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National Consultative Committee on Racism and Interculturalism

Travellers in Ireland:
An Examination of Discrimination and Racism: Page 2 of 2

This Page:
The Media and Racism
Racism and Discrimination
Approaches to Racism
Anti-Traveller Discrimination
Anti-Racist Strategies
Appendix and Bibliography
Previous Page:
Development of Policies
International Focus
Denial of Racism

The Media and Racism

The following newspaper accounts illustrate how the negative portrayal of Irish Travellers contributes to the ideological racist discourse. Under a section on crime in the Sunday Independent (28th January, 1996), was the following headline: Time To Get Tough On Tinker Terror 'Culture'. According to the article by Mary Ellen Synon, Gardaí believe that Travellers are responsible for over 90% of attacks on the rural elderly4 . The writer states that Traveller culture ...

"is a life of appetite ungoverned by intellect ..... It is a life worse than the life of beasts, for beasts at least are guided by wholesome instinct. Traveller life is without the ennobling intellect of man or the steadying instinct of animals. This tinker "culture" is without achievement, discipline, reason or intellectual ambition. It is a morass. And one of the surprising things about it is that not every individual bred in this swamp turns out bad. Some individuals among the tinkers find the will not to become evil".

An article on Travellers by journalist Brendan O'Connor, also in the Sunday Independent (25th May, 1997) used another sensational headline:

"Patience Runs Thin When Uncivilised Travellers Spill Blood"

to cover a piece on Traveller feuding. The writer gave a detailed account of the feud in a cemetery and concluded that

"It just doesn't happen in a civilised society".

He then went on to justify his use of the term "knacker":

"Where I come from the word "knacker" doesn't mean someone of any specific socio-economic or ethnic background. It means someone who behaves in a way that society abhors. And that's what the people who desecrated a Tuam graveyard last June were, knackers and scumbags"

The same journalist insists on using similar language in other reports, and the sub-editor used the offensive term in the headline.

"Good relations knackered" The conflict is not between settled and Traveller. It's between decent people and 'knackers'. (Sunday Independent 31 August 1996)

The anti-Traveller discourse features frequently in both national and especially local newspapers and radio. Very often, as in the following, local politicians are being quoted:

"They are dirty and unclean. Travelling people have no respect for themselves and their children". (County Councillor quoted in Irish Times, 13th March, 1991)

"These people have been a constant headache for towns and cities throughout the country". (County Councillor quoted in Cork Examiner, 13th June, 1990)

"Killarney is literally infested by these people". (County Councillor quoted in Cork Examiner, 18th July, 1989)

"They are a constant problem, moving from one open area to another and creating problems". (County Councillor quoted in Cork Examiner, 13th June, 1990)

"Deasy suggests birth control to limit traveller numbers" (Headline in Irish Times, Friday, June 14, 1996.)

In the Dail Report column referring to remarks by Mr. Austin Deasy, T.D. Fine Gael, the deputy is reported as saying that the problem of Travellers would not be solved by providing more halting sites but by ensuring that Travellers' numbers be contained by birth control and assimilation into existing housing estates.

"Traveller tradition not a divine right."
Brendan O'Connor applauds Councillor Ann Devitt for suggesting that Traveller culture is not sacrosanct, and that the time has come for them to change their way of life. (Sunday Independent June 15 1997)

"The sooner the shotguns are at the ready and these travelling people are put out of our county the better. They are not our people, they aren't natives." Remarks of a Fianna Fail Councillor at a Waterford County Council meeting. (Sunday Independent, 14 April 1996)

These samples of media coverage of Travellers provide some indication of how Travellers are perceived and treated in Irish society. This paper argues that such coverage and the social relations associated with it constitutes a form of racism. As Helleiner demonstrates,

"the powerful discourses of the press contribute to the creation of an ideological context which legitimates coercive state policies, everyday discriminatory practices, and ultimately violence against Travellers"

(Helleiner, 1994).

