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How Ireland's Racism Against Travelers Leads to Isolation and Inequality

Ireland may have voted to legalize same-sex marriage earlier this year, but it still has plenty of ground to cover when it comes to its poorest ethnic minority population.

by James Nolan
Nov 9 2015, 4:20pm

A photograph in an Irish Traveler's caravan. Photo by Joel Plaja

In May, Ireland voted Yes on its Marriage Equality referendum. In doing so, it became the first country to legalize same-sex marriage by popular vote—a sign, surely, that its people are a pretty tolerant bunch. However, the idea of true equality in Ireland remains a myth for many; not just members of the LGBT community—for whom the fight continues—but also women, members of ethnic minorities, and Travelers.

Irish Travelers are Irish indigenous, but also their own ethnicity—something disputed by some but proven by science and law. The UN Committee on Human Rights has called on Ireland repeatedly to recognize Travelers' ethnic minority status, guaranteeing them unique protections under equality laws like they have in Britain, to no avail. Last Wednesday, Sinn Féin tabled a motion in Irish parliament to amend this, but it was defeated 58 votes to 39.

In 2011, there were around 30,000 Travelers in the Republic of Ireland, less than 1 percent of the population. Of the remaining 4.5 million, 63.7 percent said they rejected Travelers on the basis of their "way of life." Furthermore, 79.4 percent "would be reluctant to buy a house next door to a Traveler."

The isolation felt by Travelers is accordingly high, with Traveler men 6.6 times likelier to commit suicide than the general population. Their death rate is 3.5 times higher than the general population, with men expected to live 15 years less (to 61.7) and women 11.5 years less (to 70.1).

Educational stats are just as bad: In 2011, almost 70 percent lacked a secondary school education, with only one percent having graduated university compared to 31 percent of the Irish population. Worst of all, 17.7 percent of Travelers lack a formal education of any kind.

Wondering why this was, I contacted Brenda Power, Irish Daily Mail journalist and probably the most outspoken critic of Travelers in Ireland. Last year, she was criticized by the Irish Equality Authority for a column featuring statements like "Teach your children to use a golf club or a hurley for something other than breaking a cousin's leg in a family fracas."

She directed me to a memo sent by Seán Ó Foghlú, secretary general of the Department of Education, in which he concluded—based on discussions with parents in Rathkeale, Co. Limerick—that Traveler parents had "little interest" in sending their children to school beyond the ages of 12 or 13 "so that," Power told me, "the boys can follow their fathers 'into a trade' and the girls can be marriageable. Apparently, being in school makes a young girl a less attractive prospect for a Traveler man. In other words, an education would interfere with her proper purpose in the community, which is to spend the rest of her life scrubbing a caravan."

The memo followed concerns about a school in Rathkeale where Traveler children were being taught in a separate class. Historically, separation between Traveler children and settled kids is common in primary schools. An Irish National Teachers' Organisation report in 1992 states: "Traveler children are, in many instances, currently placed and remain in special classes for Travelers, without regard to their parents' wishes and without the provision of appropriate educational assessment. This procedure is regarded by many parents of Travelers as discriminatory."

Though the policy did evolve to include apparent greater emphasis on parental consultations and ability-based assessment rather than ethnic, it was still found in the late 2000s that "parental consent for their children's referral... is often not sought" and that "Traveler children are withdrawn... purely on the basis of ethnic identity and not on perceived educational need."

Removing children from core subjects makes the transition from primary to secondary school pointlessly hard, making the transition to legitimate work life fairly impossible (84 percent of Travelers are unemployed). Though difficulty isn't the sole reason Traveler children drop out of secondary school, nor is it justification for all negative behavior in adulthood, this textbook example of institutional racism—underlined in 2011 when the Irish government cut 86.6 percent of Traveler education funding—points to the issue being slightly more complex than we think.

