Travellers Rights


Workers Solidarity Movement position paper on Travellers Rights as rewritten Oct 2008 National Conference

a Workers Solidarity Movement position paper


Travellers Rights


1. Ethnic and national origins should have no special importance except that they add to the rich cultural diversity of peoples. However Irish Travellers constitute a tiny minority within Ireland, comprising approximately 0.5% of the total population. We accept that they constitute a separate ethnic group with their own cultural values and practices, language and beliefs.

2. Travellers are subjected to racism, discrimination and exclusion everywhere in Ireland. This racism takes many forms, ranging from the most obvious, difficulties getting served in pubs and places of entertainment to institutionalised discrimination in all of the state services. A good example of the state's licence to oppress Travellers was the enactment of the Housing (Misc. Provisions) Act 2002. Also known as the Trespass Act this law makes it a criminal offence to camp on public or private land. This act has been used against Travellers (and against Travellers only) in dozens of instances and simply being a roadside traveller has become a criminal activity, punished by a month in jail, €3000 fine and confiscation of property - in this case your home.

3. The results of this racism are clearly demonstrated in the health, education and accommodation statistics of the Traveller population.

The age structure of the Traveller population resembles that of a developing country with many children and relatively few in the older age group. The average age for Travellers is 18 years while the national figure is 32 years; only 3.3% of Travellers are over 65 years compared to 11.1% of the general population.

Travellers health statistics are much worse than those of the general population. Infant mortality among Travellers is more than twice that of the settled population with life expectancy more than 10 years less than that of settled people.

In terms of education, the majority of the adult population have had little or no formal education. The education system has systematically discriminated against Travellers over the years. While a large number of Traveller children have been enrolled in Primary schools over the last couple of years, the curricular changes necessary to promote genuinely open interculturalist approach to education have not been forthcoming. Even now, only about half of Traveller pupils are retained in the education system to Junior Cert. level while only a tiny number make it to post-primary final year or on to 3rd level education.

Travellers remain in a desperate situation as far as accomodation goes. Thousands have been pushed into taking the option of regular housing; about a thousand families still live on the roadside, open to persecution from the authorities and without access to electricity and water. There is nowhere near enough of either permanent or transient halting sites. Many of the existing halting sites are crowded and in poor repair. In time of recession travellers accomodation projects find themselves an easy target for cutbacks.

4. These statistics demonstrate the marginalised pariah status of Travellers in Irish society. The racism practised against Irish Travellers is part of the worldwide racism practised against Gypsies and Travellers. This particular form of racism reached its peak this century with the murder of a quarter of a million Gypsies by the Nazis. Currently eastern European Gypsies and Travellers are being subjected to racist policies and to physical attack in several countries. There is a long and bloody history of persecution of European Gypsies and Travellers dating back to their arrival in Europe around the 11th century.

5. The response of Irish Travellers to their situation has varied over the past forty years. In the early 1960's there was an attempt to set up a radical Travellers movement, which was successful for a few years in resisting evictions and campaigning for rights and services. Gratton Puxon, an English journalist was the instigator of this movement, which drew support from large numbers of Travellers throughout the country. Appeals were made to the trade union movement, especially in Dublin, to refuse to evict Travellers and to adopt policies which respected Travellers rights. However, this movement for Travellers' cultural self-determination and civil rights came to an end in 1963 when Gratton Puxon was framed by the police on an explosives charge and given the choice of leaving the country or a lengthy jail sentence. He left in 1963 and dozens of Travellers who had been active in the movement left with him. They went to England where they were active in setting up the Gypsy Council there.

6. In Ireland, Travellers' interests were supposedly represented for the next twenty years by middle class liberals such as Victor Bewley, the former owner of Bewleys Cafes. A policy of settlement and assimilation was adopted by the Government with no Traveller participation or even consultation. Travellers were viewed as incapable of acting or thinking on their own behalf and this remained the case until the early 1980's.

Their material and social circumstances continued to deteriorate especially as the population continued to increase and the policies adopted by the government with the connivance of the Itinerant Settlement Committees, as they were called, failed to make any impact on the situation. Opposition to housing and site provision by residents' groups - supported by politicians in many cases - ensured that most Travellers continued to live in sub-human conditions.

This opposition to Travellers broke out into open hostility and violence in Tallaght in 1981. Over one hundred Traveller families were camped on the un-opened by-pass waiting for site accommodation at that time. They had been there for several years when the County Council suddenly decided to open the by-pass and evict them without offering them anywhere to go. An ad-hoc group of activists got together to resist this attack and the Travellers' Rights Committee was formed. An injunction was obtained preventing the local authority from moving the Travellers and a situation of outright conflict ensued between the Travellers and their supporters on one side, and some residents - supported by local politicians - on the other.

The Travellers Rights Committee put up a Traveller, Nan Joyce, as a candidate in the general election of 1982 and she polled twice the vote of the anti-Traveller racist candidate standing against her. The Travellers Rights Committee continued to campaign with marches and public protests until 1983 when it gave way to a Traveller only organisation, Minceir Misli.

Minceir Misli continued the fight for nearly two years when it fell apart because of the heavy burden on the few Travellers who were literate enough and confident enough to campaign. Links were again established with the trade union movement, and motions and policies in support of Travellers rights were adopted in a number of unions.

7. In recent years the Irish Travellers Movement (ITM) has acted as an umbrella network for about 90 Traveller organizations. Pavee Point Traveller Centre, from whose 'Traveller Factsheets' some of the statistics quoted above were taken, is one most people are familiar with. Pavee Point has been outspoken in challenging anti-Traveller racism and has acted in solidarity with Roma gypsies facing oppression in Ireland. Traveller organisations in the present day have come to agree on recognising Irish Travellers as a distinct ethnic group.

8. We believe that Travellers have a right to cultural self-determination, to equal rights and to live without being subjected to racism in any of its forms. We believe that Travellers themselves must be centrally involved in any struggle that concerns them. We also believe that their numbers are too few and their lack of political or industrial muscle is such that they cannot achieve equality only through their own efforts. They need the active support of all progressive forces, especially that of the organised trade union movement, in their struggles. We reject however, the liberal/charity approach to Travellers' rights as being in itself a from of racism.

9. Workers Solidarity Movement members have been part of an initiative in Cork called Traveller and Settled Solidarity (TASS). This group's activities centred on offering simple and practical support to Travellers in Cork facing evictions and court harassment, especially in the wake of the 2002 Trespass Act mentioned above. Roadside Travellers in Cork city have had a particularly hard time - during the period July 2002 to June 2003 there were 138 evictions of roadside Traveller families living there. TASS group learned some important lessons from it's activities during this time, principally that the concept of building solidarity between settled and Traveller people, as opposed to relying on charity or social work, is an idea that will only gain currency among Travellers after long years of practice. That is to say, most Travellers will assume that a settled person offering support must be part of a charity group, state services or else a paid worker with one of the Traveller organisations.

10. In the Workers Solidarity Movement we take the view that Irish Travellers, as a highly oppressed grouping here in Ireland, should feel free to request and expect active solidarity. In general, we adopt a position of supporting Travellers' struggles, encouraging maximum Traveller involvement in such struggles and raising the issue of racism against Travellers in our publications and in our interventions and political work.

As rewritten Oct 2008