On July 3rd, 2018, a cross-party Oireachtas group debated issues relating to the historical racial abuse of Travellers. The working group had set itself the task of looking at various policies relating to Travellers. Education, health and accommodation were listed as priorities.
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Four days later, the Government accepted a Bill which would introduce legislation to include Traveller history in the school curriculum. “There cannot be healing and true reconciliation until the hurt is recognised and apologised for,” said Traveller activist Martin Collins. This comment articulated the feelings of our community in relation to a certain epoch where Travellers were relegated to the position of second-class citizens.
Currently, there is a global predilection for apologies to indigenous people and minority ethnic groups. Apartheid in South Africa “officially” ended in 1994. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission quickly followed in 1995. The hearings started in 1999. Apologies were offered by the Canadian and Australian governments in 2008 to the indigenous people of their countries. An apology was also offered in 2017 by the Crown to the Parihaka people of New Zealand.
When will there be an official apology to the Traveller community for what was done to us?
The universal story of racism is one of disadvantage – poor health status, high suicide rates and an over-representation in prison– a familiar truth to the Traveller community in Ireland. The psychological impact of State apologies to survivors of abuse, prejudice and institutional discrimination cannot be underestimated. An acknowledgement of the wrongdoing imposed on people that were mistreated in Ireland has the potential to create a much better society for all of us. Individuals have rightly and proudly shaken off the shame they were carrying. These include women in the Magdalene Laundries, women in mother and baby homes, children who experienced child abuse in residential or industrial schools, and people who were criminalised because they were gay.
An apology that is specifically directed at the Traveller community would acknowledge our traumatic history and is long overdue.
Individual hurt accumulates and my community has been ignored, humiliated, disrespected, violated and often silenced. In living memory, State imposition of assimilation policies has been experienced. Various coercive methods were introduced to undermine Traveller culture and identity – resulting in many Travellers being ashamed of our cultural heritage.
Stories of children being beaten in school just for being Travellers is the legacy of this unspoken history. Let’s not forget the disproportionate numbers of Traveller children who were taken into care. Many of us were taken away from our families just for being born poor. The psycho-emotional impact of being called a “tar baby” or “dirt of the road” has left its scars.
Children who experienced emotional, psychological, sexual and physical violence in State care homes were left dislocated and isolated by not having the language to articulate what was done to us. Several generations of Travellers were put into special classes where the State curriculum was not taught to us. This segregation is now manifested in more subtle ways – in some schools Traveller children must take off their uniforms before they leave the school building. There is a continuous practice by psychologists to diagnose Traveller children with learning or intellectual disability.
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There is a cohort of Travellers who experienced the visible acts of segregation with a yellow line in the school yard. Many Traveller children experienced physical violence and being ridiculed by being forced to have our hair checked for nits and then being showered. There is an unemployment rate of 82 per cent for Travellers. This is a direct fall-out of our experience of discrimination and low expectations from teachers in schools. Many of us were hurt, abused, devalued, disregarded for being born Travellers.
Ethnicity officially recognised
As a community, having our ethnicity officially recognised has raised self-esteem, confidence and, most importantly, expectations. Despite all the associated fanfare and optimism, there is a worry that the real issues that impact on our health and well-being continue to be ignored. Implementation of progressive policies for Travellers are purposely and deliberately blocked by politicians and senior civil servants.
Now is the moment to make things fair and equal. A good starting point would be to address the appalling health inequalities Travellers experience. On the 10th anniversary of the publication of the All Ireland Traveller Health Study, the Government could re-establish the National Traveller Health Advisory Committee immediately.
Metaphors and euphemisms are vacuous without practical evidence in the area of social policy. As of yet, there is no political representative in the Oireachtas from the Traveller community. Our community does not have the social capital that other groups use as a springboard for change. We too need politicians, senior civil servants, and social commentators to represent our interests.
Our lack of representation is the manifestation of a community that is consistently rejected and neglected.
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