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Column: 'Pontins only achieved such rapid notoriety because it targeted common Irish surnames'

Two decades on from a landmark case in Britain, discrimination is still an everyday experience for Travellers, writes legal affairs journalist CJ McKinney.

CJ McKinney Legal Affairs Journalist

IT’S ALMOST 20 years since Irish Travellers in Britain were recognised as a distinct ethnic group for the purposes of equality law.

In August 2000, a judge found that Patrick O’Leary and seven other Travellers who had been turned away from London pubs were entitled to rely on laws designed to protect ethnic minorities against discrimination.

On the steps outside court, Mr O’Leary announced that “for the first time in our lives we feel we can proudly and publicly tell everyone we are Irish Travellers”.

But two decades on, just as in Ireland, discrimination is still an everyday experience for Travellers in Britain.

survey by the Traveller Movement in 2017 found that 91% had experienced discrimination on account of their ethnicity, with 55% saying they’d been refused access to services.

So the organisation’s CEO, Yvonne MacNamara, says that today’s news of an anti-Traveller policy at Pontins holiday parks is shocking but not surprising.

“We frequently hear of Gypsies and Travellers being turned away from holiday parks because of their ethnicity,” MacNamara told TheJournal.ie.

This happens across the country on a regular basis; it is unlawful and unacceptable.”

While it’s obviously up to everyone to follow equality laws, specific responsibility for enforcing them rests with the British Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), which has just reached a legally binding settlement with Pontins.

The EHRC has been worried about Irish Travellers for some time. In 2009, it published a 350-page report detailing the “immense” problems faced by Gyspy and Traveller communities.

By 2015, the watchdog had concluded that things had gotten worse, not better.

Travellers were among the groups whose “life chances… already lower than those of others, have declined since the Commission’s last progress review”.

You might say that being barred from Pontins is the least of the community’s problems, given the huge inequalities in things like health, education and jobs. But the Traveller Movement is worried about day-to-day discrimination as well, saying that it’s “almost become normalised for these communities”.

The Commission has some legal powers to address discrimination under Britain’s equality laws (Northern Ireland does its own thing). It’s not afraid to use them, and not just in relation to Travellers: recently it waded into the treatment of Jewish people by the UK Labour Party, and the treatment of Black people by the UK Home Office.

But there are limits to its enforcement capacity. Marc Willers QC, a senior barrister in London well known for representing Travellers, told TheJournal.ie that “the EHRC has had its budget slashed by a government that seems happy to play dog-whistle politics”.

Willers thinks that high-profile cases like today’s settlement with Pontins only go so far.

“To make real progress”, he says, “we need leadership from our politicians, a properly funded EHRC and lawyers who are willing to take on individual cases (and are funded to do so). Unfortunately we are some way off from being in that position and so any progress will be piecemeal”.

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Meanwhile in Ireland, yesterday marked four years since Travellers were formally recognised as a distinct ethnic group.

But there’s still “widespread discrimination against Travellers in all parts of Irish society”, according to the Irish Traveller Movement.

Travellers’ rights activist Dr Sindy Joyce says that anyone in Ireland outraged by the Pontins case should look closer to home: “similar practices are going on all over the country in pubs, hotels, restaurants etc”.

It’s probably true that Pontins only achieved such rapid notoriety because it targeted common Irish surnames: its ham-fisted blacklist reportedly included the names Delaney, Murphy, O’Brien, and O’Reilly. If they’d been even more blatant, you suspect the story would not have angered as many people in the same way.

As it is, the episode serves as a poignant reminder of the distinct lack of progress across these islands in tackling anti-Traveller discrimination – even in the age of equality legislation.

CJ McKinney is a UK-based freelance journalist who specialises in legal affairs. 

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