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Ethnicity – The Core of Our Movement

Ethnicity – The Core of Our Movement

Brigid Quilligan, Director, Irish Traveller Movement

Keynote address to the National Traveller Monitoring Advisory Committee Conference "Ethnicity and Travellers: An exploration"

Dublin Castle, 27th September 2012

Good morning ladies and gentleman, The Irish Traveller Movement are pleased to have this opportunity to outline why Ethnicity is at the core of our Movement, and why we feel it is vital for the survival of Travellers in Ireland. Today I am going to present this input differently to other presentations we have made around ethnicity. We have delivered other Ethnicity inputs in an academic format and focused heavily on the law surrounding Traveller Ethnicity – these materials are available on our website or by contacting our office. All our member groups and most, if not all of the Government Departments represented here today will have also been in receipt of our material.

Today I want to deliver our message in the spirit of the consultations and workshops we’ve held nationally– and that is, straight from the hearts of the Travellers who participated in these and others are involved with us over the last 22 years. My name is Brigid Quilligan, I’m a Traveller woman from Killarney and I work as the Director of ITM. I am the eldest of eleven children and a mother of one son aged 13. Like all the eldest Traveller women in the audience, my role in my family has been one of being a second mother to all my siblings. I will refer to my family throughout my talk because ultimately when I think of ethnicity, I think of my family, past present and future. My family in this context could be any Traveller family. During the course of our input I will tell you a bit about the Irish Traveller Movement, clarify what the Irish Traveller Movement mean by Ethnicity, I will tell you about the impacts of denial of our ethnicity, the benefits of recognition of our ethnicity and I’m going to deal with some of the concerns Travellers around the country have identified with recognition of our ethnicity.

The Irish Traveller Movement is a national membership organisation with over 40  member groups. We formed in 1990 due to the need for Travellers to have a collective voice, not just a voice which dealt with the nice issues such as our art, our music or our storytelling, but one which highlighted and addressed the abuse of our human rights.  Our movement was formed when a few outspoken visionary people shared the dream of Travellers having the right to self determination, Travellers having the right to self represent and to Travellers having the right to equality.  From our conception, recognition of Traveller Ethnicity has been at the core of our movement. Why? Because we recognised that the terrible racism and discrimination Travellers in Ireland faced resulted from us not being recognised for the people we are.

So, Who are we? We are an indigenous Irish people, our people were nomadic before the settlement policies, and some still are. We do not all agree on the different Gammon or Cant words we use to describe our people, we may identify as either Minceir, Pavee, or Tinker but we all agree we are Travellers. Like other Indigenous people across the globe, Travellers fight to be recognised for the people we are while the settled population tries to stamp out our ‘Travellerness’ and make us conform to settled way of living and thinking. As with the Aborigines in Australia, The Maori in New Zealand, the Roma in Europe and the Sami in Finland, our recognition will come. I have no doubt about that. What gravely concerns and hurts me and other Travellers is, how many of our people will have to die before this happens. I know some settled people get offended when we compare ourselves to the groups I just named because they feel we are nothing like those indigenous groups and have suffered nothing like their level of racism. It is widely believed by some that we deserve whatever hostility we receive – but you know, for a long time in these other groups home countries they were perceived the same as we are. Some still are.  We share many characteristics and when as a Traveller woman I meet people from these communities, there is an unspoken understanding and kinship – our experiences of marginalisation, racism and state denial of the authenticity and value of our people is startlingly similar.

What makes Irish settled people able to recognise an indigenous group in another country recognise their mistreatment but deny us the same acknowledgement? It’s Racism. Difficult for some to hear, but that’s what it is. In Ireland at every level, Travellers are subjected to racism, and people aren’t even embarrassed to speak of Travellers in a degrading way or to treat Travellers unfavourably. People in powerful positions abuse their power and discriminate against us without any consequences. What message does that send to people. While being a Traveller should be a wonderful, beautiful thing, most of the settled population think there are no worse people on this earth or at best that we need to become like them to succeed in Irish society. We self identify and others identify us as a group separate to other Irish People. This doesn’t make us any less Irish; this makes us less valued as Irish people. Despite all that has been done to us, we sing Amhran na bhFiann  and fly the Tricolour as proud as any other Irish person but we are not as equal in our own country as any other Irish person, why?, simply because we are Traveller.

The Irish Traveller Movement was founded on the principle that Travellers are an Ethnic Group and recognition of Traveller Ethnicity has been at the core of our movement for the past 22 years. Travellers have suffered racism in the areas of Education, Accommodation, Health, Employment and the Justice system for decades. We feel that the root cause of this racism is while we are recognised as different our difference is not celebrated. We are still seen as “failed settled people”, not as a proud indigenous people. In 2008 our members said enough is enough. It stops here. In order for real change to come our ethnicity needed to be recognised. Our ethnicity campaign as we know it began.

So having outlined who the ITM is, why we were formed and why ethnicity is at the core of our work, I now turn to the term ethnicity itself. So, the million dollar question, what is ethnicity? There are many different definitions by various experts on what it is, and we will hear from some of those experts today. The word ethnicity in itself seems very exotic –we usually hear it used to describe someone of a different skin colour. Travellers are white and Irish so you wouldn’t automatically think of us as being of an ethnic group. However, when you look at what constitutes ethnicity, we most certainly fit the criteria. To be an ethnic group, you must be born into the group. For instance, many people opt out of being recognised as Travellers, but no one can ever become a Traveller unless they are born into it. Travellers have a shared history, culture and language. We acknowledge ourselves as being of a group different to settled people and settled people acknowledge us as being a separate group. While we share the same history and culture as many settled Irish people in Ireland they do not share our Traveller history and culture. That is our own. Ethnicity is our identity – it is who we are. Our culture changes – we are a different people than we were even twenty years ago, but our identity remains the same. It is often easier to define what we were than what we are now. The contrast is our Ethnicity, our identity. That never changes.  We may not be able to describe easily and for all Travellers what makes us Traveller but we know in our hearts we are. We feel it. It really is in our soul.

