Presidential candidate Peter Casey has claimed Pavee Point, the centre which represents Travellers, has poorly represented its community.
He said that the centre had failed to tell a family in Co Tipperary it was “selfish” in seeking stables and lands for new houses the council had built for it, when there were homeless people in Dublin.
He also said he did not accept that Travellers were a distinct ethnic group in Ireland.
“The point is they are encouraged to think they are different. They are not. Everybody should be encouraged [to live] in an inclusive society.
“[Travellers] should think and act as Irish people not necessarily as different to everybody else,” he said.
“They end up thinking they’re different, and their children think they are different. It is harder for their children to fit into society and their children’s children to fit into society.”
Speaking on RTÉ's Six One news, Mr Casey doubled down on his contentious criticisms. He said the context for his criticism of Travellers was a €1.7 million estate near Thurles which was sitting empty because the extended family had demanded stables and an acre of land.
An extended Travelling family which has been living in an unauthorised halting site across the road for over 40 years is in dispute with the council as to whether or not there was an agreement to provide stables and paddocks for horses in the new estate, which comprises six houses.
When it was was put to him that Pavee Point said the family did not want the council to give it the land, rather to rent it, he replied that the centre had “poorly represented” its community.
“They should have gone down to Tipperary and explained to them that there are people sleeping on the streets of Dublin, people are homeless in Dublin.
“They let down the Travelling community. I believe they showed very poor leadership.
“They should have gone down and said you are not looking good there.”
Asked to explain his comments that Travellers were not a separate grouping but were people camping on someone else’s land, he responded: “It is wrong to encourage ethnic groups to feel they are different. We are a melting pot here in Ireland.”
“If you encourage somebody to be different, there is responsibility with your ethnicity claim.
“With that comes responsibility, you have to represent your ethnic group properly and I believe Pavee Point should have gone there and said you are sending the wrong message to Ireland that you are selfish.”
Asked if he was trying to garner votes on the back of criticising Travellers, a group with higher suicide rates and higher mortality, he said his point was they were encouraged to be different, which he thought was wrong.
“There is far too much political correctness in this society . . . I say what I think and think what I say.”
Asked does he ever regret what he says. “I do not regret thinking what I think, I do regret saying what I say at times.”
When The Irish Times put it to him earlier on Wednesday that Travellers were a distinct ethnic group, he responded. "I would ask you why there are different? If we go far enough back we can connect with the Vikings. How far enough do you want to go back, we are living in the 21st century.
“How far are you entitled to go back? We all come from somewhere but we are living in the 21st century.”
When it was put to him that Travellers were insulted by his description of them as people living on other people’s land, Mr Casey replied: “Well who owns the field they are living in in Co Tipperary? A farmer owned it and had to sell it.”
In his interview with The Floating Voter, the Irish Independent's political podcast, Mr Casey said he had sympathy for people living near Traveller camps.
“Do you think they are sitting here going this is great for my property value now that I’ve got three dozen caravans down the road? That’s just wrong.
“Somebody needs to sit up and say this is nonsense. Here we are are giving them luxurious houses and they’re turning them down because they’ve no stables,” he said.
“Can you imagine the brave person from Dublin that would say, ‘I’d love a lovely four-bedroom house with solar panels and beautifully kitted-out kitchens’?”
Travellers were formally recognised as a distinct ethnic group last year, a move Mr Casey described as “nonsense”.
Mr Casey is on 2 per cent in the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll.
Martin Collins of Pavee Point, the Traveller advocacy group, described his comments on the podcast as "grossly insulting and offensive" and called on Mr Casey to withdraw from the campaign.
Mr Collins told RTÉ's Today with Sean O'Rourke show that he was very disappointed and concerned about the comments which he feared reinforced stereotypes and bordered on racist.
The comments were not “befitting” any candidate for the office of president, he said. He would not have any confidence that if Mr Casey was elected president that he would welcome the Traveller community to the Arás.
There was a school of thought, he added, that the comments had been made “to garner cheap political votes”.
The comments were “a desperate measure from a desperate man doing badly in the polls,” Mr Collins added.
Director of the Irish Council for Civil Liberties (ICCL) Liam Herrick said political freedom of speech was extremely important during an election campaign.
“However, comments that stereotype or demean a whole ethnic group can never be acceptable. We are seeing this more and more on the international stage, whereby election candidates attempt to stoke up hatred for cynical political advantage,” Mr Herrick said.
“In Ireland we have seen strong political leadership by the main parties in resisting racism in our politics and we welcome the strong condemnation of Peter Casey’s comments by other candidates.
“The recognition of Traveller ethnicity was a hugely important step this country took towards equality and we cannot allow it to be sabotaged by grossly insulting and deeply irresponsible words such as Peter Casey’s”.
Asked about Mr Casey's comments this morning, President and candidate Michael D Higgins said Travellers comprise an ethnic minority which experiences discrimination.
“I find these views appalling,” Mr Higgins said.
He told RTÉ's Morning Ireland that members of the Travelling community live an average of 10 years less than the general population, and young Traveller men were six times more likely to take their own lives.
‘Cloud of negativity’
Fellow candidate Seán Gallagher said he was “disgusted” by the remarks made about members of the Travelling community.
“The Travelling community have long lived with a cloud of negativity, exclusion and marginalisation hanging over them. I know this because I worked with the Navan Travellers Project when I qualified as a Professional Youth and Community Worker.”
Mr Gallagher said he agreed "wholeheartedly" with remarks made by former taoiseach Enda Kenny in March 2017, following the recognition of Travellers as an ethnic group, that no-one should have to hide "their race or culture to be respected or even accepted in society".
Sinn Féin candidate Liadh Ní Riada also condemned Mr Casey’s comments.
She said that Travellers already had been demonised and villified by elements of the media who saw them as a handy scapegoat.
Senator Joan Freeman, who is also a candidate, said Mr Casey’s comments were “hugely disrespectful” and “hurtful”. They also showed Mr Casey was “out of touch”, she said.
Another candidate Gavin Duffy said he found Mr Casey’s comments “deeply concerning” and that they should be withdrawn.
"I think his comments are reckless and inflammatory and have no place in a campaign for election of First Citizen. They reach back into another era which I believed we, as a society and a community, have put well behind us," he told The Irish Times this morning.
Minister for Health Simon Harris described Mr Casey’s comments as appalling, ignorant and factually incorrect.
“Running for the presidency is meant to be about reaching for our best traits, not going to the lowest of the low and making ignorant comments,” Mr Harris said.
Mr Harris said one of the most moving days he had experienced since becoming a TD was when the Dáil declared Travellers to be a separate ethnic group. Many of those in the gallery that day were Travellers who had always been marginalised and were now being recognized, he said.
“To say these comments are a kick in the gut or a kick in the teeth for those in the Travelling community and all those working with them is an understatement.”
Mr Harris was speaking in Dublin after opening a patient safety conference.
Meanwhile, Emily Logan, Chief Commissioner of the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission said the recognition of Traveller ethnicity over a year ago "was part of an acknowledgment that we have in the past simplistically labelled Travellers as failed settled people".
This historic approach delivered a denial of Traveller’s rights and equality of treatment, in particular in education, health and housing, which the State is still dealing with today.
She said the legal cases currently being dealt with by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission continued to paint a picture of persistent discrimination and inertia towards the provision of services for the Traveller community, most commonly in the area of Traveller accommodation.