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Column: Ethnic recognition for Travellers would help fight racism

Travellers face racism on a daily basis – and the State is aiding this by denying the group’s ethnic identity, writes Damien Walshe.

Travellers march for ethnic recognition in Dublin in 2009
Travellers march for ethnic recognition in Dublin in 2009
Image: Mark Stedman/Photocall Ireland

MOST PEOPLE NOW take it as given that there is some racism in Ireland, but that it is a very recent phenomenon. Not only are statements like this extremely damaging (there often is an implicit blame on new communities for ‘creating’ the problem of racism by coming to Ireland), it is also completely untrue. Travellers, Ireland’s largest ethnic group, have faced racism and exclusion since the formation of the State.

Travellers face individual racism on a daily basis. They are refused access to pubs, find it next to impossible to book venues for weddings, christenings and communions, and even something as trivial as booking a hair appointment becomes a struggle due to your name or accent.

Even in death families often encounter anti-Traveller racism as they try to pay their last respects, because they experience problems with funeral arrangements and headstones for their loved ones.

While this is highly distressing, institutional racism – which is often harder for marginalised groups to name or put their finger on – still has the greatest negative impact on Travellers’ lives today. Institutional anti-Traveller racism is easy to identify in explicitly anti-Traveller legislation such as the Trespass legislation (Housing Act) of 2002 which criminalises nomadism.

But institutional racism can be seen in the first Traveller-specific policy developed by the State in 1963 which set out to stop Travellers being Travellers and end their way of life by assimilating them. In some respects, this policy set the template for Traveller-State relations for the next 40-plus years.

For this assimilation policy to work, the State has had to consistently deny that Travellers constitute an ethnic group – despite all the mounting evidence from sociologists, anthropologists, European law and the recognition of Irish Travellers’ ethnicity in the UK.

‘Not about skin colour’

Ethnicity recognition is not a trivial matter and has impacted enormously on Travellers’ lives for the last 40 years. Firstly, the denial of ethnicity trivialises the racism that Travellers face. “Travellers don’t experience racism, they are white and Irish,” is a regular comment in relation to anti-Traveller racism. If Travellers don’t experience racism, it suggests that Travellers are somehow responsible for the racism they experience.

Racism as a word has a power all of its own and we can mostly recognise that institutions of power play an enormous role in racism. However, if all that Travellers face is discrimination – not racism – then the State’s role is abrogated and all that needs to happen in Ireland for Travellers to achieve equality is for a few people – Traveller and settled – to change their ways.

As Ronit Lentin, Head of Sociology in Trinity College Dublin said at the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM) Annual Conference on June 25 in Wexford: “The refusal to acknowledge Travellers as an ethnic group itself smacks of racism in viewing racism as emanating only from biological, racial difference – though racism, as we know, is never only about skin colour.”

Racism and ethnicity denial by the State has had untold consequences for Travellers, and this was pointed out by Thomas McCann of the Traveller Counselling Service at the ITM conference. If the State criminalises your culture, your beliefs and traditions – a State that racialises Travellers and categorises them as ‘lower’ – then Travellers, like other marginalized ethnic groups, internalise this message they receive from cradle to grave: that being a Traveller makes you less than the majority population.

‘National disgrace’

As Thomas pointed out at the conference: “There is clear and compelling evidence that the long history of cultural oppression, racism and marginalisation has contributed to the high levels of mental health problems found in many communities. This is no different for the Traveller community who have experienced racism, discrimination and exclusion for generations.”

The fact that the suicide rate for Traveller men is eight times higher than that for settled men should be seen for what it is: a national disgrace. It is the kind of stark statistic that should have politicians clambering to demand an inquiry into the conditions that have created this despair among Travellers. Such an inquiry would no doubt lay part of the burden of guilt on those who have criminalised Travellers’ way of life, told them to turn their back on their culture and left them on the margins without their identity and without hope of every fully participating in Irish society.

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Negative stereotyping in the media and the inability of the education system to accommodate difference has meant that according to Wexford activist Mary Helen Connors: “Racism is a factor of our daily lives as Travellers. We have had reports of Traveller children being called abusive names in schools following television programmes such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding.”

With that in mind, the Irish Traveller Movement held its annual conference in Wexford town to put anti-Traveller racism back on the agenda and to continue our campaign for Traveller ethnicity to be recognised by the Irish State. Wexford was chosen for the 2012 conference following requests from local Travellers to highlight their plight at a national level. Locally, Travellers in Wexford experience many forms of individual and institutional racism – above the national norm – but despite having one of the largest Traveller populations it has no Traveller representative organisation to campaign for Traveller rights locally.

‘Sad reality’

Anti-Traveller racism doesn’t stop at the personal or institutional level. Travellers now face a new level of racism – cyberbullying – through websites, email and social media. The Irish Traveller Movement has challenged a number of websites over this, and is aware of the impact of new forms of racism on an already-oppressed community.

In an ideal world, when this comment piece goes live, hundreds of Travellers across the country would add their views on how they experience racism and what they would like to see happen to build a truly pluralistic society. The sad reality for many is that engaging in online discussions inevitably leads to hate-filled anti-Traveller invectives – ones that claim that you can’t suffer racism as a Traveller, especially if all the stereotypes are true.

In Ireland, one of the real crimes of the 21st century is that it remains acceptable to vilify an ethnic group so publicly and expect no reproach. As the activist Eamonn McCann said at a previous Irish Traveller Movement conference: “Anti-Traveller racism is the racism in Ireland that dares speak its name”. The first step in defeating anti-Traveller racism is to name it and know what it is. And ethnicity denial by the State has, and continues to have, a significant role in the racism that Travellers face.

Damien Walshe is a representative of the Irish Traveller Movement. For more information, visit their website.

About the author:

Damien Walshe

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