Independent Presidential candidate Peter Casey has said he believes the Travelling community has been poorly represented by representative group Pavee Point in the dispute over a controversial housing project outside Thurles.

A number of families from the Travelling community are refusing to move into newly-built homes at a €1.7m development, because of a dispute with Tipperary County Council.

Mr Casey has claimed this is because the families are demanding that the council provide stables for their horses, something he described as "blackmail"

However, Martin Collins, co-director of Pavee Point, had said the dispute was over land access for the horses, adding the families were prepared to build the stables themselves.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Six One News, Mr Casey said that Pavee Point should have intervened in Thurles and advised the Travellers that they were giving the wrong message to Ireland.

He said if people were encouraged to be different, there were responsibilities to represent their ethnic group properly.

Mr Casey said he believes it was wrong to encourage ethnic groups to feel that they were different.

He is to visit the controversial housing project in Tipperary tomorrow.

According to his campaign diary, he will travel to Thurles at lunchtime after a canvass in Cork, and then visit the six houses at Cabragh Bridge.

The development comes amid controversy over comments he made on the 'Floating Voter' Podcast, on the Independent.ie website.

During an interview on the podcast, he claimed that the State's recognition of the Travelling community as an ethnic minority was "a load of nonsense".

He also described Travellers as "basically people that are camping on someone else's land" and asserted that they were "not paying their fair share of taxes in society".

Mr Casey has been severely criticised by Traveller representative groups, with Pavee Point describing his comments as "ill-informed, grossly insulting and offensive". 

He also told RTÉ's Six One that Ireland was a melting pot with a 120,000 people from Poland and tens of thousands of people from all over Europe.

He said it was wonderful that there was such a diverse community, which represented the future of Ireland.

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Speaking during a debate on the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill 2018 in the Seanad this evening, Sinn Féin Senator Pádraig MacLochlainn condemned Mr Casey’s comments but also claimed that "a very significant number of public representatives across the country privately share Mr Casey's views".

Senator MacLochlainn, who is from a Traveller background, said: "What Peter Casey did in his ignorance was say out loud what many people believe privately. That's the truth. Let's not deny it."

Independent Senator Lynn Ruane said people need to call out Mr Casey's "discrimination and racism" against this part of society.

Ms Ruane said the four county councils who backed Peter Casey's nomination to run in the Presidential election to "come out and completely reject what Peter Casey has said about the Travelling community".

Presidential candidates respond to Peter Casey's comments

Incumbent President Michael D Higgins said he found Mr Casey's views appalling.

Speaking on RTÉ’s Morning Ireland, Mr Higgins said it was a very important step to recognise Traveller ethnicity and a wonderful opportunity to look at all the issues of inclusion.

Meanwhile, independent candidate Gavin Duffy said Mr Casey's comments were "reckless and inflammatory" and had no place in the election campaign. He called on Mr Casey to withdraw the comments.

Other candidates also reacted to Mr Casey's comments.

Senator Joan Freeman said Mr Casey's comments were hugely disrespectful and "frankly show how out of touch he is with this country".

Sinn Féin candidate Liadh Ní Riada said it was lazy racist stereotyping.

"l think he's absolutely racist to say those comments - it's absolutely unacceptable," she said, as she arrived for tonight's six-way debate on Virgin Media, which will be moderated by Pat Kenny.

Seán Gallagher tweeted that he was "disgusted by the remarks made in relation to the Travelling community". 

"The Travelling Community have long lived with a cloud of negativity, exclusion and marginalisation hanging over them."

Latest poll reveals huge lead for Higgins

Separately, the latest Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI opinion poll on the Presidential Election suggests Mr Higgins has a huge lead over his rivals.

Despite criticisms of Mr Higgins for failing to engage in some debates, 66% of people are backing Mr Higgins for re-election.

Only two of the five challengers to the incumbent registered support in double figures.

The support for the candidates among respondents who expressed a preference is:

Michael D Higgins 66%, Seán Gallagher 12%, Liadh Ní Riada 11%, Joan Freeman 5%; Gavin Duffy 4% and Peter Casey 2%.

The poll was conducted on Wednesday, Thursday and Friday of last week among a representative
sample of 1,200 voters aged 18 and over in face-to-face interviews at 120 sampling points in all constituencies. The margin of error is plus or minus 2.8%.

Additional reporting Paul Cunningham