Mediation needed to heal ‘divisions’ between Travellers and settled community in Rathkeale

‘Uneasy tolerance’ and ‘practical apartheid’ in town, says report

A boarded up commercial building on Main St, Rathkeale, Co Limerick Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22

A boarded up commercial building on Main St, Rathkeale, Co Limerick Photograph: Liam Burke/Press 22

Mon, Mar 11, 2013, 06:00

A Northern Ireland-style mediation process is needed to heal divisions between Travellers and the settled community in Rathkeale, Co Limerick, according to official reports submitted to Government.

The studies, based on input from residents, community groups and State agencies, say the town is the first in the country where the Travelling community has “numerical and financial supremacy”.

However, they state that Travellers are almost absent from civic life and there is an “uneasy tolerance” and almost “total disengagement” between both communities.

“They are living out a practical apartheid,” one report states. “The power balance between the communities has shifted in favour of the Traveller community who are now the dominant group.”

Advantages
The reports state that the town has many advantages, such as sporting facilities, low reported crime rates and an unrivalled community spirit.

There is also a sense of pride and contentment from both communities in being from the town. However, they find the town has suffered from a serious decline in business activity and a continued flight of the settled population.

For example, they say that the population of the town declined by more than 20 per cent in the 15 years leading up to 2009. In addition, the main street had almost 30 businesses that are no longer trading.

“Rathkeale is a practically segregated town with very clear Traveller and settled community residential zones. Only the Main Street is ‘shared territory’. The residential patterns represent a practical apartheid.”

The findings are contained in two reports: a study on the background of Rathkeale by an interagency taskforce and an assessment report by Mediation Northern Ireland, completed in March 2009. Both reports recommend community-building and mediation processes to build cohesion between the two communities.


Plans stalled
However, well-placed sources say attempts to implement many of the recommendations have stalled.

The Mediation Northern Ireland report found that a lack of communication between both communities had led to misleading assumptions and unhealthy division.

“Each community assumes that the other does not have the best interests of the town at heart,” it states. Cultural differences between both communities – such as flamboyant dress at Mass, grave sizes, elaborate and expensive weddings – were also an issue.

“Each of the main communities in the town operate to different social and cultural norms and perceptions of good taste. This can lead to behaviour that, while neither criminal nor anti-social, is seen as unacceptable to the other.”

The report notes that both communities continue to behave as if neither of them has noticed that Travellers are now the dominant community in the town.

’Tinker town’

It says some settled people object to the term “tinker town”, not because it was offensive, but because it recognises that Travellers were living there permanently.

“Until both communities are willing to face this reality and the difficulties that come with it, there is unlikely to be an effective solution to these issues,” the mediation report says.

“Both communities need to come to terms with their interdependence. Unless current demographic changes are balanced by cultural changes, neither community will actually survive without the other," the report states.