Travellers' rights vote sparks row in Coalition
A Labour minister who spoke in favour of a Sinn Féin motion recognising Travellers as an ethnic group last night missed a vote on the issue.
Aodhán Ó Riordáin, who is Minister of State for Equality, was attending his election campaign launch and fundraiser in Dublin Bay North while the vote was being held in the Dáil.
The Irish Independent understands there is considerable tension between Labour and Fine Gael over the status of Travellers but no TDs were willing to go so far as to vote against the Government.
Many were surprised when Mr Ó Riordáin went off script during his contribution to the debate on Tuesday night, saying everyone in the Dáil should stand by truth, and "the truth is that the Travelling community in this State, in this Republic, are a distinct ethnic group".
The minister alleged that some people were involved in "focus group equality" but popular opinion doesn't count "when advocating the rights of a minority".
He got backing from several Labour colleagues, including Waterford TD Ciara Conway who said it was not good enough that the process to give Travellers special recognition had not been initiated.
Last November, Mr Ó Riordáin gave a speech in which he said that Traveller ethnicity would be "a reality" within six months.
At the time he said it would be "one of the greatest things we can do to finally celebrate and acknowledge the rich and vibrant culture that the Traveller community have in Ireland".
He also indicated that Justice Minister Frances Fitzgerald supported his position.
However, when Sinn Féin tabled its motion this week, the Government responded by putting down a counter motion saying that the question of formal recognition of Travellers as a "unique culture, heritage and ethnic identity is being considered in the context of the development of the new National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy".
Labour sources last night indicated that several TDs were deeply unhappy with the Government response. "It's all great when Fine Gael can walk out on the plinth to celebrate marriage equality, but then it's back to equality by focus group," said one source.
However, Fine Gael TDs said that if Labour felt so strongly about it then they should have stuck to their convictions and voted with Sinn Féin. "It's all talk but when the moment came - nothing."
On Today FM's 'The Last Word' programme yesterday, Mr Ó Riordáin said voting against the Government would achieve nothing.
"My job is to get this over the line. The way I do that is that I get the Government and the Cabinet to agree to it. That won't be achieved by me voting against the Government," he said.
"I've no difficulty with Sinn Féin pushing that and bringing it to the mainstream of public debate. I think it's a positive thing that they have done," Mr Ó Riordáin added.