Racism and Irish travellers

Trish 1995

Irish travellers are an ethnic minority who are culturally separate to the rest of Irish society. Because they are white and most of the are Irish, people reject the idea that the concept of racism applies to them. However an examination of policies and practises operated by the state and by non-state bodies clearly shows that it is racism that defines these policies and practises.

Statistically travellers are a very small group 25-30 thousand people altogether. 70 to 80% of the adult population are illiterate, less than 55b of travellers children get to mainstream secondary schools and to date (Aug 93) only 3 travellers have succeeded in getting 3rd level education. Health wise their statistics are those of a third world group, high birth rate, three times the infant mortality of the settled population, life expectancy between 10 and 15 years less than the settled population and a high rate of genetic handicap.

Less than half the population live in ordinary standard housing. Of the rest about 300 families live in site accommodation with good quality services and the rest or about a 1000 families nation-wide live in fields and roadsides with minimal or no facilities. This means no toilets, no electricity, no water, no refuse collection, no phones or fire precautions.

Despite the fact that these living conditions are widely known, every attempt to provide housing or site accommodate meets with viscous opposition from resident associations and public representatives. The type of arguments used and the methods used such as physical attacks on roadside camps, vigils outside houses to be allocated to travellers, pickets on houses allocated to them are racist without any doubt. For instance two years ago in Shankill a suburb of Dublin , members of a residents association with links to the workers party physically smashed up a house which was allocated to a travelling woman and her six children to prevent her from occupying it. No one was prosecuted for this.

Two traveller families were forced out of their houses in Clondalkin in the last year by gangs of vigilantes. In one case the Gardai advised the woman (a widow) to leave immediately because they could not protect her from the attacks of about 100 thugs. Yet three months ago these same gardai had no trouble producing 40 of their number in riot gear to back up ten hired thugs who were evicting 9 traveller families in the same area (see WS 39). There are so many instance of racism in every aspect of travellers lives from segregation at schools and in the welfare system to being refused service in pubs, shops. cinemas and all places of entertainment that there is little point going through it all. this kind of institutionalised racism and overwhelming discrimination can have the effect of making the people who are subjected to it feel powerless.

However Irish travellers do have a history of self-organised struggle which is almost completely hidden. the recent history of the struggle started in 1961 with the arrival of an English journalist Gratten Puxen who became involved with Traveller struggles and went to live with them in Cherry orchard, Dublin where there was a big illegal camp. At the time mass evictions were common, no traveller children got to school and the denial of civil rights was total. Paxon published a number of pamphlets called "The victim and the???"

the first travellers school was built in Cherry Orchard by the travellers there. It lasted only a matter of weeks before being bulldozed by the corporation. A series of protest meetings and marches were held throughout the country by the Irish travellers community culminating in a major convention at Ballinasloe fair in 1962 at which Lawerence Ward chaired the proceedings. A committee was elected and over the following year evictions were resisted and demands for decent facilities and civil rights were put forward.

This campaign attracted considerable radio publicity and the government became very anxious to smash the movement which was becoming more militant and well organised then they had thought travellers were capable of. Interestingly attempts were made early on to establish links with the trade union movement. There is a record of an appeal by Gloray Conners to members of IMETU who were about to carry out an eviction if Ballyfermot to consider their common interests and to refuse to evict

In 1963 Grattan Puxen was arrested and charged with having explosives. It was later proved that these explosives had been planted on him by the Gardai. He was released on bail and given the choice of leaving the country r serving a long jail sentence. He left in late 1963. Almost all of the activists of the Irish traveller community left with him and went on to form the Gypsy Council in England. The names of Irish travellers can be seen in the leadership of the Gypsy Council over the next decade until it became victim to internal feuding.

Back in Ireland the government published the Report of the Commission on Itinerary in 1963, a racist document which characterised Travellers as socially inferior dropouts who needed to be assimilated into mainstream society. A voluntary committee composed of various clerics and middle class do-gooders, and of course no Travellers was set up to see about doing this. For 20 years the committee presumed to speak on behalf of travellers and to put forward policies and solutions. with no input from Travellers themselves.

