Why minority ethnic status matters: A Traveller view
Ubiquitous racism and the subsequent shaming came to define who we are
“As a community we have been very patient.” Eileen Flynn from Ballyfermot protesting outside the Dail in 2013. Photographer: Dara Mac Dónaill
Official acknowledgement of our minority ethnic status signifies a more hopeful future for our community. In the words of Traveller leader Martin Collins “when Travellers are recognised as a minority ethnic group it would allow members of our community to plan for our future”. Finally we can rejoice in being both Irish and a Traveller.
As a community we have been very patient. Credit must be given to those working in Traveller organisations who have advocated for this fundamental right since the mid-1980s.
Generations of Travellers up until now have suffered due to piecemeal Government policies and strategies that were rarely implemented. The path to ethnic status was arduous with many attempts to stall or delay the process. On more than one occasion, various Irish governments were slapped on the wrist by UN bodies and human rights organisations for their appalling treatment of my Traveller community.
Under the Equal Status Act of 2000 Travellers were named as a specific category but not recognised as a minority ethnic group; while at the same time in England and Northern Ireland our ethnicity was recognised.
Ubiquitous racism and the subsequent shaming came to define who we are as Travellers. Ethnicity was often misunderstood. We, the Traveller community have a distinctive culture, tradition, shared language and customs that differ somewhat from the settled Irish population. These characteristics constitute the accepted definition of an ‘ethnic group’. The prevailing view was that we as Travellers needed to be rehabilitated, then forcibly assimilated into the settled Irish population.
Acknowledgement of our minority ethnic status represents a serious ideological shift from the Ireland of my youth. Words such as ‘Itinerant’ and ‘no fixed abode’ were documented on our birth certificates and used to stigmatize us and make us feel inferior. A legacy of Irish racism.
Ethnic recognition should finally resolve confusing government positions and policy on Traveller identity. The benefits for the Traveller community include the acknowledgement that anti-Traveller discrimination will be understood as racism. Anti-racist strategies and initiatives must now include specific targeting of the Traveller community.
The acknowledgement of official recognition by the state suggests our community was wronged. Individual members of the Traveller community should no longer have to deny our identity, for fear of repercussions in the form of humiliation, segregation and the sense of believing ‘you don’t matter’.
Hiding your surname, changing your accent, feeling insecure and always having to worry you’ll lose that job, that place in school, that sense that you are going to be found out, singled out and eventually pushed out. The reality of harbouring dreams and ambitions that for many generations were closed off now seems possible.
Recognising Traveller ethnicity in an Irish context means respecting diversity and equality. Traveller ethnicity means feeling pride and confidence, having the strength to hold your head up, put your shoulders back and believe that dreams and expectations can be chased.
Specific funding will need to continue to be targeted, monitored and remain within the Traveller infrastructure. The budgets cuts of 85 per cent from Traveller education and accommodation, made under the guise of austerity since 2008, need to be reversed. Despite these cuts, many statutory agencies did not even spend their allocations. The underspend in accommodation for this period was 36 per cent.
The systemic failure of local authorities to implement existing Government policy and use allocated funding on appropriate Traveller specific accommodation needs to be addressed.
The findings of the All Ireland Traveller Health Study 2010 which revealed that life expectancy at birth for Traveller males is 15.1 years lower than the general male population and suicide rates among male Travellers are 6.6 times higher than among the general male population has largely been met with inaction by the State. Evidence shows that racism has a negative impact on one’s mental health.
We understand acknowledgment of our ethnicity will not be a panacea for Traveller inclusion in Ireland. However it is a key milestone on our path towards inclusion. Major challenges such as the need for direct political representation will remain. We want and need to be part of the political fabric of this State. Measures should now be introduced to improve Traveller representation in all sectors of life of this State and we are hopeful that a progressive National Traveller Roma Inclusion Strategy will be forthcoming soon and can contribute to making some of this possible. Travellers want to play our part in making Ireland a truly equal and intercultural society.
Rosaleen McDonagh is a playwright from the Traveller community