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'Anti-Traveller sentiment is the last bastion of a backward Ireland'

Last night, our government had a chance to recognise Travellers as Ireland’s only indigenous ethnic minority, but they failed us, writes Freda Hughes.

Freda Hughes

OUR GOVERNMENT HAD a chance last night to recognise Travellers as Ireland’s only indigenous ethnic minority when Sinn Féin tabled a motion calling on the state to recognise Travellers as an ethnic group.

Such designation is supported by the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) and the recommendations of the Oireachtas Sub Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality in April 2014.

However, government parties amended the motion to render it meaningless in a move that was insulting to Travellers who observed proceedings from the public gallery of Dáil Eireann.

The motion, which was tabled by Sinn Féin’s Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, called for the Taoiseach to make an official statement confirming that the state recognises the ethnicity of Travellers and will implement the recommendations of the April 2014 Report.

Ethnic recognition 

The government’s amendment, proposed by Deputies Kehoe and Stagg, removed ethnic recognition from the motion and merely ‘recalls the recommendations of the Oireachtas Sub Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality April 2014 Report.

This amendment was rejected by Sinn Féin. The motion also addressed Traveller accommodation, funding cuts and discrimination and called for the creation of an All-Ireland Forum to tackle these issues.

The amendment removed all criticism of existing government policy and deleted references to racism and discrimination.

TD Richard Boyd Barret proposed an alternative amendment calling for a public inquiry into the Carrickmines tragedy, reinstatement of cuts to Traveller funding and accountability and a ‘zero tolerance’ policy against racism by those in public office. This amendment was accepted by Sinn Féin.

While attendance in the Dáil was sparse throughout proceedings with the majority of speakers in favour of the motion, it filled up sharpish when the call to vote on the amendment was made. 57 attendees voted in favour of the amendment and 39 voted against.

The motion no longer held the potential to make history. 55 attendees voted in favour of the government’s reworded version of the motion and 40 voted against.

28/10/2015. Travellers Issues Protests

Travellers present in the Dáil

All Travellers present agreed with their stance. Something that could have been monumental had been brought down and made impotent by our government.

I was in the public gallery accompanied by fellow activists, advocates and leading members of the Traveller community. Sociologist Eileen Flynn said:

“Tonight is a night I’ll never forget nor will our community. I can’t quite put into words how I feel right now as a Traveller woman. For my community, tonight, this government had the power to recognise us as an ethnic minority group, but didn’t. Shame on them all. This is state racism.”

Sandra McLellan of Sinn Féin also spoke of institutional racism within the government citing their failure to move away from a stale discourse of assimilation and thus killing culture.

Tom Barry from Fine Gael, on the other hand, despite stating he did not believe in Traveller ethnicity or feel the need to recognise it while talking about anti-social behaviour, stated that racism was a term too readily used.

He stated:

That word is “racism” and it is used far too frequently. It stifles discussion. People have fears, but the “racism” ticket should not be pulled out each time someone disagrees with another.
It ruins discussion and is unfair on both the Traveller and settled communities. If I had my way, that word would not be part of this discussion. We need a more frank and honest approach.

Ireland in 1984. 1984 Irish Archives. Travellers protesting in 1984. Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

Deputy Jonathan O’Brien stated the language Barry was using was “racist language” stating it was time to, “get our heads out of our backsides and get on with it, given that there were no legal or financial impediments to recognition”.

Fine Gael’s Dan Neville reiterated stereotype after stereotype bringing up illiteracy and stating that, Travellers and some members of the settled community were unable to understand officialdom. This led to stifled hoots of laughter amongst our delegation, especially when he followed up by saying that Traveller women were not allowed into bars until they were married.

The next speaker was Peadar Tóibín who spoke mainly as Gaeilge. My Irish isn’t great, but local Traveller muscian was able to translate given that he speaks quite a few languages including Irish and Gammon (Irish Traveller language sometimes referred to as Cant or Shelta).

Deputy Tóibin said that the negative way that we speak about Travellers is heart-breaking and that we would be outraged if any other sector of society was treated that way. Dan Neville’s words were so out of touch with the reality of the vibrant, intelligent and respectful group of people in the public gallery, many of whom were taking notes, all of whom were actively engaged in every aspect of the proceedings on what should have been a landmark night.

Voted down 

Traveller ethnicity is recognised by the EU and the UK and is not up for debate or granting. What was an excellent motion was amended by our government to make it meaningless and insulting and it was rightly voted down by the opposition.

It was sad and disgusting to witness this combination of pre-election political posturing and discrimination by some in the Dáil last night. One wonders, would things have played out differently if the motion hadn’t been proposed by Sinn Féin. Has Labour and Fine Gael’s own political attainment cost Travellers protection of their human rights?

Catherine Joyce, Chairperson of the Irish Traveller Movement said, “granting ethnic status to the Traveller community is a key step in protecting our human rights. I feel that recognition of the ethnicity of Travellers will be the key to the social change needed in Irish society to ensure real inclusion of Travellers. It will create the climate for a change of attitudes internally within the community and externally with mainstream society.”

It is absurd that a Traveller in the north of Ireland or the UK is afforded ethnic recognition and the rights and responsibilities that come with it, but despite decades of campaigning here, we still have not obtained such recognition in the Republic of Ireland.

Talk of anti-social behaviour and crime by Travellers

Ireland in 1984. 1984 Irish Archives. Travellers protesting in 1984. Source: Eamonn Farrell/Photocall Ireland

There is a rich tradition, culture and language which should be celebrated, not marginalised and shunned as has been the case for too long. Detractors constantly talk about anti-social behaviour and crime when talking about Travellers.

In reality, there are 40,000 Travellers in Ireland and, yes, there is crime and anti-social behaviour within the community, but look at any socially deprived community and you will see the same.

Now add to the standard lack of provision for healthcare, education and accommodation that are commonplace in socially deprived communities, a persistent and deep seeded anti-Traveller racism that permeates throughout all levels of Irish society.

Anti-Traveller sentiment is the last bastion of a backward Ireland and it is time for the government to ensure equal rights and opportunities for Travellers.

Tonight an opportunity was missed, but despite a sense of betrayal and sadness none of us left the Dáil without pledging to make sure Ethnic Recognition is not ‘left on the shelf’ and dismissed.

Motions in support of ethnic recognition have been passed by Fingal County Council, Cork City Council, South Dublin County Council and by the Labour Party at their National Conference in 2013. We’ll watch this space.

Freda Hughes is Chairperson of the Blanchardstown Traveller Development Group.

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Freda Hughes

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