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7 October 2004 Edition

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England's Irish Travellers face institutional racism

BY FERN LANE

Irish Traveller communities in England face widespread social and institutional discrimination, new research has found. Many Travellers are forced to live in insecure and unhealthy conditions because local authorities refuse to provide adequate and appropriate temporary and long term halting sites, and they often find it difficult to access even the most basic services, such as seeing a doctor.

The findings, the result of a three-year study by Dr Colm Power into Travellers, their culture and way of life, are contained in a report commissioned by a consortium of Irish community groups alarmed at the dramatic increase in anti-Irish Traveller racism amongst the settled community in England. Last year, for example, a 15-year-old Traveller boy, Johnny Delaney, was kicked to death by a group of youths in a racially motivated attack in Ellesmere Port near Liverpool. In Firle, in Sussex, villagers burned an effigy of a Traveller family in a caravan on 5 November last year.

The report, Room to Roam: England's Irish Travellers, which was launched at conferences in central London and Manchester, investigated the experience of Travellers across a wide range of issues, including health and social welfare, education and the criminal justice system. It raises the failure of local authorities and other statutory bodies to make proper provision for the needs of Travellers. Anti-Irish Traveller bigotry, the conference heard, was often trivialised, ignored or denied, and appears to be "the last respectable form of racism".

The report found that there is a deep misunderstanding and lack of recognition of the specific ethnicity, history, culture and lifestyle of Irish Travellers. Within the education system, for example, Irish Travellers are often stereotyped as inattentive and slow learners; they experience racist bullying because of their background and are often blamed when they retaliate. Travellers themselves also view the education system with some suspicion, particularly secondary level schooling, because they see it as a means for the assimilation of their children and as not providing the skills and knowledge which they consider appropriate for young Travellers making the transition into adulthood within their own community.

One Irish Traveller mother told researchers: "Traveller kids get brainwashed into being English. It's hard to remain a Traveller in England because of cultural outside pressure. Asians etc, are not made to feel they are living some silly existence like Traveller kids are".

In addition, the health of Travellers is adversely affected by failings within the health and social welfare system. Travellers are often reluctant to try and access GPs, even when they have a permanent address and, if they do, they can be faced with obstacles. For example, the research found instances in which doctors' receptionists and administrators acted as 'gate-keepers', even exhibiting overtly racist attitudes; in other cases, GP practices claimed their lists were closed when large or extended Traveller families attempted to register.

Researchers also found evidence - from officers themselves - of actively racist attitudes towards Irish Travellers by the police. This also included a tendency by police forces to treat family gatherings such as funerals and weddings as a threat to public order rather than a response by Travellers to actual events or incidents. One Traveller commented:

"If there's a funeral, there's lots of police at the funeral. Most of my people are buried over here... Every time I've been to that graveyard there are thousands of police - all the roads blocked off."

A spokesperson for Action Group for Irish Youth, the charity which managed the project, said:

"The Room to Roam report calls for all public authorities to recognise that Irish Travellers are a distinct ethnic group and to include Irish Travellers in their ethnic monitoring systems. It also calls on statutory and non-statutory bodies to address the social, economic, culture and welfare needs of this community.

"But accommodation is the key issue for all Irish Travellers, whether settled or nomadic, and we would particularly like planning authorities to examine the refusal of permissions for Travellers to develop their own sites. They need to positively engage with both Irish Travellers and settled communities and develop appropriate strategies for planning applications."


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