Travellers must be central to conversations about racism

We have to face the fact that Ireland has an issue with ingrained biases and prejudices

Philomena Ryan (right) and Bridget O’Reilly, from Tipperary joined some Travellers and supporters to protest outside the Dail on Kildare Street, Dublin in 2013. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill / THE IRISH TIMES

Philomena Ryan (right) and Bridget O’Reilly, from Tipperary joined some Travellers and supporters to protest outside the Dail on Kildare Street, Dublin in 2013. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill / THE IRISH TIMES

 

The discrimination and racism faced by the Traveller community has to be a central part of any conversation on racism in Ireland ; it would be hypocritical to call out racism elsewhere without looking at what is happening here in plain sight and the role we all play in this by tolerating, facilitating or participating in this racism.

We have to face the fact that Ireland has an issue with ingrained biases and prejudices against members of the Traveller community. Sections of the public don’t like to admit this – other sections admit it too freely. But we all have to acknowledge it, to talk about it, and hopefully tackle it.

To be a Traveller in Ireland today is to have education, health and employment outcomes that are comparable to the black community in the USA.

The Traveller mortality rate in Ireland is three times higher than the national average. Only three per cent of Travellers live past 65. And the suicide rate is 7 times higher than the corresponding figure for the rest of the Irish population, Ten per cent of deaths amongst Travellers are suicides. Twenty years ago, suicide was almost unheard of in our community.

In the early 1960s in America, the infant mortality rate for the black community was double that of whites. In Ireland today, the infant mortality rate for the Traveller community is 3.5 times higher than the national average.

Through the 1960s to the present day, black unemployment rates in the US have been double that of white adults. In Ireland, the unemployment rate in the Traveller community is 84 per cent.

ESRI research shows that only 8 per cent of Travellers between the ages of 25 and 34 got to Leaving Cert level. The comparable figure for the settled community is 86 per cent.

Think about that figure.

Picture 10 five-year olds in their new school uniform on a September morning 15 years ago; off to their first day of school and all the hope and excitement for a future that should have brought. If those 10 children were from the Traveller community, statistics show we would be lucky if one will have made it to the Leaving Cert.

What possible rationalisation is there for that to be acceptable?

It’s tempting, as it always is, to lay the blame for this at the feet of our politicians. Why haven’t they acted, we cry. But, like it or not, our politicians will always reflect the views of their voters.

Lion’s share of the responsibility

In 2017, our political system provided €9 million for Traveller-specific accommodation. Some €4.5 million of that was sent back by local authorities, unspent. Now do we blame the councillors and the political parties, or does the wider Irish public not deserve the lion’s share of the responsibility?

Time and time again journalists, allies, and our representative groups have laid out the facts about the extent and depth of the discrimination members of the Traveller community in Ireland face. We know the score. We know the facts.

But, perhaps, it’s the small stories of discrimination that can help people truly understand the damage that occurs every day in this society, in education, in social life, in employment.

It’s the story of the eight-year-old child who was heartened by his teacher’s strong reaction to a friend being insulted with a disgusting racial slur, explaining to the class that everyone is the same, regardless of their race.

But he was then devastated after confiding to that same teacher that the children directed slurs at him because of his Traveller identity only to be told that “he will have to learn to deal with it”. This happened only four years ago.

It’s the story of the group of female friends who steeled themselves to book an area in a pub for New Year’s Eve only to be unsurprised that the booking “couldn’t be found” when they arrived at the venue.

It’s the thousands of stories of closed pubs, cancelled play dates, lowered expectations, shredded CVs, unanswered rent inquires, and whispered slurs.

As stand-alone events these might seem like minor issues, or even just inconveniences. But they happen every single day. There is no member of the Traveller community who doesn’t have dozens of stories like this. And it’s exhausting. Every day is a struggle to just get parity.

Same justifications and excuses

Whenever the evidence of discrimination against the Traveller community is aired in Irish life, we hear the same justifications and excuses – the blame is shifted back on the Traveller community.

It’s our fault for the issues we face, we, all 30,000 of us, need to tackle the problems internally first before asking for the other five million to help or take some percentage of responsibility.

We hear the fathers blamed, the mothers blamed, our culture or our attitudes to education blamed.

The same thing happened, and still happens, to the black community in the US: “The issue wasn’t the legacy of discrimination; it was the absentee fathers or the communities’ culture.”

It’s wrong there and it’s wrong here.

As a community we recognise that there are issues we have to address, much of this rooted in internalised oppression, we see this mirrored throughout the world in ethnic communities dealing with racism or the legacy of racism.

The vast majority of Irish Travellers are decent, law-abiding people doing the best they can to get on with their lives, yet the whole community is judged by the actions of a few. This is wrong.

It is very difficult to tackle these issues when our community continues to be marginalised and discriminated against, when our children are ostracised and bullied in schools, when we can’t secure decent housing, and when we can’t get a job because of our surname.

We’re not there yet. And we’re not getting there.

The consistent, small ripples of intolerance are still pushing back the tide of progress – at home and abroad.

Kathleen Sherlock is a spokesperson for Minceir Whiden, which has a membership of more than 800 Irish Traveller men and women spread throughout Ireland.

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