Irish Travellers fight for ethnic recognition | Globalization | DW | 17.06.2013
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Irish Travellers fight for ethnic recognition

Irish Travellers began to seek recognition as a distinct ethnic group in Ireland two decades ago. Today, the group is still no closer to success, but those passionate about the campaign have vowed to fight on.

John Ward beats the punching bag like it insulted his mother. His bare fists flatly hit the red leather, making a sound similar to a slap across the face. Ward grimaces with each punch, while his coach yells for him to hit harder and faster. Ward throws his entire body into his final five punches, and grunts as his knuckles pound the leather. Yet the bag barely moves and Ward looks frustrated.

The seven-year-old barely moved the 60 pound (27 kilo) bag.

Ward is one of two dozen kids, all under 13 years old, who came to the boxing gym in Tuam on a warm Friday night. Like most of the other Traveller boys he knows, Ward wants to be a prize fighter when he grows up.

"It's like a Traveller thing, you box," Ward says. "It's like what we do."

It's just one aspect of Traveller culture. This nomadic group of 15,000 people who live in Ireland also has its own customs, language, music and lifestyle.

"It's a beautiful culture," says the director of the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM), Brigid Quilligan. "And it's a culture that's disappearing, and that needs protecting."

Decades of discrimination

It's always been hard to be an Irish Traveller. Culturally ridiculed, societally isolated and physically separated, the Travelling community has long been marginalized as backwards, dirty, poor, lazy, thieving and ignorant.

Decades of institutional racism have resulted in widespread discrimination: Numerous studies over the past 30 years show Travellers are more likely to live in substandard housing and be unemployed or underemployed due to discrimination.

Traveller caravans parked near Dublin in 1966

The nomadic way of life is slowly fading out. Here, Traveller caravans parked near Dublin in 1966

Yet, it's harder these days to be a Traveller, in large part because Travellers are strongly discouraged from traveling. While the culture is built on traveling circuits around Ireland, recent laws and policies aimed at settling Travellers have produced the first generation of stationary nomads.

"We aren't able to travel, and you're seeing people settle," Quilligan says. These settlements are often substandard, and are often plagued with high rates of suicide, poverty and unemployment.

As a way to both improve their lives and maintain their culture, the ITM and other Travelling groups are asking Ireland's government to designate Travellers as an ethnic minority. In many ways, ethnic minority status is a radical suggestion: Currently, the government maintains that there are "no ethnic minority groups" and the country is racially homogenous.

Experts say this policy allows the Irish government to easily dismiss Traveller complaints, as there would be no reason to discriminate because a minority does not exist.

"Because they are not recognized as an ethnic group within Ireland, they are not really enabled by the government to run their anti-discrimination campaign as anti-racism," says Trinity College sociologist Ronit Lentin. "And that's the main point that they want to be recognized as an ethnic group."

Fresh hope for recognition

The Irish government has refused the request for ethnic status for the past 20 years. However, recently there have been very subtle indications from the government that there might be room to consider the request … mainly, that the justice minister, Alan Shatter, hasn't dismissed it completely. In 2011, Shatter said he would "consider" conferring the request.

Late last year, the minority Sinn Fein political party introduced legislation that would grant ethnic status to Travellers. In the United Kingdom, Irish Travellers have been recognized as a distinct ethnic group since 2000.

"Ethnic [status] wouldn't stop discrimination, or racism," the ITM's Quilligan says, "But it would allow us to challenge it in court when it happens."

With some signs of momentum, albeit small ones, the ITM and its affiliated groups are meeting this summer to consider how to re-launch a campaign for ethnicity.

Traveller against Traveller

Yet, there is a minority of Travellers who object to the campaign, including the former Tuam mayor, Martin Ward.

Ward says he "respectfully disagrees" with the ITM, adding that the designation of ethnic status would further divide Travellers from the wider Irish society.

Irish Traveller Movement (ITM) members cast a vote in Cavan, Ireland on June 11, 2013

Most Travellers do want to be recognized as an ethnic minority

"People that are prejudiced," Ward explains, "say 'okay, [Travellers are] not Irish, now they're looking to being recognized as a different group of people.' I think we are an indigenous, native group of Irish people, and I think we should be looking for a native Irish stand as well, that we are recognized as a minority."

Many politicians have endorsed Ward's views, adding that current law offers many protections to Travellers who are discriminated against. Quilligan strongly disagrees with Ward and those politicians, noting that the government "doesn't even recognize" the number of Travellers in Ireland.

The government says there are some 15,000 Travellers in Ireland, while Traveller organizations put the number around 36,000.

An uphill battle

"In terms of Traveller ethnicity, and it setting us apart, at the moment our difference is vilified," Quilligan says. "And for anybody, and any Traveller, to say that we should work beside people and integrate the best part of ourselves into Irish society is bullshit, because we have done that and we are doing that."

The infighting among such prominent Travellers makes it difficult to get support for ethnic recognition among the wider Irish society.

Quilligan says she will push the issue until it's passed or she dies.

At stake is the future of the children in Tuam, and other rural areas on the outskirts of Irish society. Isolated, Travellers often find themselves fighting among themselves like Ward and Quilligan.

And so they learn to box at an early age, like Matthew Ward. The 13-year-old recently got his first tattoo: on his shoulder, a pair of boxing gloves, with his dead grandfather's name underneath.

Ward says his grandfather taught him how to box, and gave him this advice: "Don't ever let a Traveller beat ya," Ward says as the other boys laugh.

"Don't let your own beat ya," he says, before hitting his friend on the side of the head.

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