Full statement "It’s like an abandoned place that people forgot about, it’s like we’re forgotten, we feel like garbage." That was the testimonial of a 12-year-old girl interviewed for the recent No End in Site report published by the Ombudsman for Children's Office. What struck me most when reading the report was not so much its shocking content, but just how familiar it all sounded. Indeed, it could have been one of many possible sites across the country. In 2015, I attended the funerals of some of the victims of the Carrickmines fire tragedy. The heartbreaking grief was utterly overwhelming. The 2016 report from the chief fire officer stated that conditions on the site referred to in the report of the Ombudsman for Children's Office posed an "unacceptable risk to life due to the proximity of the homes and an overloaded electrical system".
I honestly believed at the time that those ten lives lost in Carrickmines would shock us all into finally dealing with the dangerous living conditions that many Travellers endure. As the calls for action and investment dissipated, however, and the media attention waned, so too did that sense of urgency. It is now time to bring back that sense of urgency. Unhealthy and dangerous accommodation is a material risk to the lives, health and well-being of Traveller families in Ireland today. This much we know. However, if we are to address this problem, as I know the Government is committed to doing, we must recognise that the issue of Traveller accommodation cannot be viewed in isolation. It is part of a wider suite of challenges faced by the Traveller community and we must look at the whole picture and not just one piece. While accommodation is a key part of this issue, the full picture also involves life expectancy, mental health, women's health, child welfare, educational attainment and job prospects. Part of this picture as well are systematic discrimination and racism, culture and unique heritage and the diminishment and loss of those things over generations.
For the Traveller families I know in my community and for Traveller friends, there is a weary acceptance that little, if anything, will ever change. That is a narrative which has been passed down through generations. Every now and again there is a breakthrough, like when we celebrate a Traveller woman going on to earn a doctorate. However, these events are all too rare. We have the opportunity to change this narrative, but first mindsets must be changed, mindsets that can be entrenched in outdated ways of evaluating outcomes, outdated practices which have simply failed and outdated thinking that sometimes views the Traveller problem as just that, a problem.
Much of the ongoing accommodation, social, health and economic crisis within the Traveller community has its origins in the report produced by the Commission on Itinerancy in 1963, which considered Travellers as "people of no fixed abode, [who] habitually wandered from place to place". The commission's objective was to assimilate Travellers into the settled community so that they would eventually disappear from our roadsides and then our collective consciousness. The commission concluded that all Travellers should settle and that "absorption [was] the only real solution". The subsequent Housing Act 1966 set out a 20-year legal duty for the State to provide accommodation for Travellers.
Restricting their room to roam and nomadism contributed to a loss of culture, identity, heart, head and soul. The report of the Travelling People Review Body in 1984 gave due recognition and consideration to nomadism, but conceded that the element of habitual wandering had largely disappeared. However, as is the case with all ethnic minorities globally, such interpretations and subsequent policies fail all of society. Alienating and marginalising a group of people creates a "them" and "us" binary which serves nobody. Isolation engenders intergenerational resentment and hurt and over time becomes normalised and acceptable to most.
The programme for Government commits us to ensuring that the housing needs of the Traveller community are met by local authorities and that existing funding is fully drawn down and utilised, among other measures. I commend my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, for his commitment to improving the provision of good standard Traveller-specific accommodation. I commend him and all those involved in the effort to ensure that local authorities made full use of the funding available for Traveller accommodation in 2020. That was the first time in six years that the budget was fully spent. I thank the Minister of State as well for his work in making €15.5 million in capital funding and €5.8 million in supports available in 2021. I also commend my colleagues, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, and the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, for their work in addressing accommodation issues and in helping to support vulnerable families throughout the pandemic.
Officials in my Department worked hard to put in place a range of supports to alleviate overcrowding and get families through the worst of the crisis. A recent call by my colleague, the Minister of State with responsibility for communities, Deputy Joe O'Brien, for new community development projects and his ongoing commitment to participation based on community development principles is a welcome step forward towards animating Traveller organisations to work at an autonomous level. The Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, is working closely with Traveller development organisations towards furthering initiatives concerning social inclusion and a human rights-based approach to addressing inequality and discrimination.
For my own part, as someone who has worked closely with Traveller families and organisations over many years, I was always mindful that we were not telling the full story of the Travelling people and that young Traveller boys and girls may be losing part of their identity through shame or generational loss of the oral tradition. Traveller culture is steeped in folk traditions, including in music, song, storytelling, language and crafts, which are distinctive to Travellers but also part of our tradition and heritage. We would have lost many of our songs and tunes were it not for the Doherty, Rainey, Furey and Doran families, as well as other families. The craft of tinsmithing is slowly dying out, with just a few practitioners remaining in the trade. I am proud to have some of James Collins's handcrafted mugs in my office. This heritage should be celebrated and not hidden.
I was delighted to work with the Heritage Council late last year to advance the idea of a Traveller heritage officer as part of the wider heritage officer programme. Our Department supported the initiative through the addition of funding in budget 2021. I am delighted to be able to say that the inclusive heritage officer post will soon be filled. Part of the remit for the holder of that post will be to work with the Traveller community to promote, archive and pass on its rich traditions, and also to foster a wider understanding and appreciation among the whole community. We will see some of the flavour of this endeavour during Heritage Week 2021.
It is my belief that we collectively as a nation must engage in meaningful dialogue between settled and Travelling people. Recognition by Dáil Éireann of Travellers as a distinct ethnic minority with its own culture, values, language and ways was an important first step, but we must complete that work. First, it should be utterly unacceptable to force families to live in squalor, to live with rats and in cold damp trailers, where children must trawl through mud to get to school. Meeting the basic needs of families and children must be a priority for all of us. After that must come a clear commitment from the Departments of government and agencies to invest in addressing the root causes of discrimination, low employment levels, poor educational attainment and poor health outcomes, including in mental health, women's health and well-being. Programmes and measures must be co-designed with Traveller organisations.
This debate today is significant. It is sending out a message that collectively we are determined to address the myriad issues impacting on the rights of Travellers to live fulfilled and happy lives. Dr. Anna Visser's Oireachtas Library and Research Service Spotlight report in 2018 on Traveller accommodation concludes by stating:
Meeting the accommodation needs of the Traveller community has proved a persistent and intransigent policy problem for the Irish State. Despite some success, official data and numerous comments and reports reveal that accommodation remains a central concern for the Traveller community.
Dr. Visser also states in her conclusion that in order "to move away from ‘symbolic implementation’ towards stronger implementation", the four principles of resources, power, contextual conditions and coalition strength must be considered in order to change the story. This Government is determined and committed to working with the Traveller community to move from symbolic towards stronger implementation. Deputies heard the comments of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Peter Burke, in that regard. The view in some quarters that the living conditions highlighted in the report of the Ombudsman for Children's Office are somehow acceptable where a temporary halting site means 30 years or that it can be politically acceptable to allow such conditions to persist must be challenged. That challenge must occur not just through investment in housing but by investment in people and the restoration of dignity. This process must be about Travellers feeling proud of their heritage and a situation where we all celebrate their culture and accept that to address the all too often fraught relationship between Traveller and settled people we must collectively address the root cause of alienation of and discrimination against this proud community.