According to Helleiner:

"While press reports of the 1960's and much of the 1970's, were explicit in their portrayal of the Travellers and the travelling way of life as problematic, during the 1980's overtly racist discourses were increasingly replaced by more sophisticated discourses of exclusion."

However, the above sample of media coverage would seem to indicate that this claim of a shift from overt to more covert racism was inaccurate and it was certainly not borne out in the 1990's coverage. MacGréil in his Prejudice in Ireland Revisited (1996), states that

"Irish Travellers are still seen and treated as a 'lower caste' in society. . ."

According to his research findings there has been a substantial deterioration in attitudes towards Travellers since 1972-3, leading him to conclude that

"Irish people's prejudice against Travellers is one of caste-like apartheid."

Kenny in her investigation into the interaction between Traveller ethnic identity and schooling concludes that

"dominant sedentary society and its institutions remain the instigators and maintainers of institutional and interpersonal racism and exclusion, which has pressured Travellers over a long time-span into distorted performances"

(Kenny, 1997).

Quite clearly, a racialisation process inferring the inferiority of Travellers is the outcome of media and political discourse. Let us now return to the issue of definitions and theoretical approaches.

4 cf. Pavee Point, Policy Statement on Violence and Crime, February 1996 (unpublished).

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Racism and Racial Discrimination

Racism is a specific form of discrimination usually associated with skin colour and ethnicity. It is an ideology of superiority which provides a rationalisation for oppression. It also involves an abuse of power by one group over another group. So, while racism involves negative stereotypes and assumptions it should not be reduced simply to attitudes thereby equating it with prejudice, as pointed out earlier in this paper. The reality of unequal power combined with prejudice enables some groups to treat others in racist ways by denying them access to opportunities, resources and decision-making processes.

UNESCO, in its Declaration on Race and Racial Prejudice (1978) provides the following definition:

"Any theory which involves the claim that racial or ethnic groups are inherently superior or inferior, thus implying that some would be entitled to dominate or eliminate others, presumed to be inferior, or which bases value judgements on racial differentiation, has no scientific foundation and is contrary to the moral and ethical principles of humanity".

The UN International Convention of Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination (1969) defines racial discrimination as follows:

"Any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life".

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Approaches to Racism

While these working definitions have broad acceptance, the concept of racism is frequently contested among academics and others. There is the polarisation between those who argue that certain societies are inherently racist and those who claim that racism is a less serious issue related to the anti-social behaviour of some individuals. There are also a variety of approaches which can be categorised as follows: moral, biological, psychological, multi-cultural and structural (see table, p. 9).

The moral, psychological and cultural approaches tend to depoliticise the issue of racism by focusing almost exclusively on individual attitudes and behaviours dislocated from their social, political, economical, and historical contexts. Solutions based on the moral approach rightly draw attention to the reality that racism is a moral issue even though the treatment of Travellers is rarely presented in this way. If the Churches, for instance, speak out on Traveller issues they tend to focus on prejudice rather than racism, thereby over-relying on attitudinal change. The psychological approach, as Kovel argues, is by no means a sufficient tool for understanding the phenomenon of racism; it is, however, a necessary one:

"Racism, far from being the simple delusion of a bigoted and ignorant minority, is a set of beliefs whose structure arises from the deepest levels of our lives - from the fabric of assumptions we make about the world, ourselves, and others, and from the patterns of our fundamental social activities."

Kovel shows how various fantasies and personality traits can coalesce into 'race' prejudice and how this sheds light on the history of racism:

"Racist psychology is a prerequisite of racial institutions, and racist institutions engender a racist psychology."

(Kovel, 1971)

The biological approach draws attention to the objective reality of certain physical differences and the specific form of racism associated with skin colour. Anti-racism does not mean a denial of these differences but does challenge the social meanings and interpretations attributed to them. UNESCO statements have debunked the so-called scientific racism based on biological determinism. However, this theory keeps recurring in the form of socio-biology, even though most geneticists and biologists acknowledge that:

"The designation of the world's population into distinctive racial categories can no longer be considered a tenable scientific enterprise"

(Troyna and Williams, 1986).

