Sunday 17 November 2019

Justice Minister defends his comments about Traveller ethnicity

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan. Pic: Mark Condren
Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan. Pic: Mark Condren

Laura Larkin, John Downing and Nicola Anderson

Justice Minister Charlie Flanagan has been forced to defend comments arguing against the designation of Travellers as a distinct ethnic minority.

The Government was recommended to officially recognise the Traveller community as an ethnic group in 2014.

However, the Fine Gael minister disagreed and said: “I believe Travellers are Irish like the rest of us – no better, no worse.”

Mr Flanagan insisted he disagrees with comments, made unprompted by Mr Casey in an Irish Independent interview, which have dominated the debate this week.

The controversy had led to Taoiseach Leo Varadkar making an unusual intervention and effectively urging people not to vote for Mr Casey.

"His remarks were very divisive and I think they were largely designed for attention for him," Mr Varadkar said.

"I think they're really regrettable and I hope that when the people of Ireland go out to vote next Friday, they will give Mr Casey and anyone who holds those views, a very clear message," the Taoiseach added.

Yesterday Mr Casey visited the vacant houses at the centre of the dispute between Tipperary County Council and Traveller families.

He faced charges of taking a leaf out of US President Donald Trump's book and engaging in a media stunt.

He did not meet with the Traveller families embroiled in the dispute, citing their privacy. However he again refused to withdraw his remarks.

Representatives of Travellers' groups said that there had been "lies and misinformation" spread about their situation.

They have argued that the family had never asked for stables or land, merely for grazing rights.

Charlie Flanagan yesterday said he "fundamentally disagrees" with the businessman's comments and said he "fully accepts" the decision taken by Government to recognise Travellers as an ethnic minority in 2016.

Speaking ahead of that decision, Mr Flanagan had raised a concern about the status of different ethnic groups in Ireland and said the move was about political correctness.

"Do we now accord special ethnic status to Protestants, Jews and people from Connemara? I think this is more political correctness than Traveller rights," he said.

Pressed on whether his personal position had changed in the intervening years, Mr Flanagan defended his record of supporting the Traveller community.

"I've worked with Travellers and Traveller groups over the years in my constituency.

"I do acknowledge the position of grave disadvantage that Travellers have been in in society and continue to be in in society.

"There is far more that we should be doing to support Travellers than merely adopting a recognition status or a special ethnic status and I think Government needs to do it, whether it's in housing, health or education and I accept that.

"But as far as the designation of the ethnic status is concerned, I fully subscribe to a decision of Government as a member of the Cabinet."

He characterised the comments made by Mr Casey as "particularly unfair" to the Travelling community and said it was a mistake to introduce the issue into the presidential debate.

"I think it's regrettable that he should have brought these issues into a presidential campaign. I don't know his motivation for so doing but that'll be a matter for people to answer," he said.

Mr Casey's comments did not just include remarks about Traveller ethnicity but went further, saying that Travellers were "basically camping in someone else's land".

Mr Casey said that house prices drop in areas where they settle, and that they are "not paying their fair share of taxes in society".

Meanwhile, Mr Flanagan praised the work of David Stanton, a minister of state in the Department of Justice, and said the focus of Government needs to be on health, housing and education.

"I believe it has to be more than tokenistic. What does it mean to have a special ethnic status, what rights does that confer on people? It needs to be more," the Justice Minister said.

"Many of the problems and the challenges faced by the Travelling community before the ethnic status was granted are still very much in evidence."

Irish Independent

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