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Bridget O'Reilly and her granddaughter Maddison McDonagh at this launch of this year’s Cork Traveller Pride Week.

Traveller ethnicity 'We always knew we were people in our own right'

We expect substantial, progressive changes now, for example in repealing the Criminal Trespass legislation, in education and health, and in effective anti-discrimination measures.
I am delighted it has finally happened. I’m sad that it took so long, yet hopeful that it will have a good impact on Travellers’ health and our society as a whole. Breda O’Donoghue, Traveller Activist and Chair of Traveller Visibility Group, Cork.

THE FIRST OF March 2017 was a historic day for the Irish Traveller community. Following a long campaign, the Irish government formally recognised Travellers as an ethnic group.

The announcement was described in the Dáil as a ”watershed moment” which could have a transformative effect on relations between Travellers and wider society.

So what does ethnicity mean and what does this recognition mean in practical terms?

Everyone has an ethnicity – the term relates to our culture and identity. Travellers as an ethnic group are a recognisable community of people born into a distinct culture with a language, way of life, shared beliefs and values, and a long shared history.

For the Traveller community, ethnic recognition is significant, marking a formal government statement of respect and validation for Traveller culture, identity and way of life, as a key part of Irish society.

Travellers’ own ethnicity is based on nomadic traditions which have survived anti-trespass laws and which are much broader than just freedom of movement and travelling. Thus, many traditions derived from nomadism have survived and still define Travellers’ own sense of identity today.

Ethnic recognition is about promoting pride in Traveller identity and creating a society where Travellers do not face the awful choice between hiding their identity or being treated with suspicion, stereotyped and routinely denied services.

I was always proud to be a Traveller and wanted my children and grandchildren to know their culture and be proud of who they are. Now with our ethnicity recognised, I hope that all Traveller children will be able to hold their heads up high and not be ashamed. Katie O’Donoghue, Cork Traveller Women’s Network.

Real social change is needed

Cork Traveller PrideWeek 2017 Children of TVG Goras Community Childcare prepare for Cork Traveller Pride Week. Clare Keogh Clare Keogh

Ethnic recognition must also be about real social change for Travellers.

As a people, Travellers experience significantly poorer health and life expectancy than the majority population, overcrowded and dangerous living conditions, poorer educational outcomes, poverty and unemployment.

The shocking statistics about Traveller suicide (it’s seven times the national average) and the Traveller accommodation crisis have made national headlines again and again. There is also the prejudice and discrimination faced by the Traveller community on a daily basis.

As Travellers, ethnic recognition is about having our culture and history valued as an important part of Irish society. It is a historic step towards equality and inclusion for Travellers. Brigid Carmody, Traveller Activist and Project Co-ordinator, Cork Traveller Women’s Network.

Limiting our expectations

On the day of the formal recognition, the two government speakers both sought to limit the impact of what was happening.

While Taoiseach Enda Kenny stated that this “symbolic recognition… will create no new individual, constitutional or financial rights”, Minister-of-State, Denis Staunton, said: “this is a hugely important and symbolic gesture that is very important to Travellers, but it has no legislative implications, creates no new rights and has no implications for public expenditure.”

Traveller activists and organisations have come a long way to reach this watershed. Yes, we accept the symbolic gesture, but we also hope and expect that there will be legal and policy implications, following this recognition.

We do expect substantial, progressive changes, for example in the delivery of Traveller accommodation, in repealing the Criminal Trespass legislation, in education and health, in effective anti-discrimination measures and cultural rights, including in the contentious area of Traveller horse ownership.

Prior to the formal recognition of Traveller Ethnicity by the Irish State, many Traveller activists spoke of a policy of “ethnicity denial” before now.

If they only listened to us over 30 years ago. We always knew that we were people in our own right. I just hope that this is not too little too late. When I look at all the damage that has been done, I hope that this will encourage government departments to engage more meaningfully with us, and that it brings about real equality for Travellers. Anne Burke, STHN Project Coordinator and co-founder of the TVG.

Respecting Traveller culture

CMK29052017 TVG Cork Traveller Pride Week20170525_0001 (1) Jeremiah O'Sullivan, Traveller and blacksmith, with his grand daughter Megan O'Sullivan at this launch of this year’s Cork Traveller Pride Week.

Ethnic recognition marks a national statement of respect for Traveller culture and an embracing of cultural difference which can and should be a lever and catalyst for change. Travellers should now look forward to greater protection from discrimination and also should be included in national anti-racism and integration policies.

Traveller culture and heritage must be respected, supported and protected as a key part of the fabric of Ireland.

This piece was co-written by the Traveller Visibility Group Cork and the Cork Traveller Women’s Network for Traveller Pride Week, June 2017. This year’s Cork Traveller Pride Week runs from June 12 to 18 in locations across Cork city. A free family event will take place in Fitzgerald Park on Saturday, June 17 from 12-3pm to give all ages an opportunity to learn about Irish Traveller’s history, culture, traditions and crafts. Cork Traveller Pride Week events are open to the public, are free to attend and all are welcome.

Caitriona O'Neill and William Gallagher
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