Travellers feel ‘left behind’ by representative organisations, activists say

‘We have the haves and the have-nots and that’s creating the divide in our community’

Many Travellers felt “left behind” by the organisations claiming to speak for them, leading activists have warned.

Brigid Quilligan, former director of the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM), said it was clear to anyone working on the ground that large numbers of Travellers were in such deep poverty, struggling with addictions and mental health difficulties, that they felt "disenfranchised" even from Traveller advocacy groups.

“We have the haves and the have-nots and that’s creating the divide in our community. We must seek to close that gap instead of letting it widen.”

She was among five former ITM directors speaking, and current director Bernard Joyce, speaking at an online event on Wednesday to mark the organisation's 30th anniversary.


It was “deliberate,” she believed, that Government funding for advocacy organisations was now so contingent on service delivery rather than community development. This meant the most vulnerable had no voice anymore.

Catherine Joyce, now manager of the Blanchardstown Traveller Development Project, said the community had "come a long way" in the past three decades but "some of the prejudices out there are hardening against Travellers" and have "become more strategic".

“When we look at the negativity towards reception centres for asylum seekers, I would say some of those people honed their skills and developed them in the way they treated Travellers and got away with it. They have now become very strategic about how they object to these people and these centres…because they did this with Travellers and got away with it,” she said.

She said it was important Traveller organisations fought for equality within the community, especially for LGBTQI+ members, those with autism and women. “We have to make our own community more inclusive and ensure that we don’t leave people behind because we’re fighting the great fight.”

Damien Peelo, now chief executive of the single parents' organisation Treoir, said it was "great to see the diversity of new Traveller voices" but added that "there is a real need now to try to go back and connect with Travellers who feel left behind.

“I think we are on the cusp of something new. I think there is a willingness, because of what we have learned from Covid and from Black Lives Matter movement, there’s a great opportunity now for the ITM to play a key role and to really, really improve the recognition of Travellers.”

He called for a State apology to Travellers for the ‘assimilationist’ approach which still informs thinking and policy. “We have had apologies for other really terrible polices in the past.. I think the Traveller community is owed an apology.”

Thomas McCann, founder member of the ITM and now director of the Traveller counselling service, said the mental health issues had grown in the past decade and were “a crisis that affects the whole community across Ireland”.

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent of The Irish Times