Presidential candidate Peter Casey has refused to withdraw controversial comments he has made about the Travelling community in the face of widespread condemnation.
He claimed Travellers are “basically people camping in someone else’s land” when he spoke to The Floating Voter, the Irish Independent’s political podcast,
Mr Casey repeated his views to The Irish Times on Wednesday, saying that he did not accept that Travellers had separate ethnicity and he also stood over his comments they lived “on other people’s land”.
When it was put to him they 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.”
He again pointed to a development in County Tipperary which he said cost the council €1.7 million with “state of the art” solar panels and kitchens. He said Traveller families had refused to move in because “they wanted stables for their horses”.
Asked was he not condemning the entire Traveller community on the basis of that one example, he said it was up to the leadership of the community to sort it out.
“The people tarring them with the one brush is not Peter Casey,” he said.
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.”
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.
In his interview with The Floating Voter, 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.
The candidate’s spokeswoman said there would be no further comment from him today.
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.
Fellow candidate Sean 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.
Referring to Mr Casey’s comments, she said: “For anyone seeking public office, let alone that of the nation’s First Citizen to engage in lazy, racist stereotyping of any ethnic group is unacceptable.”
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.
“Travellers face many challenges in life, not least in developing and sustaining understanding and acceptance with the settled community. Such comments only pitch us back into a time and a dark place that we have long ago left behind.”
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.
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