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Travellers don't need 'separation'

Travellers don't want to be discriminated against. But they're not going to solve the undeniable problem of discrimination by separating themselves from the mainstream.

That in itself is discrimination. Currently, there's a radio commercial running on RTE in which a young woman tells an indignant story of having been refused a restaurant booking for a celebratory lunch after her graduation. She was refused the booking because she was a Traveller. It's easy to imagine the sour taste of rejection, and the shadow cast over her pleasure in her achievement. Those kinds of nasty incidents need to be highlighted simply because they are frequent. If such things were isolated and occasional, well, tough. Everyone gets treated badly from time to time, because we're not living in a fair and perfect world.

But the real problem rears its head when discrimination is institutionalised, emotionally or socially; when it is part of a thought process and cultural attitude, directed deliberately against another group of people because of their race, colour, religion, or just the apparent strangeness of their way of life. If that way of life outrages universal tenets of human and civil rights, then we can justify abhorrence, even interference. If the group operates within our own society, and its way of life involves a deliberate flouting of the laws of the land, then we have the right to deny the group the "privileges" of following their chosen way. By doing that, we are not denying them their rights, we are merely asserting the universality of decent and humane codes of conduct.

Actually, in some circumstances society has become so careful to acknowledge the rights of "cultural difference" that it is in danger of watering down its adherence to the international code of human rights. There is such a thing as culture that is intrinsically offensive to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and we should not forget that, or be bludgeoned into ambivalent silence in the name of tolerance. The Aztecs had a wonderful civilisation; they also practised human sacrifice. The Maoris were head-hunters. If somebody found human ashes on an altar in the suburbs of Mexico City, or a newly shrunken head in the suburbs of Wellington, respect for "cultural difference" would not exactly ensure that the respective murder squads weren't called in.

Just as in Ireland, we should remember when we're inclined to prate so proudly about our Celtic pre-history that the druids were rather fond of the blood of the occasional virgin.

When you think about all that, there's nothing particularly strange about the Traveller way of life. It doesn't exactly threaten our way of life. It has its secret codes, certainly, but so has every group, from a bunch of eight-year-olds being the "secret seven" in the playground, up to and including nasty organisations like Opus Dei, and rather more benign ones like Freemasonry and the Knights of Columbanus.

Some Travellers may behave in a way which some of us find unpleasant and offensive. Just as some members of the settled community may behave in a way which other members of the settled community (and indeed some other Travellers) may find offensive. But that does not excuse summing up the Traveller way of life as something which excludes its members from "ordinary" society.

And that includes booking a table in a restaurant for a party. Yes, restaurateurs have a legal right to refuse admission, and that includes a right to refuse admission to a Traveller: but not because he or she is a Traveller. It's justifiable if the Traveller is known to start brawling and swearing when he or she gets drunk. Just as the restaurateur has the right to refuse a booking to a member of the settled community who is known to disrupt everyone by brawling, swearing and vomiting in public.

And if that person happens to be a heart surgeon dedicated to saving life or a high court judge dedicated to the administration of justice, the right to refuse is still there. But if the same restaurateur gives a booking to the gobshite medic or the aggressive lawyer, and refuses it to a Traveller, that's discrimination. Travellers are as much part of our society as doctors and lawyers are (possibly more so in terms of numbers). Ironically, they are much more a part of society today, despite discrimination, than they were in the past.

Many of them live in houses. They don't "take to the roads" in summer as they used to, not even the ones who still live in caravans. Their children go to school. They no longer have a distinctive trade (tin-smiths). You don't necessarily "spot a tinker at 40 paces". That has to do with what is sometimes called prosperity, at other times is called petit-bourgeois snobbery. Differences have become blurred. But Travellers have clung to old ways and attitudes which relate to an older and more basic society: they have a different value system. But they have the same emotions as the settled community: they want the best for their children and they want a better life for each generation than the one before had.

In the past, though, Travellers were "really" different. Those were the days before they were taught to think that being called a tinker was shameful. Those were the days when they weren't that much poorer in opportunity, income, or emotional expectation than their counterparts in the settled community.

The small farmers of rural Ireland who greeted them when they arrived every summer were almost as poor as they were, and as dirty. And they mended the farmer's wife's two sad pots to make them last another season, and were rewarded with a bowl of mashed potatoes for the "childer", a bowl similar to that which had fed the farmer's children. The farmer's children were probably as illiterate as the tinker's children, but more poverty-stricken in that the tinkers had the lore of the roads to give them wisdom. And the bad ones among them stole the farmer's wife's couple of hens. The good ones nodded thanks for the "godspeed" when they left.

It was before illusions of refinement made brutes of the Irish farming and working classes. Nowadays what makes Travellers different is lack of opportunity, and that is being addressed, but too slowly.

What IS being addressed, in my opinion horribly speedily, is the notion that Travellers are "different": different inside, another breed. Because later this month, proposals are going to the United Nations Committee for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Ireland last reported to the committee five years ago, and this year it will present "shadow reports" from various NGOs operating in Ireland. One of the shadow reports has been compiled by Pavee Point, the Travellers' Centre, asking why Ireland has refused to recognise Travellers as a separate ethnic group. They may have been encouraged by the fact that there have been recommendations from both the United Nations and the Council of Europe that this separation should be recognised.

"Separation," if you recall, was the word used by the apartheid regime in South Africa to describe its policies. Ask the legendary, frail Nelson Mandela about that.

Personally speaking, I'm all for integration and that includes the Travellers.

Sunday Independent