Barriers to Justice for Irish Travellers

Michael O’Flaherty
FRA Director Michael O'Flaherty delivers a speech at the Traveller Equality & Justice Project's 'Barriers to Justice for Irish Travellers' report launch event on 29 April in Cork.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Thank you very much for extending the invitation, I am very happy to be here today.

I would like to begin with a memory of when I was a child. I grew up in Galway. Right across the road from our house was a pub where Travellers would sometimes go.

I remember one particular night, when I was woken up in the middle of the night by a ferocious noise coming from the street. I looked out of the window and saw the owner of the pub with a great big stick, beating a Traveller man. It was relentless with no regard for the guy on the ground.

I start by telling you this story because, even if the act was extreme, there was some appalling quality of normality about it. A normality which meant that it never occurred to me or anybody at my house to call the guards. A normality that did not even see us go out of our house to stop the attack. It is an absolutely shocking memory of an embedded racism, discrimination and exclusion which was completely normalised in society.

I really do not think that he would get away with it today. But nevertheless, we still have such a long way to go – from that moment and that attitude. It may be a number of decades since it happened, but there is no fast progress.

We are constantly assessing the situation for Travellers and Roma across the EU. Let me give you some European figures, which are actually not yet published. This is recent data from the Fundamental Rights Agency, which concentrates predominantly on the situation of Roma. But it also captures the experience of Travellers in some countries.

We asked about the experience of violence and what number of the respondents had experienced physical violence in the past year. On average 10% had experienced some physical violence just in the last 12 months. When we asked about harassment that did not rise to the level of physical violence, 17% had experienced harassment.

Turning to discrimination as an EU-wide average, 25% of respondents, Roma and Travellers, had experienced an act of discrimination in the past year. Then, this is really shocking, the worst figure we have ever had: when we asked how many of the acts of discrimination or violence had been reported to the authorities in this recent evidence that we, as I say, have not yet published, the figure was 5%. That is lower than we have ever seen before.

Turning then away from discrimination and violence to the socio-economic situation of the people surveyed and looking at the issue of poverty, we are able to say with authority that 80% of the people surveyed, representative of the communities in their countries, are at risk of poverty. This is something like six times the average of people from the general population. That is already bad, but then if you look at the extreme material deprivation, 40%, nearly half. So it goes from the at-risk-of-poverty to insufferable poverty, nearly half. Fifty percent of the people surveyed live in unacceptable accommodation. What does this mean in practice? 20% of the people surveyed say they do not have running water. Remember, this was done last year in the middle of Covid. If ever we saw the need for running water, we saw it then, but it is an enormous number of people without access.

Let me turn to Ireland where we have, from our own evidence, very precise data with regard to the situation. Here, it is for Travellers; we have not surveyed Roma in Ireland because the numbers are too small to protect anonymity which is essential for these surveys.

So, speaking to the situation of Travellers: the first thing to say is Ireland is no outlier. I gave you shocking figures just now and we see no evidence to suggest that things are particularly better in the Irish Traveller experience, and in fact, in a number of contexts, things are notably worse. In Ireland, when we asked about an experience of discrimination in the past year, 65% of respondents said that they had experienced discrimination. A dramatically higher figure than the EU one.

When we asked about the experience of police profiling, in other words: ‘did you perceive that the last time you were stopped by the guards that it was in a context of some form of ethnic profiling?’ 14% of the respondents said yes – this was their perception. In fact, and again, it is a well-known figure generated from our evidence, but still a very worrying one: Traveller community in Ireland has the second lowest level of trust in the police of anywhere in Europe on the part of Roma/ Traveller communities.

Fortunately, there are also a few positive points in Ireland. The first is that there is a high awareness within the Irish Traveller community of the existence of anti-discrimination protections in law, as well as bodies you can go to to complain.

The level of awareness of the protections in law stands at 58%; that is good compared to the European averages, as is the awareness of where you can go to complain, at 50%. 

Earlier, I gave you the shocking figure of an EU average 5% making complaints where they have had a bad experience. Well, in Ireland it is notably better: 28%, nearly 30%. So one in three incidents apparently get reported here. It is still not high enough, but it is encouraging.

There are two other Irish strengths to acknowledge. The first of these is the good fortune that there is such an effective civil society working with the Traveller community. It is notable. I spend a lot of my time travelling around Europe meeting with Roma communities, and I see a strength and a quality and an energy in Irish civil society, which is a good practice to be copied elsewhere.

I have had the privilege of getting to know Pavee Point quite well over recent years, and that is an exemplar of how civil society can make an impact. I want to acknowledge today also their success in being recently awarded the Max van der Stoel award of the Council of Europe.

The second impressive dimension in Ireland is the commitment of academic efforts in support. Again, until recently, the academic work I was most familiar with, was that being undertaken at Maynooth University. But I have to acknowledge the UCC initiatives. I pay tribute to the Traveller Equality and Justice Project that is hosting us today. 

I learnt a lot about what is happening in the project and, it is impressive in terms of academic rigor and academic energy being directed in support of critical, necessary social change.

Evidence of the quality of the work that is being done here in UCC around these issues is the report that is being launched today.

The Barriers to Justice report is valuable.

It uses the same research model that FRA uses. We call it the socio-legal model. We look at how law is applied in practice to deliver the social good that it is intended to achieve. That is what this report does.

You listened hard to voices from within the Traveller community to see how Irish equality legislation law is actually working in practice. As a result you delivered valuable results. You also showed respect for the community with whom you are working. Allowing us to listen to the Traveller voices through this report has been a privilege. I express deep appreciation for the report and congratulate the authors.

