Check against delivery
Monday, 2 October 2017
Thank you for your kind introduction.
I would like to begin by expressing my appreciation to Mincéirs Whiden for their invitation to address you all here today, to mark the launch of a forum which was formed out of a real necessity for the Traveller community here in Limerick and throughout Ireland.
We are all aware, often painfully so, of the many real challenges facing the Traveller community today. Mental health problems are all too common, with associated very high rates of suicide in the community. Physical ill-health too is such a common feature in fact that life expectancy and infant mortality in the Traveller community compares very unfavourably with that of the general population. The alarming increase in the rate of drug use appears at times to be spiralling out of control. The unemployment rate among Travellers stands at around 84% at present.
We are also so aware of the fact that there is a real shortage of appropriate accommodation, with the resulting overcrowding on sites, and all the associated problems that brings. These are all major challenges which need to be addressed, and addressed as a priority.
The recognition of Traveller ethnicity lays a solid foundation from which to build, and it’s a very important marker in Ireland having a more inclusive society, particularly with regard to the Traveller community in Ireland, who for many decades have had their culture and their ethnicity denied from them in various ways. However, important as it is, recognition of Traveller ethnicity is not of itself going to bring about the many changes that are so badly needed in addressing those challenges facing the Traveller community in Ireland.
We need the right policies in place to help us to deal with each challenge facing the Traveller community. Resources need to be directed to where they are needed most, and implementation plans put in place to ensure that the necessary actions are progressed and executed in the shortest time necessary. This all needs to be done in a partnership between the various State’s services and the Traveller community, based on the principles of equality and respect.
As we go forward, we need to keep in mind past experiences and learn from them. For numerous reasons, including local opposition and sometimes downright prejudice, national policy was not implemented at a local level, particularly in relation to Traveller accommodation. This undermines the efforts of Government to address the issue of Traveller accommodation and also undermines the partnership approach between the Traveller community and relevant State bodies.
The Traveller accommodation issue has unfortunately not been adequately addressed at local level due to the lack of implementation. As we go forward we really need to look at how the issue of implementation is addressed, particularly in regard to Traveller accommodation. We are all aware that the Traveller accommodation issue has often been a contentious issue between Travellers and the settled community for the past five decades or more.
Plans and policies that are developed regarding Traveller accommodation will not have the desired effect unless attitudes change, and a spirit of acceptance and inclusion of the Traveller community is nurtured within the general population. We all know from history, and from more recent events, that for partnership to work, and to make progress in any challenging environment, trust needs to be developed between the people involved. It’s a long time since we heard “it takes two to tango”, but that certainly holds true here.
Mincéir Whiden is central to the development of this partnership. It brings together the voices of the Traveller community on a national level to tease out and work at addressing the issues that are impacting on all of you. It was in this regard that I became very aware of the really positive contribution Mincéir Whiden make on behalf of the communities they represent.
It is important to highlight the good work that is going on around the country with the Traveller community both at local level and national level and the work of Traveller organisations with the support of the State. Traveller Pride week is a good example of this work.
Traveller Pride week presents an opportunity to recognise and celebrate the unique ethnicity and culture of the Traveller community and to promote positive communications between both settled and Traveller communities. One of the first events that I attended as Minister was the Traveller Pride Awards last year. I was extremely impressed by what I saw and heard and by the Travellers that I met at that event. I was also delighted to attend the Traveller Pride Awards in June and meet this year’s winners to celebrate their many achievements. In the time that I have been a Minister, I have taken as many opportunities as possible to meet Travellers, to see where you are living, to listen to your concerns, to enjoy your culture and skills. This has been a very valuable and enjoyable time for me, representing you, and I have learned a lot from you.
The National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy which was launched back in June addresses issues focussed on your community’s needs and, I hope, will result in an improvement in your overall quality of life in Ireland. It is very important that the Traveller community has strong representative groups who represent the Traveller community at all levels of society and it is important to have a Traveller forum such as Mincéir Whiden which is a space where Travellers can come together to look at and discuss the various issues that are impacting on their own communities.
My Department has identified feuding as a pivotal issue that will be put centre-stage in the implementation of this Inclusion Strategy, in that the anti-social behaviour of a small minority of your community and its negative ramifications impact directly on mental health, physical health, position of women and children, employment and on accommodation issues. Design of a culturally appropriate intervention, in conjunction with Traveller representatives and relevant public sector bodies, to address this is one of the key pillars of the new Inclusion Strategy.
Another key issue which we are determined to focus on is in the area of education. There is no doubt that education is key to the future of all the youth of this country, both Traveller and settled. Unfortunately, it is a fact that only 13% of Traveller children complete second-level education compared to 92% in the settled community. This is very damaging to the futures of these children.
In order to try to change that for the better, I have set up a new sub-committee of the NTRIS Steering Group, 'Retention of Traveller and Roma children in education', made up of Traveller representative groups and State agencies. The first meeting will take place on Thursday of this week and I am hopeful that this group will identify new pilot projects which, if successful, could be replicated and multiplied nationally with a particular focus on areas with a high population of the Traveller community.
I feel that in implementing this Inclusion Strategy, it will be important to build on the wave of positivity arising for Travellers from the Taoiseach’s statement in March recognising the distinct ethnicity of the Traveller community.
Your community really has a lot of which to be proud – your culture, your heritage, your skills, your storytelling, your music, your love of family – we all need to work together and with us to ensure that the unique value of your community is protected into the future.