Speech at an Event Celebrating 30 years of the Pavee Point Traveller & Roma Centre
Pavee Point Traveller & Roma Centre, Dublin, 18th November 2015
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A Dhaoine Uaisle,
Tá an-athas orm a bheith anseo libh inniu agus muid ag céiliúradh le chéile 30 bliain ónar bunaíodh Pavee Point, agus an 30 bliain atá caite ag abair agus ag labhairt ar son cearta daona an Phobail Roma agus an Lucht Siúil. Is cúis áthais dom a fheiscint an méid agaibh atá i láthair inniu agus ba mhaith liom mo bhuíochas chroíúil a ghabháil le Pavee Point as ucht an cuireadh a thug siad dom teacht chun labhairt libh.
I am delighted to be with you all here today at this special event celebrating 30 years of Pavee Point’s advocacy for Traveller and Roma human rights. It is heartening to see so many in attendance and on my own behalf I would like to express my sincere thanks to Pavee Point for the kind invitation to address you all here today.
It is appropriate as I begin my remarks today that I should take the occasion again to acknowledge the great sadness and pain being felt by so many in the Traveller community at this time, in the wake of the tragic loss of ten lives in a fire at Carrickmines in County Dublin just five weeks ago.
The impact of such an immense loss on the Gilbert, Lynch and Connors families and all those who know them is a profound one that words seem insufficient to convey. There are many very important issues arising from this tragedy for all of Irish society – and indeed some of these are for discussion later today, but I want to take this opportunity to extend again my sympathy to all those who are grieving at this time. Sabina and I will be meeting the families of the victims at Áras an Uachtaráin later this week.
As we meet to celebrate the necessity for good advocacy and good advocates, it is appropriate that we take a moment now in silence to remember those who lost their lives in such tragic circumstances.
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a n-anamacha.
Today, however, is a positive day, not only for reflection but for celebration of the movement and organisation that isPavee Point – and for all those Travellers and settled citizens who have been involved in, and supported, its work over the past thirty years. It is an occasion when we can look back at the contribution that Pavee Point has made to Irish society since its establishment, and also to give recognition to the place of the Traveller community as an essential and cherished part of the Irish nation, a part of the Irish experience that has both shared and unique elements.
Looking back over the 30 years we can see how Pavee Point has grown from its beginnings to the successful organisation it is today. Over that time Pavee Point has been instrumental in changing the lives of so many members of the Traveller community. It is also due to their determination, commitment, endurance and drive that a new generation of Traveller leaders and role models have emerged.
Pavee Point has always sought to empower members of the Traveller community by involving them in decisions which affect them. Since the advent of their early community development courses, Traveller organisations and groups have gone from strength to strength. The Community Development approach has been critical to the success of the organisation.
This approach encourages active participation, whilst fostering ownership of Traveller issues and maintaining a sharp focus on the clear identification of the issues and the best solutions for the community.
It is a testament to this model and to the organisation itself that one of its founding members, Ms Ronnie Fay, continues to be involved in the organisation 30 years on. One of the graduates from the first Community Development Program also continues to be involved in the organisation, Mr. Martin Collins. I congratulate you both on your personal contribution to Pavee Point over the last 30 years. I am certain that the organisation that exists today draws on your years of dedicated service.
We also remember as we gather to celebrate 30 years, that significant milestone, the great contribution of the late John O’Connell, founding member and former director of Pavee Point, to the Traveller community in Ireland. It is of course appropriate that John’s wife Anastasia - a good friend over many years – is here today in her capacity as chairperson of Pavee Point, and of course also as someone who, it is fair to say, has made an unmatched contribution to the rights of Travellers and the cause of combating racism in Ireland and internationally, over so many years.
30 years ago the founders of Pavee Point recognised that society was changing and the effect this was having on the Traveller community. Travellers began to move in significant numbers to urban areas. Accommodation became a huge challenge for the Traveller community as their traditional nomadic ways were becoming difficult, even impossible, and they sought suitable spaces in which to reside whilst maintaining core elements of their long-established ways of life.
A key feature of the advocacy then, and one that has underpinned all of its work since, was the strong commitment of Pavee Point to getting recognition for these issues and the position of Travellers in Irish society as matters of human rights.
