Is it time for an apology to the Traveller community?

The least that can be expected is an official apology from the State for the awful crimes that have been committed against them

There are few more unique experiences to be had in Ireland than a visit to the annual Ballinasloe Horse Fair. It is well known as one of the oldest horse fairs in Europe, but above all, it is known as a key date in the Traveller calendar, though you would never guess this from the town of Ballinasloe's official website.

In the crowded pubs, groups of Traveller men rub elbows with women in Barbour jackets, blonde ponytails and Home Counties accents. Outside, on the streets, knots of spectacularly dressed teenage girls with elaborate hairstyles teeter along on impossible heels.

In the crowded area of the Fairgreen, packed with thousands of men and horses, all around you you will hear conversations in a foreign language: Cant, or Shelta. It is like being in a foreign country. In fact, you are in the Travellers’ country. Unfortunately for Travellers, they live most of their lives in the Settled country.

Turning point

It is now more than a year since the fire at the Carrickmines halting site that killed 10 members, mainly children, of two Traveller families. The deaths were so unnecessary, yet symbolic in that they revealed the conditions under which many Travellers lived and the neglect by local councils. The outpourings of grief seemed to mark a turning point being reached in settled society's attitude to Travellers.

But within a few hours, it was business as usual. The attempt to rehouse the remnants of the families was blocked by some local people, with the passive collaboration of the authorities. The people involved in the illegal blockade refused to reveal their identities, revealing that they knew how shameful their actions were.

Enda Kenny, at first seemingly as shocked and emotional as the rest of the nation, quickly retreated to entrenched attitudes, his syntax as tortured as his moral contortions.

A few days later, a moral nadir was reached when some of the dead children were being buried in Wexford. The local publicans closed down the town for the day, and the current leader of the Labour Party, Brendan Howlin, when asked for a comment, could only say that "you had to understand people's fears". A Labour Party activist dismissed my criticism: "He's the local TD. It's just Irish politics."

Protest event

Soon after the funerals, I attended a protest event organised by Traveller groups outside the Dáil. I was struck by the quiet but intense anger of the people there – Travellers from all over Ireland, of all ages and political views. But it was a banked-down anger, awkwardly expressed in the classic language of 1960s American civil rights. Travellers, like the young Barack Obama as he relates in his memoirs, learn early on that to express legitimate anger is seen as threatening by the settled world.

I have rarely seen anything as moving as the elderly Traveller women in their Mass-going coats, their faces masks of suppressed fury and quiet dignity, probably demonstrating in public for the first time in their lives.

Also striking was the lack of people from the settled community. But it seemed to have no effect, and was barely reported. One Traveller friend told me she'd just been phoned by an RTÉ journalist looking for her take on the Carrickmines fire. The first question was: "Surely you can understand people's legitimate fears about having a halting site next door?" My friend quietly hung up.

The fear and hatred of Travellers, like all forms of racism, has a deeply irrational aspect. Travellers, after all, are a tiny minority, even in Irish terms, and most Irish people have little or no contact with them in real life.

My own first real contact with Travellers was only a few years ago, when I found myself working in the Galway suburb of Ballybane, home to many so-called settled Travellers. What struck me straight away was the level of racism directed against them in everyday speech by people who I thought should have known better.

This week's belated recognition of Travellers as an ethnic minority may seem a small step, but it will have huge consequences

Somehow, Traveller’s rights have never been as popular a cause as Gaza, water charges, gay marriage, or even the burkini ban. It would seem to be a classic example of Freud’s narcissism of small differences – in many ways Travellers seem to settled people as Irish people traditionally seemed to non-Irish racists.

Groundbreaking documentaries

That is why John Connors's brilliant series of documentaries broadcast by RTÉ last year was so important and groundbreaking, and was destined to change the course of Irish consciousness, much like Mary Raftery's Suffer the Little Children. The visible pain and hurt etched into the faces of the very few Travellers who survive into old age is eloquent in itself, it needs no comment or argument. Their stories of institutional abuse, their constant fear of having their children taken from them by the State, were harrowing to hear.

This week’s belated recognition of Travellers as an ethnic minority may seem a small step, but it will have huge consequences. The next step will be the enforced provision of proper accommodation, educational and health facilities appropriate to their culture and lifestyle.

But above all, what is needed now is an apology. It is probably too soon for a Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But the least that can be expected is an official apology from the State for the awful crimes that have been committed against them by the State since its foundation.

Michael O’Loughlin is a writer and poet