Ethnic recognition would help do away with the ‘shame’ of being a Traveller

Analysis: A positive Government statement could lead to a realignment between settled and Traveller communities

Mags Casey, a young Traveller mother in Co Tipperary, spoke to The Irish Times seven years ago about the "shame" her son felt at being a Traveller.

He had told her: “It’s a curse to be a Traveller, Mummy.”

When she urged him that his identity was something to be proud of, he said: “Mummy, it’s not. You’re afraid if the neighbours find out we’re Travellers. You’re hiding who you are. It is a curse, Mummy.”

She told this reporter at the time: “It does kill a little bit of you to hear that. He’s only 11.”


'First step'
Yesterday, in contrast, was a "great day", Casey said. It was a "first step" that the Oireachtas Committee on Justice and Equality had recommended that Travellers should be recognised as an ethnic minority.

“I’ll be delighted to go home this evening and tell my children. I know we’re not there yet, but I think it’s a major step on the road to Travellers really beginning to be able to hold their heads high and be proud of who we are, after generations of being told we are criminals, of being classed dysfunctional and that it would be better if we just disappeared.”

The emotional and even exultant reaction from Traveller groups might lead one to believe ethnicity had in fact been conferred on the community.

It has not. However, as Martin Collins of Pavee Point said, the recommendation was "historic", while in the words of Brigid Quilligan, director of the Irish Traveller Movement, it was "momentous".

A cross-party Oireachtas committee has said for the first time: “It is no longer tenable for this State to deny Traveller ethnicity.”

It comes after decades of campaigning by Traveller groups and human rights organisations for ethnic recognition, given Travellers’ shared history, culture, language and preference for nomadism. It also represents a complete about-turn since the last cross-party statement on Travellers in 1963, when the Commission on Itinerancy described Travellers as a “problem” and proposed that they be absorbed “into the general community”.

That mindset has informed public policy and pervaded the settled community's view of Travellers. From it have flowed five decades of regarding Travellers as failed settled people, along with policies that set about, in the words of Collins, "getting rid of Travellers". These included the 2002 anti- trespass legislation, which in effect criminalised nomadism, and the continued failure of local authorities to provide Traveller-specific accommodation.

Minister for Justice Alan Shatter must consider the recommendation. He has said he is "seriously considering" recognition of Traveller ethnicity. Such a step would be largely symbolic, but would represent a hugely significant statement of positive State recognition of a community that for generations has felt nothing but hostility and contempt.

The community faces challenges. Seven out of 10 Travellers die before 60; Traveller infants are 10 times as likely as settled infants to die before the age of two; the Traveller unemployment rate is more than 70 per cent; their suicide rate is five times that of the settled community; and they have higher rates of mental ill-health, alcoholism and drug abuse. There are also “image” problems caused by a minority who engage in feuding and violence.

Given time, it is hoped a positive statement from the highest levels of Government could result in a realignment between the settled community and our oldest indigenous minority.