Thursday, 27 December 2012

Continued State Prejudice: The Irish Travelling Community.

Wrote this a while ago for 

In this article I want to examine the development of the state’s attitude towards the Irish Travelling Community and by doing that look at the relationship between settled and travelling communities.

Much like anti-working class discrimination, Traveller discrimination seems to be an acceptable form of prejudice in modern Ireland. In everyday society words like ‘tinker’ or ‘pikey’ seem to be thrown around as if there is nothing wrong with these sweeping insults. In Dublin city centre it is a common thing for pubs and clubs to refuse to serve travellers and people are often asked to leave 

A 2011 survey by the Economic and Social Research Institute of Ireland concluded that there is widespread ostracisation of Travellers in Ireland, and the report concluded that this could hurt the long-term prospects for Travellers, who "need the intercultural solidarity of their neighbours in the settled community . . . They are too small a minority, ie 0.5 per cent, to survive in a meaningful manner without ongoing and supportive personal contact with their fellow citizens in the settled community." So why is there so much hatred of Travellers in Irish society and where does it come from? 

2011 showed us the states continued fowl attitude toward the Travelling Community. In particular in the UK with the removal of the residents of Dale Farm by Tory led Basildon Council and Police. Here they hid behind bureaucracy and legal technicalities to push through their anti-traveller agenda and evicted the families. The historical series of events are quite interesting. In the 1970s Basildon Council gave permission to 40 Traveller families to move into Dale Farm (at the time nothing more than empty land next to a scrap yard) by 2001 the local planning laws were changed which meant some family’s structures were in breach of these plans, by 2007 the council voted to evict 14 families, 2009 the High Court ruled the councils laws were unlawful, the Tories on Basildon council were determined and had the verdict overturned. In March of 2011 they voted to evict all the families and did so by the end of October. The basic historical background shows that this was a pure hunt for eviction notices and an exercise in bigotry. 

According to the Conservative Party website ‘Where we Stand’ section they claim that they will promote improved community relations and opportunities for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities, including by providing internships for underrepresented minorities in every Whitehall department and funding a targeted national enterprise mentoring scheme for BAME people who want to start a business.” Unless of course you are a Traveller. The very fact that there is no mention anywhere of the Travelling community on their website or any of their manifestos is very telling of their obvious prejudice. It is also worth mentioning that this clearly shows that their idea of integration is purely based on expansion of business and nothing to do with political and economic rights of migrants and travellers. There is also something very strange the way they have to use the created term ‘BAME’ to talk about non-white people. 

The incidents of Dale Farm and actions of Basildon Council are similar to the actions of Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown Corporation (now County Council) in Deansgrange in the 1970s when they, with the help of the Gardai, moved a group of travellers from a green in St. Fintan’s Park. The Travellers there had a good relationship with the local community and the parish but their presence did not suite the image that the council wanted for the area. The parish priest condemned the decision and the Travellers moved to the grounds of Foxrock Church. In 1984 they were evicted by the parish to build a car park on the land. This is not strange in Irish society; travellers are constantly being moved off land where ever they go.

Because it is so widespread, Anti-Traveller prejudice, seems like it has been around almost forever. However in her autobiography Nan Joyce, Traveller rights activist and first Traveller to stand in a General Election, outlines how her and her family were welcomed by rural villages as they were one of the only methods of communication and news as they travelled from big towns. People also used to welcome the site of Travellers coming to town because it was an opportunity to trade horses, dogs and all sorts of commodities. She tells numerous stories of how she played with settled children and how there was mutual respect between the two communities. 

However as capitalism changed and society with it there has been increasing pressure on the Travelling community to settle, conform, and become part of the real economy. Barter and trading has become a thing of the past, traditional Traveller trades such as tinsmith and tinkering has been taken over by cheap mass produced products, people now throw things out rather than get them repaired. Transportation has improved and people can now travel to main hubs for goods and news themselves. Methods of communication have improved with the television and now the internet. Effectively the Traveller community’s existence and culture is not profitable for capitalism. It cannot be packaged and sold on. Because of this, in modern times, there has been a concerted effort by the state to force Travellers into settling, there has been a project of assimilation. Travellers do not fit into the neat narrative of Celtic Tiger Ireland. 

All across the country efforts have been made to make life harder for members of the Travelling community to maintain their way of living. Council by-laws have been passed to deem certain road-side sites as illegal halting sites, we see this with the erection of overhead barriers and boulders. Some local authorities have built official halting sites, normally these sites have high walls and poor facilities inside. They are also mostly situated on wasteland or near dumping sites. Unlike settled tenants there is no legal eviction process in place for Travellers and they are often forced to move on without provision of alternative accommodation.

The state has discriminated against Travellers in many ways. Up until 2004 Travellers living within the greater Dublin area had to travel into Dublin City centre to collect unemployment benefit. This kind of discrimination has had real life consequences for the travelling community. When compared with the settled community: still born children are twice as likely, infant mortality is over twice as likely, sudden infant death is nearly four times as likely, traveller children are three times more likely to be hospitalised in the first year of life, men’s life expectancy is 10 years less; women’s is 12 years less. These problems are made worse by poor living conditions and discrimination within the health service (one fifth of Travellers have difficulty finding a GP who will accept them as a patient). 

There is no specific policy directed towards eradicating these problems on any of the main political parties websites or in policy documents. Nor do we hear speeches about Travellers problems around election time because we have a voting system which excludes anyone with no fixed address. 

The discrimination which Travellers face is definitely institutional but we cannot deny that members of the Travelling community are regularly faced with discrimination from the settled community. Due to the reasons outlined it is understandable that elements of the Travelling community would be hostile to some settled people and this has developed a culture of prejudice towards Travellers. The discrimination dished out to the travelling community has amounted in them being a highly alienated part of our society, with a far higher rate of depression, mental health problems and suicide. This alienation has caused problems in society more generally with people living near halting sites complaining of anti-social behaviour which seems to exacerbate anti-Traveller prejudice. 

The only way for these problems to go away is for solidarity to be built between the two communities and for people to fight for proper facilities and rights for Travellers, for them to be recognised as an ethnic group and for their culture to be respected.  

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