Irish Travellers are a small minority of the Irish population, numbering 29,573 according to the census of 2011, but more according to other estimates, or less than 1% of the total. But they are an indigenous minority who have been part of Irish society for centuries and they are a distinct group with long common history and shared culture, values and customs, in which the tradition of leading a nomadic life plays an important part, and which distinguishes them from the sedentary or settled community.
Travellers have long faced and continue to face intense racism and discrimination. It comes in the form of verbal abuse, racist language and sometimes violent attacks but even more importantly it is embedded in the daily practice of the institutions of the state.
To see how severe this is you have to look at the statistics on Traveller health, housing, education and employment.
The gap between the health status of Travellers and that of the settled population is startling.
- Life expectancy at birth for male Travellers is 15.1 years less than the general population,
- Life expectancy at birth for female Travellers is now 70.1 which is 11.5 years less than women in the general population
- Traveller infant mortality is estimated at 14.1 per 1,000 live births (compared with the general population rate of 3.9 per 1,000 live births).
- Travellers have a greater burden of chronic diseases than the general population
- Suicide rates are nearly 7 times higher in Traveller men compared with the general male population.
- Suicide accounts for 11% of all Traveller deaths.
Accommodation is one of the most critical issues for the Traveller community and the most significant determinant on health. The report of the Task Force on the Travelling Community 1995 recommended that 3100 units of Traveller specific accommodation be provided. Two decades later less than 10% has been provided.
The Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 places a statutory obligation on Local Authorities to develop 5 year Traveller Accommodation Programmes (TAPs) to include halting sites, group housing and transient sites. But local authorities have consistently failed to deliver on these programmes and there is no accountability or sanctions for non delivery.
With the States failure to deliver accommodation for Travellers, increasing numbers of Travellers families are finding themselves homeless. At the same time the anti-trespass legislation in the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002 means that Travellers forced to live on unofficial sites are committing the offence of trespass and are open to prosecution and having their homes impounded. In July 2014 the UN Human Rights committee called on the Irish government to amend the 20002 Housing Act to meet the specific accommodation requirements of Traveller families. To date the government have made no amendments in this regard.
In 2013 361 Traveller families comprising over 1400 individuals were living on the road side or on unofficial sites. In 2014 this increased to 445 families. Many have to endure intolerable conditions, that are often unsafe, severely overcrowded and without access to the basic facilities of sanitation, water and electricity.
The Irish Traveller Movement in collaboration with the European Roma Rights Centre have submitted a collective complaint to the European Committee of Social Rights against the Irish Government for failing to live up to its promises under the European Social Charter to deliver proper accommodation to Travellers. The final outcome of this complaint is awaited.
Employment, Enterprise and Traveller Economy
Nationally Traveller unemployment is alarmingly high at 84.3%. There is a grave mismatch between Travellers’ multiple skills, abilities and ways of organising and the opportunities currently available to engage in economic activity.
The distinct manner in which Travellers organise economic activity includes; Nomadism – where mobility makes marginal activity viable; an emphasis on self employment; the extended family as the basic economic unit; the home and the work base being one of the same; self sufficiency and flexibility.
However, government policies and regulations have impacted directly and negatively on Traveller economy. This includes the Control of Horses Act (1996); the Directive on End of Life of Vehicles (2000); the anti-trespass legislation (Housing (Miscellaneous provisions) Act 2002); the Casual Trading Act (2005); as well as proposed new legislation on scrap metal.
There has been no measures put in place by the state to mitigate the negative impacts of these policies on Traveller economy, nor was there any impact assessment prior to introduction of the Acts. The fact is that Travellers ways of organising economic activity are deemed not to ‘fit’ this society and therefore have been shut down by discriminatory policies.
Ethnicity and Racism
This massive institutional disadvantage and discrimination is reinforced by the fact that the ethnic identity of Irish Travellers is still not recognised by the state.
There is no excuse for this. It is the declared wish of most Travellers in Ireland to have formal recognition of their ethnic status.
The Irish government have obligations in line with various human rights treaties that it has signed up to. These treaties include The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination, The International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, The Framework Convention on National Minorities, the Universal Period Review, and the UN Commission on the Rights of the Child which take account of Travellers right to recognition and self identity. Recognition was also recommended by the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Traveller Ethnicity in April 2014. And yet it still hasn’t happened.
The protracted refusal by consecutive governments to recognise Traveller ethnicity remains a barrier to the realisation of Travellers’ human rights in Ireland.
Therefore the question needs to be asked; why does the Irish State continue to deny the recognition of Traveller Ethnicity? And why is there so much discrimination against Travellers?
Although in Ireland there is no organised racist movement, there is an established and deep rooted institutional racism against Travellers which is quite complex. It is racism from the top down backed through the institutions of the state system and the media and assisted by government policies which create the conditions for racism to take root and grow.
Equality legislation from 1998 formally made discrimination against Travellers an offence. Contrary to this, the rise of anti Traveller racism among arms of the state has been alarming. For example, District Court Judge, Seamus Hughes 2012 in a court hearing, referred to a Traveller man as “like Neanderthal men abiding by the ‘laws of the jungle”. Former Minister for Environment with responsibility for Traveller Accommodation, Phil Hogan wrote to members of his constituency stating “they had nothing to be concerned about as Travellers would not be housed in his constituency”. Donegal Fianna Fáil Councillor Sean McEniff stated, that Travellers should be “housed away from settled communities, there should be a community of themselves together”.
Yet not one of these public figures was held accountable for their disgraceful comments.
The Roots of this Racism
The fact that this discrimination and racism is not just a matter of individual attitudes nor a peculiarity of Irish culture is shown by the fact that Travellers and nomadic people, like the Roma in Europe, have been persecuted for centuries and continue to be persecuted today right across the world.
The underlying reason is that the capitalist system wants a docile settled workforce accustomed to regular wage labour and a travelling life style is seen as a threat to this. This leads to a persistent tendency to try to force Travellers to conform and assimilate and to see them as ‘a problem’.
This is then reinforced by the system’s needs for scapegoats onto whom popular fear and anger at austerity and inequality can be diverted as part of a strategy of divide and rule.
This is why socialists support the immediate recognition of Traveller ethnicity, oppose all forms of anti-Traveller racism and argue that everyone in the working class and anti-austerity movement should unite with and defend the Traveller community.