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Eileen Flynn: Irish Traveller makes history by becoming a senator

Eileen Flynn

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Love Not Hate Campaign

Eileen Flynn has made history as the first woman from the Travelling community to sit in the Seanad – the upper house of the Irish Parliament.

The new senator said she had worked all her life to “break barriers” and will now use her role to help Travellers and other marginalised communities.

Her ambition is to introduce hate crime legislation in the Republic of Ireland.

Ms Flynn, who grew up on a Travellers’ halting site in Dublin, was appointed by Ireland’s new leader Micheál Martin.

She was among 11 new senators nominated by Mr Martin after he was elected taoiseach (Irish PM) on Saturday.

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Oireachtas.ie (Irish Parliament)

In her first speech in the Seanad on Monday, she told her fellow senators that for “over 30 years Travellers have fought to be around the political table, and it’s brilliant now that there is finally a voice in the Seanad Éireann for a member of the Travelling community”.

She said she would provide “a unique voice for those at the very end of Irish society”.

‘Historic’

Earlier, Ms Flynn told BBC News NI it was “the most amazing call” she had ever received when the taoiseach rang her on Saturday afternoon and asked her to accept the nomination.

She is a community development worker with the National Traveller Women’s Forum.

She is also a rights activist who has campaigned on several social issues including homelessness; same-sex marriage, abortion and hate crime.

The Women’s Council of Ireland and Travellers’ rights campaign group Pavee Point both hailed her appointment as “historic”.

In a series of tweets after her nomination, Ms Flynn said: “I have worked all my life to break barriers and challenge inequality.”

The college graduate had a difficult start in life and “struggled” through Ireland’s education system.

‘Expelled from school’

She was born into a family of nine children in a halting site in Dublin suburb of Ballyfermot.

The Flynns lived Labre Park, the first local authority accommodation site in Ireland to be built specifically for Travellers.

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In a recent parliamentary debate on Travellers’ education, Ms Flynn described the poor living conditions her family had to cope with in Labre Park.

“We could go a week without heating,” she said, adding that such conditions had a “dramatic impact on education and health”.

Her mother died with pneumonia at the age of 48, when Ms Flynn and her twin sister Sally were 10.

“My mother has always been my biggest role model when it comes to women,” Ms Flynn said.

“I have always wanted to make her proud.”

In the years that followed her mother’s death, the future senator struggled to finish secondary school.

“It wasn’t easy for me, I would have been a young person at risk of leaving school,” she told RTÉ’s Sunday with Miriam programme.

“I suspended eight times, I was expelled once… but thankfully at the school I went to, the teachers all believed in me.”

Determined to stay in school with her less rebellious twin, Eileen and Sally made national news in 2008 as the first Travellers from Labre Park to enter third level education.

Eileen Flynn got a place on an access course at Trinity College Dublin and later studied at Ballyfermot College before earning a degree from Maynooth University.

The new senator told the programme she hopes to inspire success in young Travellers, especially women.

“If you believe in a young person; if you see potential in a young person, they might go on to be something that you never imagined,” she said.

The activist now lives in Ardagh, County Donegal with her husband and their new baby.

She stood for election to the Seanad earlier this year and very narrowly missed out on a seat.

However, 11 of the Seanad’s 60 seats are filled by nominees who are appointed by the taoiseach.

Ms Flynn was Taoiseach Micheál Martin’s only non-party political nominee, as all the others are members of the three parties which form the new coalition government.

On Twitter, she thanked all three party leaders for “giving a voice to minority views in the Seanad”.

There were more than 30,000 Travellers in the Republic of Ireland at the time of the last census in 2016.

In 2017, Travellers were granted formal recognition by the state as an indigenous ethnic minority.

However, a Seanad report published earlier this year said Travellers “are still experiencing stigma, longstanding prejudice, discrimination, racism, social exclusion and identity erosion”.

The report’s first recommendation was to “reserve a seat in the Seanad for Travellers” in the form of a taoiseach’s nominee.

Members of the new Seanad held their first meeting in Dublin’s Convention Centre on Monday, which also happens to be Senator Flynn’s birthday.

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Addressing her fellow senators, she said: “I look forward to working with everybody and hopefully we can all learn from each other and, hopefully, I’ll be that person that will break down the barriers for Traveller people and also for those at the end of Irish society.”

In addition to her plans for hate crime legislation, Ms Flynn said she also wants to help pass the existing Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill.