Pervasive Racism: How public and political responses to a recent tragedy in Ireland’s Traveller Community were shaped by Anti-Traveller hostility
Amanda Haynes, Sindy Joyce and Jennifer Schweppe
Hate and Hostility Research Group, University of Limerick
On Saturday the 10th of October 2015, a horrific fire devastated the homes of three families in Carrickmines in South Dublin, Ireland. Ten people, including five children and a pregnant woman, lost their lives. Fifteen survivors were left homeless following the blaze. In the aftermath of such tragedies, it is usual for local and national communities to rally in support, to see public expressions of sympathy by political figures and public commentators, and to expect swift action on the part of authorities to meet the practical and emotional needs of those left behind. The victims of the tragedy were, however, Irish Travellers, and as such both discursive and tangible responses to the fire have been shaped by the historical and contemporary oppression of the group within Irish society (see for example McLaughlin 1995; Helleiner 2001). This blog piece will outline the context of this exclusion, including the persistent refusal of the Irish state to recognise the ethnicity of the Traveller community, and how the Carrickmines tragedy has illuminated the normalisation of anti-Traveller prejudice not only in the community but in political and media discourses.
An Ethnic Group?
According to the most recent Irish census, Irish Travellers number less than 30,000 strong in the Republic (0.6% of the population), although Traveller advocacy organisations argue that the community continues to be undercounted, while some argue that self-identification is hampered by the continued stigmatisation of Traveller identity (Griffen and MacÉinrí 2014). Irish Travellers, unlike Roma members of the community, are an indigenous minority. DNA testing performed as part of a television documentary produced in conjunction with the national broadcaster in 2011 confirmed that Irish Travellers have been a self-perpetuating Irish minority for more than a thousand years. Jim Wilson from the University of Edinburgh has stated that “Travellers are a distinct genetic group, as different from the settled Irish as Icelanders are from Norwegians”. In England and Wales, Irish Travellers are recognised as an ethnic minority. In Northern Ireland they are protected under the category of ‘racial group’. Leading Traveller organisations in Ireland, such as the Irish Traveller Movement and Pavee Point, have long lobbied the State for ethnic status in Ireland.
Nonetheless, the Irish State continues to deny Irish Travellers’ ethnicity in their homeland, stating to the European Committee of Social Rights in 2013, “whilst Ireland admits that Travellers (like many minorities) can and do suffer discrimination which Ireland seeks to combat and prevent, Travellers are not an ethnic or racial group.” Concomitantly, Travellers are subject to virulent prejudice in Irish society. One in five Irish people surveyed have said they would deny Travellers citizenship (McGreil 2010).
A History of Exclusion
A traditionally nomadic people, only a minority of Travellers continue to live in trailers (mobile homes) and many of these families are permanently stationary. Movement has become ever more restricted with the decimation of traditional sources of mobile employment, the privatisation of common land, the introduction of legislation specifically designed to criminalise Travellers use of public space and the more general ‘fixing in place’ required by the State to access public services (see also Joyce 2015). The CSO states:
“Between 2006 and 2011 the percentage of Irish Traveller households residing in caravans or mobile/temporary structures halved from 24.7 per cent to 12.3 per cent. In 2011, 920 households with Irish Travellers resided in such temporary accommodation”.
Some Travellers have chosen to move into majority housing. For some, living in a trailer remains an essential means of maintaining a connection to their historical nomadism. For others, living on a halting site, whether in a trailer or not, is a means of maintaining contact with the traditional extended family unit . Despite a statutory obligation under the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998 on councils to provide for the accommodation needs of Travellers, there are a shortage of options available to the community. Research by the Irish Traveller Movement found that between 2009 and 2013 only 9 of 34 city and county councils met their own targets in relation to the implementation of the State’s Traveller accommodation programme. According to the analysis, Dun Laoghaire/Rathdown council where Carrickmines is located was 15% short of its 59 unit target by 2013, with close-by Fingal County Council among the worst performers providing 69pc less units than its target of 161. Traveller advocacy organisation Pavee Point highlights:
“With the onset of Austerity, funding for Traveller accommodation nationally was cut by 85%. Of what was left, 64% was spent, but 36% was not”.
Commenting in the media, Irish Traveller Movement spokesperson Jacinta Brack links these failures to populism: “The difficulty is where politicians are reliant on votes, it is not popular for them to be voting in Traveller accommodation”. In this context, it is noteworthy that between 2007 and 2012 local authorities’ underspent their Traveller Accommodation allocations to the tune of €50 million. Indeed, some Irish politicians openly curry votes explicitly by opposing Traveller accommodation.
Majority Group Responses to the Fire
Reactions to the fire have foregrounded the “growing polarisation in public attitudes towards Travellers” and the depth of hostility which the aforementioned survey highlighted. While the last two weeks have borne witness to widespread expressions of solidarity from the sedentary (non-Traveller) community in Carrickmines, from numerous political and public figures, and from the general public – numerous books of condolences were opened across the country and flags were flown at half mast on all public buildings – any comfort the survivors and the community of Irish Travellers more generally might have drawn must be tarnished by simultaneous expressions of outright hostility and by the manner in which prejudice has been permitted to shape emergency interventions.
In the aftermath of the fire, questions immediately arose in the media as to the relationship of the loss of life to the families’ accommodation in trailers located in close proximity to what was built in 2008 as a temporary halting site. Private and public, named and anonymous majority group commentators, debated the suitability of mobile homes as permanent housing; whether the victims should be accorded blame for living in trailers; and whether the Council might have reneged on its duty to ensure fire safety on the site. Stereotypes of Traveller life combined with victim-blaming in speculation that the fire might have been started by a bonfire. While there were many expressions of solidarity and empathy, multiple media and individual commentators took the opportunity to share their perception of Traveller culture as inherently defective and the structural inequalities which Travellers experience in the areas of education and accommodation for example as the consequence of life-style choices. Ireland’s most popular online newspaper, Thejournal.ie, was forced to shut down its comments section on at least one article as a consequence of the outright racism being expressed by anonymous commentators.
