Separate status for Travellers a misguided idea
OPINION:The recent publication by Sinn Féin TD Pádraig Mac Lochlainn of a Private Members Bill on the issue has accelerated the campaign to recognise the Traveller community as a distinct and separate ethnic group within society.
Many threads have contributed to the rich and complex tapestry of Irishness over generations. It is always difficult when a group demands special status for itself and sets itself apart from the rest of the community.
I caution against this initiative. The ongoing campaign to give ethnic minority status to Travellers is both misguided and dangerous. Genetic studies have shown there is no basis for such a distinction. Travellers are Irish like the rest of us.
The cultural uniqueness of the Travellers is not of such a scale to justify minority status. They share the same language, religion and broad cultural inheritance of the vast majority of Irish people.
There are many other groups in Ireland who have their own cultural traditions, Gaeltacht people, farmers, Church of Ireland people, people who live in south County Dublin, Kerry people, Jewish people – the list is long. It would be ludicrous even to think in terms of designating these groups as ethnic minorities. Designating Travellers as an ethnic minority is equally ludicrous.
Designating a group within society as separate is also dangerous. If European history of the 20th century has taught us anything it has taught us that lesson. The Traveller organisations which support the granting of separate status should reflect very carefully on their arguments and on the history of Ireland.
Far from improving the position of Travellers, separate status risks endangering and ultimately weakening their position. If any group sets itself apart from the wider community its members open themselves to a perception of not being Irish at all. That would be a dangerous stance to take. Giving separate status to Travellers would also set a precedent. We now have genuine ethnic minorities in Ireland. Are we going to give special status to Polish/Irish, Chinese/Irish, Nigerian/Irish, Lithuanian/Irish and others who some sections of the Irish commentariat like to describe as “the new Irish”. I doubt that the tens of thousands of Irish who settled in Britain in the 1950s and later would like themselves to be categorised as “the new British”.
The granting of special status to groups of differing opinion and persuasion is a recipe for fragmentation of Irish society. We live in a Republic where one of the most fundamental dispositions is that every citizen is equal before the law. Every citizen has rights and fundamental to those rights are responsibilities. That is how it should be and that is how it should remain.
It is ironic that a Sinn Féin member of the Dáil should propose a Bill to accord special status to one particular group of Irish people. After all it was Wolfe Tone, a founding figure of Irish republicanism, who expressed the view that he wished to replace Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter with the common name of Irishman.
I fully acknowledge that the Traveller community has been disadvantaged. It is not unique. Many other groups in Ireland have also suffered disadvantage. Significant progress has been made in recent decades in improving the conditions of and opportunities for Travellers. This work must continue and the Traveller community must provide the leadership for the further advances. Specifically, the Traveller community needs to tackle the issue of rural crime, which is a particular problem in their community. The very high levels of unemployment in the Traveller community can be eased by a strong commitment to training and education. Similarly the State needs to address as a matter of urgency men’s health issues as they apply to Travellers. Local Traveller action groups active in most counties in the State and co-ordinated by Travellers themselves continue to do great work, albeit with reduced funding, improving the living conditions of Travellers.
Ireland was always a diverse society. In recent years it is becoming even more diverse. Let us celebrate that diversity. Separating us into different elements and categories would be unhelpful and regressive.
The Traveller community has always made a strong contribution to Irish society. Long may that contribution continue, as part of a whole, not separate and distinct.
In the words of the slogan – united we stand, divided we fall.
is a TD for Laois-Offaly and is chairman of the Fine Gael parliamentary party.