Take my family, we’ve lived in houses since 1979. All my brothers and sisters live in houses, all my cousins live in houses, but we are none the less Traveller. The term settled Traveller is one which is often used to describe Travellers who live in houses. Well meaning people use it to infer that those of us who live in houses are better, more normal. But ask any Traveller here and they will tell you, if we are living in houses for a hundred years we are still Travellers. As a matter of fact, the term settled Traveller is an insult.  Traveller is our identity, and no matter if we live in a tent, a trailer, a chalet, in a council estate or in a palace, we are still Travellers, never settled Travellers.  As Travellers, our identity is something we have always had and always will have. It is not something that is for a government to grant. All we are looking for is for our ethnicity to be recognised and protected by law for the people we are. Travellers in the room do you feel valued and protected as a Traveller? If you don't, could you raise your hands. I have no doubt but that there are Travellers around Ireland who feel they are equal and that they are valued for being who they are. If you are one of these Travellers, you are indeed rare.

Having set out what ethnicity is, I am now going to talk about what some of the benefits of having our Ethnicity might be. We know that even if our ethnicity is recognised tomorrow, that we still have to struggle for our human rights. The difference we feel it will make through is that we will be fighting with a strong foundation. At the moment we are seen as failed settled people. No matter what is said about respecting our culture or our rights, the state seeks to assimilate us and by doing so oppresses us. Of course the state will deny this, but really any Traveller here can vouch that that has been our experience.

Above all other benefits, is there one which fundamentally could change the track our people are on. While we talk of the recognition of us for the people we are would result in increased self esteem and pride amongst our people. We all know of Travellers who are struggling with their identity. We see the effects this has on people. Some people look as if they are thriving, they are principals, doctors, lawyers, teachers, guards, but how must it be for them to live and work in a society where Travellers are openly spoken about in degrading terms? How must it be for them if they feel someone they teach or a client of theirs recognises they are Travellers? Could their whole world fall apart if their identity is revealed? The unfortunate answer is yes.

So while we have some really positive role models who are open about their identity, we have many more that conceal it. This is not what I wish for my child. Given that he is male, you will not be surprised to hear that he has already suffered racism and despite him being my little gentle baby boy, he is seen as a 6ft thug by shopkeepers and treated like crap at times. So much so, that he now has changed his way of dressing. What next will he have to change and, at what cost? I want for my son what you want for your children. I want him to be able to stand tall and say I am a Traveller and say it with pride. I want my son to be able to provide for himself financially after completing college, I want my son to be free from drugs and other harmful substances, I want my son to have good mental health, I want my son to feel part of Irish society. I want my son to be a good man. I want my son to live a good, long, happy and healthy life. I can do my part, he can do his, but the state needs to step up and protect my son and your children.  

I’m ashamed to say it but have my expectations of my son dropped because society’s expectation have? Why do I pray that he doesn’t get depressed, why do I pray that he doesn’t do drugs? At 13? Why? I’ll tell you why, because like ethnic minorities across the globe who are marginalised, the young male absorbs the lack of value on him, the lack of opportunity for him and internalises it. What is the effect of lack of denial of our ethnicity?  We continue to be viewed as failures and criminals who will not tow the line. We internalise this sense of failure.  We continue to be made to feel powerless and useless. We are made to feel not good enough, not equal. Most of us do not have any faith in our government, our civil service, because we are in constant conflict and do not feel respected or heard.  Our people are forced into denying their identity to try to make a live for themselves.  Travellers have only so much of a fight; I know we say we are strong and proud. But which family here hasn’t been pushed to the brink? Which family here doesn’t have several crosses to bear, which family here doesn’t feel like you’re spinning out of control unable to stop the destruction to our people to our families? Our young people are poisoning themselves with drugs and alcohol, domestic violence is more violent, Traveller conflict is imploding and our finest youngest brightest people are taking their own lives. I am no psychotherapist, but I know this has everything to do with being an out casted people. A people marginalised, and not heard.

We have just looked at some of the benefits of having our identity recognised. Now, I want to look at some of the fears that some Travellers may have about having our identity recognised. Throughout the ethnicity campaign, the Irish Traveller Movement created spaces all across the country for Travellers to discuss ethnicity - what it meant, and what its recognition would mean for us as a people. Almost all of our experiences out doing regional workshops were positive. As mentioned earlier, some people had fears, I will address those fears shortly, but I would like to say that we are an organization and a movement which respect diversity and diversity of views within the community. We never have claimed that we speak for every single Traveller in the country. As a movement, we have tried to create spaces for these discussions. Often an argument used against recognizing Traveller ethnicity is that not every single Traveller in the country agrees with our campaign. However as with other movements, such as the women’s movement and the disability movement, total consensus is not necessary. 

The ITM as a movement played a huge role in having Travellers recognised within the Equality Legislation. At the time, not every Traveller agreed with this- yet we went ahead as we knew what the long term benefits would be for the community as a whole. So while ITM always strives to create ways for all Travellers to get involved, the ethnicity campaign is and never was about waiting until every Traveller agreed on this. Why should we as a community have to bear an unfair burden to wait until every one of us agrees on this? As I said, other marginalized groups never have had to do this.

