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Opinion: 'Of course, no one ever admits to being prejudiced against Travellers'

Bigotry never openly acknowledges its existence, writes Caoimhín De Barra.

Image: Leah Farrell

PETER CASEY’S COMMENTS on Travellers in recent weeks transformed the Irish
presidential election.

Not transformed in the sense that it made any difference to the outcome (that was a foregone conclusion) but rather that they converted a poll on who should occupy Áras an Uachtaráin into a referendum on the Travelling community.

Given that polls indicated that Casey had almost no electoral support up until that point,
any vote cast for him would be an expression of contempt for Travellers.

I texted my friend during the week to ask what he thought about the election, and specifically, Casey’s candidacy. He pointed out that Casey had only being polling at 1%,
and he didn’t expect that to change.

The problem with that view was that no serious opinion poll had been taken since his remarks about Travellers. It was evident from following trends online that Casey had energised a section of the Irish electorate with those statements.

I told my friend that I was confident Casey would win a double-digit percentage of the
Irish vote. He responded that he would be shocked and appalled if he received anything
close to that. I assume he was not the only one shocked by how well Casey actually did.
They shouldn’t be.

The rise of social media over the last 15 years has allowed us to gain insight into what lots of people think on any question in a way that was previously impossible.

It isn’t always pretty, and it has been evident to anyone paying attention that anything posted online about Travellers generates a ferocious level of hostility.

To say this isn’t to deny that there are points of tension at times between Travellers and the settled community. It isn’t to say there aren’t fair questions to be asked about how Travellers are to be accommodated within wider Irish society. It isn’t to deny that there are Travellers who engage in criminal behavior (thankfully, we solved the issue of crime among the settled community long ago).

But the level of hate directed towards Travellers is out of all proportion to how small a minority they are (about 0.5% of the population) and how rarely the average Irish person ever has any kind of meaningful interaction with them.

Around the world we see minorities demonised and loathed for being different.

In the attitudes many people have towards Travellers, Ireland is no different.

Of course, no one ever admits to being prejudiced against Travellers.

This is because bigotry never openly acknowledges its existence.

It always wears one of two masks: either humour (hence the extensive repertoire of anti-Traveller jokes), or logic.

Nothing better demonstrates this than the debate about Traveller ethnicity. All kinds of “logical” arguments are put forward to support the idea that Travellers are not a distinct ethnic group.

This was exactly the angle Peter Casey took when he said “they should think and act as Irish people, not necessarily as different to everyone else, then their children end up thinking that they are different and it’s harder for their children to fit into society”.

Casey presented himself as Ireland’s answer to Helen Lovejoy – “won’t somebody
PLEASE think of the Traveller children?”

For years, the biggest argument against the recognition of Travellers as a distinct ethnic group was that this would hinder their ability to integrate with the rest of us. As if the people who claimed this were actually deeply concerned about getting along with Travellers.

The mask of logic is put on once more when people claim that Casey appealed to them,
not because they dislike Travellers, but because they are against political correctness.

This is an effort to put a veneer of reason on the excitement many felt when given a
chance to express discontent about people different from them. There is a substantial middle ground between thinking that political correctness often unjustly stifles debate (a view many share), and that Peter Casey’s remarks were acceptable, justified, and evidence of his fitness to be our head of state.

Already we are seeing efforts to explain the support for Casey as something other than
what it blatantly was. Radio presenter Ciara Kelly tweeted that the Casey voters she spoke to were “were uninterested in the traveler (sic) issue they felt they were the squeezed middle and no one was speaking for them”.

Perhaps.

But most of these people didn’t see Casey as “speaking for them” until he made his comments about the Travelling community. The only thing of note he said on the campaign was about Travellers. It is difficult to see how people could claim he was “speaking” for them except for when he was “speaking” about Travellers.

One wonders why exactly the “ethnic” issue riles people up?

When the government announced the granting of ethnic status to Travellers in 2017, Taoiseach Enda Kenny was clear that it was a “symbolic recognition” and would not create any “new individual, constitutional or financial rights”.

It is pretty obvious that there are considerable differences between Travellers and the settled community. Is some kind of “symbolic recognition” of this such a terrible thing?

The Oxford English Dictionary defines an ethnicity as “belonging to a social group that
has a common national or cultural tradition”.

I have always been a passionate defender of the Irish language, but if our schools are producing thousands of people who can’t grasp how that basic definition could apply to Travellers, maybe we do need to kick An Ghaeilge out of the curriculum and use the time to focus on remedial English instead.

This is what makes the large vote for Casey so disconcerting.

Even if he was elected president, he wouldn’t be in a position to resolve any of the “issues” he raised in relation to Travellers. His candidacy offered nothing more than an opportunity for people to indulge their prejudices at the ballot box, and many were happy to oblige.

It must be chilling for the Traveller community to see what giving them a kick will do for
one’s electoral fortunes.

Indeed, it should be worrying for anyone in Ireland who can be marked out as a little bit different.

Caoimhín De Barra is Assistant Professor of History at Gonzaga University in Washington.

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