Our casual racism against Travellers is one of Ireland's last great shames
The arson attack wasn’t the only example of prejudice: it came in the weeks after local Fine Gael councillor Eugene Dolan was reported as saying that Travellers could “be sent to Spike Island for all I care”, and Bundoran Fianna Fáil councillor Sean McEniff suggested Travellers should live in isolation. Their parties distanced themselves for the remarks, describing them as “personal views”, but neither man was asked to resign or to withdraw their comments.
Minister for the Environment Phil Hogan didn’t see any reason to apologise either over a letter he wrote to his Co Kilkenny constituents last year, assuring them that a Traveller family would not be moved into their area. Neither did District Court Judge Seamus Hughes, who last year called Travellers “Neanderthal men lying in the long grass and living by the law of the jungle”.
In the UK, Irish Travellers have been recognised as a distinct ethnic minority for 13 years.
Many Irish people resist the idea of a distinct ethnicity for Travellers – but it’s not clear that they rate Travellers as full citizens with equal rights, either.
According to the 2011 Census, there are 30,000 Travellers in Ireland. There are problems with feuding and antisocial behaviour with some elements of the community, but as settled people, we’re far too quick to hold the entire community responsible.
Criminality is not, as the playwright Rosaleen McDonagh wrote in this newspaper recently, in Travellers’ culture or in their DNA. Some Travellers are petty criminals, for sure; just as some are celebrated writers and some are Olympic boxers. Some have big dreams for the future; others just want to get through the day. Some are articulate human-rights campaigners; others cannot even write. They are mothers and fathers and aunts and cousins and grandparents and good neighbours and schoolfriends.
In other words, they are just as amorphous and flawed and ugly and beautiful as any other member of society, only with significantly fewer advantages than most.
Their nomadic lifestyle makes the provision of appropriate healthcare – along with education and housing – more difficult, with the result that Travellers’ health statistics are similar to those of people living in the developing world. Three per cent live to 65. Their mortality rate is three times the national average; their suicide rate is six times. If their ethnicity was recognised, indices such as these couldn’t be ignored.
Instead, we go on brushing the “Traveller issue” under the same threadbare carpet where we have always tucked away all the societal ills we didn’t want to think about. Earlier this week, it was revealed that since 2007, local councils have failed to draw down more than €50 million allocated to them to provide Traveller housing.
But when the rest of the world points these failings out to us, or suggests that maybe we could be doing more – as the European Commission against Racism and Intolerance’s (ECRI) fourth monitoring report on Ireland did only last week – we stick our fingers in our ears, rock on our heels and whistle loudly. Just as we’ve always done.