Three days after the fire, on the 13th of October the Council disseminated a letter to local residents explaining that the survivors would be accommodated in a new temporary halting site, which was to be constructed in a greenfield site nearby the location of the fire. This decision would mean, at least, that the survivors would continue to live in their community and the children, now including orphaned children, would be able to continue to attend the same school. Within minutes, a small number of local residents had moved their cars to blockade the entrance to the proposed site. The Council’s response was to negotiate with the residents and eventually cede to their demands for the survivors to be accommodated elsewhere, citing fears that legal challenges would delay the re-homing of the survivors in justifying their submission. The Taoiseach (Prime Minister), who had attended or sent his aide to represent him at the three family funerals held for the victims, publically stated on national radio that it was appropriate that residents be consulted regarding the location of Travellers’ halting sites in their area: “It is necessary to consult, of course, with the local communities, and I can understand the balances need to be got here”. Ireland’s newspaper of record, The Irish Times, held a poll in which 72% of 4,800 readers stated that they supported the protestors. Following this protest, the families will now instead be located in trailers in a council car park, which lacks sewage facilities and which the Council itself admits is unsuitable, while awaiting the 6 month (check) refurbishment of an existing permanent halting site.
In response to these developments, Martin Collins, co-director of the Traveller advocacy organisation Pavee Point has stated “Once again Travellers’ rights to a decent place to live come second place to the demands of the majority population … This situation is a sad indictment of our society and raises issues that need to be urgently addressed.” Speaking about the actions of the protestors, he stated “I have never witnessed such depth of hostility and hate towards my community as I have on this occasion … I think their actions are only compounding the stress and the trauma that these Travellers families are already enduring.” Minceirs Whiden (an all Traveller forum) led a protest outside the Dáil (houses of parliament) on October 28 to highlight Travellers’ living conditions. Martin Collins, of Pavee Point, asked why the police had not been called to move the blockade and questioned why none of those 25 local authorities who have failed to meet their Travellers’ accommodation targets will face sanctions. Speaking to the crowd, Brigid Quilligan, Director of the Irish Traveller Movement, said “If you are a Traveller, you are demonised from an infant to an elder. Things have to change for Travellers and change doesn’t come for people who ask nicely. Change comes when people demand it.”
Illuminating Hegemonic Sedentarism
Speaking in a Dáil (Parliamentary) debate on the recognition of Traveller ethnicity, Minister for State for New Communities, Culture, Equality & Drugs Strategy called out the blatant racism evident in Irish society in relation to the Traveller community, referencing the recent successful Marriage Equality referendum and asking what the outcome would be if a similar process were required in the context of the recognition of Traveller ethnicity: “could you imagine if we put that question to the people, because in this country you can pretty much say or write in a newspaper anything you want to say about the Traveller community and get away with it…”
Rather than stand steadfast against populism, both the central Irish State and local authorities have accommodated majority prejudice. In doing so, they have served to legitimate anti-Traveller hostility and the related stereotypes which serve to justify residential segregation and place structural inequalities at the feet of their victims. In acceding to the majority they have contributed to sustaining those inequalities. The survivors of the Carrickmines tragedy have been failed by their country. As Ireland prepares to celebrate the centenary of its independence, the experience of the Carrickmines survivors, the O’Connor, Lynch and Gilbert families, raise serious questions about the on-going hegemonic cultural imperialism of the ethnic (sedentary) majority, which appears so complete that the events of the past two weeks cannot even be officially named as what they so clearly evidence – anti-Traveller racism.
In November 2015, opposition party Sinn Fein tabled a motion in the Dáil (Irish parliament), which among other proposals, called on the Irish government to recognise Traveller ethnicity.
“The impetus for this motion came as we extended our sincere condolences and sympathy to the Lynch, Gilbert and Connors families on the tragic loss of their loved ones in the Carrickmines fire. We offer solidarity and support to the wider Traveller community. For too long, the State has failed in its responsibility to treat Irish Travellers as full and equal citizens.” (Gerry Adams)
The coalition government of Fine Gael and Labour responded by proposing an amendment which would remove reference to ethnic recognition. This amendment having been rejected, the Dáil voted on November 4th. The motion was defeated 58 votes to 39. The governing parties required their members to vote against the motion, applying the party whip. The Minister for Equality, who had previously spoken in favour of the motion, absented himself from the vote. On announcement of the tally, a Traveller representative present at the vote exclaimed “Shame on you”.
Griffen, R. and MacÉinrí, P. (2014) ‘Educational issues for indigenous, nomadic and Travelling communities: A Global overview’, in Griffen, R. (ed) Education in Indigenous, Nomadic and Travelling Communities, A&C Black: Bloomsbury; London.
Helleiner, J. (2001) Travelling People: The Politics and Ethnography of Racism and Culture in Ireland, Toronto: University of Toronto Press.
Joyce, Sindy (2015) “Divided Spaces: An examination of everyday racism and its impact on young Travellers’ spatial mobility”, in Cuffe, J.B. and Brody Eds. Irish Journal of Anthropology, 18(1).
Mac Laughlin, J. (1995) Travellers and Ireland: Whose Country, Whose History? Cork: Cork University Press;
McGreil, M. (2010) The Emancipation of the Travelling People, Maynooth: National University of Ireland, Maynooth.
 Submissions of the Government on the Merits in European Roma Rights Centre (ERRC) v Ireland Case Complaint 100/2013 European Committee of Social Rights.