Travellers significantly over-represented in Irish prisons, UN committee told

Irish delegation concedes more work needed to address needs of Travellers

Members of the Travelling community are significantly over-represented in the Irish prison system, Government representatives have conceded at the UN Human Rights Committee.

The Irish delegation faced a number of questions on the treatment of Travellers and other vulnerable groups during the second and final day of hearings in Geneva, Switzerland.

Members of the committee raised concerns that Travellers were discriminated against by the justice system and that gardaí were carrying out searches of homes without warrants.

They also raised concerns that Ireland’s recognition of the ethnicity of Travellers in 2017 had not been backed up by legislation.

The Irish delegation said Travellers accounted for 0.7 per cent of the country’s population but made up 10 per cent of the general prison population and 15 per cent of the female prisoner population.

It called this a “striking” statistic and said it was important the needs of Traveller prisoners were supported in rehabilitating and reintegrating them back into society.

It said a one-size-fits-all approach would not meet the needs of individual offenders and that a lot of work was being done by the Irish Prison Service and others in this area.

The Garda was also focused on a human rights-led policing approach and was attempting to recruit more members of the Traveller community, including by offering an internship programme, it said.

Ireland also faced questions on the implementation of the Fines Act in 2016, which provides for alternatives to prison for people who fail to pay court-imposed fines.

The law was designed to reduce the high numbers of short prison sentences being imposed for nonpayment of fines.

The delegation said the Act had resulted in the number of fine-related sentences falling from nearly 10,000 in 2015 to just under 900 in 2019, a 91 per cent reduction.

However, the new fine-collection system has proven “cumbersome to operate” and it is being reviewed by a high level group chaired by the Department of Justices with the aim of streamlining the process.

The committee also asked why there had been so few convictions for human trafficking in Ireland when there had been several hundred reported incidents in the past decade. It noted the first conviction did not occur until 2021.

It noted concerns by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission about the decreasing numbers of children being officially designated as victims of child trafficking. There were nine reports of child trafficking in 2019 but none in 2020 and 2021, it said.

Human trafficking is a very difficult crime to investigate, an Irish Department of Justice official said. He said it was quite typical for the victim to be so controlled they could not accept they were a victim of trafficking. Distrust of the police by people who do not come from Ireland is another factor, he said.

The Irish delegation faced questions about the use of emergency surgery in cases where a child presents as intersex.

“We’ve received information that surgery on intersex children is still performed for social emergencies. This is necessarily done without consent, and it involves irreversible and deeply harmful procedures,” committee member Christopher Bulkan said.

Every year two to three children are born with “ambiguous genitalia” in Ireland. They are fully assessed by an interdisciplinary team before any decision is made regarding treatment, an Irish official said. “Only medically necessary treatment will be performed.”

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher

Conor Gallagher is Crime Correspondent of The Irish Times