Tuam: ‘It’s important Traveller groups don’t get carried away’

Peter Casey gained traction in Galway East – were his Traveller remarks a big factor?

“For the majority, this guy seemed to speak a common person’s language,” says Independent Cllr Shaun Cunniffe of Peter Casey. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

“For the majority, this guy seemed to speak a common person’s language,” says Independent Cllr Shaun Cunniffe of Peter Casey. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA

 

Watching the election results as they came in Saturday evening, Tuam resident Martin Ward was not surprised to see the strong showing by Peter Casey in Galway East.

“He was playing a game: he used a divide-and-conquer technique,” he says, “He targeted Travellers, an indigenous Irish minority. People are always looking for someone to blame for what is happening and Travellers are a soft target.”

In the Census figures published last October, Tuam was identified as having the biggest population of Travellers in towns of 1,500-plus residents. And they have been there for a long time.

Some have links with the north Galway town going back eight generations, says Mr Ward, who was twice elected mayor of Tuam, serving in 2003-04 and again in 2007-08.

He hopes those terms in office helped to strengthen what he believes to be “a fairly good relationship between the settled and Travelling community”.

The quick interpretation of the surge in support for Peter Casey in the polls is that it was a response to his controversial remarks about the Traveller community. While incumbent Michael D Higgins was the comfortable winner in Galway East, polling 18,011 first-preference votes, Mr Casey attracted an eye-catching 11,227 number ones. But some in Tuam would argue that to equate those votes to automatic support for Mr Casey’s remarks on Travellers is reductive.

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When Shaun Cunniffe, an Independent and a member of Galway County Council, chatted with people during the lead-up to Friday’s poll, he sensed they saw in Mr Casey a candidate who touched on their concerns.

Martin Ward, who was twice mayor of Tuam, Co Galway
Martin Ward, who was twice mayor of Tuam, Co Galway

“I don’t think the vote here was just down to what was said about Travellers. Some of it was, perhaps. But for the majority, this guy seemed to speak a common person’s language. And I feel that people who are struggling to make ends meet don’t feel as if they have anyone to speak up for them. The Government should look at this vote because these people are the finest of people and they just don’t think the Government policies in relation to social spending are right.”

Bane of all things

Mr Ward also believes that, regardless of the phrasing of Mr Casey’s remarks, the controversy has “brought to light concerns that people have around Travellers – and the belief that they are the bane of all things”.

“I think some of it was a protest vote and some maybe voted for him because they feel that Travellers are getting everything and others are voting because they feel he is saying the right thing. I do think it is very important that Travellers’ groups don’t get carried away. We need to look at it and examine it and address it in a positive way.”

In February, construction work began on an €8 million housing regeneration project on Gilmartin Road, a residential area close to Tuam GAA stadium. In recent years the street had become an eyesore. Its rejuvenation is one of the biggest social housing projects in the province, with demolition followed by construction of 40 new houses and the refurbishment of a further 21 homes. In recent years, the Gilmartin Road estate has been occupied mainly by members of the Traveller community and had fallen into a state of disrepair despite a significant regeneration project that was completed 15 years ago. The latest investment has been the source of conflicting opinion in the town. It’s a sensitive issue.

No disharmony

Mr Cunniffe points out that the “Traveller community” term is often an unsatisfactory generalisation. “Who are you talking about? Are you talking about the many good people who are involved in the community or in sport here?” He doesn’t believe that there is any general antagonism between the settled and Traveller communities in the town, but that there are specific concerns that are fanned by projects such as the Gilmartin Road redevelopment.

Gilmartin Road, Tuam, undergoing an €8 million housing regeneration project
Gilmartin Road, Tuam, undergoing an €8 million housing regeneration project

“I don’t think there is any disharmony in Tuam. But there would be a concern that there is a segment of our society that would seem to get everything provided in terms of housing without entering employment or persevering in education.”

Martin Ward runs the Western Traveller and Intercultural Development Association and stresses that its facilities are open to and used by members of the settled community. He feels there have been significant improvements in the interaction between the communities. The local rugby and soccer clubs has players from the Traveller community. The majority feel comfortable going into local pubs and restaurants and in moving through the town.

“Of course, there will always be subtle discrimination and you are not going to have everyone very happy that Travellers are around the town. And, you know: if somebody does something wrong, you should be given one chance and one chance only. Doesn’t matter who you are. You have to respect people’s premises, whether it is a pub or restaurant or whatever. And I think, too, that people living in the town of Tuam, who know the people from the Traveller community would have a different view than people in the hinterland. When people get to know Travellers, they know that the majority of them are good people – they are honest and like everyone else are trying to get on in life – and to survive.”

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