And as for the ethnicity campaign, nothing is being forced on Travellers. If the State recognises our identity, Travellers who don’t agree chose to can self identify as coming from an ethnic group or they can opt out. Some of the concerns we heard were would our Irishness would be called into question if our ethnicity was recognised? To answer that, No. First and foremost, we are all proud Irish citizens, despite not having the same rights in the island of Ireland, we love country and our ethnicity has nothing to do with our nationality. For instance, Irish Traveller children born in England are still Irish Travellers – their nationality on their passport is English, but they are Irish Travellers.  Why, because it is their ethnicity, Traveller is the name of the people they come from but English is their nationality.

Further division between settled and Traveller community has also been raised as a concern. Our answer to that is -  For the last 40 years the state has tried to assimilate us, to make us settled.  By holding on to our Traveller identity we have become victims of racisms, discrimination and state oppression.  We held our ground and onto our beliefs against great oppression. We are already divided. When our people die younger than settled people and when suicide is 6 times more prevalent amongst Travellers, what more divide could we have? Don’t be fooled by the plamasing about us being just as Irish as everyone else, we know that, but do we have the same rights? Don’t be fooled by the scare mongers, whether we like it or not there is already a dangerous divide. And now the scare mongers will tell us that we will create more of a divide by standing up for our rights, up for our right to finally be recognised for the people we are?

ITM rejects the theory that there will be more of a divide with settled people. Long-term, recognition of us as a people will bring us closer together. Recognition and value of us as a people, our contribution to society, to culture, to history and arts can only enrich and build relationships. Slowly how we are a people are viewed will change. Our history books will need to tell our right history, we will need to be acknowledged and Traveller will not be a dirty word. Travellers have been an integral part of Irish society for centuries, acknowledgement of this would raise the self esteem of Travellers everywhere and create a wave of changed behaviour towards Travellers
We would no longer have to defend ourselves for being a Traveller.

There would be more protection under national and international law. Other speakers will go through this later, but as it stands we are protected under the Equal Status Act, but while it offers some protection, it is not enough. Remember how easy  it was for the Vintners to lobby for a change in that act which left us less protected when being refused entry to a licensed premises.  Attitudes take a long time to change, but behaviour changes more quickly when we realise there are consequences.

Another impact of recognising our identity would be to name the discrimination we face for what it is: racism. No one wants to be called a racist, yet the racism we face is denied as we are told “Irish people cannot be racist to Travellers, sure aren’t they white and Irish like us”. Again, recognition would not change things overnight, but it would help build a society where anti-Traveller racism would not be something that is proud to rear its ugly head. Another benefit that we would lobby for is Affirmative action programmes for Travellers. In other countries minority groups have successfully lobbied for affirmative action programmes in education, employment and politics. So for instance what would Ireland look like in 20 years if we had places in the Government put aside for Travellers? What would it look like if 5% of the jobs in the civil service had to be filled by Travellers? What Ireland look like if a certain number of places colleges were kept for Travellers, not unlike the positive action programmed in the Royal College of Surgeons.  Now what would Ireland look like after 50 years of affirmation action programmes for Travellers. Think Obama. I know I am.

If we were granted our ethnicity, every piece of legislation, every policy would have to be Traveller proofed. So for instance, the recent housing policy on not building new housing stock, if it were Traveller proofed would have specified that Traveller Specific Accommodation should be exempt from this legislation as there is not enough Traveller specific accommodation in existence to meet even the current needs.  We as a people would have future protection for our culture, our history, and most importantly, our identity. We have a lot of expertise in the room; we could spend today to discuss what know of positive actions ethnicity would impact on us. We need to dream and think big.   

I’ve spent a large part of my presentation, talking to Travellers about what ethnicity means, what the benefits would be to us as Travellers and fears that some Travellers may have about ethnicity recognition. Now I’m now going to talk to the settled people in the room. Often, we have been approached by public servants and members of the settled community, who struggle with understanding Traveller ethnicity. They often think that if we aren’t nomadic then that we aren’t really Travellers. And how being white, born in Ireland and speaking English, how could we be an ethnic group. Again, I’ll leave the definition of ethnicity to the experts, but before that, there is something very easy you can do to get your head around shared identity and ethnicity.

Practically every settled person has relatives living in the UK, the USA, Canada or Australia. I’m not talking about the very recent unfortunate situation where our young people, Traveller and settled, are forced to go abroad to seek employment. I’m talking about the Irish Diaspora, who emigrated generations ago. Practically every settled person here has an aunt or uncle or a plethora of cousins who were born and raised in the UK, for example. They are citizens of the United Kingdom, have UK passports, speak English, yet identify themselves, should they chose to, as Irish. Their Irish identity is something they are often proud of and celebrate, and what makes the Irish Americans or Irish in the UK has changed over the generations, but their ethnicity, their Irishness, has not. Some of them have never even been to Ireland and while their nationality might be English or American, their ethnicity is clearly Irish.

And like Traveller ethnicity, it is something they are born into and chose whether or not to express it. They clearly identify themselves as a Diaspora community as separate to the majority population, and their Irishness marks them as different, even generations later.  They share cultures and values, and these values change over time, while their Irishness does not. And while they are white and speak English in predominantly white-English speaking countries, their ethnicity has singled them out for racism, then and now. And if you were to ask any second or third generation Irish-American what made their identity, it may not be what you see as Irish, but it is something that is part of their identity, their beliefs and it, like Traveller identity, will change and evolve in the future, but it will remain something that their children are born into and that they will feel.

