Racism towards Travellers hangs in the air in Ireland
The State’s failure to recognise the ethnic identity of Travellers is a denial of equal status with others
IN DUBLIN Castle today, at a conference called “Ethnicity and Travellers: an Exploration” being run by the Department of Justice and Equality, the “experts” are at it again – the settled academics, that is.
They will explain and conceptualise ideas about my Traveller identity. Catherine Joyce and Brigid Quilligan, Pavee beoirs (Traveller women), will bring authenticity to the discussion, making real the notion of self-determination.
Personally, ethnicity can only be described in relation to the tangibility of friendship. Often it’s the direct opposite of the abstract language used to describe ethnicity and identity politics.
I have a friend called Katherine, who is a settled woman, and when she came into my life, from the get-go my statement was: “You’re settled. I’m a Traveller. In our country you belong, you’re counted. I’m the nuisance that they don’t know what to do with.”
There have been unsettling moments in our friendship relating to how Traveller identity is perceived and how wilfully ethnocentric Irish society is. Racism towards Travellers hangs in the air between us. It is an often covert racism, an undermining racism, a difficult racism to challenge or articulate. Being friends with me, the buoyancy of Katherine’s position as a settled person gets unbalanced whenever the malignant tides rise intensely against Travellers. Identity is something that can’t be escaped. We’re all grounded in who we are – our tradition, culture and heritage.
Katherine has never wavered into that space of ambiguity where reasonable, kind-hearted settled friends often say “but” and “if”, wanting Travellers to behave more “responsibly” even when they are being hated.
There’s a place for the rights mantra and responsibility mantra – on both sides. There’s a constant realisation that we’re both evolving, developing and stretching the possibilities of what it means to be Irish women, each with our own identities. My mother had settled friends. She paid them “visits”. That’s how she described her connection with them.
The separation of the State from the Catholic Church, the State recognition of the damage done to children in institutional care, decriminalising homosexuality, legislating for divorce and civil partnership, and now the children’s rights referendum – all of these are milestones of progressive change.
But the burning issue of Traveller ethnicity is unresolved.
In Britain, the ethnicity of Irish Travellers has been law since the case of O’Leary and Others v Punch Retail in 2000. In Northern Ireland, since 1997, Travellers have been classified as a “racial group” for the purposes of the Race Relations Order. And the world hasn’t stopped turning.