The road to recognising ethnic rights of Travellers


INTERVIEW:Sinn Féin TD Pádraig Mac Lochlainn is to introduce legislation to identify Travellers as an ethnic minority

Legislation will be introduced to the Dáil in the new year to recognise Travellers as an ethnic minority.

The Traveller Ethnicity Recognition Bill will be introduced in private members’ time by the Sinn Féin TD for Donegal North East, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn.

Mac Lochlainn, the first TD from a Traveller background, does not put himself forward as a spokesman for the community but says his upbringing “by two strong, loving Traveller women” gives him a “great insight into the Traveller identity”.

Born in Leeds in 1973, he was brought up in Birmingham by his mother, Mary Mac Lochlainn, and grandmother Lizzy Gavin, both Irish Travellers.

His father, Réamonn Mac Lochlainn, was in the Provisional IRA and imprisoned in England for nine years. The family moved back to Donegal in 1983.

He says a “very practical view” informs his view.

“First, it’s time to actually acknowledge the important role of the Traveller community in Irish culture and history. And then, if we can acknowledge that in legislation, we can move into a straight conversation between the Travellers and settled communities.

“I can see that whenever the settled community has stepped up and provided facilities, like halting sites, there wasn’t always great respect for the facilities. There’s a real sense of a lack of respect from both communities for the other.”

He believes ethnic recognition would be a first step in a process – that may take generations – towards mutual understanding and respect that would benefit both communities.

It would confer on the community certain rights – to culturally appropriate housing, healthcare and positive support in accessing education and employment.

With such rights would come responsibilities, says Government TD Aodhán Ó Ríordáin of the Labour Party. Vocal in his support for ethnic recognition, he says if it were afforded to Travellers “they would have to live up to it” just as society would have “live up to” its implications.

“It would be a challenge to the rest of Irish society to come to terms with the community. This is a people with a rich culture, rich traditions, strong faith and hugely strong family loyalties that has been continually ostracised, undermined, marginalised.

“It has a huge lack of self-confidence and self-esteem.”

This lack of confidence and the discrimination, he says, play a “huge part” in negatives such as drunkenness, violence and low life expectancy.

Young Travellers such as Eileen Flynn (23) from Ballyfermot in Dublin, who are better educated than their parents, argue strongly for ethnic recognition. Though proud of her Traveller background she speaks of “hiding the fact that I’m a Traveller, because people judge you immediately and negatively”.

“I think if we can get Travellers recognised we can begin to lobby properly for Traveller culture, housing, for simple things like that. We can start to stop being ashamed of who we are, be proud and take our place.”

She acknowledges problems such as feuding, alcoholism and huge unemployment (83 per cent), but says: “There’s an awful lot more good about us than there is bad.”

The three national Traveller organisations – the Irish Traveller Movement, Pavee Point and the National Traveller Women’s Forum – have campaigned for many years for recognition, and have the support of the United Nations.

In Britain, Irish Travellers have been recognised as an ethnic group since 2000 by virtue of “certain distinct characteristics” apart from their being Irish.

While previous ministers for justice have refused to consider granting Travellers ethnic status, the current Minister, Alan Shatter, says “serious consideration is being given” to it.

Landmark ruling Ethnic minority status

Irish Travellers were recognised as an ethnic minority in Britain in a landmark court judgment in 2000, on the grounds that:

they had a long shared history

they had a distinct cultural tradition that included their nomadism; their preference for self-employment and some traditional occupations; the fact some still practised matchmaking and tended to marry within their community; and their particular attachment to ritual and pilgrimage

they shared a common language – Shelta, Gammon or Cant – even if few spoke it

they had common oral traditions

they had suffered disadvantage, discrimination and prejudice because of their identity.

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