Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has condemned comments about Travellers by the presidential candidate Peter Casey, and said that he hopes voters will use the election to send a message about anti-traveller views.
Speaking to journalists at the European summit in Brussels, Mr Varadkar said: “All I can say is that I think that his remarks are very divisive, and they were largely designed to get attention for his campaign. I think that’s really regrettable.
“And I hope that when the people of Ireland go out to vote next Friday they will give Mr Casey and anyone else who holds these kind of views a very clear message.”
Separately, the Tánaiste sharply rebuked Mr Casey and accused him of trying to build a profile by feeding a prejudice that should not be stoked up.
Simon Coveney said Travellers were a vulnerable ethnic community in Ireland and those in office or seeking the responsibility of office "should show leadership and generosity in trying to change the attitude towards Travellers and should not be stoking up the prejudice that undoubtedly exists".
The Tánaiste did not name Mr Casey in his response to Solidarity TD Mick Barry who described the candidate as a racist and dangerous dragon.
Mr Barry said he hoped the electorate would give Mr Casey the “wooden spoon” in the presidential election. He asked when the Government would comprehensively respond to the report on hate crime produced by the Irish Council of Civil Liberties in August.
Mr Coveney said he was not sure if it was helpful to give “more oxygen” to the issue in the Dáil.
But he said that one of the things Ireland should be most proud of is that “candidates most of the time anyway don’t resort to lowest common denominator politics trying to build profile around feeding a prejudice that undoubtedly is there but shouldn’t be stoked up”.
He cited the Government’s record in trying to change the conversation about the relationship between the Traveller and settled communities and highlighted the speech by then taoiseach Enda Kenny in March last year when he formally recognised Travellers as a distinct ethnic group.
‘Close enough to incitement’
Mr Casey in an interview with The Irish Independent refused to acknowledge Travellers as a separate ethnic group and said they were "basically people camping on someone else's land".
A debate in the Seanad heard Mr Casey’s remarks described as “close enough” to incitement to hatred.
Independent Senator Colette Kelleher said the Traveller community had been subjected to "downright prejudice".
She said just 13 per cent of female Travellers complete secondary education compared to 70 per cent in the general population.
Only 167 completed third level education ever out of a population of 40,000, she added.
Mr Casey’s remarks were “ill-informed, ignorant, insulting, ill-advised and I would say close enough to incitement remarks”.
Ms Kelleher was speaking during the committee stage debate on her private member’s Bill to include Traveller culture and history in the school curriculum.
She cited Dr David Edwards of UCC history department who had told the Oireachtas committee considering the Bill that Travellers were amongst oldest of the Irish people, the last vestiges of an old Gaelic tribal society. In the Middle Ages the Irish were a semi-nomadic pastoral people, she said.
“This was knocked sideway by imposition direct English rule with its insistence on sedentary way of life in the 16th and 17th centuries.
“The vast majority of Irish population is an acknowledgement of the success of the English plantation project. Travellers resisted, stayed on the margins” and managed to retain a semblance of the old ways.
Independent Senator Lynn Ruane said Mr Casey would be called out as racist if his remarks about Travellers had been made about any other race or ethnicity.
She said” I think what he did signified the ignorance that still exists in this society”. His comments were “clear discrimination and racism against a part of our society”.
Sinn Féin Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile said the Government should appoint a Traveller to the Seanad as a signal of its commitment to this community.