The multi-cultural approach is popular with many people because it is non-threatening, and can improve mutual appreciation and understanding between individuals and groups; it can also contribute to overcoming communication problems and misunderstanding, which may fuel racism. However this approach is criticised for diverting attention away from power differentials, structural oppression and for overestimating ignorance as the main factor in the creation of racism.

The structural approach provides a sociological framework for understanding racism in the context of changing historical, political, economic and social processes. This approach provides a mechanism for going beyond symptoms and for addressing root causes. It also exposes how routine practices and procedures result in black and minority ethnic groups having lower incomes, higher unemployment, worse health, accommodation and life chances than the majority population and less influence on the decisions which affect their lives. However, the approach has been accused of making inflated claims (see Miles, 1989) and for deterministic and doctrinaire explanations which ignore concrete situations and individual personalities. (Donald and Rattansi, 1992)

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Anti-Traveller Discrimination and Racism

In light of this examination of concepts, definitions, and approaches to racism let us return to the concrete situation of Travellers in Ireland and how they experience discrimination. Individuals, when recognised as Travellers, are sometimes arbitrarily refused entry or access to public places or services such as: shops, pubs, restaurants, laundries, leisure facilities and such like. Individuals often experience verbal or physical abuse because of their identity. Individual Travellers have also reported incidents of insurance companies refusing to provide them with motor insurance cover. A number of public houses consistently refuse to serve Travellers, while others do so now and then. Travellers frequently have difficulty obtaining hotels for wedding receptions. Many policies, procedures, and practices reflect either a lack of acceptance or a total denial of Traveller identity. For many years Travellers experienced segregation in the provision of social welfare services. Travellers who wish to avail of supplementary welfare in Dublin have to accept a 'special' segregated service. Negative stereotypes and scapegoating of Travellers are commonplace. Traveller children in schools have also experienced segregation through 'special classes' although the current policy of the Department of Education is based on the promotion of integration. Nevertheless, some schools still refuse to accept Travellers using the pretext of being full or unsuitable. Travellers are also critical of a system which they feel undermines or largely ignores their identity in the curriculum and school ethos despite the extra capitation grants provided by the government for schools with Travellers among their pupils.

There is also a clear gender dimension to the Traveller experience of racism.5 Many Traveller women are more easily identifiable than Traveller men, and are therefore more likely to experience discrimination. Sometimes evictions are carried out when Traveller men are away, leaving women to deal with the brunt of male verbal and physical abuse. But above all Traveller women, as mothers, home-makers and carers, have to make do with low incomes, in poor living circumstances, without basic facilities such as running water and sanitation.6

Travellers with a disability have usually been cared for in institutions, where assimilation was the norm and where little or no consideration was given to cultural identity.

5 Crickley, A., Feminism and Ethnicity, in DTEDG File, 1992

6 McDonagh, Rosaleen, Travellers with a Disability: A submission to the Commission on the Status of People with Disabilities, Pavee Point, 1994.

The most public and controversial area where anti-Traveller discrimination arises is in relation to the provision of accommodation. Local authorities and resident associations are accused by Travellers and Traveller support groups of turning the accommodation issue into a political football. Elected local councillors are keenly aware that their political survival depends on the support of local residents who easily outnumber Travellers. Resident associations make their opposition to Travellers living in 'their' areas very clear. Local authorities in turn have undertaken a 'boulder policy' which involves placing large rocks along the roadsides where Travellers camped or might camp illegally. This is combined with evictions of Travellers from unofficial camping sites. Gardaí and/or private security firms are sometimes involved in the carrying out of these evictions.

