The first examination of funding for Traveller groups in several years has revealed that last year the State provided more than €130m for a variety of projects. This is aside from the social welfare and unemployment benefits paid out to the estimated 30,000 Travellers in the country.
The examination was sparked by a request by the United Nations that Ireland provide proof that it is not systematically discriminating against Travellers as a separate ethnic group within the country. It is understood the UN has targeted Ireland as a possibly racially or ethnically discriminating country because of complaints in the past by Traveller support groups.
The UN's Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination last visited here six years ago and its 2006 report supported claims by various Traveller groups that as an ethnically-separate group it suffered degrees of discrimination.
In preparation for the next visit by the committee, part of the Office of the Human Rights in the UN, the Government has asked all departments to supply details of payments made to support Traveller projects in 2008. The results, according to sources, were "surprising".
The biggest spender on Traveller-exclusive projects was the Department of Education, which is understood to have spent more than €70m last year, though project details were said to be "short of detail".
The department employs 750 teachers dedicated to Traveller learning projects.
The Department of Environment, Heritage and Local Government spent €42m on Traveller projects, which is understood largely to consist of funding to local authorities who, under law, must provide housing and halting sites for Travellers.
It is understood that since 2002 up to half a billion euro has been spent on providing Traveller accommodation, in some areas at an average cost of €400,000 per family.
The Department of Health and Children was the next biggest spender at €9.3m with almost all the other government departments providing amounts of funding for projects. Fas told the review on spending that it provided €1m in funding for Traveller-exclusive projects last year. Despite very substantial Fas spending on Traveller projects since around 2000 the level of unemployment among male Travellers, put at 95 per cent in 2002, is not thought to have reduced in any significant way.
Funding levels to Traveller projects last year might have actually reduced following examination by a High-Level Officials Group which replaced the previous committees and groups that had pushed for special treatment of the Travellers. Although figures are not available it would seem that since 2002 the State has paid out at least €1bn to Traveller support projects -- again exclusive welfare and unemployment benefits.
The previous examination of the Irish State over its treatment of Travellers was spurred by a report, eight years ago, by a Traveller group that only 1 per cent of Travellers lived beyond the age of 65. This was shown to be spurious following examination of census figures by the Sligo IT economics lecturer, Felim O'Rourke, who showed that around 71 per cent of Traveller men were over 65 but only 56 per cent of Traveller women were over 65, indicating that they bore more hardship.
Despite this the UN committee urged the Government to adopt "affirmative action programmes" which, it appears, entailed large spending on projects ostensibly set up to support Travellers.