Ethnic recognition a momentous step for Irish Travellers

Overturning of official policy which saw Travellers as a ‘problem’ highly significant

After almost 20 years covering the Traveller community, a story heard repeatedly has been of Traveller children hiding their identity.

One, told here before, is that of the son of Mags Casey, a young Traveller mother in Tipperary who spoke to The Irish Times 10 years ago, about the "shame" her then 11 year-old son felt about being a Traveller.

“It’s a curse to be a Traveller, Mommy,” he said. When she told him his identity was something to be proud of, he protested: “Mommy it’s not. You’re afraid if the neighbours find out we’re Travellers. You’re hiding it. It is a curse, Mommy.”

She commented to me: “What can you say to that? It does kill a little bit of you to hear that.”

Another story is that of a school principal reassuring a Traveller mother that her children were not being bullied in the school. “No-one knows they’re Travellers. I’ve made sure of it.”

Another that comes to mind is of a gorgeous Traveller teenage girl with long red hair to die for, telling how her dream was to be a hairdresser. “But I couldn’t tell anyone I’m Traveller. No-one would let me style their hair if they knew I’m a Traveller.”

Before Wednesday night's statement to the Dáil, by Enda Kenny, that he, "As Taoiseach . . . wish now to formally recognise Travellers as an ethnic group," Government spokesmen rushed to emphasise this is a mere symbolic statement. It would confer neither new rights to the community, nor additional costs to the exchequer, they said.

It marked nonetheless a momentous moment for the community – an overturning of over 50 years of official policy which, in essence, said Travellers were a “problem”.

The last major government statement on the Travelling community was the 1963 Report of the Commission on Itinerancy. Travellers were, "despised as inferior beings and are regarded as the dregs of society", it read.

“Many feel that they would demean themselves by associating themselves with them. Their presence is considered to lower the tone of a neighbourhood and those who live in that neighbourhood are seldom satisfied until the itinerants have been moved on.”

‘Social problems’

It spoke of the “problem” of the “presence in the country of itinerants in considerable numbers” and of the “social problems inherent in their way of life”.

It talked of how best to achieve their “absorption into the general community”, even giving serious consideration to the “solution” of “itinerant children being taken from their families and placed in institutions”.

In one generation, it said, “itinerants as a class would disappear”.

Given the strong bonds in Traveller families, however, it cautioned against this, explaining that any advantages would be negligible, given the “lasting legacy of bitterness” it could give rise to.

Many, including this writer, have argued that State policy towards Travellers has changed radically since 1963. There have been a plethora of reports and studies including in 1995 the landmark Report of the Task Force on the Travelling Community which recognised the extreme marginalisation of the community. In truth little has changed.

Almost 70 per cent of Travellers live in caravans or overcrowded housing, just 1 per cent have a college degree, 82 per cent are unemployed, while Traveller women have five times the suicide rate of their settled sisters, and men have seven times the rate of settled men.

Abject poverty

I have met hundreds of Traveller children living all over this State in abject poverty, often without electricity, running water or even toilets. I have witnessed the dangerous living conditions – sites infested with rats, rocks and potholes full of water, electricity wires trailing from van to van.

These conditions are not the life choices of their parents. These are the choices of local authorities who repeatedly and with impunity refuse to use their powers to provide basic sanitation and facilities to our fellow citizens.

And what has remained stubbornly the same has been the damage, hurt and toxic shame too many young Travellers feel about who they are. No child should be told, by words, deeds or omissions, that they are bad, stupid, or unwanted.

Whether those of us in the settled community wish to accept it or not, that is how, say Travellers of all ages, we and too many of our public representatives by our words, deeds and omissions make them feel.

Deeply personal

One’s sense of identity can survive many things, but no-one can be expected to flourish if their identity is treated with contempt, disdain or denied. One’s identity is deeply personal. We know how enormous was the moment of acceptance and validation felt by our LGBT community on the passage of the marriage equality referendum.

Travellers have always self-identified as a distinct group. That self-identification is now, officially, being respected. It is the least we can do, literally.

True, it will not bring immediate new rights to Travellers. It will, however, be hugely important in enabling the community to leverage better access to rights they should already be enjoying – in education, housing, training, employment and well-being.

It’s also up to the community now, to live up to this new status and work with the settled powers to change the narrative that has dominated since 1963.

On Wednesday, father of three James Reilly, a Traveller man living in St Dominic's Park, Coolock, Dublin, said he would love to see Traveller culture being taught in the schools. "Wouldn't it be great?" he asked.

Traveller children would be “bursting with pride” if it was.

“I don’t think Traveller ethnicity will fix everything overnight. It might not be for our generation to see, but I think it will be a foundation for our children and grandchildren to live better lives.”

Kitty Holland is Social Affairs Correspondent