100 years after 1916 will the Irish state recognising Traveller ethnicity


2016 is fast approaching and we will be subjected to endless documentaries about that start of our bloody history as a nation. It will also be a time for analysis of how far we’ve come since the proclamation of this Republic.

In the proclamation there are lines which are aspirational, but grounded in the reality of experience of the rebels.
“The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

I am writing these words on the day that three children are being buried in Wexford. Jimmy [5], Christy [2], and Mary [5 months] Connors were never cherished in this republic. They got to live their lives on a ‘permanent temporary’ site on the Glenamuck road which was a disused sand pit. It appears on all sides they were surrounded by other citizens who did not cherish them. Jodie [9] and Kelsey [4] were their friends but they too are now dead as are their parents. It is safe to say that the children who died in the fire that swept through that site were never cherished in this republic, nor were their parents. 10 people dead and nothing will change for this group of Irish citizens because they are Travellers. The fire was a tragedy for the family and brought a grief which is beyond all recognition. It was a tragedy for all Travellers. But if their deaths do not lead to a very real change in the treatment of Travellers in Irish society then it will be a tragedy for this so-called republic.

Back in April 17th the Report on the Recognition of Traveller Ethnicity by the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality was published and it said that ‘It is no longer tenable for this State to deny Traveller ethnicity’. Being part of an ethnic group means that there is common ancestry, history, culture, and language. Travellers are citizens of this republic, but are different from the majority population. The difference has been recognised for a long time, both in the laws that are created specifically for them (Criminal Trespass act 2002) and in the actions that other citizens take against Travellers (Rockville drive).

Everyone recognises that Travellers are different, and that is due to them being ethnically different. But recognition of that by the State would be the start of officially saying yes, Travellers are different from us, but they CANNOT be discriminated, disrespected or treated differently due to that difference. The history of how Travellers have been treated in Ireland is one where we recognise that they are different to the majority population and has allowed us to house them in disused sand pits and porta cabins. It allowed us to put them in separate classes in order to not educate them. It allowed and allows us to NOT build appropriate accommodation which recognises their nomadic tradition. It allowed and allows for Travellers being forced into private rented accommodation only to be made homeless when the landlord acts on his prejudice and kicks them out of the house.

By Irish state recognising Traveller ethnicity we would be taking a step towards acknowledging difference but also crucially accepting that difference and respecting it. Let us go back to the proclamation and focus in on the words “oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government.” Differences are often carefully cultivated because it suits governments be they alien or home grown. The powers that be have often made much of the differences so as to introduce policies which would be unacceptable to the majority of the population. When you dehumanise a group it allows for policies which at their core display a lack of dignity and a degradation in the conditions in which you expect them to live. Let us remember the findings of the States Commission for Itinerancy in 1963, which said “they acknowledge that there can be no final solution to the problems created by itinerants until they are absorbed into the general community.”

The absorption policy was really the official start of the state not recognising Traveller ethnicity, and seeing the difference as something that had to be fixed with through absorption. When you use terms like final solution you can see where the dehumanising theory springs from. It has led to persistent stereotyping, marginalisation and discrimination for Travellers.

Travellers have been pushed to the margins of Irish society from the beginning. We have an abundant knowledge of how those policies are destroying the lives of Travellers. The infant mortality rate is still 4 times the national average. The life expectancy for men is 15 years younger than the general population male . There are the 445 Traveller families who are living by the side of the road. The lack of dignity and the dehumanising effect it has on Travellers, and has directly led to them being over represented in prison and underrepresented in terms of jobs and employment. The life that Travellers are forced to live due to them being different in Ireland is devoid of compassion or dignity or respect. That life inevitably takes its effect on Travellers themselves. It is evident in the alarming suicide rate (7 times that of the GP for Traveller). The idea that one could “pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts” appears impossible from the side of the road or in caravan on halting site that was built for 30 families with 60 living there.

As we approach the centenary for the time when the republicans decided to strike a blow against empire, I think rather than steep ourselves in that history, we should look to the words of the proclamation and make them a reality for the nation and ‘all its parts.’ We should look towards cherishing all, equally, oblivious of difference. Let us start with Travellers, but let us not stop there. Let us continue through with migrants and asylum seekers and end direct provision. Let’s continue with the people who are on the social housing list, 17,000 of whom are children,, or the ones who are now homeless, oblivious of difference. This would be a virtuous way to mark that century, by attempting to make the ideal real, and cherishing all the children.

This is unlikely to happen for numerous reasons. We are in the midst of the short term fever that grips politicians known as an election cycle. This allows Enda Kenny to visit the site of the terrible fire that took 10 lives, take a photograph and disappear before he had to talk to the surviving family members. Votes count, but Travellers obviously do not. Hence we get the defence of the Rockville Drive residents to block the development of the temporary site, who defended their actions by saying they had a right to be consulted.

In many ways, in 1916 the enemy was clearer. Now the enemy is more of an internal demon, a mind virus that must be wrestled with and eliminated. This demon that lets ourselves think of us as a progressive nation, and not racist but continues to allow Travellers to live in a third world on our doorstep. A demon that allows 72% in an Irish Times poll to agree with the actions of the Rockville Drive residents actions, yet we can overwhelmingly vote for same-sex marriage in the referendum. Certain ideas are far too important to be left in the hands of the short-term thinkers in pin-striped suits who’ll be looking for your number one, or the people who stand in front of diggers to stop Travellers moving in. These are all symptoms of the ‘mindless half-arsed, a-la-carte neo-liberalism *’ which flows from the goons in power in this selfish age.

As people we need to push for the type of society that we want to live in. There was pride in the republic the day that we voted for same-sex marriage. There should now be a push to make real the promise of a society where one can say that we cherish all children equally, oblivious of differences. That would be tribute, to make the ideal, real. The tragedy of Carrickmines could be the start of our journey towards that republic. Let us build a republic where we are oblivious to difference because though my eyes in relation to Travellers we have been up to now, oblivious to change.

* Phrase is alas not mine own but that of Donal Ryan, accalimed author of The Spinning Heart.

WORDS: Dermot Freeman