Irish Travellers - Apartheid, Irish Style.


Solidarity is unity (as of a group or class) that produces or is based on community of interests, objectives, and standards.[1] It refers to the ties in a society that bind people together as one.

A good barometer of any society is how it treats people who are the most socially disadvantaged. In other words we are talking about people on the edge or on the bottom of this heap. In Ireland we have a pyramid structure which has 1% of individuals at the top owning 34% of the wealth. At the broad base of this triangle we have people who are treated appallingly, who are discriminated against, stigmatized and ultimately written-off before they reach the age of adulthood. People who are never given a chance; many Travellers find themselves here.

A sophisticated mechanism has been developed in terms of how the oppression takes place, but it still takes place on a daily basis. This machinery is institutional racism.

Institutional racism comes as standard
Institutional racism as a term was popularised by the Macpherson enquiry into the UK police’s handling of Stephen Lawrence’s murder, where it was defined as:
“The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people, because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin. It can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes and behaviour which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness and racist stereotyping which disadvantage minority ethnic people”.
(Macpherson, 1999, p 28 Stephen Lawrence Enquiry)

The advantage of this institutional approach is that it depersonalises racism. There is no longer a need to have an ugly scene of an ogre enacting racism in an individual capacity. The scenes exist: witness Minister Phil Hogan’s letter to constituents assuring them that Travellers were not going to be allowed live in the area; or Donegal Fianna Fail Councillor Sean McEniff’s anti-Traveller statements, which no doubt did nothing to discourage a mob who subsequently burned down a Travellers families home there; or the Judge Seamus Hughes last year talking about Traveller men stating “they are like Neanderthal men living in the long grass, abiding by the laws of the jungle.”

In Ireland institutional racism has evolved to come fitted as standard. At the same time the State dithers about making the decision on whether or not to grant Travellers ethnic status. As the Stephen Lawrence family lawyer, Imran Khan stated – when you write laws of the land specifically for a people – it is a sure sign that you recognise them as a specific group when you bring in laws that pertain only to them. So, in Ireland, are Travellers specifically targeted in the Anti-Trespass Act brought in 2002 and Section 24 of the Criminal Justice Act (1994).

Now the racism that is felt by Travellers from the state can be impersonal, or institutional. Much like the generic term used at Fianna Fail Ard Fhéis ‘Mistakes were made’ – it acknowledges that mistakes were made but it doesn’t tell you by whom, with good reason. Similarly, racism exists, but no-one is responsible for it, least of all those who use institutional routine as a reason not to deliver a service. There are laws stating that appropriate accommodation should be provided for Travellers, but when it does not get delivered, there is a shrug, and no one is responsible.

Institutional racism brings with it a message that it’s nothing personal, it is just the way things are.

The Discrimination Lab
Really the case of Irish Travellers and their relationship with this State is like a laboratory for the perfection of discrimination. Marginalization is the first step, the group is excluded from the rest of the population, and removed from being decision makers or having any power in that society. Then the groups close around each other, and an ‘us and them’ mentality develops. Next the stereotyping occurs, quickly followed by some stigmatization, lastly the scape-goating.

If we look at the document produced 50 years ago by the State entitled ‘A Commission on Itinerancy’ (“Itinerant” is the state’s word and a reason why it is abhorred by all Travellers as a racial slur) was founded on the basis of looking at the following [1]
(1). To enquire into the problem arising from the presence in the country of itinerants in considerable numbers
(2). To examine the economic, educational, health and social problems inherent in their way of life
(3). To consider what steps might be taken
(a) to provide opportunities for a better way of life for itinerants
(b) to promote their absorption into the general community
(c) pending such absorption, to reduce to a minimum the disadvantage to themselves and to the community resulting from their itinerant habits

A picture emerges very quickly of the intentions behind the commission.
1. Travellers are a problem because they exist.
2. There are problems arising from the way they live.
3. The solution to these problems is to ‘absorb’ them into the general population, i.e. stop them being Travellers, as that would stop the problems their existence and way of life is causing us.

