Ireland: #TravellerLivesMatter – the struggle against racism and injustice

Pride parade and festival, Dublin, 2016. Photo by infomatique

Travellers in Ireland face daily discrimination and racism by the Northern and Southern states and within society, at large. But there are now growing demands for equality from a community that suffers enormously from poverty and bigotry and the effects that flow from this.

Wednesday 1 March was an historic day for the Traveller community, as their ethnic status was formally recognised by the Southern State. Such recognition has existed in the North since the late 1990s. The importance of this recognition lies in the boost in confidence it gives to Travellers in their struggle to win full equality.

This recognition represents a hard-fought and important victory. Of course the capitalist establishment would like to give recognition on one day and then return to business as usual (i.e. facilitating the discrimination and poverty faced by this community) the next. On the day Traveller ethnicity was won, Ruth Coppinger TD (Irish MP), speaking in the Dáil (Irish parliament) aptly quoted the words of the black civil-rights leader, Malcolm X: “Nobody can give you freedom. Nobody can give you equality or justice or anything… you take it”.

History of the Travelling people

The Traveller community is a long established indigenous group within Irish society, with its own traditions, heritage, customs and culture. In Ireland, history can often be really an argument over today’s politics and we have seen this with the denial of Traveller history. Despite Travellers being a long established group, Traveller history is not featured in Irish schools or universities.

The origins of the Traveller community have been subjected to histories that have diminished their status as a distinct ethnic group. Often they were written off as ‘failed settled people’ or it was said that they only came about since the Great Famine in the 1840s, which drove millions off their small farming plots of land. Much of these false versions of history were rolled out to justify the anti-Traveller policies of councils and politicians over the years. Modern techniques such as DNA testing have shown that Traveller origins stretch back many hundreds of years.

Before industrial capitalism developed, nomadic people were integral to society and the economy. Ireland was largely an agrarian society, with a need for specialists in trades, such as tinsmiths and horse traders, being able to travel. The Traveller community has had a long association with these occupations and for as long as Ireland remained a largely agricultural society, there was a valuable role for these trades.

The Belgian Marxist, Abram Leon, in his 1942 book, The Jewish Question, outlined how an ethnic group is able to sustain a separate identity and culture as a minority in society over centuries when that group undertakes particular economic roles. There was a material basis to the persistence of the Jewish people over the centuries. Similarly, in Ireland, there was a material basis for the Traveller community to continue as an ethnic minority and to sustain its rich culture and identity. Much of the Traveller community’s culture and traditions today, such as language, music and family forms, stretch back to Gaelic culture prior to the conquest of Ireland by imperialism.

In the 20th century there was a change to the character capitalism in Ireland. Trades such as metalwork and horse-trading became less important for the functioning of the economy. There was now mass, factory produced metal and plastic goods that were more easily replaced than repaired; the tractor became more accessible and more efficient than horse-power. The 20th century also saw the birth of two conservative capitalist states that soon developed anti-Traveller policies.

Anti-Traveller bigotry of the State

The Southern State treated vulnerable families and children harshly, and this was particularly the case for the Traveller community. Traveller families were afraid of having children taken off them by both church and state. Travellers were institutionalised in mother and baby institutions at a high rate. It was common in the education system for Travellers to be excluded from academic subjects and routinely subjected to racist abuse by those in authority.

Ireland became a more urbanised country in the 20th century; this affected the Traveller community enormously as more moved to towns and cities when their traditional trades and services were less in demand. In the 1960s the southern government established a Commission on ‘itinerancy’ that published an infamous report in 1963 that recommended the assimilation of Travellers. The Commission produced its report after consultations with the pillars of the capitalist establishment – big farmers, business interests and the churches and disgracefully spoke of finding a “final solution” to the “itinerant problem”. The report went on to inform the thinking of the state in the decades to come.

The strategy was to isolate Travellers on the edges of towns and cities in substandard accommodation. Politicians, particularly from the two main right wing parties, Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil, played on division between the settled community and Travellers, as suburbs expanded around cities and towns from the 1960s onwards. The state also used harsh repressive measures against Travellers who sought decent housing. Brutal methods were used by the Gardaí to clear what they deemed to be illegal halting sites.

Travellers today

Today the Traveller community is perhaps the most marginalised and discriminated-against ethnic group in Ireland. However there is now a change in attitude among Travellers and a desire to fight back against the discrimination and racism they face.

Mistreatment and discrimination are part of a daily reality. In the North seven in every ten Travellers have experienced discrimination at school or in accessing services, and three out of every four have experienced discrimination when seeking accommodation. In the South, one-third of travellers do not have access to basic sanitation, water and electricity. Around 55% of Travellers in the South leave education before the age of 15, and in the North less than three-quarters of 14 year-olds are in school. North and South only 1% have a third-level education. The Fine Gael / Labour government (2011-2016) ended the provision of Traveller-specific teachers and oversaw a slashing of the Traveller-specific education budget by 86%.

In the South, unemployment is 87% among Traveller men and 81% among women; in the North, the figure is similar at 86%.6.  Even at the peak of the ‘Celtic Tiger’, the unemployment figure in 2006 for Travellers was 75%.7

The suicide rates are six and a half times the Southern average. The rate for Traveller men is seven times higher than the average. Nearly all Traveller families have been impacted by death by suicide and other mental health problems that are largely caused by the position of Travellers in Irish society.

