For hundreds of years, travellers have been widely acknowledged as one of the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups in Irish society. Today there are approximately 27,000 travellers living in Ireland, fairing poorly on every indicator used to measure disadvantage from unemployment, poverty and social exclusion; not limited to illiteracy, education and training levels. It is not surprising therefore, that the Economic and Social Research Institute concluded that: “The circumstances of the Irish travelling people are intolerable. No humane and decent society, once made aware of such circumstances, could permit them to persist”. The ESRI also stated that Irish travellers are “a uniquely disadvantaged group: impoverished, under-educated, often despised and ostracised, they live on the margins of Irish society.”
Traveller rights and support groups such as the Irish Traveller Movement have been fighting for their recognised equality in our society for years. As traveller issues have been put on the human rights agenda and as laws have been introduced, settled traveller and father Martin Collins from Pavée Point says: “We have grown in confidence as a community, and we are a lot more demanding in asserting our rightful place in this society.”
The first phase of a clear and explicit government response to the travellers in Ireland can be linked to the Report of the Commission on Itinerancy in 1963. The Commission set out “to enquire into the problem arising from the presence in the country of itinerants in considerable numbers; to examine the economic, educational, health and social problems inherent in their way of life”. In order to provide a better way of life for travellers the Commission undertook “to promote their absorption into the general community.”
The starting point for the Commission was that itinerancy was a problem to be eliminated, and rehabilitation, settlement and integration were the means for achieving this. Travellers were viewed as a problem and were frequently referred to as being in need of charity rather than rights.
The most public and controversial area where anti-Traveller discrimination arises is in relation to the provision of accommodation. Local authorities and resident associations are accused by travellers and traveller support groups of turning the accommodation issue into a political football. Taking the Phil Hogan case two weeks ago, this is a perfect example of how elected local councillors from all political approaches are keenly aware that their political survival depends on the support of local residents who easily outnumber travellers.
This issue highlights the underlying contradiction of the ‘settlement’ project. It also raises to us the question: should we be restructuring our political system to take local issues out of our elected Ministers and TDs hands to allow them to focus more on matters of national importance? Are we undermining ourselves in creating laws upon laws to ensure societal equality, when our government representatives do not demonstrate these themselves?
The deplorable living circumstances of many travellers because of the lack of suitable accommodation is a crucial factor in the poor health of travellers. The life expectancy of travellers is far below the national average while traveller infant mortality is more than twice that of the majority population. These realities, combined with a failure to address them comprehensively, are seen by politicised travellers and traveller support groups as other manifestations of institutional racism.
Having said this, when speaking to Collins, the question came up as to whether he felt there was a willingness amongst travellers to want to merge into and conform to society’s norms. He believed that we needed to move away from a notion of uniformity, conformity and any ideals that we live a homogeneous society and instead that it we need to “support the full inclusion and integration of travellers into Irish society, in a manner that respects each other’s cultures, each other’s histories and each other’s traditions.”
This perhaps brings to us a notion of birds of a feather flocking together; that we as a society simply do not know enough to understand or relate to the traveller way of life, and therefore treat them with an increased hostility. Rather than creating more equality laws, perhaps we should be going back to the fundamentals of how law works. What is a law if it is not abided by? In our common law legal system, we are a society who shapes our laws and then are shaped by the laws. If true integration is desired Collins suggested, celebrating rather than conforming is the way forward. Compromise is essential, and in order for this to occur we must also be educated to increase empathy for this discriminated minority. Then, and only then, can we truly call ourselves a diverse society in celebrating all the cultures Ireland has to offer.
The marginalisation of travellers in Irish society is acknowledged by people of varying political positions and approaches. Past policies, while designed to overcome this marginalisation, have sometimes worsened the situation because of a failure to grasp the nature of the oppression experienced by travellers. In particular, the denial of discrimination and racism, that contributed to that marginalisation.
In order to address this situation there is need for a comprehensive approach involving statutory and voluntary bodies. Legislation, information, and awareness campaigns are needed to protect people and to overcome obstacles to equality. In the context of a growing acknowledgement of the dangers of racism throughout the European Union, there is an additional incentive and opportunity to face up to this challenge in Ireland, as well as throughout Europe.