a Workers Solidarity Movement position paper

Travellers Rights

1. Ethnic and national origins should have no special importance except that they add to the rich cultural diversity of peoples. However Irish Travellers constitute a tiny minority within Ireland, comprising of no more than 0.5% of the total population. We accept that they constitute a separate ethnic group with their own cultural values and practices, language and beliefs.

2. Travellers are subjected to racism, discrimination and exclusion everywhere in Ireland. This racism takes many forms, ranging from the most obvious refusal to serve them in pubs and all places of entertainment to institutionalised discrimination in all of the state services. Travellers are required to sign for their dole at a different time to the settled population and are only allowed to sign in certain exchanges. They must all use one separate clinic in Dublin for welfare claims, their children are frequently segregated in schools and subjected to second class education. In the Dublin area a separate Catholic parish performs all their marriages, funerals etc., and the sites that are provided for them are invariably situated beside canals, prisons, train tracks, dumps; and are located miles from shops and other services behind high walls and banks so that the settled population cannot see them. The results of this racism are clearly demonstrated in the health, education and accommodation statistics of their population. The Travellers Health Status Study published by the Health Research Board in 1987 revealed the following:

The most significant finding of the THSS can be summarised as follows:

The age structure of the Traveller population resembles that of a developing country with many children and relatively few in the older age group. Almost 50% of the Traveller population is under 15 years. The increase in the Traveller population in the period 1960-1986 shows that the population more than tripled in the period from approximately 6,000 people in 1960 to approximately 18,000 in 1986.

In terms of education, the majority of the adult population are illiterate and have had little or no formal education. The education system has systematically discriminated against Travellers over the years. While a large number of Traveller children have been enrolled in Primary schools over the last couple of years, the curricular changes necessary to promote genuinely open interculturalist approach to education have not been forthcoming.

Less than 15% of Travellers currently attend second-level education, with 10% attending Junior Training Centres and 4.5% in mainstream schools. The Junior Training Centres attempt to provide a more open and culturally sensitive education but - having been established in an ad hoc manner - remain underfunded and under-utilised. The stated policy of "full integration" is being used by the Department of Education and the VEC's to avoid facing up to their responsibilities to the students and staff of JTC's.

The number of Travellers who have made it through the education system to third-level is still only 6 or 7 individuals.

A survey by the Dublin Accommodation Coalition with Travellers in March 1994 showed that of the 642 Traveller families not in houses in Dublin, 36% did not have a flush toilet, 54% had no electricity, the same number had no bath or showers and had access to a cold water supply only.

3. These statistics demonstrate the marginalised pariah status of Travellers in Irish society The racism which is practised against them regularly breaks out into physical attacks as happened in October 1993 in Glenamaddy, County Galway when Travellers were attacked by a mob of hurley wielding locals for having the temerity to drink in a pub in their town! Traveller families have been intimidated out of housing estates in Clondalkin, Tallaght and Shankill over the past few year. The racism practised against Irish Travellers is part of the worldwide racism practised against Gypsies and Travellers. This particular form of racism reached its peak this century with the murder of a quarter of a million Gypsies by the Nazis. Currently eastern European Gypsies and Travellers are being subjected to racist policies and to physical attack in Germany and in other countries. There is a long and bloody history of persecution of European Gypsies and Travellers dating back to their arrival in Europe around the 11th century.

4. The response of Irish Travellers to their situation has varied over the past forty years. In the early 1960's there was an attempt to set up a radical Travellers movement, which was successful for a few years in resisting evictions and campaigning for rights and services. Gratton Puxon, an English journalist was the instigator of this movement, which drew support from large numbers of Travellers throughout the country. Appeals were made to the trade union movement, especially in Dublin, to refuse to evict Travellers and to adopt policies which respected Travellers rights. However, this movement for Travellers' cultural self-determination and civil rights came to an end in 1963 when Gratton Puxon was framed by the police on an explosives charge and given the choice of leaving the country or a lengthy jail sentence. He left in 1963 and dozens of Travellers who had been active in the movement left with him. They went to England where they were active in setting up the Gypsy Council there.

5. In Ireland, Travellers' interests were supposedly represented for the next twenty years by middle class liberals such as Victor Bewley, the former owner of Bewleys Cafes. A policy of settlement and assimilation was adopted by the Government with no Traveller participation or even consultation. Travellers were viewed as incapable of acting or thinking on their own behalf and this remained the case until the early 1980's.

Their material and social circumstances continued to deteriorate especially as the population continued to increase and the policies adopted by the government with the connivance of the Itinerant Settlement Committees, as they were called, failed to make any impact on the situation. Opposition to housing and site provision by residents' groups - supported by politicians in many cases -ensured that most Travellers continued to live in sub-human conditions.

This opposition to Travellers broke out into open hostility and violence in Tallaght in 1981. Over one hundred Traveller families were camped on the un-opened by-pass waiting for site accommodation at that time. They had been there for several years when the County Council suddenly decided to open the by-pass and evict them without offering them anywhere to go. An ad-hoc group of activists got together to resist this attack and the Travellers' Rights Committee was formed. An injunction was obtained preventing the local authority from moving the Travellers and a situation of outright conflict ensued between the Travellers and their supporters on one side, and the residents - supported by local politicians - on the other.

The Travellers Rights Committee put up a Traveller, Nan Joyce, as a candidate in the general election of 1982 and she polled twice the vote of the anti-Traveller racist candidate standing against her. The Travellers Rights Committee continued to campaign with marches and public protests until 1983 when it gave way to a Traveller only organisation, Minceir Misli.

Minceir Misli continued the fight for nearly two years when it fell apart because of the heavy burden on the few Travellers who were literate enough and confident enough to campaign. Links were again established with the trade union movement, and motions and policies in support of Travellers rights were adopted in a number of unions.

Currently the Travellers movement is split between those who recognise Travellers' ethnicity and those who deny it. The Irish Traveller Movement, while recognising Travellers' ethnicity, is not an activist organisation although Travellers themselves are actively involved in it.

6. We believe that Travellers have a right to cultural self-determination, to equal rights and to live without being subjected to racism in any of its forms. We believe that Travellers themselves must be centrally involved in any struggle that concerns them. We also believe that their numbers are too few and their lack of political or industrial muscle is such that they cannot achieve equality only through their own efforts. They need the active support of all progressive forces, especially that of the organised trade union movement, in their struggles. We reject however, the liberal/charity approach to Travellers' rights as being in itself a from of racism.

7. Racist thinking in relation to Travellers is so endemic in Irish society that even the left is guilty of it. The best example of this is the stand taken by the Militant group in the Mulhuddert situation of 1990, when they supported a quota system for housing Travellers in Blanchardstown. There is no doubt that they would be quick to condemn such a policy in relation to blacks or Asians in England.

Other examples of racist thinking on the left is the attitude taken by some groups that Travellers represent a refusal to be "proletarianised" and therefore should not be supported. We reject this arrogant nonsense and adopt a position of supporting Travellers' struggles, encouraging maximum Traveller involvement in such struggles and raising the issue of racism against Travellers in our publications and in our interventions and political work.

(passed 23.7.94)
This paper is out of date - see the new WSM site for the more recent version