In my presentation, I’ve outlined the Irish Traveller Movement vision and where our ethnicity campaign has come from. I’ve outlined what ethnicity means to our member groups and to me as a Traveller, and how important it is for our identity to be recognised at a State level. I’ve outlined some of the positive impacts recognition would have for Travellers and society as a whole and I’ve also hopefully put to bed any fears Travellers might have about having our identity formally recognised by the State. I’ve also tried to make ethnicity clearer as something that isn’t based on nationality or colour of your skin in terms that everyone should be familiar with.

To conclude, I would like to say that over and over again we hear reasons why the state won’t recognise us a people. As a Traveller woman and activist, I find it hugely insulting and demeaning to be told ‘there is a divergence of views’. There is a tiny minority who haven’t yet supported the campaign. We don’t legally need consensus from every community member, to be protected by the state and recognised for who we are, and let’s be very clear about that. I have heard of people asking individual Travellers on the ground if they want ethnicity. Now that is a bit unfair. I didn’t know what the word was myself until a few years ago, but I knew that we were our own group of people, native to Ireland with our own values, culture, beliefs, language and history. So the next time ask someone if they share these characteristics and you will see for yourself the support for us to be recognised for the people we are. To back this up, a quote from a piece of research carried out by researcher Anita Pannell in Ennis in 2007 Traveller Perspective on the Clare Traveller Accommodation Programme ‘All Travellers interviewed in this research clearly saw themselves as a distinct ethnic group with a specific culture related to the Traveller way of life”.

So ask a question the right way, and you’ll get the right answer. Travellers know that the only reason the state will not recognise us a people, is because they do not want to face up to their responsibilities. Excuses have expired, patience has expired and we are a people pushed to the limit. Our children’s futures are at stake and we cannot afford the luxury of waiting for the next many years to be recognised. The longer this debacle goes on, the harder it will be for the reconciliation to begin.  I would like to acknowledge the politicians, civil servants, academics and of course our beloved settled colleagues and friends who support Traveller Ethnicity. Thank you for your solidarity. Traveller Ethnicity will be a topic in the history books of our grandchildren and great grandchildren. Ask your selves, what part would I like to tell them I played?

Thank you ladies and gentleman.

Travellers as an ethnic group: a social right

Travellers as an ethnic group: a social right

Catherine Joyce , Coordinator, Blanchardstown Traveller Development Group

Keynote address to the National Traveller Monitoring Advisory Committee Conference "Ethnicity and Travellers: An exploration"

Dublin Castle, 27th September 2012

Hello and welcome ladies and gentlemen.

To set the context for this discussion we are today looking Travellers as an ethnic group is a society where it is expectable for a sitting judge to refer to Travellers as Neanderthals and a sitting TD and minister feels it is appropriated to re assure his constituents that Travellers will not be accommodated in his electoral area. 

I would like to start off by thanking those of you who have placed you trust in me to make this presentation to support the call for Traveller to be recognised as an ethnic minority group. Let me say first of all the topic of my presentation is “Travellers as an ethnic group: a social right”
I chose this theme for a number of reasons:

First of all because this is no longer a political struggle as the legal framework is already in place for this to happen, at a European level we have various legal instruments which support the call for Roma ,Gypsies and Traveller to be recognised as an ethnic group in each member state of the Europe union (how many time have we been told by this and consecutive governments that we are part of the EU and we have to act as responsible members of the union?)

Secondly at a national level the state has already recognised Travellers as a different cultural group, state resources have been provided in education, accommodation health and many other areas to support and facilitate the different cultural and social needs of Travellers. The equal status legislation specifically names Traveller as one of the groups protected under the legislation and there are many other examples of where the state acknowledges the different cultural needs of  Travellers

And lastly as with most campaigns this campaign has the support of many Travellers within the community and Traveller organisations but as important we have the support of a number of non-Traveller agencies including major state bodies and human rights groups like the Human Rights Commission, The Equality Authority, Amnesty International, National Committee for Culturalism and Racism in Ireland and many more far too many to name.     

An ethnic group is a group of people whose members identify with each other through a common heritage, consisting of a common culture, including a shared language or dialect. The group's ethos or ideology may also stress common ancestry, religion, or race. This definition is taken from the dictionary it is not my definition. It outlines what we already know and except in relation to the definition of an ethnic group.

I don’t think we have to lend too much time in this short presentation naming how Travellers fit this definition but it is clear that Traveller are Ireland's largest and only indigenous group. We have a long shared tradition which is very different to Irish mainstream tradition: we have our own langue and customs, beliefs and values which are different and undervalued but none the less Irish. While we share a lot in common with nomadic Traveller and Gypsies across Europe and the rest of the world Irish Traveller are indigenous to Ireland.

There are some Traveller who question the need for Travellers to be recognised as an ethnic group . There are some who have a difficulty of calling for more state attention on our community. There are others who don’t want to be identified as Travellers. And there are other who feel that there is too much negativity attached to been a Traveller. While I do understand the concerns I don’t see substance to their case. Travellers being recognised as an ethnic group is not going to change Traveller right to self identification or association.  

What I wanted to look at today is the difference it will make to society and to the Traveller community if Travellers are recognised as an ethnic group and given the i can’t us the Irish example in this case I want to look at the Samii people in Sweden. I had the pleasure of been on a panel with a Samii woman as part of Create's AGM two years ago (Create is the support agency which work with groups and individuals looking for funding from the Arts Council).

As she was talking about her people their customs ,their culture ,their nomadic way of life and their traditions I could see a lot of similarities between our two communities.They are reindeer herders they are nomadic at certain times of the year to make a living and  they like Irish Travellers have gone through a challenging time within the community where their identity was under threat and urbanisation brought its problems.

