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Irish Society & The Travelling Community

The Travelling Community have featured heavily in the media recently due to the tragic fire in Carrickmines where ten people lost their lives. Closely followed by controversy regarding the relocation of the grieving community after the fire. Irish society was very quickly divided into two camps, those who argued that the community should be shown compassion and allowed to move into a nearby housing estate and those who supported resident’s resistance to a new halting site.

Support for this resistance is largely bolstered by anecdotal ‘evidence’ regarding the Traveller way of life and antisocial behavior. This conflict is indicative of a larger divide between the settled and Travelling community which has existed in our society for decades and appears to be worsening.

Last week a submission by Sinn Fein to have Travellers recognized as an ethnic minority was rejected but this is not a new issue. Government policy pertaining to the Travelling community began in 1963 in the form of a ‘Commission on Itinerancy’. The wording of this report is truly shocking; the general view of the Commission was that Travellers were not an ethnic minority but a symptom of English occupation who had ‘fallen out’ of Irish society. The Commission proposed a ‘final solution’ to the ‘problem’ of itinerancy and it was envisioned that the ‘problem’ would be solved within one generation. Commission members consisted completely of members of the settled community such as a High Court judge and the only effort to consult the Travelling Community was to send a member of Dublin whose ordinary role was moving Travellers on from halting sites. It’s difficult to do justice to the blatant prejudice in this report. Two proposals which were considered but rejected by the commission were firstly to give all Travellers identity cards to track and discourage crime and secondly to take Traveller children from their parents and keep them in institutions as a way to educate them.

Fifty two years on Government language has become more politically correct but the Dail has just last week rejected a proposal to recognize Travellers as an ethnic minority which is symbolic of a widespread rejection of Travellers in our society. This refusal is also shocking in light of the UN recommendation that Travellers be recognized as an ethnic group.

A recent health report entitled ‘Our Geels’ into the Travelling community which had an 80% participation rate found some extremely worrying health issues in the community. The gap in life expectancy for Traveller women compared to settled women is 11 years and for men it is 15 years. The suicide rate in the Travelling community is six times as much as the settled and amounts for approx. 11% of Traveller deaths. This amounts to an excess of 154 Traveller deaths per annum.

Despite the avalanche of stories supporting protests about the Carrickmines relocation, no logical person could argue that these health statistics are proof that Travelling community are largely neglected by our Government.

In my opinion it is clear that structural and societal injustice has been done to the Travelling Community ever since the first policy intervention in 1963. Rather than base our perception of Travellers on negative anecdotal evidence and a largely negative or whimsical portrayals in the media, we should examine historical Government intervention and the resulting living standards and health status of the Travelling Community.

A recent study by Fr Michael Mac Greil into the Travelling community entitled ‘Emancipation of the Travelling People’ which studies attitudes towards Travellers found that one in five Irish people would deny Travellers citizenship. The study also found that three quarters of people would be reluctant to buy a house beside a Traveller family. The report showed that attitudes have largely not improved over 20 years.

I believe it is clear from early policy interventions that all efforts were made to eradicate the Travelling way of life. Although the language has changed in Government policy towards Travellers, it has been 52 years and travellers are still not recognised as an ethnic minority despite campaigns and UN recommendations. More worrying perhaps is that Social Policy pertaining to the Travelling Community has not improved relations with the settled community, if anything it has made them worse. This in my opinion is a result of ineffective social policy which is socially unjust and favours one section of society.