The racism Travelers face goes beyond institutional. There have been numerous instances in the past few years of people burning down houses earmarked for Travelers. In Ballyshannon, Co. Donegal, one fire was preceded three weeks earlier by local councillor Sean McEniff saying on radio: "I wouldn't want them living next door to me... I think there should be an isolated community of them some place. Give them all houses and keep them all together."

In affluent areas of south Dublin, election flyers were circulated last year by Fine Gael councillor Josepha Madigan calling plans to build Traveler accommodation nearby "a dreadful waste of taxpayers' money," with another, Emer Higgins, sending letters in west Dublin saying "I am delighted" about the cancellation of another planned site. These came a year after a Galway judge had called burglars "knackers" (the go-to Traveler slur), and 18 months after another in Westmeath called Travelers "Neanderthal men living in the long grass, abiding by the laws of the jungle."

Brawls and heaving drinking aren't uncommon within Traveler communities—just as they aren't uncommon among settled people. However, for Travelers, these fights can echo out into feuds, which contribute to many having to vacate provided accommodation, wishing to avoid trouble or rival families. In a report last year, some Travelers attributed the growth in feuding to the nature of the provided accommodation, which precludes them from keeping horses and essentially earning a living in one of the only ways they've traditionally been able to: by breeding and trading horses. Some also attributed the increase to the 2012 closure of all Senior Traveler Training Centres, which provided those over 18 with training and support to access work.

Of course, feuding can also affect Travelers in a more straightforward way: In the past couple of years alone, there have been a number of feud-related attacks involving golf clubs, slash hooks, hatchets, and machetes; the destruction of private property; and a murder and attempted murder at a wedding.

I wondered if Travelers were more prone to violence than the rest of us, and if the restrictions society placed on them contributed to that. I asked Brenda Power her opinion.

"There's no doubt that there's more violence in the Traveling community than among settled folk," she said. "As to why this is, I don't believe that it's the restrictions that are placed on members, because it seems to me there are no restrictions placed on Travellers. On the contrary, I believe their behavior is a consequence of a culture of absolute impunity, borne of a liberal fear of seeming less than supportive or a legitimate concern about being accused of 'racism'... I don't think violence and lawlessness is inherent in the Travelers' nature, but any community that is not subject to boundaries will inevitably descend into chaos."

This culture of impunity has an odd way of manifesting: Traveler men are five to 11 times likelier than other Irish men to be imprisoned, while Traveler women are 18 to 22 times likelier than other Irish women.

My liberal fear tells me that when a small portion, or even a significant portion, of any minority commits a crime the majority tars them from top to bottom to give the impression it's innate. This absolves the majority of responsibility both for having contributed to the perceived problem and also for having the ability to change things. Either that, or it tells itself it's being too lenient, absolving itself in a different way—but one that basically amounts to the same thing.

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The question is, going forwards: What do we do? To tackle inequality between the Traveler and settled population, should we be tougher or more lenient? I asked Power.

"I think Travelers should be held to the exact same standards as everyone else—it's that simple," she said. "That means behaving themselves in pubs and hotels, not brawling and feuding on streets and in schoolyards, working for a living and paying their taxes, and educating their children. I honestly don't think we're doing them any favors by turning a blind eye to oppressive and antisocial practices and absolving them as 'Traveler culture.'"

That clearly sounds ideal. Every transgression by Travelers should be dealt with accordingly. But the reality is that these transgressions aren't just a product of "Traveler culture," but also our own: The causes of crime are as much poverty and lack of education as they are poor parenting and the influence of peers, and though saying Travelers are discriminated against directly in the job market may be too strong, it's certainly fair to say the system we've created makes it ridiculously hard for them to find employment.

Yes, massive strides are being made in Ireland, but before there's any more talk of equality in this country, we must recognize that demanding Travelers be the same as us while denying them the ability to be so at almost every level is endemic not just of inequality but something worse. Like every majority, most Irish people feel uniquely right in their grievances, but, in the context of history, seem so stereotypically wrong. Continuing down this road of name-calling, finger-pointing, and gate-blocking will only serve to create more generations of bitterness on both sides, and in 2015, aren't we better than that?

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