Second Opinion: Ethnic status for Travellers – what’s stopping us?

There is a convincing case for the State finally to recognise Travellers as a distinct ethnic group

Eileen Flynn from Ballyfermot with Travellers and supporters  protesting outside the Dáil on Kildare Street, Dublin last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Eileen Flynn from Ballyfermot with Travellers and supporters protesting outside the Dáil on Kildare Street, Dublin last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill


It is time to right the wrongs inflicted on Irish Travellers over the past 50 years. The Report on the Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity , from the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, published this month, makes a convincing case for the State finally to recognise Travellers as a distinct ethnic group.

The committee held public hearings involving Travellers, researchers, the Irish Human Rights Commission and the Equality Authority, and concluded that “the evidence in favour of Traveller ethnicity is overwhelming”.

The report summarily dismisses the arguments put forward to deny Travellers separate ethnicity: it’s not in the best interests of Travellers (they disagree); it would cost too much (irrelevant); Traveller ethnicity is not proven (untrue); and the need for full consensus among Travellers (unnecessary).

Government Traveller policies over the past 50 years have failed dismally because they did not recognise Traveller ethnicity. Between 1963 and 1983 the policy was assimilation.

The 1963 Commission on Itinerancy Report declared that itinerants “do not constitute a separate ethnic group”.

The government’s position at that time was that “there can be no final solution to the problem created by itinerants until they are absorbed into the general community”.

The commission rejected Traveller ethnicity because it did not fit into the vision of a modernising Ireland.

The State wanted compliant people, living in houses, paying their taxes, and a convenient source of labour for business, farmers, industry and public services. The nomadic lifestyle of Travellers and their preference for self-employment did not suit this vision.

Terrible injustices
Travellers suffered terrible injustices because of assimilation policies. In 1979, as a newly appointed health education officer, I visited a primary school in Galway city that was trying to improve the attendance rates of Traveller children, which were then almost zero.

The principal proudly described the “hygiene” element of the programme, which involved showering and delousing the children before allowing them into segregated classrooms.

When I suggested that providing washing facilities to Traveller families and educating the children together would be less discriminatory, I was told I did not understand the itinerant problem.

Segregated classes were government policy until Travellers conformed and were assimilated into society. Is it any wonder Travellers did not send their children to school?

The health of Irish Travellers has not improved one whit in the past 50 years.

According to the All-Ireland Traveller Health Study , published in 2010, “the mortality gap has widened. For men in particular the mortality pattern is bleak.”

Traveller mortality rates are three and a half times that of the general population.

Male Travellers have higher mortality rates than 20 years ago. The life expectancy of Traveller men is 61, the same as that of the general population in 1945. Traveller women have a life expectancy of 70 years, the same as the general population in 1962.

Male suicides rates are nearly seven times that of the general population.

The Children’s Rights Alliance 2014 Report Card notes that Traveller babies are 3.6 times more likely to die than babies in the general population, earning the Government an E grade.


The 2011 Census shows that 84 per cent of Travellers are unemployed. Only 8

per cent completed upper second-level education. Just 1 per cent completed third-level education compared with almost a third of the general population.

As educational attainment and employment are major determinants of health, it is no wonder Traveller health is as bad as it is. Travellers want education.

The All-Ireland Traveller Health Study found that “Education was identified [by Travellers and providers] as of key importance.”

Ethnicity denial ensured that schools and universities did not need to adapt themselves to Travellers’ needs.

So why not officially acknowledge Travellers as a separate ethnic group?

Denial has been the default position of every government since the foundation of the State if the truth affects the comfort zone of the status quo.

No one wants to admit those in power got it wrong in 1963.

If Travellers had been recognised as a separate ethnic group 50 years ago, hundreds of infant and premature adult deaths could have been avoided.

The Government does not want to expose taxpayers to another expensive redress scheme. Legislation and Government policies that do not validate Traveller culture and way of life, including nomadism, will have to change.

On the other hand, not acknowledging Travellers as an ethnic group will incur more international censure from, among others, the Committee on the Elimination of all Forms of Racial Discrimination. So what’s stopping us?

Dr Jacky Jones is a former HSE regional manager of health promotion.

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