Roma children case exposes deep roots of bigotry and prejudice

Opinion: Excuses offered for actions of gardaí are not plausible

A Roma family after their eviction from an encampment in Villeneuve d’Ascq in France last year. Photograph: Reuters

A Roma family after their eviction from an encampment in Villeneuve d’Ascq in France last year. Photograph: Reuters

Wed, Oct 30, 2013, 12:01

The dilemma faced by the gardaí involved in the removal of two Roma children from their homes last week was, supposedly, “Damned if they do and damned if they don’t.” There was no dilemma: they would not have been damned if they had not removed the children.

They had no authority to remove the children, since, it is apparent, there was not “a reasonable ground for believing that there [was] an immediate and serious risk to the health or welfare of [the children concerned]”. (Had there been such a risk, the other children in those homes should also have been removed.) What the gardaí did had the appearance of illegality, something that is obscured by the “damned if they do and damned if they don’t” refrain.

Actually, there might be quite a problem here. Few of us had appreciated the frequency with which Section 12 of the Child Care Act 1991 had been deployed – 729 times in 2010, 751 in 2011 and 764 in 2012. It is difficult to believe that in no other case did gardaí not behave with a similar indifference to the specific and narrow circumstances in which they are authorised to remove a child from their families. We need to know more about that.


‘Good faith’
The excuse that the gardaí “acted in good faith”, as suggested by Enda Kenny and Alan Shatter, is not good enough. If gardaí acting in good faith have been removing children from homes other than where there is “a reasonable ground for believing that there is an immediate and serious risk to the health or welfare of the child”, we must be told about it and the abuse has to be ended. Anyway, if there was such “good faith”, why were the children’s parents not allowed to go with them to the HSE centre?

Other features of the case of the Roma children are disturbing. Among them is the alacrity with which some gardaí, acting alone or on instructions or encouragement from others, appear to have breached the confidentiality that should have surrounded child protection procedures, supplying the detail that this concerned a Roma family to a reporter from the Sunday World. Could it be that one of the gardaí involved in these cases shares a prejudice generally held here against Romanians and Romany people specifically?

In his disturbing book Pluralism and Diversity in Ireland, published in 2011, Jesuit sociologist Micheál MacGreil found public prejudice against Romanians was very marked. He found 16.6 per cent of the population would deny Romanians citizenship and only 55.6 per cent would welcome Romanians into their family, as compared with, for instance, Polish people (5.3 per cent and 69.6 per cent respectively). He surmised: “The relatively weaker positions of Romanians may be due to the negative stereotype of Romany people, associated with begging on the streets. It could also have an element of social class prejudice.”


Travellers
It would also be surprising if the prejudice against Travellers did not rub off on Romany immigrants – both viewed as gypsies. Micheál MacGreil remarked in Pluralism and Diversity in Ireland that Travellers “in a sense constitute an example of apartheid within the indigenous Irish population”. In a survey he conducted 1972-1972 he said Travellers could have been classified as “lower caste”.

He stated: “This position had deteriorated further in 1988-1989 to become the outcast.” His 2007-2008 survey showed the position of Travellers had improved and disapproved. While 39.6 per cent would welcome Travellers as members of their family, 18.2 per cent would deny them citizenship. He commented: “This means that Travellers can no longer be classified as ‘lower caste’ but . . . are facing serious hostility and prejudice in their own country.”

The prejudice against Travellers must be part of the explanation for the ravaging, in the budgets since 2008, of programmes directed at them. In his report Travelling with Austerity: Impacts of Cuts on Travellers, Traveller Projects and Services, social researcher Brian Harvey found that from 2008 to 2013, while overall government spending was cut by 4.3 per cent, funding for programmes benefiting Travellers were devastated.

Interagency activities programmes for Travellers were cut by 100 per cent; funding for Traveller education by 86.6 per cent; Traveller accommodation by 85 per cent; national Traveller organisations by 63.4 per cent; Fás special initiatives for Travellers by 50 per cent. Brian Harvey comments: “One can think of no other section of the community which has suffered such a high level of withdrawal of funding and human resources, compounded by the failure of the State to spend even the limited resources that it has made available.”

Racial prejudice and bigotry have deep roots in this society and extend, it seems, to the corridors of power.

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