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'You feel you're not welcome in Ireland': TDs told of anti-Traveller 'hate speech' during Covid-19

Representatives of Pavee Point appeared before the Oireachtas today.

Patrick Reilly appears before the Oireachtas sub-committee on mental health
Patrick Reilly appears before the Oireachtas sub-committee on mental health
Image: Houses of the Oireachtas

AN OIREACHTAS COMMITTEE has heard how racism towards members of the Travelling community on social media has been exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic.

In an opening statement to the Oireachtas mental health sub-committee, Pavee Point’s Geraldine McDonnell outlined how Travellers take their own lives at a rate that is six times the national rate, with suicide accounting for 11% of all deaths in the community.

She said an “alarming” number of Travellers were self-harming and taking their own lives during the pandemic, as well as turning to risky behaviours such as drug and alcohol use.

However, she said that like the general population, many Travellers did not have access to mental health services and could only use tele-mental health services instead, which were often inappropriate because of literacy issues within the community.

“As mental health workers in Pavee Point we have seen how Covid-19 has impacted our community and the stress it has caused,” McDonnell said.

“Could you imagine the stress of living on a site without any water? Toilets? Worrying about trying to socially distance yourself and not spreading the virus to your family? Or spreading it to our grandparents or older Traveller neighbours, most of whom are already medically vulnerable?

“Added to this is the additional burden of trying to make sure our children continue with their education while often not having a formal education ourselves, lacking computer, literacy and digital skills.

“Most sites don’t have Wifi or the necessary internet connection. It’s hard to get space for our children to do their school work and work quietly in a crowded trailer or house.”

McDonnell also outlined how Travellers had been impacted by “hate speech” on social media platforms during the pandemic.

“Imagine how all this makes us feel? You’re made feel you’re not welcome in Ireland; that you’re a second-class citizen and the country would be better off without us,” she said.

“This affects our health and especially our mental health.”

Later, Pavee Point mental health worker Patrick Reilly suggested that younger members of the community were particularly exposed to abuse online because they were more likely to use social media.

He pointed to a rise in anti-Traveller comments online during the pandemic, and compared the abuse directed towards the community to the racism suffered by footballers Marcus Rashford, Jadon Sancho and Bukayo Saka in the wake of England’s penalty shootout defeat to Italy in Sunday night’s Euro 2020 final.

“The levels of racism and discrimination that came online. If anyone is watching Sky Sports recently, [they'll have seen] after the match that English players have experienced racism and discrimination because of their skin colour,” he said.

“Travellers experience racism because they are Travellers, because of their ethnicity. We see that more so on social media, and we have a very young population that is exposed to that.”

Reilly also told TDs that he could foresee a “tsunami” of mental health issues affecting Travellers as soon as the pandemic began in Ireland in spring 2020.

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“We had already seen mental health at a crisis stage. Suicide funerals were so common that it wasn’t a wonder any more,” he said.

He explained that the pandemic worsened existing issues around basic needs for Travellers, such as access to running water, safe and adequate electricity, and education.

“Traveller parents were having to home school, shop and cook for children when they had already had bad experiences in school themselves [and] low literacy,” he said.

“That was added stress on top of Travellers, who were worrying about their parents or loved ones.”

Reilly called for more resources to be allocated to Traveller mental health services, as well as for the use of ethnic monitoring within the health service’s mental health data.

If you need to talk, support is available:

  • Samaritans 116 123 or email jo@samaritans.ie
  • Aware 1800 80 48 48 (depression, anxiety)
  • Pieta House 1800 247 247 or email mary@pieta.ie (suicide, self-harm)
  • Teen-Line Ireland 1800 833 634 (for ages 13 to 19)
  • Childline 1800 66 66 66 (for under 18s)

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