Traveller Ethnicity Needs to be Recognised

” You need to be born into the group to be one. One cannot simply become an Irish Traveller”


Once more in its long history the Irish state has proven itself unable, and it seems unwilling, to cherish all children of the nation equally.  Despite recent recommendations of international bodies to grant ethnic minority status to Irish Travellers, the Irish Republic has predicated and delayed. The current Minister for Equality, David Stanton TD, during a recent Traveller Pride awards ceremony in Dublin spoke of Travellers needing to win the hearts and minds of Irish society in order to acquire this status. This comment encapsulates the problems resident in Ireland.

Let us not be in doubt that this is a human rights failure. Why should any minority group require the permission of a majority, and in this case often a hostile majority, to ascertain what they see themselves as? No minority grouping, from religious groups to foreign nationals, should need the consent of the wider community to achieve legal rights.

I am from Northern Ireland where ethnic status for Irish Travellers is legally accepted, so such a decision is not unprecedented. Yet despite this, nothing is being done by the Irish state. In November of last year, the Government rejected Sinn Féin’s Private Members’ motion on Traveller rights, which would have granted ethnic minority status, by 58 votes to 39.

The failure to grant Travellers ethnic minority status is one aspect of the discrimination that Travellers routinely face in Ireland. Irish politicians have promised Traveller free areas to potential voters, particularly in rural constituencies. Furthermore, due to certain laws and bylaws, a fully nomadic lifestyle is effectively illegal.

For example, it is illegal in Ireland (as well as the UK) to camp overnight on the side of the road, a law which is implicitly aimed at Irish Travellers and Roma Gypsies. My grandparents can no longer live the life that they, along with many of my ancestors on the island grew up living.

Travellers routinely face major issues when it comes to securing accommodation. This is reflected in the current issues involving the evictions of Irish Travellers at an illegal site in Dundalk without providing adequate alternative accommodation, only adding to the issue of homelessness in this country.

The reason that Travellers are often forced to occupy illegal sites comes down to the failure of the state to provide for the demand for traveller-specific accommodation, a failure that has been pointed out by international human rights reports. Wherever one stands on the issue, making people homeless cannot be the answer.

International Response

The stance of international human rights organisations on the issue of ethnic minority status is clear. In February of this year, a report released by the UN Committee on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC) recommended that the Irish state strengthen its efforts to combat discrimination, stigmatization and the social exclusion of Traveller and Roma children.

In May, the European Committee of Social Rights, part of the council of Europe, ruled that the Irish government was violating the human rights of Irish Travellers under the European Social Charter. Both of these reports called for the state to recognise Traveller ethnicity.

What makes a Traveller?

Some people will understandably ask why Irish Travellers should be considered an ethnic minority. One of the most important reasons is because of the self identification of Irish Travellers. Being a Traveller is not defined, for example, by living a nomadic lifestyle. I myself live in a house, for example. You need to be born into the group to be one. One cannot simply become an Irish Traveller.

Travellers also have a shared culture of norms and values, as well as our own language, Cant. Cant itself is unfortunately a dying language. I only know a few words while my grandparents would know it quite well. Being a Traveller has, I feel, led to a life experience that is distinct from the settled population. Few of the current readers probably had the assumed expectation that they would be married at a young age, say 18 or 19. Rather it would have been assumed they would go to college.

My mother once suggested to me while doing the first year of my A Levels, that maybe I would rather do an apprenticeship and become an accountant and get married, rather than going to college. She changed her mind after I got my AS results, but is a useful example to explain how life for a traveller can be different from the rest of the settled population. As you can see, a different set of cultural norms dominate the group from work to family life.

Furthermore, recent genetic work carried out in 2011 by the Royal College of Surgeons in Dublin and the University of Edinburgh stated that Irish Travellers did break off from the rest of the main Irish population approximately two – one thousand years ago, and are as distinct from the main population as the Icelandic are to Norwegians according to geneticist Jim Wilson.

Irish Travellers are not fallen Irish, social degenerates who fell out of mainstream society during the Irish famine, or the dispossessed of the Cromwellian wars, as is often claimed. Rather, they have a history which stretches back to the medieval period.

The biological argument, though, is not as important as the previous points. Ethnicity, is a social construct, and an important one. It is based on membership of a group with a shared history and culture, which Travellers have, as opposed to clearly defined biological differences. Irish Travellers do see themselves as distinct from the settled population, and in my personal experience, the settled population both in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland has often viewed Irish Travellers as distinct from them as well.

Government Policy

The continued refusal of the Irish state to grant Irish Travellers ethnic status is a travesty. The oppression and violation of the human rights of a small group on this island speaks volumes for the morality of this state.

It has refused the recommendations of human rights organisations and has ignored the example of Britain. In April 2014 a report by the Oireachtas Justice Committee recommended that the State recognise the ethnicity of the Traveller community.

In response the chairman of the Fine Gael Party chairman Charlie Flanagan dismissed the idea and stated that “I believe Travellers are Irish like the rest of us”, outrightly denying the claim of ethnicity and then went on to say it was more “political correctness than Traveller rights.” By trying to sidestep the issue into one of political correctness the government is explicitly continuing to deny the ethnic status of Irish Travellers.

If Irish Travellers are Irish like the rest of society, this justifies the argument the government has done no wrong, has not been racist and hence is not liable to costly compensation schemes. They could not be accused of trying to wipe out an ethnic minority which as we will see has been part of state policy since the 1960s.

Let us be under no illusion that prejudice and racism towards Irish Travellers in Britain is still appalling – any cursory read of the media can make that evident. The granting of ethnic minority status in Britain has not made racism disappear, but ethnic minority status is a good first step. It allows Travellers to more securely combat such issues within the framework of the law.

Finally, official recognition would allow the Irish Republic to begin to make small amends for the institutional oppression and racism that Irish Travellers have suffered since the state’s inception, which can be best expressed by the barbarous Commission on Itinerancy Report of 1963 which sought to determine government policy towards Irish Travellers.

In its own words it said  “there can be no final solution to the problem created by itinerants until they are absorbed into the general community.” This clearly states that they see no solution other than total integration of Travellers. And this is not something which the community are willing to do.

A document which spoke of a final solution aimed at eliminating a minority group via forced assimilation became the basis of Irish State policy for the following decades. One of the recommendations of the report involved the adoption of Traveller children by settled people- and there are many examples of the seizure and forced adoption of Traveller children both before and after the report was released.

Given this, to overcome even a small portion of the gross violations suffered by the Irish Traveller community, it is imperative that the state recognises our status as an ethnic minority.