Now looking to the future. I would like to start by acknowledging interesting recent initiatives in Ireland that are full of potential.

The first is the announcement of the development of the National Equality Data Strategy. It is absolutely critical. Right across Europe, the big impediment to making serious policy progress is primarily about gaps in data. You just do not know what is going on, and because we do not know what is going on in a real, precise, focused way, we cannot fix problems. There has been an issue of data in this country for years, so all appreciation to Minister O’Gorman, who announced this strategy. Let us watch it and support its rollout.

The second, no less important initiative is the publication of the Criminal Justice Hate Crime Bill. We are not there yet, but again, there is a legislative pathway to meaningful hate crime law, which is needed in many settings, including to combat hate crime against Travellers. Again, that is a legislative initiative we have to watch carefully as it reaches its final stages.

An interesting development is another bill, the Traveller Culture and History and Education Bill introduced in 2018. It would require a celebration and a teaching of Traveller culture in schools. While I understand that within the Traveller community there are mixed views about whether it is the best way to go forward, I think it is not a bad idea. Given the particular history of this country, I think it is valuable to acknowledge that there is a community regarding which we should commit in law to embedding a celebration of identity and culture in our schools.

So then building on the problems, the achievements, interesting initiatives, a few final suggestions as we go forward. I could recommend 100, but I reduced it to six.

The first thing is that going forward has to be on the basis of a joined up, integrated, national action plan. We need to know where we are going. We need a roadmap generated by government that draws together all the threads.

We did have a strategy here in Ireland, which is now concluded. I know that work is being done to develop a new strategy, and again, I emphasise how very important it is to get that right. This new strategy becomes all the more compelling because it is in the context of an EU expectation. The EU itself has developed its own EU strategic framework, which was adopted in 2020, that calls on all EU Member States to honour a deadline of this year to develop new Roma/ Traveller strategies.

The second thing is that human rights are not an add-on. Human rights are not the attachment, the appendix or the annex to the plan. Human rights have to be the heartbeat of the plan. What does that mean in practice?

The first thing is that it means that what you are seeking to achieve in honouring the human rights of Travellers is normative. It is required. It is duty. It is not negotiable. You do it because it is law captured in the treaties to which the country is a part, and Ireland, to its credit, is a party to all the great human rights treaties. That is the first thing about a rights-based approach. It is no longer just about juggling policy preferences. You do not have the option.

The second thing about a rights-based approach is that it has to reflect the breadth of rights. It has to be comprehensive. It has to address the totality of your lived human experience. To put it in the language of rights, it has to not only engage your socio-economic but also your civil and political situation. The human rights treaties, be they of the Council of Europe, the UN, the human rights commitments in the European Union. They all speak to the breadth of human experience. Therefore, an action plan, if it is rights-based, has to do the same.

And then the third. A rights-based approach has a vision underlying it. It is a vision of dignity and diversity. The project is about honouring human dignity, individual human dignity and individual human dignity in the fantastic breadth of our diversity. That is what a human rights respectful society would look like and that is what a rights-based action plan should aim towards.

The third of my six dimensions is that all actions must be deeply participatory of impacted groups. That means Travellers must be partners in any action plan. And so therefore, it is necessary that Travellers are partners in the design and the rollout of any initiatives. They are, after all, the rights holders.

The fourth of my six points, which draws again directly from the participation principle, is that efforts have to be local. You can have a national action planning, but you have got to deliver it locally, on the street, in the village and in the town. And you have got to come up with engagements that are appropriate to that street, that village and that town. One-size-fits-all is a guaranteed failure. That means we have got to invest resources, effort, energy, and have the patience necessary to find all these appropriate local actions and initiatives.

By the way, in passing, this reinforces the critical role of local authorities. Without a full engagement of local authorities, you cannot have success in delivering national strategies in support of the Traveller community.

My fifth point. For those of you like me who are not from the Traveller community, remember, the problem is our problem, not the Traveller community’s problem. The racist tendencies in our society are in us. Any serious effort to deal with these issues has to engage us, has to engage the general population. Those of us here who are not Travellers have to examine deep inside ourselves our own racist tendencies.

By the way, we surveyed the general population of Europe a couple of years ago across a huge range of issues around human rights, and one of the questions we asked was: ‘How many people of you would want to have a Roma or Traveller neighbour?’ When we asked that question in Ireland with regard to Travellers, 46% said no. They said, ‘No, I don't want a traveller as a neighbour’. That says something disturbing about our society.

The last of my six points is critical. It is in the spirit of the report that is being launched today. We need to find meaningful ways to deliver justice for members of the Traveller community. A human right without a remedy is an empty right. And so therefore, Traveller rights not to be discriminated against, Traveller rights not to be subjected to acts of violence in any case, including because of their identity, these rights and all the others – the right to decent housing, right to water, and the right to acceptable levels of healthcare, access to education – if we cannot enforce those, then they are empty rights.

And so, friends, I would like to finish up with another memory that is much more recent than the one I started with.

Last year, one of my colleagues was speaking to a Roma child. He asked her what was it she most missed from having to stay at home, not being able to go to school because of Covid? That little girl said to my colleague: ‘What I miss most is that they took away from me the only place where I could dream.’ That is what not being able to go to school meant to that little girl. She lost the place where she could dream.

So my wish today for the Traveller community and for all of us, is that we can find the space to be able to dream everywhere and dream together, and to dream of a future which truly delivers on the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, of a world where we are all, everybody, free and equal, in dignity and in rights.

Thank you.

See also