Then in 1979 a Traveller woman, Roselle McDadd took Dublin County Council to court of for evicting her 22 times from one roadside camp to another in the previous 12 months. She got a high court ruling later upheld by the Supreme court that a local area could not evict travellers from its land without providing a reasonable alternative. This had the effect of stopping constant evictions which were a cause of enormous hardship.

However Local Areas soon found ways of forcing families out of camps by dumping clay and rubbish all around them and by generally making life so unpleasant for them that they were forced to move. Then in 1981 the Tallaght by-pass affair blew up. At the time the by-pass was built but not opened and over 100 Traveller families were living on the stretch of unopened road as it provided a hard surface for the caravans.

They had been there nearly a year when the Dublin County Council suddenly decided to open the road and simply evict them without providing an alternative. They argued that a public road was exempt from the 1980 Supreme court ruling in the McDadd case. Six traveller families got an injunction against the council preventing them from moving them until a full hearing of the case.

While this was happening a wave of overtly racist activity was taking place among the tenants and residents associations in the area. A number of marches were organised with Finna Fail politicians leading them with the specific and clear objective of forcing the Travellers physically out of Tallaght. At the first march leaflets were distributed advising men to leave the women and children at home and to carry hurleys.

A group was quickly formed to respond to this racist attack, which included some Sinn Fein activists, anarchists and individuals working with travellers. Out of this group the travellers rights committee was formed in 1981 with both travellers and settled people involved. In 1982 this group ran nan joyce a Traveller woman as a candidate in the general election to oppose a racist candidate standing on a platform of "get the knackers out of Tallaght". Nan got double his first preference votes.

However in a repeat of history, shortly after the election, Nan was arrested with massive media publicity and charged with the theft of jewellery. The charges were dropped a few days late when it became clear that the stolen jewellery had been planted on her by the gardai just as they had done to Gratten Puxon 20 years earlier.

This time however the response was different. The travellers rights committee gave way to a Traveller only organisation Mincer Miste which was formed in late 1982. The activists in Mincre Miste felt that it was important for travellers to organise autonomously and this was respected by the Travellers right committee which dis-banded. A couple of issues of a paper called Pavee (which means traveller) had been produced by the Travellers rights committee.

Mincre Miste had protest marches, sit in's, occupations and hungerstrikes to highlight the position of Travellers. They succeeded in putting the issue of travellers right on the agenda but the organisation itself lasted only until 1984. It was faced with enormous difficulties, almost all of its members were illiterate, they had no resources and they found it impossible to keep functioning. In 1984 DTEDG was set up and then in 1988 the Irish Travellers Movement composed of settled people and Travellers was set up.

To date however the ITM has failed to become involved in direct action on the major issues of racism such as harassment and evictions. At a European level Gypsies and Travellers have always been subject to the most extreme forms of racism, culminating in the murder of 1/4 of a million gypsies and Travellers by the nazis. At present a great deal of racists violence is being directed at Eastern European gypsies in Germany as well as the countries they have come from such as Romania and Poland which have very large gypsy populations.

Some gypsies and Travellers groups have been organising protests in Germany and Poland about the current practise of effectively paying Romania and Poland to take back thousands of gypsies refugees who do not want to go back because of the dreadful poverty they endure there and who are currently being held in concentration camps. It is useful to see racism against Irish travellers in this wider context and especially for the travellers themselves to know about it because it gives them a sense of belonging to a much bigger group who are being subject to racism world-wide and provides opportunities for solidarity work.

Racism against Travellers is an issue that is generally ignored by the left in this country and in England too. This partly reflects how deeply ingrained this racism is so that the majority of Irish people do not even recognise it as such. Some groups on the left in supporting various 'solutions' such as agreeing to quota systems. The only way to ensure that supporters of Travellers right do not fall into this trap is to ensure the Travellers themselves lead the struggle.