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Friday 8 December 2023 Dublin: 9°C
Photocall Ireland Mullhuardart Site 1988

Column Denying Traveller ethnicity makes Ireland a rogue state

Not recognising Traveller’s ethnicity creates a dangerous precedent for every human right- denying government that wants to justify racism, writes Dr Robbie McVeigh.

Recently, Deputy Caoimhghín O Caoláin asked if there were plans to recognise Travellers as an ethnic group. Minister Kathleen Lynch said there were no immediate plans to introduce legislation necessary for such recognition, but said that consideration on the issue is ongoing. Robbie McVeigh says this approach by the Irish Government is profoundly flawed.

WHILE ‘EXPERTS’ HAVE different perspectives on ethnicity, it isn’t simply a subjective thing. In law, in fact, ethnicity has some meaning grounded in existing jurisprudence – so a government can’t just arbitrarily say it doesn’t exist. Moreover, individuals cannot repudiate ethnicity – one person can say ‘I am not a Traveller’ but they can’t say ‘Travellers are not an ethnic group’.

In other words, the approach adopted by the Irish government is profoundly flawed – the notion that all Travellers have to decide that they are an ethnic group before Traveller ethnicity is recognised, is simply wrong.  It carries no weight academically or legally.

When the connection between Travellers and ethnicity has been asked in a legal context, the conclusion is that Travellers fulfil 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. If one symbolic piece of evidence of this is required, it is the Traveller graveyard in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia.

This confirms that Travellers went to the US in the mid-1800s with an already fully-developed sense of distinct identity. It bears emphasis that no academic or lawyer has ever suggested that the Travellers in the USA aren’t an ethnic group.

Government failure

I think that the denial of Traveller ethnicity by the Irish Government is bad for Travellers.

In 2004, the Irish Government in the course of its reporting to the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD), declared that Irish Travellers, ‘do not constitute a distinct group from the population as a whole in terms of race, colour, descent or national or ethnic origin’. Importantly, this has very negative implications for the rule of international law – ignoring the courts and the CERD has implications far beyond Travellers and Ireland.

In this sense, the Irish position makes us a ‘rogue state’ – ethnicity denial in Ireland creates a dangerous precedent for every human rights-denying government that wants to justify racism or genocide.

In relation to ethnicity, Ireland’s key comparators are England, Wales and Northern Ireland. In England, Travellers are recognised as an ethnic group after the decision in the O’Leary v Allied Domecq 2000 case. In Northern Ireland, Travellers are recognised as an ethnic group in law through the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 .

In the US, Travellers are routinely described as an ethnic group. There is discrimination against Travellers in each of these jurisdictions but there is also protection from race discrimination which is missing in Ireland because of ethnicity denial.


Ethnicity denial is a complex question without a simple answer. The government insisted that it remained committed to challenging discrimination against Irish Travellers and has defined membership of the Traveller community as a separate ground on which it is unlawful to discriminate under equality legislation. This was not meant to provide a lesser level of protection to Travellers compared to that afforded to members of ethnic minorities.

It is also clear that much of the discourse about Irish Travellers in Britain and Ireland is very similar to racialised discourse about groups whose ethnicity and experience of racism is commonly accepted. The term ‘ethnicity’ is also used by many Irish Travellers to make sense of Irish Traveller identity and separateness from settled society.

There is an overwhelming weight of evidence that supports the recognition of Travellers as a specific ethnic group. The continued policy of ethnicity denial by the Irish government flies in the face of all meaningful evidence and has wider negative implications.

Government policy

In short, the Irish government policy on Traveller ethnicity is both perverse and discriminatory. This has immediately negative consequences for Irish Travellers.

They are not afforded the automatic protection of international and regional standards on ‘race’ provided to Irish Travellers in Northern Ireland or Great Britain – this is directly contrary to commitments on equality given in the Good Friday Agreement, the EU Race Directive and the Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination.

We must await with foreboding the first time that a state stands before the International Court of Justice accused of genocide and says, ‘There is no case to answer – it was our view that they were not an ethnic group’.

Robbie McVeigh is researcher and activist. He has taught on racism and anti-racism at Queen’s University Belfast, the University of Ulster and UCD. He has researched racism and ethnicity in Irish society and is the author of many books including The Racialisation of Irishness: Racism and Anti-Racism in Irish Society (Belfast, 1996), Theorizing Sedentarism: The Roots of Anti-Nomadism (Hertfordshire, 1997), Travellers, Refugees and Racism in Tallaght (Dublin 1998) and is co-editor with Ronit Lentin of Racism and Anti-racism in Ireland (Beyond the Pale, 2002).

Read: FF councillor criticised for anti-Traveller comments>

Read: Martin ‘very annoyed’ by Fianna Fáil councillor’s call to ‘segregate’ Travellers>

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