The accommodation issue highlights the underlying contradiction of the 'settlement' project, which is based on a rejection of nomadism; a carrot-and-stick approach to housing; and an unwillingness by the majority population to have Travellers living near them as neighbours. Local authorities and resident associations frequently debate the idea of a Traveller quota, by discussing whether an area has taken its "fair share of Travellers". The term 'settled Traveller' carries moralistic connotations of the sedentarist thinking that goes with this. It suggests 'settling down' or conforming to what is considered the norm. In line with this thinking many people from the majority population believe that Travellers living in houses are 'settled', having thereby ceased to be Travellers. Nonetheless, such thinking does not mean social inclusion as equals. Ultimately, such thinking can be traced to the view that Travellers are vagrants or drop-outs in need of rehabilitation.

The deplorable living circumstances of many Travellers, because of the lack of suitable accommodation, is a crucial factor in the poor health of Travellers. The life expectancy of Travellers is far below the national average, with Traveller men and Traveller women living on average ten years and twelve years less than their sedentary peers, respectively. Traveller infant mortality is more than twice that of the majority population. These realities, combined with a failure to address them comprehensively, are seen by politicised Travellers and Traveller support groups as other manifestations of institutional racism.

In recent years some Gypsies, particularly Roma from Romania and Bosnia, have come to Ireland as refugees. The negative reaction in the media to them and to other asylum-seekers indicates the possibility of a dangerous situation arising, unless steps are taken now to confront racism and xenophobia in this context. 7

7 National Coordinating Committee for European Year Against Racism, Newsletter. Issue 4: June 1997.

The racism toward Travellers in Ireland is similar to racism in general insofar as it involves negative stereotyping based on notions of superiority and inferiority. Likewise it builds on fantasies related to dirt, danger, deviance, and crime. In common with some other forms of racism it invokes a pariah syndrome which is used to deny or legitimate the existence of racism. These particular features have taken on their own specific meanings in relation to the treatment of Travellers in the Irish context but perhaps what marks off this form of racism from others is the sedentarist approach to nomadism. Nomadism is viewed as an atavistic aberration which has to be eliminated by modernisation or failing that, coercion.

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Anti-Racist Strategies

Traveller support groups have been to the fore in drawing attention to and devising strategies against the reality of racism in Ireland. (McVeigh, 1997) While having a particular interest in Traveller issues efforts have been made to develop alliances with other minority ethnic groups. This is reflected in the setting up of the Platform Against Racism, which is a coalition of non-government organisations committed to developing ways to combat racism and to promoting interculturalism. As well as providing information on Travellers and promoting greater awareness, Traveller organisations have also contributed to putting anti-racism on the agendas of other organisations and projects e.g. the Community Development Programme, Area-based Partnership companies, youth organisations and women's organisations.

In recent years, Traveller organisations have been able to avail of various European Commission programmes in order to develop a transnational dimension to their work. In particular, links have been developed between Traveller and Gypsy organisations throughout the EU as well as with other anti-racist organisations. Traveller organisations have played an active role in other organisations such as the European Anti-Poverty network (EAPN); in events like the Social Forum; in campaigns such as that led by the Starting Line Group; in the lobbying for the inclusion of a non-discrimination clause in the Treaties during the preparations for the 1997 Intragovernmental Conference (IGC); and in committees and events during the 1997 European Year Against Racism.

However, until recently, it has been almost impossible to seriously tackle the issue of racism at a political level within the EU because there was no legal basis for this in the Treaties. However, since the revision of the Treaties in Amsterdam, and the inclusion of a non-discrimination clause for the first time, a new situation exists. The potential for fighting racism at Community level has been created but requires time and further campaigning to maximise this potential. For instance, with sufficient political mobilisation it is now possible to introduce a directive or a number of directives to ensure that racism is tackled in each Member State.

The designation of 1997 as European Year Against Racism has highlighted the need to take the issue of racism more seriously and to combat racism in a more concerted way throughout the European Union. The establishment of a Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia in Vienna will enable Member States to collect and collate data for anti-racist actions. Likewise support by the European Commission for the setting up of a European-level mechanism for coordinating the work of anti-racist NGO's will build on the momentum of the year.

