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Friday 16 November 2018

Emily Logan: Leaders should celebrate our rich diversity, not inflame prejudices and discrimination

Peter Casey was speaking on Independent.ie’s podcast, ‘The Floating Voter’ Photo: Mark Condren
Peter Casey was speaking on Independent.ie’s podcast, ‘The Floating Voter’ Photo: Mark Condren

Emily Logan

AT A time when intolerance, exclusion and division are being exploited internationally for cynical political gain, there is a pride and a strength as a nation in standing firmly on shared values.

Through recent popular votes, the people of Ireland in large majorities have shown their respect for equality and diversity, demonstrating Ireland's ability and willingness to buck the trend.

Our equality legislation prohibits discrimination on the grounds of gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, disability, race and membership of the Traveller community.

By a unanimous resolution of the Houses of the Oireachtas, Traveller ethnicity was recognised by the State in 2017 through its national representatives, elected by the people of Ireland, following the prolonged and valiant efforts of Traveller women and men.

These significant decisions represent intrinsic acceptance of diversity as core to today's Ireland. National values have garnered Ireland global recognition as a small nation willing to stand up and make big statements. Ireland has acted locally to arrest the disturbing and growing global trend of regression from fundamental human rights values.

We should be glad that we live in a democracy where politicians across the political divide can come together on equality and human rights issues, however we must never be complacent. This week we have been confounded by comments about the Traveller community in the context of the presidential election.

This is a year that marks the 70th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Remembering that it took the atrocities of World War II to propel human rights onto the global stage and into the global conscience, it is worth remembering that the universal declaration sets out that "all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood".

Central to securing this dignity for everyone in Ireland today is political leadership at all levels, from those appointed to serve in local government, to the Dáil, Seanad, European Parliament and, of course, the President.

The ongoing discrimination against Travellers and disregard for their human rights and equality of treatment is a symptom of old political attitudes that we as a people accepted and allowed to become normalised.

In addressing the inaugural meeting of the archaically named Commission on Itinerancy in 1963, the parliamentary secretary to the then-justice minister, Charles Haughey, noted that "these terms of reference are comprehensive and they acknowledge that there can be no final solution to the problems created by itinerants until they are absorbed into the general community".

What flowed from this starting position was five decades of viewing Travellers simplistically, as failed settled people, with continued discrimination and denial of their culture, rights and equality of treatment, in particular, access to education, health and housing.

This view was aided and abetted by societal attitudes and political leadership, with the public obstruction by local politicians of Traveller accommodation commonplace.

Research recently published by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission has shown that Travellers are almost 10 times more likely to deal with instances of discrimination than the general population, and 22 times more likely to face discrimination when availing of some private services.

This is the reality for Travellers in Ireland today.

Ireland has a strong international reputation for human rights advocacy. There must be a coherence between our international and domestic actions. The Irish government committed in front of the United Nations Human Rights Council in 2011 to recognise Traveller ethnicity. This was just the beginning of an equality imperative for Travellers in Ireland.

Unfortunately, the legal cases currently being dealt with by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission paint a picture of persistent discrimination and inertia towards the provision of services for the Traveller community, most commonly in the area of Traveller accommodation.

Seeking election for public office places a higher obligation on individuals to show leadership and respect for the human dignity of everyone. We must make clear to our political leaders in Ireland what we positively expect from them, as well as highlighting the things we never want to become normalised in this country.

While freedom of speech is important in elections, we should challenge ideas, largely based on ignorance, prejudice and related intolerance, and resolve to show leadership by defending our rich diversity.

Emily Logan, is Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission

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