The campaigns for equality and non-discrimination, for recognition of the status of Travellers as an ethnic minority, and for access to essential services, which Pavee Point and others have led since then have been grounded in a deep and profound understanding of the position of Travellers within the framework of human rights and the Irish State’s obligations to respect, protect and promote those rights.
In the past I have been part of the debate on ethnic status. I recall Dr. Joshua Castellino and I rejecting what we felt was a very inadequate research basis for denying ethnic status.
Within the framework of human rights, there has been progress over the intervening years and it is important that is recognised. Back when Pavee Point was formed, Traveller children were still segregated in Traveller schools and many Traveller children left education without completing primary school and were often illiterate. The very idea that these children could attend third level colleges was often beyond their own comprehension.
Today overt segregation in the classroom and beyond have ceased, more Traveller children are attending second level schools and young Travellers are achieving high levels of educational attainment, and increased numbers are progressing through third level education each year, but we are far from the fullest understanding of the heritage, culture and aspirations of Travellers as a people that is required. My own experiences of the institutional treatment of Travellers at local authority level were far from satisfactory.
It has often made Sabina and I not just sad, but angry at the treatment which Traveller families who had become our friends had to endure, including having to live in unsafe and even hazardous conditions.
Important achievements have been made with great impact for individuals, but they required great effort and faced significant obstacles. With thoughtful, adequate support I hope to see further change and a brighter future with many more young Travellers succeeding in education and in other areas in the coming years.
Indeed, promoting a positive view of the richness of Traveller culture has been an essential part of the work of Pavee Point. You have consistently emphasised the cultural rights of Travellers – but I also want to recognise the enormous contribution of Travellers to the cultural life of the wider Irish community, including in particular the contribution to Irish traditional music which has been greatly influenced by Traveller musicians of worldwide renown, including The Fureys and the great Pecker Dunne. At times of repression and of fundamentalism that even led to the burning of fiddles in some places, Travellers made instruments and continued a tradition so many were to enjoy at home and abroad.
It is just one of many areas where Travellers have played a leading role in our society. More recently, the contribution of Travellers to Irish international sporting success, especially in the sport of boxing, has made Irish people proud all around the world.
Whilst today is primarily a day of celebration, and there is much to celebrate in the success we see represented around us here today; we are also too challenged by depictions of the Traveller and Roma communities that are excluding, unjust and on occasion divisive.
Your communities experience high levels of prejudice and exclusion on a daily basis in Irish society and these experiences have untold consequences for these communities. Both groups have had to fight for acceptance and inclusivity within Irish society.
I want to say here, unambiguously and as clearly as I can, that discrimination and prejudice against Travellers and Roma is racism and it must be named as racism and tackled as racism.
I noted the government’s recent acknowledgement that there is an urgent need for a far-reaching and fundamental reappraisal of the position of Travellers in Irish society. My views on this matter are well-known and I hope that there is a positive outcome at the earliest opportunity, but it will require a new stance from every side. It is important to recognise that there are several perspectives involved.
Pavee Point has challenged over its three decades and continues to challenge racism and discrimination against Travellers. It champions Traveller’s right to live in a society that respects Traveller culture in terms of home, family and work life, and where all Travellers can participate effectively in society. This human rights framework which recognised diversity is challenging to society, and it is also challenging to Travellers themselves.
Pavee Point has undertaken many important projects to identify vulnerable groups or groups with special needs within the Traveller community, who may face particular obstacles to the enjoyment of their rights. Some of these obstacles might be presented at times as being based on “culture”, but as I have emphasised in other contexts, “culture”, properly understood, should never be used as cover for the denial of human rights. Women, men and children have fundamental rights that must never be delayed, not to speak of being denied in the name of culture. These rights include the right to bodily integrity, sexual orientation and freedom from violence.
Traveller women have traditionally faced particularly acute forms of marginalisation and Pavee Point were instrumental in bringing about the formation of the National Traveller Women’s Forum in 1988. Today the position of Traveller women has changed dramatically and for the better; they have a voice and are no longer defined as their grandmothers were.
The success of the primary healthcare project, which Pavee Point have been involved in since its inception, is largely due to the determination and commitment of Traveller women. In this area, the work of Pavee Point has also involved challenging harmful practices or behaviour within the Traveller community itself.
