Ireland: Traveller lives matter

12 November 2015

By Bernard Rorke 

“Ten people are dead. My community, myself, my family, my peers are hurt, and we are angry because we see this as an avoidable incident.”

Brigid Quilligan, Irish Traveller Movement

It’s been just over five months since the citizens of the Republic of Ireland were basking in the afterglow of the marriage equality referendum; the resounding ‘Yes’ vote gave the wider world an impression of a country ditching the prejudices of old for something altogether more edifying. It’s just over one month since the Carrickmines tragedy, where ten people including five children died in a fire on a temporary halting site. What followed in the month since this heart-breaking catastrophe laid bare the limits of Irish tolerance when it comes to Irish Travellers.

The tone of some of the public debate, the reactions of certain authorities, and the poisonous content of so much online commentary have revealed deep dark residues of racist contempt among the ‘settled community’ – attitudes so typical of the cruelty, intolerance and ignorance that mutilated Irish democracy in the past. Growing up in 1960s and 1970s Dublin, I was reared to respect Travelling people, but even as a kid I quickly came to realize that such respect was thin on the ground across the country. Having left Ireland more than 30 years ago, I harboured a notion that things had improved in the interim, that the visceral and overt anti-Traveller racism of decades past had actually been consigned to the past.

But it seems Ireland has not progressed much since Christy Moore first sang “Go! Move! Shift! You’d better get born in some place else” back in 1975. Forty years later at a demonstration outside the Dáil (Irish parliament) after the Carrickmines tragedy, protestors called on the Government to re-instate the Traveller accommodation budget, which was cut by almost 90 per cent from €40 million in 2008 to €4 million in 2015. Martin Collins of Pavee Point condemned the policy failures to address the Traveller accommodation crisis as a breach of human rights. Speaking of anti-Traveller racism in society he said: “Travellers are stereotyped as criminals and untrustworthy. My own son has been called a smelly knacker at school. Travellers are refused access to hotels… We are justifiably angry and we need to harness that anger and energy.” Echoing this Bridget Quilligan of the Irish Traveller Movement said: “If you are a traveller you are demonised from an infant to an elder. Things have to change for Travellers and change doesn’t come for people who ask nicely, changes come when people demand it.”

A few days later, Traveller representatives in another protest staged a walkout from a housing conference, because as Brigid Quilligan explained: "We are stonewalled by local representatives who represent a racist agenda … We want safe, adequate accommodation for Travellers ... and we will no longer collude with the system that's not working."

The national outpouring of sympathy for the dead in the immediate aftermath did not translate into solidarity for the living, for the traumatized and injured survivors of the fire. Burying five of the victims Father Dermot Lane observed that many settled people had "failed to walk with empathy in the shoes of our brothers and sisters in the Traveller community." He said the tragedy posed searching questions about the lack of responses by governments to many reports going back 50 years: questions about provision of adequate sites and housing for the Traveller community; about the persistent reality of social inequalities between the Traveller community and the settled community; and about deeply ingrained cultural prejudices. He prayed that this national tragedy might become a turning point, and that settled people might learn to “walk with empathy in the shoes of their Traveller brothers and sisters.”

On current form, and sad to say, it seems that this good man’s prayer will go unanswered for a while yet. While some citizens matched their sympathy with solidarity, many ‘settled hearts’ again quickly hardened against Travellers, and deeper prejudices soon displaced shallower sentiment in the public sphere.

Plans to rehouse the survivors were opposed by the residents of Rockville Drive, a cul-de-sac adjacent to the proposed site, who claimed they had not been consulted by the council. The residents mounted a blockade to stop diggers entering the council-owned site, and said that while “you’d have to be sad for them,” the surviving family members of those who died were “not wanted here”.

Minister for Equality Aodhan O Riordain tweeted: “This disgusting behaviour is not reflective of all settled people,” while Minister for the Environment, Alan Kelly, described the protest as “wrong”. Nonetheless the council backed down and moved the survivors to another site, described in the New York Times as “an isolated parking lot adjacent to a decommissioned dump - a site whose single apparent advantage was having nobody living close enough to object.”

Conservative media commentators began to rally around the Rockville cul-de-sac, accusing “idealistic young journalists and liberal commentators” of demonizing the residents, who had huge support on social media and newspaper websites from “ordinary people.”

As if the victims, those who perished in the fire and those who survived, were somehow not “ordinary people”. In the face of coarse public racism, it is important to recall the victims by their names: Willie Lynch (25), his partner Tara Gilbert (27), their children Kelsey (4) and Jodie (9), Willie’s brother Jimmy (39) as well as Thomas Connors (27), his wife Sylvia (25), and their children Jim (5), Christy (2), and five-month-old baby Mary.

Beyond the “emotional tidal wave” we were told “the fact is that the traveller lifestyle poses real problems for the settled community, and no amount of politically correct anger can negate that.” There followed a seamless slippage into victim blaming in media commentary complete with prejudiced generalizations about Traveller criminality, and a complete failure on certain newspaper websites to moderate and block comments that amounted to incitement to racial hatred. Social media was replete with hate speech, with Traveller activists on the receiving end of vile online abuse.

Speaking in the Dáil, Minister Aodhán Ó Ríordáin called for recognition of Travellers as a distinct ethnic group. He described the "experiment of sameness since the foundation of the State" as a failure and a lie: "I'm working hard to realise the day where members of Government, with support from everyone, can recognise the truth of diversity and put to bed the lie of sameness and say to the travelling community that finally from the settled perspective that we - this State, the Republic, you as a people - together let's build a new relationship in this republic.” The Minister is as yet in a minority, for the Irish state is still not ready to accord such recognition to Travellers, despite calls from the UN Committee for Elimination of Racial Discrimination and the Council of Europe. The situation is that, as Fintan O’Toole put it, “Traveller ethnic identity is denied official recognition, but strongly affirmed in the most emphatic way – through the prejudice that they suffer.”

Yesterday, Pavee Point submitted a petition to the government. Martin Collins thanked all who had expressed their solidarity and called on the government to show leadership on Traveller issues by setting up a Traveller agency “to drive progress in an accountable and transparent way, turning policy into action.” This could be a practical demonstration of resolve to put things right so that what happened in Carrickmines must not happen again, and an important if belated official recognition that Traveller lives matter.

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