoiseach's schedule allows, he could address them. I understand there are 70 members of the Traveller community in Buswells and some of us could go and give them some sense of what has happened here this evening.
On behalf of Sinn Féin, I very much welcome this and thank the Taoiseach for recognising Traveller ethnicity. I pay tribute, in particular, to those who have advocated on behalf of the Traveller community, from within the Traveller community itself but also those from the settled community, who have done so much to advance this cause. Some have done so for decades, for which we are thankful to them.
We need to be mindful also of those who have suffered because they were Travellers. I particularly remember the Lynch, Connors and Gilbert families who died in Glenamuck.
I pay tribute to the women of the Traveller community. Like their sisters in disadvantaged sections of the settled community, the women of the Traveller community have been the great heroines and champions who have kept their families going through thick and thin. I acknowledge the work of Minister of State at the Department of Justice and Equality, Deputy David Stanton. Maith thú, a Aire Stáit Stanton. Táimid buíoch duitse feasta.
I commend also the work of the justice committees, both the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, chaired by Deputy Stanton, in the previous Dáil which adopted a report by Senator Pádraig Mac Lochlainn recommending the recognition of Traveller ethnicity, and also the current committee, chaired by Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin.
Today's decision to recognise Traveller ethnicity is the right thing to do. The Taoiseach's statement finally brings the Irish State into line with existing recognition already in place in the North, as well as in England, Scotland and Wales. The distinct culture, traditions and ethnicity of the Traveller community need to be cherished and valued.
One of the main characteristics of Irish Travellers is their nomadic lifestyle. This was particularly the case until the 1950s and 1960s. Until then, many earned a living from repairing and making household utensils which were usually made from tin. The rapid pace of new technologies, the use of plastic and other cheap goods brought about major changes in Travellers' lifestyles.
The Commission on Itinerancy report of 1963 also had a huge bearing on the lives of Travellers in this State. The report established policy on Travellers for the following 20 years. It is one of the most shameful reports in the history of the State. If Teachtaí want an insight into its agenda or views, they need only look at the terms of reference for the commission. These were: (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 [and] to promote their absorption into the general community. These terms were dripping in racism and elitism. They were ignorant, stupid and ill-informed.
It is little wonder, after decades of discrimination and demonisation, there is a sense of demoralisation, low self-worth and inferiority among some in the Travelling community. The prejudice and discrimination many Travellers face has worsened in recent years. We need only look to the opposition to a temporary halting site for those bereaved by the fire in late 2015, for example, or the treatment of Travellers in my own constituency who were evicted from a halting site in Dundalk this time last year.
There is that sense of a much wider institutional discrimination faced by members of the Traveller community in areas such as health and education provision. That has been a hallmark of the relationship between settled people and Travellers. That relationship has been blighted by suspicion, resentment and animosity based on false perceptions and fears. A lot of it is based on ignorance.
Ignorance breeds fear. The only cure for ignorance is knowledge and that comes from education and engagement. The Proclamation of 1916 should be the mission statement of a modern Irish republic. It addresses itself to Irishmen and Irishwomen. It does not state, "unless one is a member of the Traveller community".
All of us have rights. These include the right to receive equal service in shops and pubs, the right to access education, health services and work, and the right to accommodation, on the basis of equality. Every Irish citizen should enjoy the rights and entitlements that come with that citizenship. Regrettably, this has not been the case for our Traveller brothers and sisters.
The Traveller child born today faces a life in which he or she will be part of the most socially disadvantaged group in Irish society. That child will leave school earlier, have little prospect of work, will suffer ill-health and poverty, and will die younger. He or she will endure substandard living conditions. Many will have no access to basic facilities such as sanitation, water and electricity. They will face discrimination in employment and most will never work. Cutbacks in education, health and other services have impacted severely on the Traveller community. The suicide rate for Traveller women is six times that of the settled community. It is seven times higher for Traveller men. At the root of all these problems are the unacceptable levels of prejudice, discrimination and social exclusion experienced by Travellers at institutional and other levels. That has to be combatted, and it can be.
Alongside tonight's recognition of Traveller ethnicity, there needs to be a process established to improve relations between the settled and Traveller communities. 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, of government, local authorities, health and education sectors, and representatives of media organisations to plan a way ahead. I repeat that call this evening. Such a forum could discuss openly, and in detail, how discrimination and prejudice against Travellers can be confronted, including prejudicial attitudes facilitated by the actions of some politicians and media outlets.
Despite those decades of discrimination, the Traveller community are a proud people. They are a resilient people. I acknowledge, in particular, the significant contribution and influence on Irish traditional music by Irish Traveller families, particularly uilleann pipers and fiddlers.
In their excellent book, Free Spirits, Tommy Fagan and Oliver O’Connell make the point that "Ireland and Irish culture is richer because of the music and songs of the Traveller community". They say, "wherever Irish music is played, wherever Irish songs are sung, wherever Irish stories are told, and wherever Irish dances are performed the influences of the Dorans, the Keenans, the Fureys, the Dunnes, the Dohertys and other great Traveller and musical families will be very much in evidence". We can add to that Maggie Barry and the Pecker Dunne.

Christy Moore has consistently paid a tribute to John Reilly, who kept alive songs like "Well Below the Valley", which have been sung for 200 years. That is the Traveller community I know - creative, strong, resilient and generous.

In the summer of 1969, when sectarian evictions were incited in the North in reaction to the demands of the civil rights movement, I was one of a small group of activists who helped families to move their belongings from their homes. It should be noted that it was people from the Traveller community in Belfast who provided and drove the lorries, at great risk to themselves, which took these families out of danger.

Among Travellers today there is an articulate grassroots leadership well able to voice Traveller issues and who have consistently raised their community's awareness of their rights. Some of them are in the Visitor’s Gallery. I know they are up for the challenge of ensuring that all of us together resolve lingering issues and ensure our society embraces the differences that make up the diversity and uniqueness of our the people of our island.

Through strong and resolute leadership like that which was shown tonight and co-operation at all levels in political and civic society, and in our settled and Traveller communities, we can ensure a society that underpins equality for every citizen.

This debate is a major step in the right direction. We need to keep moving in that direction. It is a very historic moment for the 40,000 members of the Traveller community. It is an important symbolic acknowledgement but it must also pave the way for real, practical change. Action must follow ethnicity.

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