These developments at European level need to be matched by clear commitments at national level to tackling racism. Ireland's failure to ratify the UN International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination and the lack of domestic anti-discrimination laws are the source of major concern for anti-racist groups. Without legislation, the efforts of non-government groups is considerably weaker. Legislation in relation to non-discrimination in Employment and Equal Status are long-awaited. In addition to this legislation, Travellers and Traveller support groups are relying on the government's implementation of the key recommendations of the 1995 Task Force Report in order to make progress. The establishment of a monitoring committee for this purpose is a positive development in this regard.

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The marginalisation of Travellers in Irish society is acknowledged by people of varying political positions and approaches. Past policies, while designed to overcome this marginalisation, have sometimes exacerbated the situation because of a failure to grasp the nature of the oppression experienced by Travellers. In particular, the denial of discrimination and racism, combined with a racialisation process, contributed to that marginalisation. In order to address this situation there is need for a comprehensive approach involving statutory and voluntary bodies. Legislation, information, and awareness-raising are needed to protect people and to overcome obstacles to equality. In the context of a growing acknowledgement of the dangers of racism throughout the European Union, there is an additional impetus and opportunity to face up to this challenge in Ireland, as well as throughout Europe.

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(a) Traveller Population in Ireland

Estimated total 27,000
An annual count of the number of Traveller households is the source of information on the Traveller population in Ireland. The 1994 count showed that there were 4,905 Traveller households in the country. The projected figure for the year 2000 is 4,905 households.

(b) Age Structure

The age structure of Travellers is very different from that of the general population, with relatively large numbers of children and few older people. An estimated 40% of the Traveller population is aged under 10 years, and well over 50% is aged under 15 years. Only 5% of Traveller are aged 50 and over. This age structure is consistent with a high birth rate, a high infant death rate, and a low average life expectancy.

(c) Education

Significant progress has been made in the provision of education for Traveller children in recent decades. This is evidenced in the increased participation in the education system. However there still remains a substantial number of Traveller children who do not attend primary school on a full-time, regular basis. This can be due to the living circumstances of the parents or to difficulty in gaining access to schools. A large number of Traveller children underachieve in school. The lack of statistical information on Traveller participation in education makes it difficult to evaluate the relative participation and outcomes for Traveller boys and girls in the education system.

It is estimated that only about 10% of Travellers continue on to second level and very few of these complete the full cycle. Only a handful of Traveller go on to third level.

(d) Employment

Traveller participation in the mainstream labour force is very low. This low participation is attributed to a number of factors: a preference for self-employment and work in the Traveller economy, discrimination, lack of skills and qualifications, low pay and poor work conditions, nomadism. The vast majority of Traveller households are dependent on social welfare.

(e) Accommodation

In the context of statutory provision of social housing the local authorities provide standard houses for some Traveller households and in addition Traveller-specific accommodation as follows: group housing, permanent halting sites, and temporary halting sites. The 1995 Task Force Report drew attention to the deficiencies in this provision: 1,085 Traveller households living in trailers squatting on roadsides; 275 households in temporary sites; no provision for transient families; lack of facilities and/or culturally inappropriate facilities; lack of planning for the projected Traveller population increase; absence of a comprehensive government plan to accommodate Travellers.

The Task Force called for the provision of 3,100 units of additional accommodation by the year 2000, at a cost of £218 million.

(f) Health Status

The 1982 Black Report commissioned by the UK government identified a clear link between social inequality and ill health:

"From birth to old age those at the bottom of the social scale have much poorer health and quality of life than those at the top. Gender, area of residence and ethnic origin also have a deep impact."

It is not surprising therefore to find that the health status of Travellers is much worse than it is for the general population.

Infant mortality for Travellers in 1987 was 18.1 per 1,000 births compared to the national figure of 7.4. Traveller life expectancy is at the level it was for the general population in Ireland in the 1940's (i.e. 10 to 12 years less for Traveller men and women than for men and women from the majority population).

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This Page:
The Media and Racism
Racism and Discrimination
Approaches to Racism
Anti-Traveller Discrimination
Anti-Racist Strategies
and Bibliography Previous Page:
Development of Policies
International Focus
Denial of Racism

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