Internalisation of the oppression they face from wider society they, like Irish Travellers, were  faced with discrimination and racism nd from this the Saami fared badly in school, and mainstream recruitment of Samii people was virtually non existant, drugs and alcohol were abused which led to the further exclusion.

Then in 1970s the state recognised Samii people as an ethnic group in Sweden and things started to change. Swedish society attitudes became less hardened there was a new expectance of the role of the Samii people and there was renewed sense of pride within the community. It did not change things over night but over the years it has made a huge difference to the mindset of the sweetish people, laws were brought in to protect the reindeer herders and there has been a revival of the traditional culture of the samii people and the community continues to thrive in a society that values their way of life and makes room for the difference.

There has also been a huge increase in the numbers of Samii people participating in education, the entertainment industry, and in mainstream employment as well as a renewed pride in their community. After the panel discussion I talked to this woman for a another 30 minutes and I could have talked to her all night as she was tired I decided to let her go but I asked her if I was to ask what is the one thing that has changed that has made the most difference since your people was recognised as an ethnic group what is it she looks at me and said without having to think:

"It’s the mind set of our people we no longer exists on the margins of society physically or mentally we don’t have to compromise our identity to be excepted and it has restored pride and responsibility to our community as we are no longer just answerable to ourselves we belong to a society that values us each and every person who lives in it"

We asked members of our community through various consultative forums centered around other issues education, accommodation, health ,etc  what they felt was the most important issue facing the community and overwhelmingly the answer was the need to secure ethnic status.It is now time for the Irish government to draw a line in the sand and put in place policies that will give Travellers the recognition that we are calling for and entitled to under the EU and UN directives the right to be recognised as an ethnic Group.  

The definition of Travellers needs to be more widely articulated in national policy and programmes if Travellers are to achieve full equality in practice across all areas of Irish society

Granting ethnic status to the Traveller community is a key step in protecting our human rights.  I feel that recognition of the ethnicity of Travellers will be the key to  the social change needed in Irish society to ensure real inclusion of Travellers. It will create the climate for a change of attitudes internally within the community and externally with mainstream society

In conclusion

The recognition of Travellers is not just a political right but it is a social right and investment, and,  as I have already stated previously, the Irish government already recognises the different needs of Travellers. All the government departments have Traveller policies and strategies which cater for Travellers' different needs across the wide spectrum of state services from education to health and accommodation the equal status legalisation.
Recognising Travellers as an ethnic group will reinforce the commitment of the state to the inclusion of Travellers in all aspects of Irish society.
Like the Samii people it will give a new sense of belonging and responsibility. Recognition of Traveller as an ethnic group will not cost the state anymore than they already investing in Traveller community but the benefits will far out live any of us in this room today.  

Thank you


Anti-Traveller Racism and Ethnicity Denial

Anti-Traveller Racism and Ethnicity Denial

Dr Robbie McVeigh

Keynote address to the National Traveller Monitoring Advisory Committee Conference "Ethnicity and Travellers: An exploration"
Dublin Castle, 27th September 2012


‘The concept of the ‘ethnic’ group … dissolves if we define our terms exactly….’ Max WeberI start the presentation with a quote from Max Weber – it’s important because he is the foundation of all subsequent analysis – both legal and sociological - on ethnicity.  His influences is obvious right down to the Mandla vs Lee judgment in the UK which has such a definitive reference to legal analysis of ethnicity as well as an immediate reference for the question of Travellers and ethnicity.  Weber himself says that it can’t be defined too tightly.  And this is the problem that lawmakers and governments have with concepts like ethnicity – because academics and intellectuals will define them in relevant ways.  So while legal processes make reference to sociological arguments – these were central to both Dutton and O’Leary cases – lawyers don’t approach the subject in quite the same way as sociologists or other academics do.  For example, for someone like the social anthropologist Barth the ‘ethnic boundary’ and boundary maintenance is much more important than the ‘cultural stuff’ – the ‘essential conditions’ of ethnicity which are so definitive in the Mandla vs Lee judgement.[1]

But while 'experts' have different perspectives on ethnicity, it isn't possible to completely relativise this – to suggest that ethnicity is simply a subjective thing.  In law and in fact, ethnicity has some meaning grounded in existing academic analysis and jurisprudence – so a government can not just arbitrarily say it doesn’t exist. Moreover, individuals cannot repudiate ethnicity - one person can say 'I am not a Traveller' but they can't say 'Travellers are not an ethnic group'.  In other words, the approach adopted by the Irish government is profoundly flawed - the notion that all (or even ‘most’) Travellers have to decide that they are an ethnic group before Traveller ethnicity is recognised, is simply wrong.  It carries no weight academically or legally.

I should also acknowledge at this point that – in so far as I am an ‘expert’ on this issue – it is because I learned most of what I know from Traveller intellectuals and activists – people like Nan Joyce and Michael McDonagh and Catherine Joyce and Martin Collins.  This is to accept the reality that, while ethnicity is a rather dry technical and academic term, it is Travellers who in the end really know what is at the core of Traveller identity – what it means to be a Traveller.

Ethnicity and Jurisprudence

What separates legal discourse from other forms of academic and intellectual analysis is that with law and lawyers ultimately there has to be a decision.  This decision can be made by judges or lawyers or other bodies sitting in judgement but the act of deciding becomes much more important to them than academics – precisely because the decision can have profound effects – both positive and negative – for people involved.  These decisions can be made at different levels - by lawmakers, by courts – domestic or transnational, or by international bodies like CERD.  And they can have different levels of impact and relevance. So ‘black letter law’ involves one of these actors making a decision – all the jurisprudence leads to this.  In law and in fact – ethnicity has some meaning – so a government can’t just say it doesn’t exist and the Irish government – like all other actors in this context – needs to pay attention to these processes.

