The Traveller advocacy group Pavee Point has welcomed the news that Taoiseach Enda Kenny has resolved to support the recognition of Traveller ethnicity.
Mr Kenny said on Wednesday that the Government would begin taking steps towards the recognition of Traveller ethnicity in the new year.
The Taoiseach said he had asked Minister of State at the Department of Justice David Stanton to prepare a report for the social affairs committee on the question of recognising Traveller ethnicity. The report is expected in a few weeks.
Mr Kenny said that there were no constitutional bars to the move and that officials have looked at the experience in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland.
In a statement, Pavee Point said recognition would be a “a major step forward for Travellers, cultural diversity and equality in Ireland”.
It added that recognition would help the ethnic group's standing with the United Nations, the Council of Europe, the European Commission and other international organisations.
Director of Pavee Point Ronnie Fay said that by recognising Traveller ethnicity, the State was acknowledging its respect for Traveller culture and identity.
“We are ensuring that Travellers can be proud of their heritage and look forward to a future that takes into account their cultural identity,” said Ms Fay.
“While we realise that recognition of Traveller ethnicity is not going to solve all the problems that Travellers face it is vital in terms of bringing Traveller inclusion to the fore front in service provision and policy implementation.”
Co-director of Pavee Point Martin Collins said the Taoiseach's statement made him "proud to be Irish".
“Finally our community will have the recognition we deserve,” said Mr Collins. “No longer will Travellers be looked upon as settled people gone wrong. We will have our rightful place in Irish society.”
The Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission also welcomed Mr Kenny’s backing for the recognition of Traveller ethnicity, but warned that delays must not creep into the process.
Recognition as an ethnic minority has long been sought by representatives of the Traveller community but has been consistently refused by successive governments.
The Oireachtas Justice Committee recently held hearings on Traveller ethnicity and the previous committee, during the last Dáil, issued a report recommending that the State recognise Travellers as a distinct ethnic minority, though the Fine Gael-Labour government declined to act on its recommendations.
At the recent hearings, the Chief Human Rights Commissioner Emily Logan said the Council of Europe had contacted her with a view to visiting Ireland to investigate the treatment of Travellers.
Addressing the Oireachtas Justice and Equality Committee on Traveller ethnicity in October, Ms Logan said support from the Taoiseach would put Ireland "back in step with Northern Ireland, the UK and other EU partners in recognising the ethnicity of Travellers as our own indigenous community".
The European Commission has also begun an investigation into possible breaches of EU rules on racial equality, which may result in legal action against the State.
Traveller activists have campaigned for many years for the State to recognise them as an ethnic minority.
Although Travellers have been specifically protected as a group by anti-discrimination laws, Traveller representatives say they still regularly experience discrimination in many aspects of their lives.