Travellers are widely acknowledged as one of the most marginalised and disadvantaged groups in Irish society. Travellers fare poorly on every indicator used to measure disadvantage: unemployment, poverty, social exclusion, health status, infant mortality, life expectancy, illiteracy, education and training levels, access to decision making and political representation, gender equality, access to credit, accommodation and living conditions. It is not surprising therefore, that the Economic and Social Research Institute concluded that
"... the circumstances of the Irish Travelling people are intolerable. No humane and decent society, once made aware of such circumstances, could permit them to persist".
(ESRI, July 1986, Paper no. 131). The ESRI also stated that Irish Travellers are
"... a uniquely disadvantaged group: impoverished, under-educated, often despised and ostracised, they live on the margins of Irish society".
While there is a broad consensus on the low status, marginalisation and disadvantage of Travellers, there is far less agreement and much dissent when the issues of discrimination and especially racism are raised. In particular, there can be strong resistance by policy makers and others to the idea of a causal relationship between discrimination/racism and the poor living circumstances of Travellers (see, for example, McVeigh 1997 and Ryan 1996). This paper sets out to provide a framework for examining issues of discrimination and racism as well as the accuracy and relevancy of applying such terms to the situation of Travellers in Ireland. It begins by tracing the development of government policies in relation to Travellers and how these have evolved, assisted by internal and external influences. The paper will refer to the widespread tendency to deny the existence of racism despite evidence of a racialisation process in both media and political discourse. It also presents definitions and different approaches to racism, as well as examples of the specific manifestations of anti-Traveller discrimination. Finally, it will outline some possibilities and directions for tackling racism at national and European Union levels.
Development of Policies at National Level
The first phase of a clear and explicit government response to the Travellers in Ireland can be linked to the Report of the Commission on Itinerancy in 1963. The terms of reference of the Commission are revealing in the way the problem being addressed is conceptualised. The Commission set out
"to enquire into the problem arising from the presence in the country of itinerants in considerable numbers; to examine the economic, educational, health and social problems inherent in their way of life. . ." In order to provide a better way of life for Travellers the Commission undertook "to promote their absorption into the general community. . ."
The starting point for the Commission was that itinerancy was a problem to be eliminated, and rehabilitation, settlement and assimilation were the means for achieving this. Travellers were viewed as a problem; the Commission Report comments on the social and ethical behaviour of Travellers and their tendency to keep aloof from the majority population. There was no explicit acknowledgement or examination of discrimination towards Travellers. In fact, critics of the Report saw the assimilationist policies it pursued as being discriminatory and racist.1
In the subsequent two decades the Report of the Commission provided a framework for action and understanding of Traveller issues. Interventions were viewed as being 'for' rather than 'with' Travellers. Travellers were frequently referred to as being in need of charity rather than rights. In so far as there was a criticism of the majority population it was expressed in terms of failure to live out the Christian gospel (Bewley, 1974).
The second phase in government policy development with regard to Travellers is contained in the Report of the Travelling People Review Body, 1983. This report had the benefit of twenty years experience since the earlier report and shows a significant shift in thinking by policy makers and others involved with Travellers. The Review Body was asked to examine
"the needs of Travellers who wish to continue a nomadic way of life"
"barriers of mistrust between the settled and Travelling communities can be broken down and mutual respect for each others' way of life increased"
. Opposition from settled and Traveller activists to the assimilationist approach contributed to a revision of the thinking. Concepts such as absorption, settlement, assimilation and rehabilitation were no longer acceptable and were rejected in the report. The term 'itinerant', which was associated with vagrancy and deviancy, was replaced with 'traveller', which was a recognition of a distinct identity.
Prejudice and hostility, misunderstanding, resistance, indifference and harassment towards Travellers were acknowledged as issues and integration was the goal. However, there was great reluctance to name discrimination as an issue:
"The Review Body is pleased to record that there is no evidence of discrimination against Travellers in the granting of social welfare assistance and in gaining enrolment in local primary and second level schools"
. The Report does refer to
"...many instances of bias against Travellers in the allocation of tenancies of local authority houses"
. However, the Report, in its eagerness not to be critical of official efforts, is quick to point out that
"... (local) authorities deserve recognition for their accomplishments, often attained in spite of considerable local opposition"
1While the settlement programme could claim some success in terms of more Travellers living in houses, and more children attending schools, there were many indications of 'failure', also: twenty years later there was still the same number of Travellers living on the roadside in poor circumstances; many living in houses were not integrated and continued to experience social exclusion; some Travellers who settled left houses and returned to living in caravans
The Review Body did consider the desirability of having special legislation to outlaw discrimination against Travellers as a minority group but concluded that:
"... such legislation would be fraught with difficulties, especially in the absence of a precise legal definition of 'traveller'. Accordingly, the enactment of anti-discrimination laws is not sought"
However, the naming of Travellers in legislation, without any perceived need (on the part of the government) to define 'Traveller', took place in three pieces of legislation in Ireland, subsequent to the publication of the Report and before the Task Force Report of 1995, in effect in direct contradiction of the above:
The third phase of policy development can be associated with the publication of the Report of the Task Force on the Travelling Community in 1995. This document devotes a full section to the issue of discrimination, which is a reflection of the fact that the key Traveller support groups had made this a priority issue for the previous ten years. It had also become a major media issue. Discrimination and access feature right through the document in relation to Traveller/settled relations, culture, accommodation, health, education and training, youth service provision, the Traveller economy, Traveller women and disabled Travellers.