When the connection between Travellers and ethnicity has been asked in a legal context, the conclusion is that Travellers fulfill the two ‘essential characteristics’ of ethnicity that emerge from Mandla vs Lee: they have a long shared history of which they are conscious as distinguishing them from other groups; and they have a cultural tradition of their own.

I have been involved directly in two of these legal processes – the first in a detailed opinion on the issue of Traveller ethnicity to the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights in Northern Ireland.  After this was published in 1992, SACHR accepted my analysis that Travellers did indeed constitute an ethnic group in the context of the Mandla vs Lee decision.  This played a part in the British Government finally recognising Traveller ethnicity in Northern Ireland in 1997.  The second experience was an expert witness in the case of O'Leary v Allied Domecq in 2000.  In this case I appeared as an expert witness for the Commission for Racial Equality drawing on the previous work for SACHR – the question was broadly similar – did Travellers constitute an ethnic group in the context of England and Wales and in Mandla vs Lee decision.  I want to draw on these two processes in my discussion of the question of Travellers and ethnicity.

The Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997

Following encouragement from SACHR and CERD – among many others – the British government accepted the need to name Travellers as an ethnic group when they introduced race equality legislation to Northern Ireland in 1997.  The Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 was based upon the British Race Relations Act (1976) but it had one significant difference - it included Irish Travellers as a named group in the legislation:

In this Order “racial grounds” ... includes the grounds of belonging to the Irish Traveller community, that is to say the community of people commonly so called who are identified (both by themselves and by others) as people with a shared history, culture and traditions including, historically, a nomadic way of life on the island of Ireland.


It bears emphasis that this legislation was enacted by a Tory administration not regarded as especially sympathetic to either race equality or human rights.  They accepted the guidance of international and local expertise and moved away from the denial of Traveller ethnicity that had characterized their position in the early 1990s. 

This ended the equivocation over Traveller ethnicity in the north.  Ethnicity denial has not occurred subsequently.  This has been broadly a positive approach – Travellers are integrated into broader programmes for ethnic equality – including Section 75 measures – and Traveller equality is addressed within the broader paradigm of ethnic equality.   This has produced a gradual sea change in both attitudes and practice.  While many issues remain, it bears remembering that when I started doing this work in the north in the early 1990s, it was possible for a City Councillor to call for Travellers to be sent to the City Incinerator and ‘get away with it’ both legally and politically.

O'Leary v Allied Domecq 2000

The legislative change in Northern Ireland did not, however, end equivocation on Traveller ethnicity in Britain.  While UK law defined ethnicity through Mandla vs Lee and specially protected Gypsies throught the Dutton judgement, some people were still arguing that Irish Travellers were not an ethnic group protected by race relations legislation.  Consequently, the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) supported a case to clarify the issue.  This led to the O’Leary v Allied Domecq 2000 judgment.  (Rather confusingly this case started as ‘Punch Retail’ before they were taken over by Allied Domecq.  Moreover, the other Traveller name Kiely is also sometimes used to identify the case.)  As the CRE [now EHRC] puts it, ‘case law established Gypsies as a recognised ethnic group in 1988 (CRE v Dutton) and Irish Travellers in England and Wales in August 2000 (O'Leary v Allied Domecq)’.

In brief, lawyers for Punch Retail, owners of three of the pubs that had posted ‘No Travellers’ signs, argued that the Travellers were not covered by the Race Relations Act so could not bring the case. But Judge Goldstein rejected the claims at a preliminary hearing at Central London county court … saying Irish Travellers had a shared history stretching back to the mid 19th century and should be given protection as an "ethnic group".   As the judge suggested: "Modern Irish Travellers are guided by the culture and traditions which have been handed down by generations. They do not go around reading history, they practise it."

Ethnicity Denial and existing jurisprudence

Governments – and other experts- have been tentative in their ethnicity denial with regard to Irish Travellers.  Insofar as there were ‘experts’ who challenged Traveller ethnicity this was couched in terms of the efficacy of the analysis as an intervention – i.e. whether or not it would lead to greater equality – rather than the core question of whether Travellers met the Mandla criteria.  For others, the case was simply ‘not proven’.  This was the case with the British Government in Northern Ireland in the early 1990s before it accepted the large body of evidence in support of Traveller ethnicity.  Usually the tone has been one of a ‘not proven’ verdict – would have to see more evidence.

In reality, my own grounded opinion is that we would have to see less evidence in order to deny Traveller ethnicity – in other words, existing evidence confirms ‘qualification standard’.  I have developed this analysis over more than twenty years of research.  I have examined the question in some depth in both the Northern Ireland and UK contexts for highly respected, mainstream statutory human rights and equality agencies.  And I have examined the thesis in open court in the O’Leary case in considerable detail.  In each of these situations it is my conclusion that the weight of evidence in support of Traveller ethnicity was overwhelming.  This conclusion was supported by inter alia the British Government and the court in the O’Leary case.  In this context, the continued prevarication of the Irish government on the issue appears nothing short of perverse.

The evidence is overwhelming but if one symbolic piece of evidence of this is required, it is to be found in the Traveller graveyard in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia.  This confirms that Travellers went to the US in the mid-1800s with an already fully-developed sense of distinct identity.  To paraphrase Mandla vs Lee, Travellers, ‘have a long shared history of which they are conscious as distinguishing them from other groups; and they have a cultural tradition of their own’.  

