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We can celebrate Traveller culture but old worries are still there

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Travellers and supporters outside the Dáil as the Taoiseach announces that their distinct ethnicity is to be recognised by the State. Photo: RollingNews.ie

Travellers and supporters outside the Dáil as the Taoiseach announces that their distinct ethnicity is to be recognised by the State. Photo: RollingNews.ie

Travellers and supporters outside the Dáil as the Taoiseach announces that their distinct ethnicity is to be recognised by the State. Photo: RollingNews.ie

Enda Kenny must have squirmed at the end of the week when he heard his (now very) former friend Alan Shatter's excoriating line that Kenny sometimes has a "casual relationship with the truth". Because he had had a good week before that. He was strutting on the European stage with his other 'old friend' Donald Tusk, he had an opinion poll that showed Fine Gael level with Fianna Fail, and before that found himself being praised in the Dail by TDs from the AAA-PBP and Sinn Fein. Without irony.

The reason was the Government's decision to recognise the Irish Travelling Community as a distinct ethnic group. This is hardly a controversial contention. Even before genetic testing showed that Travellers had split from the main Irish population about 400 years ago, it was clear that Travellers are a separate ethnic group.

If an ethnic group is one that self-identifies on the basis of shared culture, language and origin myth, Travellers are clearly a distinct ethnic group within Ireland. Travellers have their own dialect, Cant. They clearly have a distinct culture based on travelling lifestyle and an unwillingness to live in permanent homes. By their accent and dress, Travellers are often easily recognisable.

Irish people are ambivalent on the question. The Irish National Election Study last year asked the question about recognising Travellers as a distinct ethnic group. About half broadly favoured it, less than half opposed. Very few had strong opinions.

When Kenny addressed the Dail he, or rather the Travelling community, got a standing ovation. It was reminiscent of the reaction to the speech he gave in 2011 attacking the Vatican. He did it well. And the Travellers there were thrilled. It was something they looked for over some time. Traveller leader Martin Collins had said "when Travellers are recognised as a minority ethnic group it would allow members of our community to plan for our future". So if it made people happy, and it costs nothing, why not do it?

The problem is if Travellers think this will make a difference to their lives. "Something must be done" are among the most dangerous words a policymaker can hear. Because usually they respond with anything, however ill-considered. Travellers are probably the most deprived identifiable group within Ireland. Unemployment statistics for the group are unreliable, but the unemployment rate is up to 80pc. Life expectancy is about 15 years lower than the general population. They have higher suicide rates. Traveller men are much more likely to die a violent death than the general population. Traveller women are more likely to die in childbirth. It would seem something must be done.

But is giving them this status going to prevent another tragedy such as happened in Carrickmines in 2015? This is virtue signalling. It made TDs feel good about themselves, but won't help the position of Travellers in Irish society. We like virtue signalling, precisely because it makes us feel good about ourselves without having to do anything concrete.

The children's rights referendum was an example. Although it cost the State a lot to hold the referendum, it doesn't make children safer or better off. It announced to the world that "we like children".

There is a level of distrust towards Travellers that would not be acceptable to any other group in society. Travellers are consistently found to be the least liked group. All survey evidence shows that Irish people would be happier to live beside any group rather than Travellers. Is making them a distinct ethnic group going to help this? Possibly it will have the opposite effect. It will harden in many people's minds the idea that they are "not like us".

At a time when we are constantly told that the basic idea of equality is that we don't treat or class people differently, is it wise to single out a group as different? It might help more to ask ourselves why people are much happier to live beside any other groups other than Travellers. Some of this might be bigotry, and may be unfair, or is it bigotry borne of experience? Traveller men are between five and ten times more likely to be in prison compared to the general population. The situation for Traveller women is even worse.

These data would seem to bear out the perception that Travellers are more prone to criminal activity. Now it could be that laws are designed to target Travellers, in the way in the US drug laws target black crime over white crime.

In some states use of crack cocaine, more used by blacks, is classified a felony, whereas powdered cocaine, favoured by middle-class whites, is a misdemeanour, and less likely to invite a prison sentence.

But if Travellers have worse life outcomes, Travellers must face up to some of the reasons for this, such as the unwillingness to engage in education or with the health service. Marking themselves out as distinct might just excuse them in their minds from the duty to do these things.

And will being recognised as a distinct ethnic group mean that we should accept what seems unacceptable to most in society? Celebrating Traveller culture sounds lovely, but is celebrating a culture that promotes the early sexualisation of children and arranged, perhaps forced, marriages of young girls what we really want? Does the State have a duty to subsidise a lifestyle that produces inferior outcomes for its citizens? The Travelling community has poor life outcomes, and the State should be obliged to help this distinctly disadvantaged group. That requires Travellers to change their behaviour as well as requiring the State to consider how it deals with Travellers. It won't happen by encouraging them to remain a separate from the rest of Irish society.

Eoin O'Malley is director of the MSc in Public Policy at Dublin City University

Sunday Independent