The President, who was speaking at an event in Dublin to mark the 30th anniversary of Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre, also led a minutes’ silence for the victims of the Carrickmines fire in Co Dublin.
Mr Higgins, who will meet the families of the 10 victims at Áras an Uachtaráin later this week, said there were very important issues arising from the tragedy for all of Irish society.
He said he and his wife, Sabina, had often felt not just sad, but angry at the treatment which Traveller families who had become their friends had to endure, including having to live in unsafe and even hazardous conditions.
“We should make our minds up that when people are excluded in a divisive way on the basis of characteristics that it is racism. So let us put an end to it. Let’s draw a deep breath and say there won’t be any more of it in Ireland.”
He said Roma and Traveller communities experienced high levels of prejudice and exclusion on a daily basis in Irish society and those experiences had untold consequences for them.
“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.”
Referring to the Government’s recent acknowledgment that there is an urgent need for a far reaching and fundamental reappraisal of the position of Travellers in Irish society, Mr Higgins said it would require a new stance from every side.
He appealed to the Government and local authorities to try again to improve the lives of Travellers and Roma, but in a different way, so everyone could move forward.
“We can’t really stay where we are at the present time; where it is not even an issue of money; where many local authorities have been allocated resources but are simply not spending it,” he said.
“There is a challenge for the Irish public in all of this. If we are to be a republic and if we are to have values that are genuinely ones of equality and participation and goodness and a bit of joy and being able to share each others stories and go in peace and all of the rest of it, well then you must change your views too.”
He believed the consensus needed to move on already existed — it just needed to be called upon so Travellers and Traveller culture could enjoy its rightful place in the history of Ireland and in the heart of Irish society.
Mr Higgins said that in 1985 when Pavee Point was set up Traveller children were still segregated in Traveller schools and many left education without completing primary school and were often illiterate.
“The very idea that these children could attend third-level colleges were often beyond their own comprehension,” said Mr Higgins.
Segregation in the classroom and beyond and had ceased and more Traveller children were attending secondary school and increasing numbers were attending university each year.
However, there was still a way to go towards the fullest understanding of the heritage, culture and aspirations of Travellers as a people.
Mr Higgins commended Pavee Point for changing its name in recognition of Roma participation becoming mainstreamed throughout the organisation.
He said there were about 5,000 Roma living in Ireland and they faced multiple forms of discrimination.
The fact that particular forms of prejudice were especially deep-rooted could never be an excuse for inaction or turning away from injustice, said Mr Higgins.