The gravestone of Tom Carroll - ‘founding father’ of the US Traveler community - in Westview Cemetery in Atlanta, Georgia which reads:

Tom Carroll,

Dec. 22, 1830;

Sept. 6, 1910

Born in Ireland


It bears emphasis that no academic or lawyer has ever suggested that the Travellers (spelt Traveler in US English) in the USA aren't an ethnic group.  Rather Irish Traveller identity in the US is seen as being definitive of ethnicity.  See, for example, Andereck’s study Ethnic Awareness and the School:  ‘Using a detailed study of `gypsies' in the American South, this new book examines basic concepts of ethnicity among children and the impact of attending community schools. The study includes an historical overview of Irish Travellers in the United States, an analysis of terminology within the field of ethnic studies, a review of research on ethnic socialization and the experiences of elementary school children’.

Ethnic Awareness and the School: An Ethnographic Study (SAGE Series on Race and Ethnic Relations)

International law

Despite the evidence, Traveller ethnicity denial continues.  It is useful to look at some of this debate in terms of broader international law on ethnicity.  Firstly, because this helps further clarify issues around ‘ethnicity denial’ and what it is appropriate for governments to both do and not do in terms of repudiating the ethnicity of different groups.  Secondly, because the current Irish government position has implications – in my reading profoundly negative – for international law and practice on this issue.

The general principle of ethnicity recognistion is well established in international law.  Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights establishes that “in those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language”.

This approach is confirmed by the UN Human Rights Committee: ‘The question of the existence of minorities is addressed by the Human Rights Committee in its general comment No. 23 (1994) on the rights of minorities, which elaborates that “the existence of an ethnic, religious or linguistic minority in a given State party does not depend upon a decision by that State party but requires to be established by objective criteria”.

It is further supported by CERD/ILO confirmation of the principle of ‘Self-identification’:

          Considering identification with particular racial or ethnic groups, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has stated in its general recommendation No. 8 (1990) on identification with a particular racial or ethnic group (art. 1, paras. 1 and 4) that “such identification shall, if no justification exists to the contrary, be based upon self-identification by the individual concerned”. Furthermore, the African Commission on Human and Peoples? Rights, at its thirty-fourth Session, in November 2003, recalled “the emphasis given in international law to self-identification as the primary criterion for the determination of who constitutes a minority or indigenous person”.

          International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries also recognizes the principle of self-identification. Article 1, paragraph 2, states that “self-identification as indigenous or tribal shall be regarded as a fundamental criterion for determining the groups to which the provisions of this Convention apply”.


The issue of ethnicity denial was further interrogated in the 2011Mission to Rwanda.  Ethnicity was not to be ignored or denied even for the best reasons (legacy of genocide):

12. While the independent expert recognizes the unique history of Rwanda, the policies of the Government must be assessed as against the State?s obligations under international human rights law. Article 27 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights establishes that “in those States in which ethnic, religious or linguistic minorities exist, persons belonging to such minorities shall not be denied the right, in community with the other members of their group, to enjoy their own culture, to profess and practise their own religion, or to use their own language”. The question of the existence of minorities is addressed by the Human Rights Committee in its general comment No. 23 (1994) on the rights of minorities, which elaborates that “the existence of an ethnic, religious or linguistic minority in a given State party does not depend upon a decision by that State party but requires to be established by objective criteria”.


13. Considering identification with particular racial or ethnic groups, the Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has stated in its general recommendation No. 8 (1990) on identification with a particular racial or ethnic group (art. 1, paras. 1 and 4) that “such identification shall, if no justification exists to the contrary, be based upon self-identification by the individual concerned”. Furthermore, the African Commission on Human and Peoples? Rights, at its thirty-fourth Session, in November 2003, recalled “the emphasis given in international law to self-identification as the primary criterion for the determination of who constitutes a minority or indigenous person”.2 International Labour Organization (ILO) Convention No. 169 concerning Indigenous and Tribal Peoples in Independent Countries also recognizes the principle of self-identification. Article 1, paragraph 2, states that “self-identification as indigenous or tribal shall be regarded as a fundamental criterion for determining the groups to which the provisions of this Convention apply”.


14. The right of individuals to freely identify themselves as belonging to an ethnic, religious or linguistic group is therefore well-established in international law. It is also notable that the existence of a common language or culture does not necessarily negate the possibility of ethnic difference, but may rather be evidence of assimilation of different population groups over generations. Domestic law relevant to ethnicity, identity, minority status, equality and non-discrimination should recognize such rights and ensure that no individual or group suffers from any disadvantage or discriminatory treatment on the basis of their freely chosen identity as belonging to (or not belonging to) an ethnic, religious, linguistic or any other group.Human Rights Council of the General Assembly, Nineteenth session, Agenda item 3, Promotion and protection of all human rights, civil, political, economic, social and cultural rights, including the right to development , Report of the independent expert on minority issues, Gay McDougall. Addendum ,Mission to Rwanda*


In short, the protection of ethnic identity is well- grounded in international law.  Moreover, ethnicity denial – even when it occurs for professedly positives reasons is not tolerated by international human rights mechanisms.

Recognition of Traveller ethnicity is not a panacea – Dale Farm, ‘Big Fat Gypsy Weddings’ advertising

The UK experience reminds us that recognising Traveller ethnicity – and protecting Travellers in law from racism – is not a panacea.  Recent developments – including the eviction of Dale Farm – and the advertising associated with the Channel Four ‘Big Fat Gypsy Wedding’ programme have made clear just how difficult life can be for Travellers – despite the protection of Race Relations legislation.

I have to say that I couldn’t believe it when the Channel Four adverts appeared – I didn’t think that such advertising would ever be possible in the context of race relations legislation.[2]  Broadly and incrementally, however, I think the legislation has made things better in both England and Northern Ireland.  Gradually Travellers have been integrated into existing good practice on ethnic diversity and race equality.  The situation is not transformed but it is infinitely better than it would have been had ethnicity continued to be denied.

