Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am absolutely delighted to be with you this evening to perform the official launch of Traveller Focus Week 2007. Since my appointment as Minister with responsibility for Equality Issues I have met quite a number of people working on behalf of the Traveller Community. And this evening, I am very pleased that we have so many people here who have a made a very important contribution to promoting Traveller welfare and Traveller culture in this country. As many of you will know, my Department has been a consistent supporter of Traveller Focus Week over the years. It is important that there is a space to celebrate the positive things that the Traveller Community brings to Irish society. It is also important that we support dialogue and greater awareness of the difficulties and challenges facing Travellers in modern Ireland.

I am especially pleased that the official launch will be followed by a performance of Rosaleen McDonagh’s play, "Stuck". Unfortunately my diary prevents me from staying for the play, but, hopefully there will be other opportunities.  I think that theatrical expression can be one of the most positive ways we can express our views about important and complex issues. I had the pleasure recently of attending Michael Collins play "It’s a Cultural Thing". I have to say that I probably learned more about Travellers and the Traveller experience, in the few hours of the performance, than I could learn from a whole series of lectures or reports. Clearly, artistic expression is an extremely powerful way of communicating about the core issues which affect our lives.  Because it can speak directly to our emotions and instincts it can have a much deeper impact than intellectual argument. Often, when we discuss issues of public policy and their effect on communities, we can get lost in the detail. We also have a tendency to focus on the issues of difference rather than the parts we hold in common. Thankfully, artistic expression can sometimes allow us to by-pass the world of argument, and to go straight to the heart of an issue.

During the course of Traveller Focus Week we will see an impressive range of events which will illustrate different aspects of Traveller identity. These include several artistic events and exhibitions, musical performances, and a variety of discussions on some of the key issues of concern for Travellers. I am especially glad that this week is an All-Island celebration. As well as today’s launch in Dublin there were also launch events planned in Ennis and in Belfast. Travellers, north and south, encounter many of the same difficulties. Like many others on this island, their family and community links extend across the border. It is also important that the cross border dimension is recognised in our forward planning for services. So I am glad to say that the All-Ireland Health Study is under way, and a DVD on the study is being launched as part of Traveller Focus Week. I want to pay tribute to the Traveller representatives and all others concerned in preparing for this important work. We have a deficiency of quality data on the Traveller Community in Ireland. I hope that the results of the All-Ireland Health study will help us focus more directly on the areas of greatest need.

As well as the artistic and cultural celebrations during the week, we have a number of serious discussions on issues like Education, Health, Nomadism, Conflict, Young Travellers and Intercultural work. I am glad to support these events because they give us an opportunity to facilitate real listening and understanding. The events also give voice to local concerns and ideas. It is important that we include these local messages in our national debates. It is also important that we recognise that there are many practical projects addressing real issues of Traveller welfare at local level. I am very keen that we learn from local successes. There is also an onus on all concerned to help develop good models of communication and examples of good working relationships. Whether we are talking about providing services, promoting cultural awareness or developing access to the workplace, much the same principles apply. These include mutual respect; acknowledgement of rights; recognition of roles and responsibilities; and a commitment to work constructively for real progress.

I think that a commitment to these principles is also in evidence at national level. In "Towards 2016" all of the social partners agreed to give "concentrated attention" to making progress on Traveller issues. This was followed by the establishment of a new National Traveller Monitoring and Advisory Committee in March 2006.  Establishing this Committee is an important step in following through on the commitment in the national partnership agreement. The importance attached to the new Committee is shown by the fact that that Taoiseach made a point of addressing its first meeting. In line with best international practice the Committee is chaired independently, by Mr. Kevin Bonner.  I am acutely aware that there are a lot of difficult issues facing the Traveller Community and, also, the state agencies which are responsible for providing services. One of the greatest opportunities the new national advisory committee presents is to deepen the working relationships between state bodies, Traveller organisations and other social partners. I am of the view that, even where we are dealing with difficult and complex issues, progress can be made where all concerned adopt a constructive and forward looking approach. It is very encouraging to see that a broad spread of opinion is represented on the Committee. In particular, I am happy to see a significant number of Traveller representatives. I am conscious that people have sincerely held views on many of the key issues and that there won’t always be agreement on everything. That being said, this Committee provides a forum where people can have a frank exchange of views and try to work through some of the areas of disagreement.

I think that part of the value of a broadly based national committee, is that it can look at some of the deeper human issues, as well as addressing the more practical issues such as service provision. I am conscious that the whole area of Traveller / Settled relationships is an underlying theme to many of the issues involved. And these issues are also central to many of the events featured in Traveller Focus Week. They present to us, as a society, with some of our greatest challenges. I believe that dealing with the challenges requires all concerned to be open to fresh perspectives, and to put aside our preconceptions.

I am glad that this year, Traveller Focus Week includes an input from the four national Traveller Organisations who are represented on the national advisory committee. I want to pay a particular tribute to the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM) who have coordinated the organisation of this years events. They also produced the very impressive poster to publicise Traveller Focus Week. My Department continues to work with ITM and the other organisations on a range of issues. The National Traveller Women’s Forum are playing an important role in research on Equality Proofing and Traveller Women, which is sponsored by my Department. We also continue to support the work of the Pavee Point Mediation Service, which has made an important contribution to work on conflict resolution. My Department has also supported the development of the Voice of the Traveller Magazine, which was originally the newsletter of the National Association of Traveller Centres. The development work is intended to establish the magazine as a more mainstream publication which can increase general awareness and appreciation of the Traveller Community.

I want to acknowledge the work and commitment of all of the organisations and individuals involved in Traveller Focus week. As well as the four organisations I have already mentioned, I want to congratulate Belfast Travellers for their hard work on this years events. I also want to acknowledge the commitment and support given by the Northern Ireland Equality Commission.

Whatever activities we are involved in, it is important that we proceed in a spirit of inclusive dialogue. I want to acknowledge that there have been times when this has proved difficult. I also want to acknowledge that the Traveller Community face some particularly difficult challenges. In a rapidly changing society, there could be a danger that Travellers might, to some extent, slip off the national agenda. I want to say that I am committed to supporting constructive initiatives, like Traveller Focus Week, to ensue that we keep a positive focus on Travellers in our society.

I am very pleased to launch Traveller Focus Week here today, and I wish all concerned every success.

Thank you very much.

3 December 2007