Wednesday 22 November 2017

Apartheid hasn't gone away when it comes to Travellers

In an extract from his new book ‘The Irish Paradox’, Sean Moncrieff discusses Ireland’s relationship with the Travelling community

The facts, admittedly, aren’t good, and tend to depict Travellers as a Problem that needs a Solution
The facts, admittedly, aren’t good, and tend to depict Travellers as a Problem that needs a Solution

Sean Moncrieff

Like teenagers avoiding homework, Irish society would rather do anything than address the problematic relationship between Travellers and the settled community.

Quite rightly, the media and our politicians regularly express concern over racism and how newcomers to our country are treated. There are myriad organisations and academics devoting their time to the welfare of migrants. Yet the Travelling community in Ireland - a group that has existed here for a millennium - gets nothing like this level of care and attention.

There are around 30,000 Travellers in the Republic of Ireland, the vast majority of whom - 84pc - live in houses. Of the remainder, around half live in caravans and mobile homes that are permanently parked.

Most Travellers don't travel. A quarter of them are married by the age of 24. By the age of 15, two-thirds of them have left school.

Nearly three-quarters of male Travellers are unemployed and their life expectancy is 61.7 years - more than 15 years behind the general population. The suicide rate among Travellers is six times higher than in the settled population. Compared to the average settled person, the average Traveller is poorer, unhealthier, less educated, more likely to be involved in criminality, more depressed and far less liked.

These facts, admittedly, aren't good, and tend to depict Travellers as a Problem that needs a Solution. It implies that perhaps the issue to be tackled is simply one of poverty. And this is not a narrative that Traveller representative groups are particularly keen on.

Their position is that the fraught relationship between settled people and Travellers is predicated by racism: a claim that has more than a nugget of truth to it, yet is far from the whole truth.

Now how can Irish people be racist to Travellers if they are also Irish? Well, because they claim to be an ethnic minority - just like any of the other groups we've mentioned.

No one knows when Travellers diverged from mainstream Ireland, other than it happened a long time ago. Studies of the Traveller language Gammon, or Cant, are inconclusive. Some claim it is an adapted form of Hiberno-English; others say it contains elements that may predate the Irish language. Some historians claim there is evidence of nomadic groups in Ireland as early as the fifth century.

What's clear is that, as long as the Travelling community has existed, it has tended to marry within the group and has developed a separate culture informed by their nomadic lifestyle.

Traveller society is patriarchal and favours large families. Because of the traditional ways they earned their living - as travelling tinsmiths, junk dealers or horse renderers - they have inherited a cultural aversion to wage labour.

To be a man in Traveller culture means to be self-employed and to provide for your family. As nomads, their view of the world is transitory and somewhat insecure. You're only as rich as the last deal: which is why Travellers spend what money they have on something they can take with them: on jewellery, trailers and vans.

They tend to be devout Catholics and have all sorts of rituals peculiar to them, covering everything from washing to death. And the balance of academic opinion is that this all adds up to a culture distinctly separate from that of Ireland. Many of the things settled Irish people value - security, a steady job, a nice home - Travellers abhor.

And that's why the twentieth century - why, modernity - was a catastrophe for Travelling people. There simply wasn't a demand for the kind of business they did any more.

There wasn't room for people who didn't want to buy a house and have 2.4 kids, for people who wanted to move from place to place, and from the settled community there was a profound lack of understanding of this - even a suspicion of anyone who would want to live that way.

Yet the only response the state could come up with was to build halting sites, or preferably, make Travellers live in houses like everyone else.

DNA can tell us just how different Travellers are from other people on this island. A genetics expert from the University of Edinburgh concluded that Travellers diverged from other Irish at least a thousand years ago, making them a distinct genetic group - as different as Icelanders are from Norwegians.

Now this ethnic difference is important in a political sense. Protection for minorities is enshrined in international law and various international agreements, and such recognition would put considerable pressure on the Government to do more for them. But successive governments haven't done it. This is despite the fact that the UN Committee for Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Council of Europe have called on the Irish state to do so (or despite the fact that they were recognised as a racial group in Northern Ireland in 1997 and in Britain in 2000).

In fairness, various politicians have said the change should be made, and at the end of 2014, South Dublin County Council did vote for recognition. But it's also fair to say that there has been a marked reluctance - because Travellers don't have much political clout; and because a significant proportion of the settled community, perhaps even most of them, don't feel they should be afforded this special status.

If you're Irish, you'll know the reasons why. Travellers don't work and sponge everything off the state. They beg. Those who do have an income don't pay any tax. Those who live on halting sites let them become filthy. They dump rubbish everywhere. And there's the criminality: the theft, the organised gangs, the vicious inter-traveller feuds with slash-hooks and hurleys. The murders. It can seem as if Travellers don't regard themselves as bound by the rules that the rest of us are.

Now, of course, these are crass generalisations, bordering on defamation. But it is how they are widely perceived by the rest of society: and this is not just down to racial stereotyping. There is a problem of criminality within the Travelling Community, and it's disingenuous to pretend otherwise.

But crime and anti-social behaviour aren't simply caused by people being bad. The evidence from every nation on earth is that there is always a connection between crime and poverty; and all the powerlessness that comes from being poor. What's astounding is how little has been done to study this. When researching this book, I was awash with various reports about how migrants fare in Ireland.

When it comes to Travellers, there are far less, and the studies that have been produced get not nearly as much play in the media. Ireland thinks about Travellers when there's a news report about a row at a wedding. The rest of the time there's a relentless silence.

Two studies have been produced in relation to Travellers in prison. One was conducted in Ireland in 2014, and found a disproportionate amount 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.

(A 2005 study looking at mental health among Travellers claimed that they make up 5.4pc of the Irish prison population, while only comprising 0.6pc of the population as a whole.)

A study carried out in the UK in 2011 reckoned that travellers make up 1pc of the prison population in England and Wales: a massive disparity given that the general population is 56 million people and that there are only 15,000 travellers. (0.026785714285714288pc of the population).

Both studies found evidence of racism towards them in prison, along with problems related to literacy (they can't get help because they can't fill out forms).

The British study claimed that over 50pc of Travellers in prison can't read adequately, and that a quarter suffered from mental health problems.

And, just in case you're wondering, most were in for crimes of theft.

Look at it this way - Travellers are a lost people. We live in the age of the Internet, yet they still cling to a culture where a man provides for his family by selling scrap metal. Some anthropological studies of traveller language have found it telling, and perhaps poignant, that their language seems to have ceased inventing any new words.

Culturally, they are stuck in a past, where 16-year-old boys are expected to act like men, to eschew education and make their way by trading and living on their wits. The world doesn't work like that anymore. It hasn't for some time. But rather than viewing their predicament with empathy, rather than trying to help them make the adjustment to the way things are now, we act like they disgust us.


The veteran sociologist Dr Micheál Mac Gréil has, for many years, tracked the tides of intolerance in Ireland, and he reports that from the 1970s it has increased markedly towards Travellers.

In 2011, the statistics were that 60pc of people would not welcome a Traveller into their family, 40pc would not employ a Traveller and almost 20pc would deny them citizenship.

We don't want to work alongside them, or have our kids marry them, or see them in our bars or restaurants, or have them live anywhere near us. We don't want to see them, or think about them. It's Irish-style apartheid, and we're the white people.

Extract from 'The Irish Paradox' by Sean Moncrieff. Published by Gill and Macmillan.

Irish Independent

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