Taoiseach Enda Kenny has announced formal recognition for Travellers as a distinct ethnic group within the State.
In a statement to the Dáil on Wednesday night, Mr Kenny said: “It is a historic day for our Travellers and a proud day for Ireland.”
There was sustained applause and a standing ovation as Mr Kenny formally recognised, in both Irish and English, the community’s ethnic status.
At the end of Mr Kenny’s speech, Traveller activist Bernard Sweeney shouted from the public gallery: “Taoiseach, offer an apology on behalf of the State to the Travellers.”
The public gallery of the Dáil and an overflow room were packed as members of the Traveller community watched the announcement.
Anti-Austerity Alliance-People Before Profit TDs Bríd Smith and Ruth Coppinger and Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams suggested the large crowd outside Leinster House for the event should be allowed in.
Ceann Comhairle Sean O Fearghaíl said the House did not have the personnel to manage the unprecedented numbers of visitors.
He apologised to those who had to wait at the front gate of Leinster House for the announcement.
Mr Kenny said the Traveller community had for many years campaigned to have their unique heritage, culture and identity formally recognised by the State.
“And in this State, they make their contribution as gardaí, doctors, members of the Defence Forces, prison officers,” he said.
He said it should not be a surprise that a person could identify as Irish and as a Traveller.
“This is a deep and personal issue for many Travellers.
“It is a great pleasure for me to be the person who has the honour of making this statement.”
Representatives of the community spoke last year to Cabinet members about how recognition “would be a very important symbolic and positive step in acknowledging the uniqueness of Traveller identity”, the Taoiseach said.
“We all want the same for our children - to grow up and thrive in a society where everyone is free to be who they truly are.
“No one should have to hide their religion, their sexual orientation, their race or culture to be respected or even accepted in society.”
He said there were “darker elements that challenge the law of the land that must be tackled. The Traveller community is not immune to this.
“I hope that today will create a new platform for positive engagement by the Traveller community and Government together in seeking sustainable solutions which are based on respect and on an honest dialogue.”
‘A people within our people’
Mr Kenny said: “Our Traveller community is an integral part of our society for over a millennium, with their own distinct identity - a people within our people.”
The Taoiseach also said: “We recognise the inequalities and discrimination that the Traveller community faces.”
He said the community enjoys all of the human rights and responsibilities afforded under the Constitution.
“The acceptance and implementation of those rights and responsibilities has to work both ways in order for society to function effectively, inclusively and with mutual respect for all citizens.”
Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin said the recognition of Traveller ethnicity was a first step in addressing the damaging impact of the marginalisation of and discrimination against the community.
“Recent research and work have shown Travellers have been a distinct part of our history for as long as written records exist,’’ he said.
“They are today, as they always have been, a very important, distinct and valuable element of the broader mosaic of Irish culture and society.’’
Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams said ethnic recognition is a “momentous step forward for equality” and a “hugely historic moment for the 40,000 members of our Traveller community”.
He said it was an “important symbolic acknowledgement. It also must pave the way for real, practical change.
“Action must follow ethnicity.”
He said the State’s policy on Travellers for decades was based on “one of the most shameful reports in the history of the State”, the Commission on Itinerancy Report of 1963.
He said the report dripped with racism and elitism, and was “ignorant, stupid and ill-informed”.
Paying tribute to the female members of the community, Mr Adams said that, “like their sisters in disadvantaged sections of the settled community, the women have been the great heroines and the champions who have kept their families going through thick and thin”.
Labour TD Joan Burton said it had been a long road to this point and, for the many groups involved, there had been a temptation to lose faith.
“But they never did,’’ she said. “They believed in each other, in their people, and that the process would succeed.’’