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Independent.ie

Wednesday 26 April 2017

Opinion: Poverty is at the root of Travellers' crime problem

The suicide rate for Traveller women is six times higher than the general populace. Stock image
The suicide rate for Traveller women is six times higher than the general populace. Stock image
Ann Fitzgerald

Ann Fitzgerald

The recognition of Travellers as an ethnic group could be a seminal moment for Ireland - but it's a complex problem.

Let's get a big issue out of the way first - criminality. A 2014 Irish Penal Reform Trust study produced in relation to Travellers in prison found a disproportionate number of Travellers are incarcerated. Men are between five and 11 times more likely to be jailed while, for women, it's 18 to 22 times more likely.

One of the criticisms of Travellers is that they do not expose the criminality of other Travellers. But is society as a whole any different?

How many of us would report another farmer we saw doing something we know or strongly suspect is wrong - say spreading slurry near a river or cutting a hedge out of season?

Criminality in rural areas is well documented and most of us are familiar with the theft of farm equipment. However, if there was no market for this stuff, there would be no point in stealing it.

This is not a defence of such behaviour, but it is a partial explanation for it.

The Traveller association with criminality is relatively recent. The decline in the demand for tinsmiths, carpets and second-hand furniture has hit them hard financially.

The one sure connection to crime is poverty.

Admittedly, poverty isn't what jumps to mind when faced with the flamboyant Communion and wedding dresses seen on reality TV programmes based around Travellers.

But there are other forms of poverty than the material kind - for example, lack of access to health and education.

The suicide rate for Traveller women is six times higher than the general populace. For men, it is seven times higher. Infant mortality is 3.5 times higher, life expectancy is more than 15 years less than average. As for education, two-thirds of Travellers have left school by the age of 15.

In theory, there is nothing stopping Travellers from staying in school. But the biggest obstacle of all is societal expectation. If your siblings didn't finish primary school, would you? Not to mention the practical difficulties of doing so if your family is moving around.

Then look at the expectations on their young people.

From an early age, the focus for girls is on attracting a husband while, as soon as a boy marries, he is considered a man and has to provide for his family.

What might help young people to handle this pressure is education.

I believe Travellers have many good characteristics, such as ingenuity, loyalty and determination. I also believe Irish society as a whole would benefit from a better acceptance of Travellers.

This is not written through the misty-eyed glasses of distance. I worked part time in a corner shop in Rathkeale for years, so I have direct and indirect knowledge of many unsavoury incidents involving Travellers.

But I admire the growing number of Travellers who are daring to be different. This takes a lot of courage.

There is hurt on both sides. But we are the ones with the education and the way forward has to be more about encouraging the good than punishing the bad.

Things will not change overnight at a political or personal level and I have no doubt there will be setbacks along the way.

I once read an interview with GP Austin O'Carroll. When setting up his practice in a rundown part of Dublin, he decided to decorate it with some pieces of art. He was warned they would probably be stolen. They weren't.

"If you treat people with respect, they return it," he said.

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