This is paraphrasing, but both texts are produced here for the reader to judge. Let us skip to the end because within the confines of these narrow minds there is not much light. What are the recommendations that come from the Commission? A Commission which did its work without bothering to involve any Travellers.

The chilling recommendation
“there can be no final solution to the problems created by itinerants until they are absorbed into the general community” [3]
[1963 State Report on Travellers]

To which the ITM review responded:
It seems extraordinary that the term “final solution” to the “problems created by itinerants” could be used in 1960, in light of the genocide of Jews, Roma and Sinti by Nazi Germany in the very recent past. Could this be simply be complete ignorance of recent history and an unfortunate choice of words? [4]

Now let us quickly snap back to the present day. We are now in the era of integration, multiculturalism or interculturalism, depending on who you listen to. Here is Fingal county council official in 2005 “Fingal county council are of the view that the balance of blame with regard to the poor Traveller accommodation provision as it presently stands in the Finglas area lies with the Traveller Community.” Sounds familiar to the Commission’s findings doesn’t it. Travellers are to blame. Here is a local authority, a provider of accommodation, blaming Travellers for that accommodation.

Here is the current Minister of Education on 27th March 2011 in the Dáil:
“In a sense, the first step for the Traveller community in maximising educational opportunities for their children is to become settled.” [5]

There is a man who has full appreciation of ethnicity, given that there is a long tradition of nomadism amongst Travellers, some might go so far as to contend that it might be the reason for their name. How different is it to the absorption policy?

Growing the ties that bind – Building Solidarity
The flag of austerity has been used against Travellers to eliminate specific provisions which were hard fought for by the Traveller movement. The most recent census shows us unemployment running at 84.3%. Cuts to Traveller programs since 2008 are ‘egregious’, with education down 86% and accommodation down 84%, in comparison to the 4.3% average cuts we have seen in Government spending overall. [6] The powerless in society suffer when the powerful need to pay the bills.

But unfortunately at a time when there is a desperate need for a vibrant active Travellers movement with links and supports from other committed anti-racist activists, there is little to point to. There are difficulties to be overcome and some of the actions which saw such solidarity develop around the eviction at Dale Farm in Essex, need to be replicated here.

“It is often easier to become outraged by injustice half a world away than by oppression and discrimination half a block from home.” [7] I know I’ve lost count of the number of embassies I’ve picketed and demonstrated outside of, but the injustices levelled daily on the Traveller community warrant that we build links and include them as an integral part of the fight against racism here, at home.

That is a starting point. Building it around specific actions like the picket on Sean McEniff’s Hotel after his recent comments was a good place to begin. Those links, if they can be, should also be built locally. It would be naïve to pretend that there are not many obstacles in our path, but I think in many ways this is the litmus test for the type of society we wish to create. Anarchism or Barbarism was a headline on one of the WSM papers years ago. Society is rapidly going in one direction and fighting racism on our own block is the obvious step towards building the type of neighbourhood we wish to live in.

WORDS: D. Sreenan

[1] Taken from the Irish Traveller Movement document reviewing the 1963 Commission report – the bold and italics were added in the ITM report for emphasis, not in the 1963 original text. The later added emphasis retained here and in further quotes from this source – Full document available in full here. of_the_1963_Commission_on_Itinerancy.pdf
[2] ibid.
[3] ibid.
[4] ibid., p.13.
[5] Ministers responses to questions on Traveller education in full here dail/2011/03/24/00010.asp
[6] Travelling with Austerity – April 2013, A Pavee Point Report - B.Harvey Available here: http://paveepoint. ie/sitenua/wp-content/uploads/2013/04/Pavee- Point-Austerity-PDF-1.pdf
[7] Carl T. Rowan, Journalist & Author

This article is from Irish Anarchist Review no 8 Autumn 2013