Workers Vanguard No. 1080
11 December 2015
Racism Against Traveller Minority
The following article originally appeared in Workers Hammer No. 233 (Winter 2015-2016), newspaper of the Spartacist League/Britain. Travellers are a distinct ethnic group in Ireland with their own language, culture and historically itinerant way of life.
On 10 October 2015, a fire swept through a halting site in [Carrickmines] South County Dublin, killing ten members of two Traveller families. Among the dead in the most deadly fire in Ireland in over 30 years were five young children and a pregnant woman. In the immediate aftermath of this horrific tragedy there was an outpouring of grief and solidarity with the surviving members of the Lynch/Gilbert and Connors families. However, it wasn’t long before brutal anti-Traveller racism was, once again, front and centre.
With the state’s flags flying at half-mast in a show of utter hypocrisy, Fine Gael [governing party] Taoiseach [prime minister] Enda Kenny and Labour’s Minister for Public Expenditure, Brendan Howlin, attended the funerals of five of the victims, Tom and Sylvia Connors and their three children. Grotesquely, Howlin sympathised with those local bigots who refused to open their pubs and shops to Travellers on the day of the funerals. “I think maybe the unavailability of alcohol is not a bad thing,” said Howlin, adding that there are “bad eggs in any community” (irishtimes.com, 23 October). Howlin’s remarks, echoed by the Taoiseach, were condemned by Lorraine McMahon of Ballyfermot Travellers Action Group as “absolutely disgraceful.” She noted that when the Taoiseach attended a Garda [Irish police] officer’s funeral earlier in October, “he didn’t talk about the bad eggs in the force” (independent.ie, 29 October). Racist stereotyping of Travellers is often invoked to justify their exclusion from pubs.
In another affront, the survivors of the fire were physically prevented from moving into a nearby field that they were offered to replace their now-destroyed halting site. A local mob blockaded the site with cars, preventing Traveller caravans from parking there. The council caved in to the racists and provided an empty car park, where the survivors currently live—next to a decommissioned dump. As Martin Collins, a director at Travellers’ rights group Pavee Point stated: “Our community has been sickened to the pit of its stomach by the callous way the survivors have been treated over the past two weeks.” Collins pointed to the irony in the fact that earlier this year Ireland had been celebrated for its approval of same-sex marriage, but attitudes towards Travellers show “that any claims Ireland has to tolerance are a façade” (New York Times, 29 October).
Travellers have been part of Irish society for centuries and have faced the same kind of vicious discrimination and prejudice as Roma (Gypsies) in other European countries. Travellers are distinguished from the “settled” population by language and by a culture based on a nomadic tradition. Shortly after the Carrickmines fire, a motion put forward by Sinn Fein in the Dail [parliament] to acknowledge Travellers as an ethnic group was voted down. As we noted in an article ten years ago, the refusal by successive Irish governments to do so is a “criminal attempt to cover for the government’s continued discrimination against Travellers—a distinct group with their own language, culture and way of life. Defend Travellers! Down with the racist anti-trespass law!” (“Fight Anti-Traveller Racism!” Spartacist Ireland No. 7, Spring/Summer 2005).
Local councils control the provision of accommodation for Travellers. But despite the current harsh economic crisis, this year almost half the country’s local councils have returned the money allocated by central government for Traveller accommodation. Some 50 million euros went unspent in the period from 2006 to 2013.
No group in Irish society experiences quite the levels of poverty and misery that the tiny population of approximately 30,000 Travellers endure. The All-Ireland Traveller Health Study of 2010 revealed that male Traveller life expectancy is over 15 years less than the average for the rest of the population, while women Travellers fare only slightly better at 11.5 years below the average. Infant mortality is reported at over 3.5 times higher for Travellers than for the settled population. The 2011 census showed that 55 per cent of Travellers leave school before the age of 15 and only one per cent attain a third level [college] qualification. At least 1,500 Traveller families are reported to be living in overcrowded, unsanitary conditions; many camp by the roadside with no running water or electricity. This hideously oppressed layer also constitutes a high proportion of the prison population.
As proletarian revolutionaries, we have consistently defended Travellers, including in the face of massive police attacks on halting sites such as at Dunsink in Dublin in 2004. A revolutionary workers party would seek to rally workers to the defence of all the oppressed, recognising that it is in the interests of the working class to oppose all attacks on immigrants, women and Travellers. We seek to build such a party, dedicated to mobilising the working class in a series of struggles to bring down the capitalist system through socialist revolution. This alone will open the road to providing decent living conditions, including housing, education and healthcare for Travellers—and for settled people.