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4 September 2017 Edition

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The struggles and politics of Travellers in neoliberal Ireland

• Uncompromising campaigning by activists drove issue of rights onto agenda

International pressure on the Irish Government had been mounting, culminating in the threat of legal proceedings by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights

ON 1 MARCH 2017, Traveller ethnicity was officially recognised by the Irish Government. This decision lagged almost two decades behind both Britain and the Six Counties.

It came after many years of political indifference, with repeated calls by United Nations bodies and various European Union institutions snubbed by successive governments. 

Members of the Dáil appeared to undergo an epiphany, suddenly discovering the well-documented and much publicised sufferings of generations of Irish Travellers by state-sponsored assimilation policies, socially-engineered marginalisation and systemic racism. Politicians made ceremonious, entirely non-committal speeches in what appeared to be a gesture to pacify the unruly Traveller movement whilst demonstrating their own progressive credentials. 

A number of internal and external pressures led to the Government’s decision. 

Firstly, and most significantly, it is indisputable that a lifetime of uncompromising campaigning by Traveller activists and allies drove the issue into public consciousness. 

The moment of official recognition was, for many Travellers, one of catharsis, the culmination of years of work. For others, particularly those from a younger generation, the campaign had worked as a catalyst, prompting introspection and politicisation, thereby strengthening a developing political movement and giving new impetus to its key demands. 

Secondly, international pressure on the Irish Government had been mounting, culminating in the threat of legal proceedings by the European Commission and a timely and critical intervention by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. 

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• Recognition by Taoiseach Enda Kenny of Traveller rights is one thing – the Government making his fine words a reality is another

These two factors, in turn, drew on and influenced a changing social and political landscape in which exposure to European trends helped to facilitate a liberalisation of Irish attitudes and a positive move towards multiculturalism. In this context, the Government’s decision was necessary by international standards, in tune with popular opinion and, above all, politically expedient. 

In the course of the Dáil discussion, Gerry Adams was alone in linking the local to the global and alluding to the impact of neoliberalism. 

He noted “the rapid pace of new technologies, the use of plastic and other cheap goods [which have] brought about major changes in Travellers’ lifestyles”, namely the decline of nomadism. 

An understanding of traditional Traveller collectivism, reciprocity and methods of trade serves to elucidate how far-reaching has been the impact of changes in the global economy and a fundamental restructuring of the labour market on the Traveller community. 

Outsourcing and mass production in the Far East, made possible by exploitatively low labour costs, have diminished craft traditions and undermined the strength of organised Irish labour in general. Globalisation has intensified both the precariousness of work and the marginalisation of Travellers through mass production of cheap goods and increasing global competition, along with shifting trends in cultural tastes and aesthetics. 

This process of neoliberal restructuring therefore poses a significant and discernable threat to traditional industries, not least to Traveller trades, which now survive on the peripheries of both global and local economies. 

The effects of this are exacerbated by state policy (legislation has made the practice of traditional crafts and trades de facto illegal) and by the fact that such trades are fundamental to a nomadic lifestyle and Travellers’ commitment to subsistence way of living. The political class will only help to improve outcomes for the Traveller community, therefore, insofar as it directly challenges structural discrimination in an Irish context as well as the essence of neoliberalism in a global context. 

One can already identify considerable divergence between the platitudes of the political class and their willingness to bring about tangible changes. 

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• Spirits aren’t dampened by the weather as Traveller ethnicity is officially recognised in the Dáil by Taoiseach Enda Kenny on 1 March 2017

One demonstrable example is the failure of local councils to draw down funds allocated for Traveller-specific accommodation. 

It was noted that as of May 2017, €1.2million of funding reserved for Traveller accommodation was left unspent. Since then, Damien English TD has announced that €9million would be made available, but if there is no political will to deliver on the legislative framework that has been developed then a 64% increase in capital funding is little more than lip service. 

