In support of Travellers’ rights.
Written for People Before Profit Alliance website.
On 17 April an Oireachtas committee recommended that Travellers be recognised as an ethnic minority.
The Joint Committee on Justice and Equality said “it is no longer tenable for this State to deny Traveller ethnicity” and that it is “long past time for this State to honour our responsibilities to the international conventions on human rights”.
Long past time is right. An ethnic minority within the Irish state is precisely what Travellers are and have always been. . They are a very small minority, only about 25,000 or approximately 0.5% of the population but DNA evidence shows that they have been a distinct ethnic group for about 1000 years. They have a distinct cultural identity and language (though it has fallen into disuse) and they are massively disadvantaged and discriminated against.
The Irish Traveller community is recognized as a distinct ethnic identity in Britain and Roma (or Gypsies) are recognized in a number of European states. There is no justification at all for Ireland denying this right, for which Traveller community organizations such as Pavee Point and the Irish Traveller Movement have long been campaigning and which, undoubtedly means a great deal to the community.
People Before Profit is proud that Cllr Brid Smith, our candidate for MEP, moved the successful motion on Dublin City Council to recognize Traveller identity in March of this year.
Arguments such as what ‘what about women or gays – aren’t they discriminated against too?’ are entirely bogus. Of course there is discrimination against women and LGBT people and obviously this should be opposed but women and LGBT are clearly not ethnic minorities but exist within every ethnicity. The idea, advanced by some, that this is Travellers seeking some kind of special privilege or advantage is completely false given that they have long been the most disadvantaged, oppressed and marginalized group in Irish society.
Traveller disadvantage and exclusion.
The facts of Traveller disadvantage are truly shocking.An analysis of the 2006 Census showed that among Irish Travellers aged 25-44 unemployment stood at 74% compared to 6% for other white Irish in the same age group and 50% of Travellers were in the lower manual class category compared to 17% of other white Irish. Moreover 25% of Travellers aged 25-44 had no access to a car compared to only 8% of other white Irish. Levels of educational achievement are also very low with only 15% having completed second level schooling.
Most revealing and most telling of all are the figures for life expectancy which show a much higher rate of mortality with only 9% of Travellers over 50 compared to 28% of other white Irish. (All statistics from Dorothy Watson et al, Multiple Disadvantage in Ireland: An Equality Analysis of Census 2006, ESRI.)
Seven out of 10 Travellers die before 60; Traveller infants are 10 times as likely as settled infants to die before the age of two; the Traveller unemployment rate is more than 70 per cent; their suicide rate is five times that of the settled community; and they have higher rates of mental ill-health, alcoholism and drug abuse..
On top of this, as the case of the Gardai recording Traveller children on the pulse system showed, they also face discrimination by the police.
Why are Travellers treated this way?Some would say that the Travelling community bring it on themselves through their ‘lifestyle’ and behaviour. This claim rests on the stereotype of Irish Travellers as anti-social, violent and criminal.
There are a number of points that need to be made in answer to this argument:
1. Like all stereotypes this involves generalizing the behaviour of a small minority to all members of a community.
2. There is absolutely no evidence to support the idea that any particular ethnic group (Travellers, Roma, African Americans, Australian Aborigines or whoever) have an inborn criminal tendency. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that those who suffer poverty, disadvantage and discrimination are more likely to become involved in petty crime than those who do not, whatever their ethnicity.
3. Once a group is stigmatised they are more likely to be picked on by and come into conflict with the police, and thus to be seen as criminal. This well established syndrome (known in sociology as ‘the Crime amplification spiral’) operates against many racial minorities including and especially Black Americans. Anyone claiming US Blacks are innately criminal would be seen as racist and rightly so. The same applies when the claim is directed at Irish Travellers.
Is ‘travelling’ a problem?
Many Travellers are now settled but, as the name suggests, there is still an association between them and a nomadic or traveling lifestyle. Is there something wrong with being nomadic?
Not if you are rich. The rich are always traveling from home to home and country to country. Bono and Denis O’Brien are constantly on the move if only to avoid paying their taxes.
It is the same as with immigrants and refugees – it is the poor migrants and travelers who are blamed and demonized. The state bureaucracies of capitalism would doubtless prefer to have everyone pinned down, in their place and ready for wage labour at the drop of a hat. But there is no reason why any of the rest of us should go along with imposing this straightjacket on people who want to live differently.
The question of halting sites
Conditions on many halting sites are atrocious with an absence of basic facilities such as proper toilets and sewage disposal which should be everyone’s basic human right in a 21st century society. This a reason to improve facilities not to ban or campaign against halting sites.
Unfortunately there are unscrupulous politicians about, in search of cheap votes, who are willing to play on fears (especially middle class fears) about halting sites ‘in our backyard’ and ‘crime waves’ and ‘falling house prices’.
We reject this NIMBYISM . It is just another form of racist stereotyping and scapegoating. Travellers have as much right as everyone else to live everywhere in Ireland.We demand the adequate provision of the necessary amount of halting sites with proper modern facilties.
Will ethnic recognition solve the problem?
Recognition is an important step forward but it won’t end anti-Traveller racism and discrimination anymore than civil rights in the US or the Race Relations Act in Britain ended racism against black people in those countries. There will be many more battles to be fought and won. Indeed so long as we live in a society of massive inequality which systematically puts profit before people there will be a need for scapegoats and divide- and –rule and the powers-that-be will continue to stoke anti-Traveller racism along with racism in its many other forms.