Irish society is sadly lacking equality

Our treatment of Roma and Travellers is under the spotlight across Europe and needs to be improved, says Ronnie Fay

Suicide in the Traveller community is six times the national average. Traveller men live 15 years fewer than settled men and Traveller women live 11.5 years fewer than settled women.

Many Roma live in Ireland in a constant state of insecurity, with little access to employment, and no access to social protection or healthcare. Roma children are living in extreme poverty in our country.

We are told that we all have to share equally in the pain of a recession. However, Travellers have suffered austerity measures way beyond that of the settled community. Brian Harvey, author of the recent report ‘Travelling with Austerity’, said: “One can think of no other section of the community which has suffered such a high level of withdrawal of funding and human resources, compounded by the failure of the State to spend even the limited resources that it has made available.”

When we look at the treatment of Roma and Travellers across Europe, we see a bleak picture. Anti-Roma marches are on the rise and human rights bodies have highlighted racism, hate-crime, forced evictions, collective expulsions, and segregated education as many of the systematic human rights violations faced by Roma and Travellers.

The European Commission has taken a stand and required all member states to develop national Roma strategies. These have been developed under the EU Framework for National Roma Integration Strategies up to 2020. Strategies are intended to outline tangible actions in the areas of health, education, accommodation, and employment for Roma.

Out of 22 criteria used to assess strategies by the commission, Ireland is deemed to have met only four, a damning indication.

The commission’s assessment of EU national Roma strategies has shown Ireland’s strategy to be severely lacking, a result of the failure to engage with civil society and to put resources and energy into developing a progressive strategy. The results of the assessment are not surprising. Indeed, instead of the development of a progressive strategy on Roma and Traveller inclusion, we have seen disproportionate cuts in the Traveller community and exclusion of Roma.

We need the Government to prioritise Traveller and Roma inclusion in society and to work with Traveller organisations in making this happen.

Prior to the austerity measures, Ireland had a lot to be proud of in terms of the policy it had developed for Traveller inclusion. We had started to see the fruits of this — the first Traveller GP graduated last year. However, austerity measures have seen an 86.6% cut in Traveller education.

Fundamental to the development of a meaningful strategy and an explicit requirement of the commission is the active participation of Travellers and Roma civil society.

At the European Roma Platform in Brussels recently, László Andor, commissioner for employment, social affairs, and inclusion, reiterated that Roma inclusion measures must be implemented and monitored with the full involvement of civil society, including representatives of Roma/Traveller communities themselves. Furthermore the development of a comprehensive and robust strategy opens the door for access to EU funds.

This is not a question of resources. This is a question of a commitment to promoting the inclusion of Travellers and Roma in Ireland. If Ireland could build on the work undertaken to promote Traveller inclusion before the harsh austerity measures and work closely with civil society organisations, we could become a leader for Traveller and Roma inclusion in Europe. This will benefit Irish society as a whole.

This is an extremely worrying matter for the Government. The commission is showing that it is serious about holding governments to account and have developed a proposal for a council recommendation, which would be the first EU legal instrument for Roma inclusion.

However, this is an even more worrying matter for Roma and Travellers — in the face of low life expectancy, alarming suicide rates, and the deepening of poverty, urgent action is needed.

*Ronnie Fay is a director at the Pavee Point Traveller and Roma Centre


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