Travellers who abuse the rights given to them by the State must be “confronted head on”, according to the Sinn Féin TD Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, who is the first member of the Dáil from a Traveller background.
The Donegal TD is to bring a bill before the Oireachtas which, if accep-ted by the Government, will recognise Travellers as a distinct ethnic culture and oblige the State to establish their rights associated with their traditions and customs.
However, he said the Traveller community must take more responsibility with the rights it is given if the “wall” between it and the settled community is to be broken down,
In an interview with the Irish Examiner, the first-time TD spoke about being raised by his Traveller mother and grandmother in a council house in Birmingham while his father served nine years in prisons around England for his involvement in an IRA attempted bombing.
Mr Mac Lochlainn said his upbringing gave him first-hand experience of “the positive and unique aspects” of the Traveller culture but that he was “not romantic about it”.
While he does not see himself as a representative of the Travelling community in the Dáil, he said he wanted to push the political system to break down barriers between the Traveller and settled communities.
“Although I am a generation removed, it’s clear to me that the Traveller culture is a distinct culture.
“We must establish that Travellers are a distinct ethnic culture that is part of the fabric of the Irish nation and we need to establish that culture and their rights.”
There are fewer than 30,000 Travellers in Ireland, according to the 2011 census.
When questioned at the UN’s Human Rights Council in Geneva in Oct 2011, Justice Minister Alan Shatter said the Government was “seriously considering” giving legal recognition to Travellers as an ethnic minority group.
However, before Christmas, he said: “I have no immediate plans to introduce such legislation.”
He said he was “conscious of the issues involved” but that “we must ensure decisions are not made that separate Travellers from the wider community”.
Mr Mac Lochlainn said the concerns of the settled community must also be addressed: “If I am to campaign for Traveller ethnicity and recognition of their rights, I also need to hear from Travellers that they will meet their responsibilities.”
He said a minority of Travellers have not borne the responsibilities that fall on anyone who claims rights for the Irish nation and “they have to be confronted head on”.
“If you do that, you are letting down the Travelling community, you are damaging the reputation and the proud heritage of the Travelling community.”
© Irish Examiner Ltd. All rights reserved