Eoin Ó Broin TD has been vocal on this issue, calling for accountability and a fundamental “change in the Government’s approach towards how it allocates capital funding for the purposes of Traveller accommodation”. Of course, he is right and the most effective way of ensuring such a change would be for Sinn Féin and all other Left parties to implement an internal policy change whereby all local councillors are obligated to apply for Traveller accommodation funding. 

Sinn Féin and the wider republican movement have been consistent in their support of Traveller rights for decades. There are still those on the broad Left, however, who will gladly pay homage to Traveller music and culture in a public arena whilst at the same time refusing to countenance the establishment of halting sites in their local area. When politicians succumb to these parish pump concerns, taking the path of least resistance, they are failing to fulfill their role as state policy legislators and representatives of the entire community. 

Now is the time for them to go beyond symbolic statements and grand gestures and address these wider political issues which have expedited and compounded Traveller marginalisation. 

It is important to reiterate that, prior to official recognition, Travellers already had certain rights under the Constitution, although this fell far short of what was necessary to protect our human rights and was superseded by international directives. Indeed it is under such directives that the Traveller community would now hope to challenge the Irish courts. 

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• Gerry Adams and Eoin Ó Broin – Pressing Government

Herein lies the contradiction of (Irish) liberalism in human rights: there is an enormous difference between ‘having’ a right and the realisation of that right. 

A core of international treaties asserting ‘the right to work’, for example, means nothing to the millions of unemployed, just as the ‘right to accommodation’ means little to the thousands of Irish homeless – Travellers included. 

The ‘right’ to work does not refer to an existing entitlement but to a political claim and so, in this sense, the politics of rights are always in potential conflict with their legal status. 

Human rights statements are abstract inasmuch as people do not have a ‘right to work’ but they should. Travellers do not have a ‘right’ to accommodation but they should and I believe this right will be realised only through political struggle, rather than law. It is in this rhetorical, political ambiguity that the ideological power of ‘Traveller rights’ lies. 

Instrumental throughout the campaign were allies, politicians and activists and it is now time for those political allies to implement targeted policy measures, directly addressing the inequalities and discrimination faced by the community, in full and effective consultation with Travellers and ensuring mechanisms for accountability. 

Whilst ethnicity recognition is important (and I would not wish to talk down the work of the movement), it is sickening to see politicians make reference to the Carrickmines tragedy in the Dáil while the survivors are forced to live in inhumane conditions beside a town dump. 

When there are still 1,300 Traveller families – approximately 7,000 people – living in substandard and unsafe accommodation, when Travellers have become all but invisible in the narrative around the national housing crisis (even though it is Travellers existing without access to water, sewage facilities and electricity), it is nauseating to hear politicians praise the cultural contribution of Traveller musicians. 

The Government’s response to these issues, much like the majority of the speeches given at the ethnicity address, amounted to the usual equivocation and deflection. 

The National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy, as noncommittal and incomplete as it may be, is a step in the right direction and, if funded and fully implemented, could go some way to address some of the Government’s failings. 

The launch of this strategy should not be used to deflect scrutiny of Ireland’s human rights violations, nor should ethnicity status be seen as the end of a struggle but the beginning of the next phase.

Strong Traveller activists and allies have brought us to this point. It is up to a new generation of Travellers to continue the work and the only way to achieve this, to have our rights realised, is through education.

Political education – a clear understanding of the broader context of our lives and the systems by which decisions are made – is vital. 

The Traveller community is rich with organic intellectuals, those whose knowledge and expertise is a product of marginalisation and struggle and who are committed to rising with the community rather than above it. 

Traveller marginalisation has to be seen in the context of global capitalism and globalisation, a social order that subordinates peoples and economies worldwide, reinforcing exclusion and the suppression of knowledge and culture. It is vital that we see the emergence of a united, self-determined, self-organising social movement operating within larger national and international movements which are contributing to a new counter-hegemonic logic. 

If more Travellers engage with radical political initiatives, this would be our best hope for challenging the effects of neoliberalism in Ireland in ways that make the realisation of Travellers’ rights a viable project.

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An Phoblacht
44 Parnell Sq.
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