Travellers are not treated like second class citizens, they “are treated as rubbish”, a protest demanding government action on the community’s mental health crisis heard on Tuesday.
In an impassioned speech, Senator Eileen Flynn, the first and only Traveller member of the Oireachtas, told the demonstration outside Leinster House she felt “shame” that after two years in office and her “begging” there remained no national Traveller mental health strategy.
Traveller children as young as 11 were dying by suicide while young Travellers felt they had “no future”, said Ms Flynn, who was appointed to her seat by Taoiseach Micheál Martin.
“This is my third time to speak in two years at a Traveller mental health network event. How many Travellers have died in the two years? It’s not for the want of begging, not for the want of asking, not for the want of the statistics.”
She said suicide accounted for 11 per cent of all Traveller deaths.
“People are dying due to discrimination … It’s so tough to be yourself and be a member of the Traveller community. You can’t walk up the bleeding street that somebody has something to say to you, just because you’re a Traveller.
“Who’s being held accountable to these lives? Absolutely nobody. We as a community, less than 40,000 people, we wouldn’t even fill Croke Park — and yet, and yet we are the most ill-treated people within Irish society. Enough is enough. It is about time that Minister [for mental health Mary] Butler, when she won’t listen to a sitting senator, that she listens to our community.
“We’re not treated as second-class citizens in this State; we’re treated as rubbish.”
Appealing to members of her community in the crowd, she said: “I know you’re tired. Looking at you, people who have numerous experiences of death by suicide, I know you’re tired, but keep holding on.”
Appealing to the numerous Oireachtas members present, she said: “While it’s [Taoiseach] Micheál Martin’s responsibility, it’s all of your politicians’ responsibility. Every one of you I see here today, I can’t do it by myself. Neither can all the Travellers here. We are a very small community of people. Unfortunately, we need you. We need you to stand with us, support us to get action on Traveller mental health.”
Among the TDs there were Minister for Children and Equality Roderic O’Gorman and Green Party colleague Neasa Hourigan; leader of Sinn Féin Mary Lou McDonald, and party colleagues Eoin Ó Broin, Louise O’Reilly, Mark Ward and Maurice Quinlivan; Gary Gannon and Cian O’Callaghan of the Social Democrats, Mick Barry, Paul Murphy, Gino Kenny, Richard Boyd Barrett and Bríd Smith of People Before Profit-Solidarity, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin of the Labour Party, and Independents Thomas Pringle TD and Senator Lynn Ruane.
Mags Casey, chairwoman of the Traveller Mental Health Network, which organised the protest, has lost 29 members of her extended family to suicide. “Why do we have to bury children as young as 11, 12 and 13? Young mothers and young fathers are dying. Our community is fragile.”
More than 50 years of “assimilationist” policies by successive governments have taken a huge toll on the community, she said. “My community have faced an awful lot of pain and suffering. We are tired carrying our bothers’ and sisters’ [coffins] on our shoulders.
“We have the solutions and we want to put them forward. What I would say to the establishment is: Come and dialogue with us, to make a better society for everyone.”
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