The centrality of horses to Travellers' culture "has to be acknowledged" in housing policy, the director of the European Union's Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) has warned.
Michael O'Flaherty, the director of the agency who is in Ireland on an official monitoring visit, said horses were "absolutely central to Traveller identity. That has to celebrated and honoured and then acknowledged in things like housing policy.
“It really matters that you have a place to stable a horse if you come from the Traveller tradition and that just has to be acknowledged. I don’t understand why we’d oppose that.”
Discussing the need to “get to know” and celebrate Traveller identity, he said an annual day to mark Traveller history and culture would be “a good idea”.
Speaking to The Irish Times, he said the situation of Travellers in Ireland was among the worst of Roma and Traveller communities across the EU, while the communities' plight was the "single biggest human rights challenge" across the EU.
Citing a 2019 survey by the agency, he said 65 per cent of Irish Travellers faced discrimination in housing, work, education, health and access to services which was "one of the highest among all survey groups from the different countries". Communities in five other member states were surveyed - in Belgium, France, the Netherlands, Sweden and former member the United Kingdom.
Most people did not appreciate the depth of discrimination experienced by Travellers and Roma nor how profound the impact was on them, he said.
“It’s not just an Irish issue, it’s across the EU. It’s a genuine lack of recognition of how bad the situation is. The average person on the street doesn’t begin to understand how shocking it is.”
Tackling racism required a focus on “racist tendencies” in wider society. “We are seeing some change across the EU, with some investment in public messaging, to recognise if you don’t change the attitudes on the street you are really not going to improve the plight of the group.
“The other thing is to work with, not for, Travellers. They have to be listened to and respectfully listened to, and then they have to be part of the outcome and part of the solution.”
Reiterating the need to “get to know, understand and celebrate” Traveller culture he said: “This is really important. Settled people, we have not even the smallest idea of how rich their culture is.”
He called for investment to “make Roma culture visible” including remembering their being targeted for extermination in the holocaust. “That holocaust is barely acknowledged,” he said. “So putting Traveller and Roma history and culture into school education would be very, very valuable.”
Meeting Minister for Equality, Roderic O'Gorman and Data Commissioner Helen Dixon he will press the need to gather disaggregated data on Travellers and Roma in areas including education, housing, employment and health.
“If we don’t have data we can’t defend them. We need it for structured planning and strategy making, and to build awareness [about their situation].”
He said, “we don’t know how many Roma are in Ireland”. It was also unknown how many Traveller children were being placed on reduced timetables in schools.