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Darren O’Donovan: Travellers and the Irish Politics of Belonging

This post is contributed by Dr. Darren O’Donovan. You can read about Darren on our Guest Contributors page.

logoIn this post I want to underline the significance of past and present state policy towards the Travelling Community in understanding how Ireland, like all countries around the world, has silenced and rendered invisible of those who did not belong to, and could not be accommodated within, the idealised story of the Irish nation and majority cultural identity. The exclusion of the experiences of the Travelling Community from the Migration Nation Report as well as recent regressive state policies, underline that to this day, Travellers are regarded as residual to human rights protections relating to cultural rights and equality, as well as to the recent diversity debates in multicultural Ireland.

The watershed moment for Travellers rights was the Task Force Report on the Travelling Community 1995, which called for the ‘redefinition of the Traveller situation in terms of cultural rights as opposed to simply being a poverty issue’. The key to securing this recognition, and protecting it to this day, is an appreciation of the historical exclusion and the distinct identity of Travellers. This battle for history, like those across Europe, must not be influenced by present day derogatory attitudes, but by cogent documented research. The key document, which has long lain obscure and underappreciated, is the Report of the Commission on Itinerancy 1963. This offers the strongest evidence of deeply rooted stereotypical representations and silencing of Travellers. For instance, alongside assertions that Traveller women were unable to undertake housework and that Traveller men suffered from alcoholism and laziness, the Commission also noted that, while it had investigated the possibility of placing the majority of Traveller children within industrial schools, this would present too much of a burden upon the taxpayer. In order to preserve the life-story of the Irish nation, its ideal of Gaelic social communalism and attachment to land, Travellers were not to be understood as possessing cultural traditions, but were rather simply an impoverished group who were forced into occupying caravans by their own economic backwardness. Travellers threaten to rupture the majority’s preferred history, and it requires a conscious identity project to explain away their origins and exclusion.

Presently, the 1995 Task Force Report’s recognition of Travellers’ right to cultural identity is being increasingly disavowed across a variety of sectors. Fundamental to effective protection is the right to participation of Travellers in decisions particularly affecting them. The recent dismantling of the Task Force monitoring bodies, and the institution of the High Level Group on Traveller Issues, an interdepartmental body operating without Traveller participation, underline a shift towards an internal bureaucratic approach to the formation and implementation of state policy. Travellers continue to be affected by the overall disavowal of multicultural citizenship by the State, and the application of concepts such as social cohesion, integration and social capital have obscured the importance of cultural rights, especially the need for targeted measures in areas such as education, health and employment.

The experiences under the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 are a critical resource for those concerned with multicultural recognition or human rights implementation more generally. The duty of local authorities to provide culturally sensitive accommodation remains restrained only by the minimal oversight of judicial review, with the result that the accommodation rate is not in compliance with the State’s human rights obligations. Constructive assimilation persists, with the Act having resulted in only one transient site in its first ten years of operation, alongside a strikingly lower level of permanent halting site provision as compared with housing. The lack of agency oversight, whether through a specialized supervisory body or a properly constituted human rights commission, means that there is a minimal culture of compliance within local authorities. A commitment to an institutional human rights culture is required if issues like needs assessments, the provision of adequate information and inclusive policy planning are to be resolved at a local level. These aspects of human rights implementation have for too long gone underdeveloped in Ireland, with an overreliance upon the resource heavy, sledgehammer option of judicial review. The abolishing of the NCCRI and the budgetary emasculation of the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission, underlines that we remain a jurisdiction without an effective and co-ordinated human rights enforcement strategy.

The denial of Travellers’ status as an ethnic group has become a signatory issue for current government policy and can be linked to the historical discourses I outlined earlier. For majority society, the notion of ethnicity is viewed as applying to the Balkans, not to our ‘local’ Traveller families. The legal status of Travellers as an ethnic group is beyond dispute, as outlined by the Irish Human Rights Commission, the Equality Authority and the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The denial by the State is, in many ways, not about judicial rulings, interpreting international human rights law instruments or even, in fact, the word ‘ethnic’ itself. This is seen by the failure of the State to actually set out its understanding of ethnicity. It is aimed at presenting Travellers as residual to broader understandings of culture and international human rights instruments. Anti-Travellerism, for most people in Ireland, is a localised, individualised and recent phenomenon, with struggle for human rights activists and lawyers being to show its institutional elements, the historical disadvantages which have locked Travellers into limited job opportunities and educational outcomes and led to problems such as debt and drug abuse. Just as with all disadvantaged communities, we need an improved public discourse which balances legitimate debates around crime and conflict with a transformative rights-based perspective aimed at sponsoring and reinforcing the everyday choices of Travellers who wish stay in education, to value their history and greater recognition of their contributions to modern Ireland. The majority population remains completely disconnected from the daily lives of the majority of the Travelling community, while a minority continue to attract all the attention of the media and the State. Human rights law and institutions are all about making these daily lives and possible transformations visible.

