By Shane Brothwood @shanebrothwood
They may number 40,000 across Ireland, but Travellers remain the most discriminated against group in the country – a point highlighted with tragic consequences last October when 10 people died in a halting site fire.
John Paul Collins is a Traveller activist for Pavee Point. Pavee Point is a NGO which campaigns for the rights of the Travelling and Roma Communities.
According to John, the main goals of Pavee Point are to get the Government to “recognise Travellers as an ethnic group and increase the quality of life for Travellers”. At the moment Travellers are legally a social group.
In October 10 people – five adults, including young pregnant mother, Tara Gilbert, and five children – perished in a halting site fire in Carrickmines, Co Dublin.
The group had faced discrimination before the fire and even post the tragedy when there was opposition to the Traveller families living in the area.
While discrimination has always been an issue, the widespread discrimination Travellers face today, began in the 1960s.
The Report of the Commission on Itinerancy (1963) written by the state, viewed the Travelling community as problem. One of the supposed solutions was “to reduce to a minimum the disadvantage to themselves and to the community resulting from their itinerant habits”.
In effect the government blamed the Travellers for their own issues. Not once during the report does the state take any responsibility.
The report also insisted that Travellers be taken from their nomadic dwellings and placed into settled communities.
Subsequent reports in 1985, 1995 and 1998, featured Traveller input, however, many of the decisions were made with the same attitude.
The assimilation mind set the state had in 1963, is still vibrant today, John Paul said.
Today over 78% of Travellers live in settled communities. Though overcrowding on halting sites and group housing schemes has caused poor health among Travellers.
John Paul objects to the term settled Traveller, saying that “First and foremost, it’s Traveller, full stop. It doesn’t matter if you live in a palace or a mansion.”
In recent years, assimilation has led to widespread discrimination against the community, rather than acceptance. Barriers put place in accessing services such as education, health and employment, meant an effective exclusion from society.
Less than 1% of Travellers attend third level education.
Even more shocking is the unemployment rate of 87%. John explained that Travellers look for work, but find it hard, because employers don’t want to hire Travellers.
Life expectancy is 10 years less for a traveller female, and 15 for a male. While the suicide rates are six times higher than the general population.
He added “There’s mistrust about Travellers, from the health service, the guards and the state.”
What does that all mean? It means lack of basic health care and support and it means no real life opportunities, which leads to bitterness, isolation and depression, according to the group.
These are issues the media tends to gloss over. The central narrative is one of criminality, feuding, and disruption to society. Rarely is there a story that represents the more positive aspects of Travellers, John Paul said.
He stated that feuding and crime is down to a minority group within the Travelling community.
The representative noted it was the failure of the state to provide adequate resources to solve the issues on the ground. I truly believe the state has failed the Travelling community, he said.
John Paul stated that legal recognition as an ethnic group would lead to “Better grounds for negotiations, it would reinstate pride within the community and employed Travellers and Travellers seeking employment would no longer have to hide their identity”.
Despite all the challenges faced, there are aspects of Traveller life which are more hopeful. Music is something that generates pride among the Travelling community.
Traveller musicians such as the Keegans and Pecker Dunne had a massive influence on the development of Trad. There is an LGBTQ Group in Pavee Point celebrating the diverse range of sexualities in the Traveller and Roma community.
But even after all the positive steps made today, the Traveller life is as difficult in 2016, as it was in 1963, many feel.