End State Denial of Traveller Ethnicity

Is the continued denial of Traveller Ethnicity a failure of the state or a strategy of State Racism?

Socialist Worker

End State Denial of Traveller Ethnicity

Lorraine McMahon

Travellers are an indigenous minority who have been part of Irish society for centuries. There are just over 36,000 Travellers in Ireland, less than 1% of the population. Yet successive governments have denied formal recognition of Traveller Ethnicity. This has denied Travellers their rights and resulted in detrimental impacts on their lives.

In 1999 the Dail passed the Equal Status Bill with an amendment that defined Travellers for the purpose of the Traveller ground. The Dail agreed to capitalize the “T” in Traveller and incorporated what is an ethnic definition of the Traveller community into the Bill.

The community of people who are commonly called Travellers and who are identified (both by themselves and others) as people with a shared history, culture and traditions including historically a nomadic way of life on the island of Ireland.

However, the equal status legislation gave no real protections to Travellers nor provided recognition of Traveller Ethnicity within the policies of the state.

State policies

State policies for Travellers continue to be “mainstream” policies with no recognition of the need for specific targeted and culturally appropriate policies to meet the specific needs of Travellers. This manifests in the following stark realities.

Health: life expectancy for Traveller men is 15.1 years less than the general population and for Traveller women it is 11.5 years less. Infant mortality is 3.9% higher and the suicide rate is 6.6 times higher accounting for 1 in every 11 deaths among young Traveller men.

Education: educational attainment among the Traveller community is disproportionately lower with 69% of Travellers having ceased education at primary level, only 3.1% continue education past the age of 18 years compared to 41.2% of total population, and less than 1% have a college degree compared to 30% of general population. The 2010 ‘Our Geels’ the All Ireland Traveller Health Study, indicated only 115 Travellers (0.3% of the Traveller population) had completed third level education.

This stands as a testament to failed structures but as the outcome of segregation, alienation and institutional racism. Alongside this Traveller specific educational supports have been decimated by 86% since 2008.

Employment: the unemployment rate among Travellers is over 82% overall. The employment rate of Travellers aged 25-64 is 11% compared to 66% of general population. Successive government policies have systematically shut down Travellers ways of organising their independent employment and economic activity.

Accommodation: the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 makes it mandatory for all local authorities to implement Traveller Accommodation Programmes providing culturally appropriate accommodation through group housing, halting sites and transient sites.

But the reality is very different with almost 600 Traveller families living on temporary halting sites and just under 1000 families, accounting for 4000 members of the Traveller community, living in intolerable and unsafe conditions often without access to water, sanitation or electricity.

State racism

This reality for Travellers in Ireland is not just a failure of the state it is State racism at its worse.

Racism is often seen as individual prejudice rather than in political terms. Racism is political, it is fed from the top down with an inextricable link between racism and capitalism where racism is a key tool of the capitalist system to divide and rule.

The complex nature of the capitalist state makes the racism against Travellers often difficult to see and expose. However, policies in relation to Traveller accommodation, education, employment and health have evidently eroded Traveller culture, denied Traveller Ethnicity and are tantamount to an explicit pursuit of a cultural genocide having striking parallels to policies and practices against other ethnic minorities such as Roma in Austria and the Aboriginal population under the rule of white colonialists in Australia.

In the face of long existing and ever growing proofs and declarations from the Traveller Community, investigations, reviews, commissions, genetic and anthropological studies, committees, international hearings, the State has continued to deny Traveller Ethnicity.

The most recent defence is “the need to win over the hearts and minds of settled people” (David Staunton 2016 Minister of State for Equality); a plan for recognition by popularity and permission rather than by human rights.

But, as with the Roma in Europe, the Aborigines in Australia, the Maori in New Zealand and the Sami in Finland, the formal recognition of Travellers in Ireland will come.

Of course formal recognition will not in itself end racism against Travellers or repair the damage done by generations of discrimination and oppression but it is a crucial and achievable first step towards the emancipation of theTraveller in Ireland.

Socialists recognise the denial of Traveller Ethnicity for what it is, STATE RACISM. We must unite against all forms of racism and fight in solidarity with the Traveller community to demand the recognition of Traveller Ethnicity NOW.

Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity will, along with ending Direct Provision, be the central theme of the United Against Racism National Demonstration on UN International Anti-Racism Day on 18 March in Dublin.

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