  1. Gerard
    November 17, 2009 at 5:12 pm

    Daron, accepting all you say, does that really change the reality of modern society?

    Can (should) we priviledge travellers simply because they are an ethnic group?

    To put it bluntly:

    1. I don’t stand over the way travellers were treated historically.
    2. I agree that social attitudes to travellers even now are negative and I agree that this is of course wrong.


    I don’t think that even a semi-nomadic life-style is a runner in the modern era, any more than say the subsistance farming of our ancestors is.

    Society is more complex than it used to be.

    We interact with each other in much more long-term ways, whether in education or work.

    This is simply a consequence of the kinds of jobs we do and the much more significant kind of educational provision now available.

    Is there anything wrong in saying:

    1. We respect your cultural heretedge,
    2. We will allow you to live according to this, in accordance with the dictates of a free society
    3. Just as we have to put up with a lot of new developments e.g. increasing urbanization, globalization, changing kinds of employment, different work practices, so you too should do the same.

  2. Darren O'Donovan
    November 17, 2009 at 7:31 pm

    Hi Gerard,

    I fully take on board your pragmatic argument, I like getting a chance to discuss solutions to economic inclusion and making more visible some of the projects which are ongoing, simple things like community homework clubs and healthcare delivery by Traveller women. What would you make of a comparison with the type of distance learning/educational supports provided to children in isolated communities in Australia for example? The socio-economic exclusion suffered by Gaeltacht communities in the 50s/60s/70s, which the State loved to bury beneath symbolic rhetoric?

    It’s important to stress that Travellers, when they have been given choices, have exercised them imaginatively. Nomadism now exists in all forms of gradations, with the vast majority of Travellers travelling only for pilgrimmages, to see family and for weddings/funerals. When I refer to Traveller specific accommodation, this can never be about preserving one ideal image of the perfect Traveller who is continually nomadic. Travellers don’t want a return to the past, they want a genuine choice. A free choice is also never an easy one. Housing policy must have solutions like group housing, permanent halting sites (which make use of chalet buildings), and transient sites for summer travelling (which are shut during the winter). The incident in Knock over the last number of years, where those Travellers heading to a traditional pilgrimmage failed to get a pitching site for the week despite council promises, is particularly painful for Travellers who see it as a rare chance for community interaction.

    By the way, do you know that the vast majority of development plans have no areas designated for a private halting site? Even if Travellers are economically successful, they can’t go the private route!

    The Task Force Report had about seven sections, with culture only being one, with the economy, conflict resolution, health and education also being considered. The economic recommendations really need urgent refocusing, and even though the majority population are continally saying education should be our focus, there is no proper Government policy document fourteen years on. I guess I can only flag up some of the work that has been done with indigenous minorities around the world, with nomadic minorities around the world, which should be more visible. Frankly while you might respond that the initial outlay on all these special training measures is a drain on our resources, I think that when we get into the economic literature we see that a community model of development is not just a sop to justice concerns, but is also the most efficient. I often think of President Mary Robinson’s architecture competition during her term in office, where she asked architects to come up with modern designs for traveller accommodation. Rather than legal academic throwing verbage at the situation, steps like that can show the future, show the alternatives, because the local site down the road from all of us is not the only way, those type of living standards are simply not inevitable but are actively constructed by generations of disregard and by the failure to actively sponsor progressive choices by the Travelling community.

    I bridle when other people (not yourself obviously) say that Travellers are arguing for special treatment and are always looking to be different. To me, I always wonder why the housing Acts did not define a home to include a site in the first place? Why was one form of identification with place recognised and not another? It was the settled population that put the cultural position in the law. Very quickly, the idea that Travellers want extra rights becomes an equality argument. Sure the Traveller economy collapsed in the late 1950s, but couldn’t the transitions be managed? It didn’t attract the publicity of the Ford plant closure, the manufacturing sector, because shrill discriminatory rhetoric gave cover for absolving the state of its responsibility to provide for retraining and to stop the intergenerational education issues we have now. It is about critically and honestly appraising how we got to this point, and recognising that yes we are in the era of globalisation, but not everyone got here with the same support. (I have to stop here and recommend Malcolm Gladwell’s ‘Outliers’, which talks about how your position/status in society can determine your life outcomes, success is very often structural and not individualistic).

    I would also flag up the desperate attempts of the State to render invisible wealthy or successful Travellers. In particular there are a number of families who, while living in purchased houses, continue to sleep in caravans. Also in the 1963 Report in particular, while there was tremendous and unique poverty and suffering in the Travelling Community, there are also traces of economic successes by a some Travellers, with the report authors trying to come up with ways to buy off these Travellers to settle. Even to this day, there are areas where Travellers prosper and have built up an intergenerational capital, take the success of our Olympic boxers in particular, the ‘Keepers of the Flame’ music cd put by Christy Moore etc.

  1. November 16, 2009 at 4:07 pm

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