So why does ethnicity – and ethnicity denial – matter for Travellers?

Crucially, governments have ‘form’ on this issue.  In other words, with regard to Travellers ethnicity denial is not an abstract, abstruse academic debate but a practice grounded in genocide.  It is something that should only be done with the most careful and sensitive consideration of what the implications of such a denial might be.

Despite the horror of the Porrajmos (‘Gypsy holocaust’), discrimination against Roma and Travellers continued after the 2nd World War. This often functioned through ethnicity denial. Most shockingly perhaps, the Federal Republic of Germany decreed that all measures taken against ‘Gypsies’ before 1943 were legitimate policies of state and were not subject to restitution. Incarceration, sterilization, and even deportation were defined by the post-war German state as legitimate policies towards Roma and Travellers.  It was not until 1982 that German chancellor Helmut Kohl finally recognized the fact of the Nazi genocide against Roma and Travellers (in other words, the German state formally practiced Holocaust or genocide denial toward the Roma for nearly forty years.). It bears emphasis that the key mechanism for this holocaust denial was ethnicity denial – ‘Gypsies’ were not an ethnic group and therefore could not have experienced genocide.  It bears repeating, governments should not deny Traveller ethnicity without careful consideration of the implications of such a policy.


With regard to Travellers and ethnicity in Ireland, the key comparators for the Republic of Ireland are England and Wales and NI.  In England Travellers are recognised as an ethnic group after the decision in the O'Leary v Allied Domecq 2000 case.  In Northern Ireland, Travellers are recognised as an ethnic group in law through the Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997.  It is frankly farcical that Travellers are protected as an ethnic group in Northern Ireland but ‘lose’ their ethnic identity as soon as they cross the border into the south.  In the US, as I indicated, Travellers are routinely described as an ethnic group.

There is still discrimination against Travellers in each of these jurisdictions but there is also protection from race discrimination which is missing in Ireland because of ethnicity denial.  This is important because – ultimately - ethnicity denial leads to racism denial.  If a given group aren’t an ethnic group, then how can they ‘qualify’ for all the protections of race equality mechanisms?  This then precludes and excludes the group from all of the existing benefits and protections embedded in existing race equality paradigms.

Ethnicity denial profoundly undermines struggle for Traveller equality in Ireland – it denies the paradigm of ‘race equality’ to Travellers- it shuts them off from all the tried and tested ethnic-specific interventions associated with legal and other analyses of racism and race inequality.

The most striking aspect of the story in Ireland is that the prevarication on Traveller ethnicity is symbolic of a much wider and profound failure to address Traveller inequality over the past twenty years or so.  To put this in some perspective, when the Task Force Report emerged in 1995, Ireland was in the forefront of seriously addressing Traveller equality across Europe.  (And, it bears remembering, this was at a time of relative poverty before the advent of the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years.)  This happened because there were strong and effective NGOs like Pavee Point and ITM but it also happened because other actors – including the Irish Government and the Irish State – took the job of the Task Force seriously.  It promised a partnership to genuinely and seriously address the profound inequality experienced by Travellers in Ireland.  Nearly twenty years on there is no-one around Europe looking towards Ireland as a model of good practice – instead other states have leap-frogged us in terms of legal protection and equality interventions.  It is surely time for the Irish Government to regain the moral high ground on this issue and return to good practice embedded in the Task Force process and its outworking.  Recognising Traveller ethnicity would be a first step back towards a fresh start towards justice and equality for Irish Travellers.

So it is clear that the denial of Traveller ethnicity by the Irish Government is bad for Travellers – indeed the conference has produced plenty of evidence to support this analysis.  But perhaps even more importantly, it has very negative implications for the rule of international law – ignoring the courts and the CERD has implications far beyond Travellers and Ireland.  In this sense, the Irish position makes us a 'rogue state' – ethnicity denial in Ireland creates a dangerous precedent for every human rights denying government that wants to justify racism or genocide.

Ongoing ethnicity denial has important implications for international law – ignoring the courts and the CERD has implications far beyond Travellers and Ireland.  It isn’t hyperbole to suggest that this puts Ireland in the situation of being a ‘rogue state’ in human rights terms.  Other states that want to attack minority groups among their citizens can simply point to the Irish precedent – deny ethnicity and absolve the state from any accusations of racism or genocide.  In short, therefore, ethnicity denial with regard to Irish Travellers colludes with racism and genocide elsewhere and profoundly undermines the ability of the Irish Government to support human rights elsewhere in the world.  We should all be embarrassed as Irish citizens that this ethnicity denial has continued as long as it has – not just because it diminishes fellow citizens who happen to be Travellers - but also because it profoundly undermines our support for human rights and equality around the world.

[1] The two ‘essential conditions’ of Mandla v Lee are: (1) a long shared history, of which the group is conscious as distinguishing it from other groups, and the memory of which it keeps alive; and (2) a cultural tradition of its own, including family and social customs and manners, often but not necessarily associated with religious observance. The addition ‘relevant characteristics’ are: (3) either a common geographical origin, or descent from a small number of common ancestors; (4) a common language, not necessarily peculiar to the group; (5) a common literature peculiar to the group; (6) a common religion different from that of neighbouring groups or from the general community surrounding it; (7) being a minority or being an oppressed or a dominant group within a larger community ([1983] 1 All ER pp. 1066-7).

[2] Although subsequent to the Dublin conference, complaints about these adverts were upheld, albeit not in the context of race discrimination.  See