Travellers must be accorded their own ethnic status


In an opinion article last week, Charlie Flanagan TD argued that giving separate status to Travellers was a “misguided idea”.

It is Flanagan himself who is misguided on the need to recognise Travellers as an ethnic group, a long overdue human rights protection being ignored by Ireland. This is despite its position being contrary to international human rights conventions and consistent requests from the UN, the Framework Convention on National Minorities and other Irish and international human rights bodies.

In all but comprehensive legal protection, Irish Travellers constitute an ethnic group with a distinct culture and tradition, long shared history, cultural values, language, customs and traditions that make us “self-identify” as a separate group and be identified by the majority Irish population as a separate group.

Our sense of belonging to our group influences our thinking, perceptions, feelings and behaviour. As far back as 1999 when Ireland ratified the framework convention, the Government was advised to refrain from unfounded denials of Traveller ethnicity.

Charlie Flanagan states, “The cultural uniqueness of Travellers is not of such a scale to justify minority status.” The justification of minority “ethnic” status should transcend national opinion and not be thought of as a gift to us by the State; rather it should be an acknowledgment of a right of an individual or group to “self identify” and further their human rights protection.

Automatic inclusion

Recognition of Travellers’ ethnicity would result in automatic inclusion in future laws and policies, not available to us despite long campaigning and international pressure.

Under international human rights law, the burden of proof in refusing to recognise a group identifying as ethnic rests with the state. Ethnicity denial profoundly undermines our equality in Ireland, has negative implications for the rule of international law and undermines Ireland’s support of human rights elsewhere.

The TD states “designating a group within society is also dangerous. If European history of the 20th century has taught us anything it has taught us that lesson.” Conversely, denying Roma and Traveller ethnicity anywhere across Europe is problematic as it resonates with the legacy of the “Gypsy Genocide” (the Porrajmos). Unesco estimates 500,000 Roma and Travellers died in the Holocaust. Roma and Traveller people were subjected to genocide denial until 1982 as the German government, like the Irish Government today, refused to recognise their ethnicity.

Being afforded ethnic status would not reduce our status as Irish. Travellers already have a dual identity by being both Traveller and Irish.

In the UK, Irish Travellers have been recognised as an ethnic minority distinct from non-Traveller Irish people since 2000, and since 1997 in Northern Ireland, as applied in the House of Lords which concluded that Travellers fulfilled the two “essential characteristics” of ethnicity: they have a long shared history of which they are conscious as distinguishing them from other groups; and they have a cultural tradition of their own.

Lifestyle markers

Charlie Flanagan acknowledges Travellers’ experience of “disadvantage” but stated it was not “unique”; therefore he failed to recognise the huge gaps in social, health and life indicators for Travellers resulting from a historical and consistent experience of disadvantage which is, in fact, unique in the Irish context.

The All-Ireland Traveller Health Study showed Traveller men live 15 years and Traveller women 11.5 years less than settled peers, suicide is six times the average and there is 84 per cent unemployment (Census 2011).

Traveller education was cut in 2010 by €7 million per annum, an area which Flanagan offers as a remedy and for focused commitment in training and employment. This is not likely when the current deficit prevails.

I agree when he contends that designating a group within society is dangerous. Dangerous when that designation is one which most regularly positions Travellers as criminals, untouchables, violent and an underclass. We have witnessed how the despicable actions of a minority of our community have lead to stereotyping by county councillors and judges.

Recognition of Traveller ethnicity is not a panacea for Travellers or for the State. However, acknowledgment by the State could help create the right conditions for enhanced community respect.

The State’s anomalous position offering lesser legal protection in the face of international recommendations and a desire by most Travellers as stated over 20 years, is inadequate and out of sync with human rights standards.

The onus is on the State to formally recognise our ethnicity.

* Brigid Quilligan is director of the Irish Traveller Movement

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