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
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.”
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.
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.)
Extended family is central to most Traveller lives; that’s why Travellers seek “culturally appropriate accommodation”, whether that’s grouped housing or halting sites. “Extended family” means something far different to Travellers than to settled Irish people: it means living together, supporting each other, collective identity. There’s also a yearning for nomadism, long after the freedom to travel has been largely denied.
A mural called “Happiness”, painted by children in a Traveller resource centre in south Dublin, says something about their dreams – it shows an Irish dancer, a Jack Russell, a rainbow, a girl on a unicorn holding a mobile phone, a boy shoeing a horse, a fairy castle.
At a session in the centre discussing Traveller lives, a young Traveller sings songs of the road, children report they’ve been told not to talk Cant – the Travellers’ language – in school, older women reminisce fondly about nights by the campfire.
Travellers are both different and the same: most “country people” – Travellers’ term for settled people – might not get it, might wish it weren’t so, just as Northern Protestants, Catholics might wish the other community weren’t there. But they are here: if Travellers could be willed out of existence, the “itinerant settlement” policy of the 1960s-1980s would have done so by now.
If Travellers weren’t different, their existence wouldn’t be an issue. How would it help if the Government did formally recognise Travellers as an ethnic group? It would provide more protection under international human rights law, and place value on a group so Irish society might see Travellers more positively.
It could help to reverse the internalised oppression that may explain why male suicide rates are nearly seven times that of the settled community. It could help the Traveller community tackle the violence provoked by a minority that threatens them all.
Travellers are an ethnic minority – it’s time the Government agreed. And it would bring them credit if they did it before July.
Journalist Frances O’Rourke is chairwoman of Southside Travellers in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. Breda O’Brien is on leave