In more recent years, Pavee Point’s work with LGBT Travellers and Disabled Travellers are just two examples of this principle of equality in practice.
I think it is also important today to acknowledge that the human rights approach that has been taken by Pavee Point has also contributed significantly in building meaningful and supportive relationships between Travellers, Roma and other sections of community. The organisation has contributed greatly to promoting basic human rights and solidarity with other groups who experience discrimination or denial of rights. Inspired by a deep-rooted sense of justice, Travellers have played a prominent role as far back as the 1980s in public campaigns in support of the anti-apartheid movement, the Miners Strike in the UK, and the position of the Irish in the UK during that period, including the Guildford 4 and the Birmingham 6 campaigns.
It is this approach of solidarity that also led Pavee Point to recognise the shared similar experiences between the Traveller and Roma communities of racism and discrimination and the need for solidarity between both communities. Pavee Point has successfully highlighted many issues facing Irish Travellers in Europe by utilising the interconnection of Roma and Traveller objectives which allowed Travellers be explicitly named and included in European initiatives for Roma.
Pavee Point has been working directly with Roma communities in Ireland since the early 2000’s to improve the precarious conditions in which they often live with no access to basic services. In 2012 Pavee Point decided to officially change its name to Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre in recognition of Roma participation becoming mainstreamed throughout the organisation.
I want to emphasise here that the Irish Traveller Community deserves great credit for this generous approach to this vulnerable new community who have only recently arrived here in significant numbers.
There are now approximately 5,000 Roma living in Ireland and they face multiple forms of discrimination. I want to express my strong support for the work being done by Pavee Point and others to support the Roma Community here and I hope that we will see them play a fuller part in our community in the years to come.
On the basis of the experience of these last thirty years we can look forward to a future in which Pavee Point will continue to contribute significantly to the promotion of Traveller and Roma human rights. All those involved in Pavee Point should be justifiably proud of your achievements and I expect that in the future, through your efforts, people will continue to see the positive aspects of Traveller culture which are all too often neglected.
I believe that it is possible for great advances to be made in the protection of Traveller rights in Ireland. I know that there have been many dark days, including recently, when that aspiration may have seemed distant or even that the dream of equality for Travellers might have been seen to be fading. How could it not be so when so many local authorities have not even spent money allocated for halting sites and other forms of housing. Why is it so difficult to listen to what would work best, what could be done responsibly and what could provide all the essentials. Very often it was the case that consultation was a mask for what was being imposed. We have to get to a new place, one where provision for permanent, transit and temporary accommodation can all be decided in real consultation and made to happen. This should not be beyond our capabilities.
I want to say to you today, as President of Ireland that your work and your vision of Traveller rights as human rights is a just cause that I believe will ultimately prevail in our society. There are many of us in all communities in Ireland who stand with you – as has been shown by the strong solidarity that has been witnessed in recent weeks for the families affected by that terrible tragedy at Carrickmines.
As a final point, I want to speak directly to the wider community in Ireland of those who share your commitment to human rights and equality, and I want to call on them to stand with Travellers and Roma in your fight for equality. Just as Travellers have shown such a deep commitment to solidarity with other marginalised groups in society, civic society has a profound moral duty to stand with Travellers and Roma in the challenging but just battle for equality that you face. The requirements of universal human rights brook no exceptions. The fact that an issue is contentious, or more accurately the fact that particular forms of prejudice are especially deep-rooted, can never be an excuse for inaction or turning away from injustice. Rather the cause of Traveller rights should be a priority for all who claim to work towards a just and equal Ireland.
The solidarity that is being shown across Ireland for your work, and the success and achievements of so many young Travellers who are here today, are signs of great hope; hope which we should all have for a brighter future where Travellers and Traveller culture enjoy their rightful place at the heart of Irish society.
Mar fhocal scoir, treaslaím le Pavee Point as ucht an tríocha bliain gníomhach, éifeachtach agus tairbheach atá caite acu ar son cothrom na Féinne don Lucht Siúil agus don Phobal Roma. Tá an-obair fós le déanamh, dar ndóidh, ach táimid ag druidim sa threo cheart, mar thoradh ar an obair ar fad atá déanta.
May I finish by thanking all of you for joining this celebration.
Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.