Glass Houses

The ongoing war on racism in the U.S. incited by the death of George Floyd invites us, as a nation, to look at ourselves says Rebecca Connolly

We may all look on in disgust and disbelief at the systemic racism against people of colour in the United States, and rightly so; but discrimination is not uncommon in Ireland either – as Irish Travellers know only too well.

In 2017, Irish Travellers were formally recognised as their own distinct ethnic group. They have their own culture, traditions, and language – cant or gammon. They are a minority in Ireland, like African Americans are a minority in the United States. Both communities have endured, and continue to be subjected to, prejudices and unfair treatment from both fellow citizens and officers of the State alike.

According to UNESCO, “racism is any theory which involves the claim that racial or ethnic groups are inherently superior or inferior […]; [it] has no scientific foundation and is contrary to the moral and ethical principles of humanity”.

Racism isn’t always obvious; there can exist indirect racism, or institutional racism, whereby the government’s policies are discriminative, or unequal in their application to Irish Travellers. Currently, a Traveller family is challenging Cork City Council in the High Court to rescind a five-year Traveller Accommodation Programme; TAP 2019-2024 lacks sufficient detail, according to the family, in terms of the location of, and the duration of the stay in the temporary housing supplied whilst the necessary modifications are made to their halting site. Promises were made to supply the site with electricity and proper sanitation facilities, it is alleged. The lack of basic practical facilities has had adverse effects in a number of ways according to the family. The children are incapable of completing their homework, there is poor sanitation and hygiene (particularly worrisome during the pandemic) as well as health and safety risks, the family contend. It has been reported that the site is now “thick with rats”.

Discriminatory policies and practices resulting in poorer outcomes for minority groups is nothing new. As recently as the 1960s, the Irish government set about impeding the cultural traditions of the Irish Travellers by ensuring their nomadic ways of life were almost impossible to uphold. The State wanted to absorb the Traveller community into ‘normal society’, and in their attempt to do this, they introduced several pieces of legislation, thereby limiting their lawful movement and the locations in which they could legally set up camp.

Similarly, in the U.S., the areas in which African Americans could take up residence were restricted. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA) and the mortgage industry redlined certain neighbourhoods, and these were the approved locations where black people would be accepted. Societal class did not matter; only the colour of their skin mattered. According to Charles Abrams in 1955, an urban-studies expert, “[The] government […] could have required compliance with a non-discrimination policy. Instead, the FHA adopted a racial policy that could well have been culled from the Nuremburg laws”.

Generally, people are aware of direct racism. Racial slurs and verbal abuse are the most common forms of deliberate and direct racism with which we are familiar. As recently as 10 years ago, it was reported that more than half of all Irish Travellers in Ireland experienced racism on a daily basis. Additionally, services and employers discriminate against Travellers. Despite the fact that Travellers are overrepresented in prison (they make up 0.6% of the general population, yet they make up approximately 22% of the prison population) they are under-represented on projects geared towards crime diversion programmes for children.

The unemployment rate amongst Travellers currently stands at around 80%. The overrepresentation of the Traveller community in prison would contribute to the low employment figures. The same circumstances are true for the African American community in the U.S. High percentages of both of these cohorts of people live on or below the poverty line, resulting in having to live in ghettos or unofficial halting sites, and consequently experience overcrowding. It’s a vicious circle.

The Mincéirí ways of life are part of Traveller identity. To condemn it outrightly, or to systematically disallow it through legislation, is to claim that their ethnicity is inferior. We may not be able to control when we will be rid of Covid-19, but we, as individuals certainly still have the power to rid the world of the deadly virus that is racism.

For full and in-depth coverage, see the current printed edition of Garda Review.

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