Junior Justice Minister Willie O’Dea, who meets with vintners and Travellers today in a bid to resolve the dispute, says amending controversial equality legislation is one of the options open to the Government.
But the Equality Authority yesterday said the rights-based legislation was a major step forward and should not be diluted in any way.
“There needs to be rights-based legislation and we don’t want that to be undermined,” said the Equality Authority’s assistant principal, Patrick O’Leary.
Minister O’Dea said the Government recognised that equality legislation was creating certain problems for publicans, but also insisted that Travellers’ rights had to be respected.
“I’ve sympathy for Travellers because they have been discriminated against. I also have some sympathy for individual publicans whose livelihoods have been affected by certain activities in their pubs. We have to try and find a solution to this,” Mr O’Dea said.
The dispute has been brewing for the last two weeks since publicans in Westport, Co Mayo, imposed a blanket ban on Travellers after a series of violent incidents.
Under the Equality Act, 2000, a person who is denied service on the grounds of being a Traveller is entitled to compensation. Some 85% of all cases taken under the Act in the last year concerned Travellers who were refused service in pubs.
The Vintners’ Federation of Ireland wants changes to the law which would give them more power to refuse people in their premises.
Travellers’ representatives, however, say publicans are angry because their discrimination against Travellers is being exposed on an almost daily basis under the new law.
In the run-up to today’s meeting, Minister O’Dea called on both sides to refrain from inflammatory language.
He also said publicans must halt their blanket ban on Travellers while the talks progressed and warned that any vintner who persisted with a ban was in danger of losing their licence.
“If there is a blanket ban in a town, it doesn’t preclude a person refused service or gardaí from objecting to renewal of licence ... I doubt that the old adage of safety in numbers would be a good defence,” he said.
Minister O’Dea will outline a number of proposals aimed at resolving the dispute to Travellers’ representatives and publicans at today’s meeting.
The Equality Authority yesterday welcomed the intervention of the minister and expressed hope that the issue would be resolved peacefully and speedily.
Meanwhile, hoteliers and publicans are considering mounting a legal challenge to decisions by the Office of the Director of Equality Investigations as part of their campaign to strengthen their right to refuse service.