Time for Travellers to be recognised as an ethnic minority

Opinion: Perfectly nice liberal people who wouldn’t dream of making racist remarks about, say, black people, will routinely make disparaging remarks about Travellers

Travellers and supporters protesting outside the Dáil last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / THE IRISH TIMES

Travellers and supporters protesting outside the Dáil last year. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill / THE IRISH TIMES

Sun, Jun 22, 2014, 12:01

We’re sitting in a country hotel on the way back from a day in Knock. The owner comes over to our group to welcome us, asks how we’re getting on. We’re a group of eight women, mostly Travellers. They’re surprised, pleased: it’s not their usual experience.

One recalls how she couldn’t get a cup of coffee at a Traveller wedding because the hotel had ruled that no hot drinks would be served that day.

Another talks about her experience in her local shop: she walks in, there’s a queue of people waiting to be served, but immediately, a staff member approaches her, says “can I help you?” She knows that this isn’t an expression of concern, but of suspicion.

Small things, you might think, but not for Travellers, whose lives are daily corroded by the contempt so many of their fellow citizens feel for them. Or as Brigid Quilligan, director of the Irish Traveller Movement, told a recent Oireachtas Committee , “. . .we still experience discrimination and prejudice in every area of life on a daily basis. People justify racism by stating we bring it on ourselves. This is what the general Irish population thinks about us and we know this. We feel the hate, as do our children.”

Refuse service

People who aren’t Irish wonder – how do settled people even know that someone’s a Traveller? But they do and odds are, many will refuse service/won’t book a Traveller wedding/will campaign to make sure Travellers don’t move near them.

And yet tell a settled person that Travellers’ big issue is the fight to be recognised as an ethnic minority, and they’re in denial. As new Minister for Children, Charlie Flanagan, said last month: “I believe that Travellers are Irish like the rest of us.”

He rejects the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality’s historic recommendation in April that it is “unsustainable” for the State to reject the ethnicity of Travellers. He doesn’t seem to understand that Travellers are both Irish and Travellers, an indigenous ethnic minority.

Racist remarks

Prejudice against Travellers is the last “acceptable prejudice” in Ireland. Perfectly nice liberal people who wouldn’t dream of making racist remarks about, say, black people, vociferous in their support of gay marriage, will routinely make jokes and disparaging remarks about Travellers.

Traveller and human rights groups hope that acknowledging Irish Travellers as an ethnic minority will start to change this. Travellers meet all the current international definitions of ethnicity – they have a shared history, culture and traditions, including a nomadic way of life. (That’s the Government’s own definition of the Traveller community in its equal status legislation.)

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