Opinion Columnists

Tuesday 20 August 2019

The tolerance of Traveller culture is a two-way street

Travellers need to learn to respect the settled community as much as we need to learn to respect them

Spokesman: Martin Collins of Travellers' group Pavee Point
Spokesman: Martin Collins of Travellers' group Pavee Point

Eilis O'Hanlon

Bob Geldof was talking on radio recently about his fondness for his adopted city of London, which he saw as a "madcap experiment" that had absorbed waves of immigrants for centuries and found a way of making it work.

What, Ray D'Arcy wondered, did Geldof think of the treatment of Travellers in Irish society in light of the recent difficulty finding alternative accommodation for those made homeless by the fire at a halting site in Carrickmines?

Geldof refused to make predictable noises about racism and instead concentrated on the need for mutual respect, talking about the area of rural England where he also owns a house and which was plagued by crime and anti-social behaviour for decades after the introduction of a Traveller camp, until they themselves realised they had to accommodate the settled community every bit as much as the settled community had to accommodate them.

D'Arcy expected soundbites about prejudice. Instead, Geldof's version of tolerance did not mean accepting anything another community does. It means finding a way of mucking along together.

Saying anything negative about Travellers has become a taboo. "Racism", like "misogyny" and "homophobia", is a hammer designed to shut down debate, denouncing anyone who doesn't agree as to who is responsible for every bad thing that happens to Travellers.

Irish society has been condemned as racist since that awful fire. This slandering of an entire society is as absurd as denouncing all Travellers as beyond the pale.

So it was noteworthy that Sinn Fein's Padraig Mac Lochlainn dared to put his head above the parapet in the Dail last week to criticise criminality within the Travelling community. MacLochlainn, who is himself half-Traveller, made his remarks whilst supporting a bill in the Dail to recognise Travellers as an ethnic group. This has become the great new "cause de jour" of the chattering classes, who seem to think that it will solve all problems that Travellers face, in the same way presumably they think a plaster would cure a broken leg.

"They are a disgrace," Mac Lochlian said about Travellers who engage in criminality. "They let down their own community and they shame their own community." He accused them of showing "disresepct" to the settled community.

"It's a two-way street," was how he saw it. "This is not about hugs and kisses." He was more circumspect, unfortunately, when it came to the response of Travellers to criticism, insisting that those involved in advocating Travellers' rights were equally strong when it came to denouncing bad behaviour by a minority within their own community.

That might be his impression, but it's not everyone's.

Too often, it seems that Travellers' representatives are far more eager to castigate those who criticise Travellers than they are to hold anti-social elements within their own community to account. Where are the press releases by Pavee Point and others on this specific issue? There are reams of official statements from the organisation demanding action from government, police, schools, health agencies, the media, and so on - but none making an equally strong case that Travellers themselves have responsibilities to society that must be met. Spokespersons will condemn individual misbehaviour by Travellers if asked, but it's invariably an afterthought.

Martin Collins of Pavee Point insists: "It's not up to Travellers to police other Travellers." But it could be argued that communities which insist on their separateness from broad swathes of Irish society absolutely do have an added responsibility to ensure that the worst elements amongst them are kept in check, precisely because their crimes have a greater impact on perceptions of the group as a whole.

The kneejerk defensiveness with which any criticism of individual Travellers is dismissed as a racist attack on the group as a whole is certainly not a feature of other ethnic groups.

The largest ethnic minority in Ireland is the Poles; the fastest-growing ethnic minority comprises those of south Asian origin. There are four times as many Indians in Ireland as Travellers.

If Irish society was inherently racist, one would expect that these communities would also be pilloried for harbouring criminality and anti-social behaviour each time an individual member of that community fell foul of the law. On the contrary, Indian, Chinese and Polish residents are seen as largely peaceful and law-abiding, precisely because representatives of those communities do not instantly rush to the defence of people found guilty of wrongdoing purely because they share the same ethnicity as them.

Bob Geldof's take on this is that conflict arises between Travellers and the settled community over competing ideas of "public space". Both sides agree that public space needs to be shared, but they don't mean the same thing by it.

Many Travellers think that means they can do what they like in it, because it belongs to everyone and no one equally. Most in the settled community think that means the public space should be respected as a neutral, non-threatening place where behaviour ought to be regulated and restrained.

Sunday Independent

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