Former Taoiseach Enda Kenny described March 1, 2017, when the State gave formal recognition to the distinct ethnic identity of Travellers, as “a historic day for our Travellers and a proud day for Ireland”. Kenny continued: “I hope that today will create a new platform for positive engagement by the Traveller community and the government together in seeking sustainable solutions which are based on respect and on an honest dialogue.” The public gallery and side room of the Dáil were packed with members of the Traveller community, and many more members waited outside the Dáil gates to hear the Taoiseach’s words.
The significance of the Taoiseach’s statement was not lost on the general population of Ireland and the Irish media. “That statement had a very profound impact on our community,” said Martin Collins, Pavee Point Co-Director and Traveller rights activist. “It was very symbolic, it was very historic because I think what it did, it put to bed, once and for all, this racist ideology that Travellers are failed settled people, that we need to be just normalised and civilised and everything will be fine.”
Collins refers to the assimilationist policies pursued by the State when pursuing social policies related to the Traveller community, as published in 1963. Using language that has not aged well, the State’s first report on Travellers social conditions was entitled “The Commission on Itinerancy”, and recommended that the only “final solution” was to facilitate Traveller integration into the settled community as much as possible. Collins described the gist of the report and state policy as regarding Travellers as a “problem to be solved”, and the way to solve this “problem” was through “assimilation and rehabilitation”.
“The impact of that analysis was very profound in Travellers, a lot of Travellers ended up believing this, it’s called internalised oppression”, Collins said. “Believing that that we had no culture, that we had nothing of substance, that essentially we are just failed settled people that need to be helped and normalised and civilised by the State.”
“A vigilante mob attempted to drive the Travellers away from their campsite after the local council was unable to fulfil their demand to evict the camp.”
From this official policy and attitude, Collins described the shame that overtook the community and the reluctance of Travellers to identify with their heritage. The State approach to Travellers hardly wavered in the following decades and conflict continued between the Traveller and settled communities. A flashpoint of Traveller and settled community tension resulted in the formation of Pavee Point after a protracted conflict in Tallaght between 1983 and 1984. At the height of the Tallaght incident, about 150 families and 200 caravans were parked at an unofficial halting site. As tensions and hysteria grew due to lack of facilities and poor communication from the authorities, a vigilante mob attempted to drive the Travellers away from their campsite after the local council did not evict the camp.
After the events in Tallaght, Collins described his efforts along with a few other individuals that wanted to do something to improve the status and how “they might support Travellers in their struggle for justice and equality”. The group decided to embark on a nationwide survey and, from this, Pavee Point developed. The nationwide consultation returned results of little surprise. Through meeting Travellers and people who worked with Travellers, mainly state employees such as social workers, teachers, and Gardaí, and also members of the Catholic Church including priests and nuns, the group established that the situation for Travellers in Ireland was one of “exclusion, high levels of racism, poor living standards, high unemployment rate, and low educational attainment”.
The group’s report in the aftermath of the Tallaght incident also analysed the approach of the State to Travellers and found two problematic subjects. The first according to Collins was the “absence of an effort to support Traveller self-determination, Traveller leadership. In other words, Travellers representing and advocating on their own behalf and on the behalf of their community.” Collins outlines how Pavee Point “pioneered that concept of Traveller self-determination, of Traveller leadership”, and why this new approach was important so that Travellers could have the right “to influence the policies and programs that would affect their lives”.
“It translates down to a grassroots level, in the classroom, in the schoolyard, on the street, in the shops, in the pubs, that’s what it does.”
The second subject was the aforementioned assimilationist approach that resulted in discrimination to the Traveller community. Collins describes the State’s previous failure to recognise Travellers as a distinct group with their own, “history, culture, traditions and language, and customs”. According to Collins, it is these two findings that make Pavee Point different “from any other organisation, as we brought these two groundbreaking principles to the work of Travellers and that has informed the work of Traveller organisations right across the country”.
Speaking to Collins, it has become apparent how influential official declarations and public actions can be on the Traveller community. Understandably, the recent comments of Presidential candidate, Peter Casey, were not to be dismissed. It is immediately apparent the disgust they have engendered within Collins remains, as well as anger fuelled by the hurt to his community.
Collins is forthright when he describes the comments as “insulting and racist”, but gives a more significant insight to their effects, coming as they did from a candidate for the highest office in Ireland. “I’ll tell you what it does,” Collins says and draws a breath, “it legitimises and normalises racism towards Travellers”. He reflects further with a hardened tone, “let’s be honest with you, many politicians from various political parties have come out with anti-Traveller comments, however, this is the first time that I can recollect that there was racist commentary towards Travellers in a Presidential election. I don’t ever remember that happening before, as far as I can recollect, so this is a first.” Collins voice breaks for a moment before continuing: “It is really disturbing and concerning and it does contribute towards a culture that normalises racism towards Travellers.”
This normalisation, according to Collins, gives license to others to cause further hate and pain. He describes the effects that a public figure’s statements can have, that these words become tangible in the actions of others and how they behave towards Travellers. “It translates down to a grassroots level, in the classroom, in the schoolyard, on the street, in the shops, in the pubs, that’s what it does. So it has a real impact, its not abstract.”
“We never suggested that ethnicity on its own would be salvation, but it’s a very important foundation on which to build a more inclusive, pluralist society.”
There seems to be a disconnect between the tangible effects that negative comments can have on the Traveller community and the absence of improvements that positive comments should develop within Traveller communities. While Collins holds the importance of the ethnicity status in high regard, he remains realistic about the challenges that still face his community regardless. “Practically on the ground, it has done nothing to deal with issues of inequality, exclusion, low education attendance,” Collins said, “and we didn’t expect that it would, to be honest with you.”
“We never suggested that the recognition of Travellers as an ethnic minority would be a magic wand, these issues that I have identified – accommodation, education, healthcare – these need a continued institutionalised policy from the State to deal with those issues. We never suggested that ethnicity on its own would be salvation, but it’s a very important foundation on which to build a more inclusive, pluralist society.”
The need for the State to embrace pluralism is stressed by Collins and he places education at the heart of this. “The educational system needs to be more inclusive of Travellers, the curriculum needs to be amended to ensure that Traveller history, Traveller culture, and language is reflected within the curriculum and within the school system.” Collins quotes a bill currently in front of the Oireachtas, the Traveller Culture and History in Education Bill, which attempts to accomplish these goals.
Collins continues to draw heart from his recent work planning campaigns to start in 2019 on behalf of the Traveller community, but laments the end of funding to their dedicated education programme for Travellers that Pavee Point ran up until a year and a half ago. He stresses the efforts of the organisation to continue to encourage and support Travellers to pursue education with the resources they have. Collins is also calling for the re-establishment of the National Traveller Education Advisory Committee within the Department of Education, that worked in partnership with Traveller organisations to improve the educational outcomes for Travellers.
Representing 0.7% of the population according to the 2016 census, and with high unemployment rates of nearly 80%, the challenges facing Travellers are hugely palpable. An Economic and Social Research Institute (ERSI) report in 2017 found that just 1% of Travellers have a college degree, and 28% of Travellers leave school before the age of 13. The same report highlighted the high rate of poor health among adult Travellers, in comparison to non Travellers. From a population of 30,897, just 932 Travellers were aged over 65.
The statistics representing the challenges facing Travellers are stark, and the approach taken to solve those problems is all the more important when the use of language to do so holds such power. While language and public opinion may change, the statistics still remain stubbornly resolute. The fight for equality for Travellers is far from over, but Collins is hopeful as that Irish society will accept the community as one their own in time.