Peter Casey will not succeed in winding clock back on Travellers

Traveller ethnic status is not up for debate despite election campaign dog whistles

Peter Casey ‘appears to advocate a return to the assimilationist policies of the past’ in relation to Travellers. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Peter Casey ‘appears to advocate a return to the assimilationist policies of the past’ in relation to Travellers. Photograph: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

 

Back in the day, in the early 1990s, politicians and political parties were greedy and careless. Anti-Traveller sentiment was an assured vote-catcher. The assumption was that Traveller accommodation was the contentious issue, or that it was just a rural response. That’s a myth. The cultural ephemera of the times also allowed these politicians, so-called mavericks, to be homophobic and misogynistic, with no regard for the poor and those of us who can’t get up early in the morning.

Some of the bigotry, prejudice and discrimination of that time proved temporary, some less so. In the run-up to an election, parish-pump politics ensured that anti-Traveller rhetoric would galvanise the vote. Travellers were fair game; catcalls and dog whistles, disapproval and undermining an already fractured Traveller community was the norm. This was how elections were fought and won.

Anti-racist protocol

My consciousness was raised when Traveller organisations, both local and national, asked politicians and parties to consider an anti-racist protocol. Anti-Traveller hate speech would not be part of any manifesto. The flip side was that politicians confessed that there was no vote for them if they supported Traveller rights.

At first few agreed. However, as time moved on people were shamed into complying. Their party whips and public-relations people reluctantly enforced these protocols on their candidates. For a moment we, members of the Traveller community, thought we had won the battle.

A few years later anti-Traveller sentiment is again flagrantly being used to bolster electoral chances. This turn of events is frightening. Peter Casey has blown the whistle and the dogs are barking. This election has exposed a demographic of between 14 per cent and 20 per cent of our population, those who don’t like Travellers, don’t like poor people and don’t believe in human rights or social justice.

Traveller ethnic status is no longer up for debate. After years of struggle by Traveller activists, several United Nations committees, the Irish Human Rights and Equality commission, the European Commission, the Irish Council for Civil Libertiesand a number of academics, Traveller ethnic status was finally recognised on March 1st, 2017.

The fact that we as Travellers have ethnic status seems to bother Casey and his supporters greatly. Refusing to acknowledge our ethnic status is providing cover for racism, mistrust, marginalisation and overt discrimination – all characteristic of relations between the settled population and the Traveller community.

The media pundits did little to clarify the issue during the election debate

Recognising Traveller ethnicity means acknowledging that Travellers experience racism and discrimination. Statistics tell a very clear history and story.

In highlighting these statistics, it’s important that they are framed within the context of the gendered nature of racism.

In terms of health, life expectancy at birth for Traveller women is 70.1 years, 11.5 years less than women in the general population. The suicide rate for Traveller women is five times higher than for women in the general population. Some 62.7 per cent of Traveller women reported their mental health to be poor for one or more days in the last 30 days.

Education

In terms of education, Traveller-specific education supports were cut by 86.6 per cent following the 2011 budget. Despite recognition of the need for additional support for Travellers, at departmental level the State insists on a mainstreaming approach. This means that 13 per cent of Travellers complete secondary education, compared with 92 per cent of the general population and less than 1 per cent of Travellers are in third-level education

Casey appears to advocate a return to the assimilationist policies of the past. These policies and informal practices have harmed our community. We as a community have thoroughly rejected these ideologies. This antiquated thinking flies in the face of the current Traveller community development model that holds values of self-determination, equality, non-discrimination and solidarity central to our work. Assimilation polices, or practices are not progressive for Travellers or the wider Irish settled community. Diversity enriches all of our lives.

There seems to be confusion too, whether through wilful ignorance or something more sinister, in conflating nationality with ethnic status. The media pundits did little to clarify this issue during the election debate. One is a Traveller and an Irish citizen. The assumption among many is that the only true Irish identity is that of a settled Irish person. This narrow trajectory speaks volumes about the willingness of Casey and his supporters to embrace a modern, multicultural Ireland. Travellers have always been part of the fabric of Irish identity and culture. Michael D Higgins as President will not let them wind the clock back.

Rosaleen McDonagh is a playwright from the Traveller community

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