Darren O'Donovan: Travellers and the Irish Politics of Belonging

This post is contributed by Dr. Darren O’Donovan. You can read about Darren on our Guest Contributors page.

logoIn this post I want to underline the significance of past and present state policy towards the Travelling Community in understanding how Ireland, like all countries around the world, has silenced and rendered invisible of those who did not belong to, and could not be accommodated within, the idealised story of the Irish nation and majority cultural identity. The exclusion of the experiences of the Travelling Community from the Migration Nation Report as well as recent regressive state policies, underline that to this day, Travellers are regarded as residual to human rights protections relating to cultural rights and equality, as well as to the recent diversity debates in multicultural Ireland.

The watershed moment for Travellers rights was the Task Force Report on the Travelling Community 1995, which called for the ‘redefinition of the Traveller situation in terms of cultural rights as opposed to simply being a poverty issue’. The key to securing this recognition, and protecting it to this day, is an appreciation of the historical exclusion and the distinct identity of Travellers. This battle for history, like those across Europe, must not be influenced by present day derogatory attitudes, but by cogent documented research. The key document, which has long lain obscure and underappreciated, is the Report of the Commission on Itinerancy 1963. This offers the strongest evidence of deeply rooted stereotypical representations and silencing of Travellers. For instance, alongside assertions that Traveller women were unable to undertake housework and that Traveller men suffered from alcoholism and laziness, the Commission also noted that, while it had investigated the possibility of placing the majority of Traveller children within industrial schools, this would present too much of a burden upon the taxpayer. In order to preserve the life-story of the Irish nation, its ideal of Gaelic social communalism and attachment to land, Travellers were not to be understood as possessing cultural traditions, but were rather simply an impoverished group who were forced into occupying caravans by their own economic backwardness. Travellers threaten to rupture the majority’s preferred history, and it requires a conscious identity project to explain away their origins and exclusion.

Presently, the 1995 Task Force Report’s recognition of Travellers’ right to cultural identity is being increasingly disavowed across a variety of sectors. Fundamental to effective protection is the right to participation of Travellers in decisions particularly affecting them. The recent dismantling of the Task Force monitoring bodies, and the institution of the High Level Group on Traveller Issues, an interdepartmental body operating without Traveller participation, underline a shift towards an internal bureaucratic approach to the formation and implementation of state policy. Travellers continue to be affected by the overall disavowal of multicultural citizenship by the State, and the application of concepts such as social cohesion, integration and social capital have obscured the importance of cultural rights, especially the need for targeted measures in areas such as education, health and employment.

The experiences under the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 are a critical resource for those concerned with multicultural recognition or human rights implementation more generally. The duty of local authorities to provide culturally sensitive accommodation remains restrained only by the minimal oversight of judicial review, with the result that the accommodation rate is not in compliance with the State’s human rights obligations. Constructive assimilation persists, with the Act having resulted in only one transient site in its first ten years of operation, alongside a strikingly lower level of permanent halting site provision as compared with housing. The lack of agency oversight, whether through a specialized supervisory body or a properly constituted human rights commission, means that there is a minimal culture of compliance within local authorities. A commitment to an institutional human rights culture is required if issues like needs assessments, the provision of adequate information and inclusive policy planning are to be resolved at a local level. These aspects of human rights implementation have for too long gone underdeveloped in Ireland, with an overreliance upon the resource heavy, sledgehammer option of judicial review. The abolishing of the NCCRI and the budgetary emasculation of the Equality Authority and the Irish Human Rights Commission, underlines that we remain a jurisdiction without an effective and co-ordinated human rights enforcement strategy.

The denial of Travellers’ status as an ethnic group has become a signatory issue for current government policy and can be linked to the historical discourses I outlined earlier. For majority society, the notion of ethnicity is viewed as applying to the Balkans, not to our ‘local’ Traveller families. The legal status of Travellers as an ethnic group is beyond dispute, as outlined by the Irish Human Rights Commission, the Equality Authority and the United Nations Human Rights Committee. The denial by the State is, in many ways, not about judicial rulings, interpreting international human rights law instruments or even, in fact, the word ‘ethnic’ itself. This is seen by the failure of the State to actually set out its understanding of ethnicity. It is aimed at presenting Travellers as residual to broader understandings of culture and international human rights instruments. Anti-Travellerism, for most people in Ireland, is a localised, individualised and recent phenomenon, with struggle for human rights activists and lawyers being to show its institutional elements, the historical disadvantages which have locked Travellers into limited job opportunities and educational outcomes and led to problems such as debt and drug abuse. Just as with all disadvantaged communities, we need an improved public discourse which balances legitimate debates around crime and conflict with a transformative rights-based perspective aimed at sponsoring and reinforcing the everyday choices of Travellers who wish stay in education, to value their history and greater recognition of their contributions to modern Ireland. The majority population remains completely disconnected from the daily lives of the majority of the Travelling community, while a minority continue to attract all the attention of the media and the State. Human rights law and institutions are all about making these daily lives and possible transformations visible.

Darren O'Donovan: Travellers and the Irish Politics of Belonging

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