"Academic debate and various international fora focus attention on the link between racism and cultural difference, particularly in scenarios of unequal power relationships. The forms of prejudice and discrimination experienced by the Traveller community equate with racism in the international context"
. The Report also refers to the need to combat discrimination with legislation and education.
"Over the past decade discrimination against Travellers has not diminished. Such a scenario requires new initiatives and new approaches. Public debate has increasingly focused attention on the need for legislative initiatives"
In Ireland, the 1995 Task Force Report outlines the different types of discrimination experienced by Travellers at the individual or interpersonal level and at the institutional level. According to the report, this discrimination experienced by Travellers can be direct and indirect, intentional or unintentional.
International Focus on Gypsies and Travellers
The new willingness to include Travellers in legislation resulted in Traveller Support Groups, Travellers and others mobilising as advocates for Travellers' rights. It has also been facilitated to some extent by outside influences. In 1991, the European Parliament Committee of Inquiry on Racism and Xenophobia reported that, in Ireland:
"The single most discriminated against ethnic group is the Travelling People"
. The Committee, referring to Ireland, recommended
"that the only Member State which has not already signed the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination, do so as soon as possible."
The UN Commission on Human Rights, in their report Elimination of Racism and Racial Discrimination, 23rd November, (1994), deals with contemporary forms of racism, racial discrimination, xenophobia and related intolerance in a wide range of countries. The report states that:
"Gypsies, also called Tsiganes, Rom or Romanies, are a group which is particularly targeted by rising racism and xenophobia in Europe"
. With regard to Irish Travellers the report states that:
"Travellers have experienced widespread discrimination in Ireland . . ."
"Travellers have also expressed the view that, where accommodation and services are provided, these do not always adequately reflect their needs"
The Minority Rights Group International report published in 1995, entitled Roma/Gypsies: A European Minority, says:
"Policies towards Roma/Gypsies have always constituted, in one form or another, a negation of the people, their culture and their language. Past policies can be broadly grouped into three categories: exclusion, containment, and assimilation".
Denial of Racism
While there is a willingness to acknowledge that there is widespread prejudice towards Travellers in Irish society and also a recognition of discrimination against Travellers there is still strong resistance among the Irish public, to calling the treatment of Travellers racist. The title of an education pack
"I'm No Racist, and What Is It Anyway?"
, (Calypso Productions, 1997), is a clever depiction of this resistance. The reasons for this denial of racism are complex and varied. First of all, Irish people are not unique in their tendency to deny the existence of racism in ourselves and in our country. Most countries have similar experiences of people seeing racism in the distance while refusing to acknowledge it at home or in themselves.2 Secondly, there is a tendency to see racism only in relation to skin colour. When the issue of defining the meaning of black and white arises and is combined with the task of categorising a range of other shades of skin pigmentation the issue ceases to be so simple. Usually, this involves resorting to confused usage of such concepts as 'races', 'race relations' and nationality. For instance, it is frequently said that Travellers cannot experience racism because they are white, are not 'a different race' nor a different nationality.
This denial, confusion, as well as a tendency to blame the victim is evident in this excerpt from a written submission by an Irish MEP to the Committee of Inquiry into Racism and Xenophobia in 1990:
"Ireland is a racially homogeneous country with no ethnic minority groups. As a consequence there are no racial problems of the kind experienced in countries with such groups. Neither is there a large presence of foreigners. . . the position could alter if the influx became sustained. . . there is however a minority group of travelling people giving rise to some of the problems associated with racism.3"
2. Eurobarometer Opinion Poll No. 47.1, Racism and Xenophobia in Europe, 1997.
The mistaken tendency to equate 'race' with colour has been refuted by many academics such as Charles Husband, who refers to this quote from Charles Kingsley's correspondence about his visit to Ireland in 1860:
... "I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country ... to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours".
This quotation reflects the racialisation process whereby members of a group, in this instance the (white) Irish, are identified as belonging to a 'race' category on the basis of fixed characteristics which they are assumed to possess. Central to such race-thinking are notions of superiority and inferiority, and of purity and pollution. These notions are clearly evident in the following excerpt from a debate in the House of Commons in 1953 referring to Africans:
"Let us remember that 95% of them are primitive people. One of the reasons why they are not generally accepted into hotels is because their sanitary habits are not all that could be desired ... The effect of alcohol upon an African is remarkable ... alcohol seems to bring out all the evil instincts in the African in the most astonishing way ... "
(Miles and Phizacklea, 1984)
Racism, as reflected in these references, is more than a prejudicial attitude. It involves a pattern of social relations, structures and an ideological discourse which reflects unequal power between groups. This understanding of racism will be examined and developed further below but as it is dependent on a racialisation process let us first take a look at the role of the media in this process and in the reproduction of racism towards Travellers.