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Bouquets to Boulders

Policy on Travellers reflects on our decency

It is critical that the next Government have a credible and robust National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy. This will depend on political will.

The last number of months have been particularly difficult for Travellers and Traveller organisations. In October 2015 we witnessed the horrific deaths of 10 Travellers in a fire at a below-standard halting site in Carrickmines. There was a general outpouring of sympathy for the bereaved Traveller families which seemed to break through the barriers of negative stereotype.

Soon, however, we were forced to watch the bouquets turn back into boulders as the local authority failed to implement its plans to accommodate the bereaved families due to objections from local residents. This unleashed shocking levels of anti-Traveller hate speech on the airwaves and on social media. Meanwhile the families were left to live on a car-park while they buried their loved ones.

In November 2015 Traveller ethnicity was discussed in Dáil Eireann for the first time. The Government told the Dáil that Traveller ethnicity would be dealt with in their new National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy. But we had to watch the Minister for Equality, who had promised to deliver on this issue, back down. He blamed ‘focus group led’ politics.

This disappointment was followed in January this year with the spectacle of riot police evicting Travellers from a Traveller halting site in Dundalk. This was apparently for their own safety. Ministers refused to get involved in local authority operations. The Government was exposed as having no plan for Travellers and Roma.

The last Government told the United Nations that poor education outcomes for Traveller children and third-world living conditions for Traveller children would be dealt with in the new National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy. However, It succeeded in putting Traveller issues on hold, just long enough to get to the General Election.

The week before the election Travellers and Traveller organisations were involved in a round of consultations with the Department of Justice and Equality on the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy. It was ironic that outside these consultations, in the real world of General Election campaigning, Traveller issues were barely mentioned. Considerable space in print, on the broadcast media and on Social Media is readily available to decry Travellers and to blame many of the ills of society on them. However, when it comes to political discourse the space available seems to shrink.

Travellers and Traveller organisations have been engaging with the State for 30 years now. In this time there have been significant milestones. The 1995-Government-appointed Task Force on Travellers was the first to provide a comprehensive agenda of policy proposals for equality for Travellers based on a recognition of the distinct culture and identity of the Traveller community.

The 1998 Employment Equality Act and the 2000 Equal Status Act introduced, for the first time, a system of redress for people experiencing discrimination in employment and in the provision of goods and services, including Travellers. In 2010 the First All-Ireland Traveller Health Study was published which acknowledged the critical role that living conditions play in determining unacceptably-poor Traveller health levels.

What we have failed to see in the last 30 years is the implementation of policy in accommodation, health, education and employment. Many of the recommendations of the 1995 Task Force report remain to be implemented. There has been little tangible improvement in the standard of Traveller living conditions. Travellers and Roma represent a small percentage of the total population. It is not beyond our means to ensure equality and human rights for Traveller and Roma.

We need leadership that Travellers can believe in. We need Government to commit to implementing a National Traveller and Roma Strategy that:

1. Provides safe, culturally-appropriate accommodation for all Travellers and Roma.

2. Supports positive action to enable labour-market participation and employment for Travellers and Roma.

3. Reinstates and grow resources to ensure participation by and outcomes for Travellers and Roma in culturally appropriate education at all levels.

4. Implements the recommendations of the All- Ireland Traveller Health Study.

5. Recognises the distinct ethnic identity of the Traveller community and addresses the practical implications of this in policy, programmes and services.

6. Addresses deprivation among Travellers and Roma in an integrated strategy for economic equality for these communities.

7. Funds Traveller and Roma organisations to give voice to the issues faced by their communities and to participate in decision-making that affects them.

8. Promotes a campaign of public education to combat racism and to stimulate a valuing of ethnic diversity.

9. Builds capacity in the public sector to respond effectively to cultural diversity and to implement the public-sector duty to promote and implement equality and human rights.

Ronnie Fay

Ronnie Fay is Director of Pavee Point