Infant mortality is four times higher than the Southern average, at 14.1 per 1,000 births. A 2007 report showed that 50% of Travellers die before the age of 39, 10% die before the age of two. The death rate of under-25s is 32%, while the Southern figure is 2.6%. 80% of Travellers die before the age of 65.

The Traveller community has been victim of the austerity regime of the last Fine Gael / Labour coalition. The Traveller accommodation budget was €35 million in 2010 and by 2015 the budget was cut to €4.3 million.

Carrickmines & shameful record of councils

On 10 October 2015, ten Travellers died in a fire in Carrickmines in south County Dublin, five of whom were children aged under-nine. The fire took hold and spread through the temporary accommodation that was overcrowded with units placed close enough together for fire to spread rapidly with little chance of escape. The Carrickmines fire was a turning point for many, as it exposed the housing policy of Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, as well as the bigoted attitudes of local councillors and some local residents.

When the local council tried to re-locate the survivors in the area, some residents objected, as they did not want Travellers to be close to them. There were even anti-Traveller protests by some local residents involving the blocking of council staff from entering a potential temporary site. Bigoted prejudice about criminality and anti-social behaviour was given credence, and ultimately the Council gave in to the demands of this minority.

Opposition to Traveller accommodation is a stock campaign tactic of politicians in Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. In the 2014 local elections in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Josepha Madigan, now a TD for Fine Gael, ran on a campaign platform claiming that using council land in Goatstown for Traveller accommodation was a “Waste of Valuable Resources”. Her argument was that land there should be for more unaffordable luxury homes built for private developers’ profit rather than to house Travellers. Of course, the racist politics of Josepha Madigan also repulsed people, but it is capable of stoking division and strengthening support among a certain section of the settled community.

Within weeks of the Carrickmines fire, Ruth Coppinger TD raised the treatment of Travellers by Louth County Council in the Dáil. In April 2015, due to overcrowding in other sites, 23 families moved into Woodland Park, which was previously used as an official site. Louth County Council and the Gardaí moved swiftly and within two days of the eviction order being made in January 2016, the Garda public order unit wearing riot gear, and also armed Gardaí, came to enforce the eviction. The families were duly evicted and made homeless by the state. After the evictions, the Council refused to speak with the families if they were being advised by a solicitor. The events in Louth show that the state’s policy of assimilation, brutal treatment by Gardaí and utter contempt for Travellers is very much alive.

The prejudice and inaction of councils on Traveller-specific accommodation was exposed when the figures showing vast under-spending was revealed. Toward the end of 2016, only one-third of the funds allocated to councils for traveller accommodation were spent. Clare had spent nothing in 2015 and 2016, Kildare spent nothing in 2016 and Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, where the Carrickmines fire occurred, also spent nothing in 2016. So even where funds are allocated to councils they refuse to spend it. The general inaction of councils on housing has potential to unite Traveller and settled communities in a struggle for affordable homes for all.

Demand for ethnicity

The Marriage Equality referendum in May 2015, the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA and the protests by Native Americans at Standing Rock has inspired a whole number of young Travellers. Travellers took to social media to promote the hashtag #TravellerLivesMatter to speak out against the high suicide rates, the poor accommodation, the racism and discrimination they face on a daily basis. Travellers are unwilling to stand by and be second-class citizens.

There is also an increased awareness of Traveller identity and culture. The activist and actor John Connors presented a television series on the work being done to document Traveller history by Travellers and the Folklore Department in University College Dublin (UCD). This series documented much of the discrimination and racism faced by Travellers over the decades. It also showed the pride that Travellers have for their culture and traditions, which have been part of Irish society for hundreds of years.

The demand for recognition of Travellers’ ethnicity gained momentum due to the radicalisation and political reawakening among Travellers. This is a demand the Socialist Party have fully supported. There are some political parties, such as the Labour Party, who voted against Traveller ethnicity and made savage cuts to Traveller education and housing, but are now trying to associate themselves with ethnicity recognition. Senator Aodhán Ó Riordáin, when he was the minister responsible, opposed ethnicity recognition in the Dáil in 2015.

Socialist politics

Capitalism is a system built on inequality and oppression. It is incapable of delivering a future for the Travelling people and creating real equality in our society. Capitalism has threatened the culture and traditions of Travellers, and many other minority groups on our planet. The capitalist state, and its politicians, feed off division – as can be seen with Trump in the USA. Establishment politicians regularly effect and play off divisions between minorities; there are many blatant examples of this North and South with hatred whipped up against Travellers. Police forces victimise minority communities – we see how the Gardaí treat Travellers and how African-Americans are brutally treated by police in the US.

Socialists do not accept that there is a natural division between settled community and Travellers. In fact, they are natural allies in the fight for employment, housing, decent pay, education, well-funded health services and for equality for other groups in Irish society such as women, LGBTQ+ people, the disabled and other ethnic minorities.

There is an abundance of wealth on our planet to provide a decent future for all. The question is: who owns and controls that wealth? Socialists stand for ending the rule of the tiny, prejudiced elite who happily play the ‘divide and rule’ card. Socialists oppose bigotry and discrimination in all its forms and stand for a society with housing, education, employment and services for all, and where the great diversity in culture and tradition is cherished.

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May 2017