Senator from Traveller background rows in on Casey remarks

Sinn Féin’s Pádraig Mac Lochlainn slates candidate’s views – but ‘discussion necessary’

The first televised presidential debate featuring all six candidates was hosted by Pat Kenny on Virgin Media One and was dominated by the controversy surrounding Peter Casey's comments on Travellers . Video: Virgin Media One


A Sinn Féin Senator from a Traveller background has said presidential candidate Peter Casey may have “done us a service” by bringing out into the open a debate that needed to take place.

Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, whose mother and grandmother were Travellers, said Mr Casey’s views are privately shared by a very significant portion of people.

Mr Casey, originally from Derry, has a home on the Inishowen Peninsula in Co Donegal, the same area Mr Mac Lochlainn hails from.

Earlier this week, Mr Casey refused to acknowledge Travellers as a separate ethnic group and said they were “basically people camping on someone else’s land”.

The comments led to widespread criticism of the presidential election candidate, although he has since stood by and repeated his claims.

While criticising Mr Casey as “ignorant” and condemning his views, Mr Mac Lochlainn said there needed to be a greater understanding between settled and Traveller people.

“He may have done us a service,” Mr Mac Lochlainn said of Mr Casey.

“Not everyone who has had a bad experience with the Travelling community is a racist,” Mr Mac Lochlainn said, adding that as someone who has a Traveller background, but was raised in a settled community, he can see “both sides of the argument”.

He was one of the main advocates for Traveller ethnicity to be officially recognised by the State, a move that was announced by former taoiseach Enda Kenny in March 2017.

Bad experiences

However, he said that recognition should not “paper over the cracks” of the attitudes of many to Travellers, with a proportion of people believing Traveller are “robbers, thieves, they are dirty”.

He said that there needed to be greater teaching and understanding of Traveller history, but said there are some in the settled community who have had bad experiences. One way of improving relations and understanding, he said, would be for every local authority to employ a mediator between the two communities.

“We should have mediators who address issues as they arise,” he said. The Donegal Senator, who lost his Dáil seat at the last general election, was the first TD from a Traveller background. He was born in Leeds in 1973 and brought up in Birmingham by “two strong Traveller women”, his grandmother Lizzy Gavin and mother, Mary Mac Lochlainn.

His father, Réamonn Mac Lochlainn, was in the Provisional IRA and was jailed in England for nine years. The family moved back to Donegal in 1983. His father died in a swimming accident two years later.

‘Widely condemned’

The Senator initially criticised Mr Casey in the Upper House this week during a debate on the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill.

In his Seanad comments, Mr Mac Lochlainn said Mr Casey had been “widely condemned, and rightly so, but let us not fool ourselves”.

“What Peter Casey did in his ignorance was say out loud what many believe privately. That is the truth; let us not deny it.

“I yearn for our children to be told the true story of Irish Traveller people so they may love and embrace the culture Travellers held on to dearly in addition to their own history, truth and story. By doing so, we could end the horror Traveller children have faced. Traveller children have grown up with being bullied and called knackers, tinkers and dirt throughout the decades.”