Traveller Ethnicity

When ITM talks about ethnicity, we often use the terms identity or culture instead- ethnicity is often used in more academic discussions. So when we discuss ethnicity or identity, we are really looking at the collective set of beliefs, attitudes, values, norms and language that Travellers share that make them Travellers.

What is an ethnic group?
Everyone is part of an ethnic group which shapes their identity. It isn’t the same as nationality (the country where you are born) but is about your culture. Defining someone’s ethnicity is difficult, as every culture changes over time. But even though ethnicity changes, there are some things that define what ethnicity is:

  • To be part of a specific ethnic group, you must be born into the group. For instance, some Travellers may hide their identity and chose not to 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.
  • Travellers acknowledge themselves s as being of a group different to settled people and settled people acknowledge us as being a separate group.

As Traveller Activist Brigid Quilligan said at a conference on ethnicity “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.

Why is ethnicity and culture so important?
Culture is a series of values and norms that is acquired by learning (mostly non-consciously) at an early age and is adapted differently by each individual within the group over their lifetime, which is then passed on in a changing process from generation to generation. Culture has a profound influence on how people think, feel, act and process information. Culture is more than traditions, music, language and religious beliefs. It also provides us with a series of frameworks for how we view the world and shapes our values, how we interpret information and define boundaries.

Where does Culture come from?
Cultural is transmitted from members of the same cultural group, usually by young children from parents, their peers and their social group, with the basic components of culture acquired at early ages (with children internalising key cultural values and norms). Culture is learned by hearing, seeing and unconsciously adopting or copying actions of those children grow up with. Culture is actively generated and created, in attempts to modify or protect or expand existing norms in face of internal and external challenges- culture is not static and solely based in the past, but an interplay between tradition and emerging new ideas.

Traveller culture and identity is constantly changing and adapting. Some aspects of change happen as society changes globally. Other changes are forced upon the community- for example, legislative changes that have had huge negative impacts on Traveller culture: nomadism effectively criminalised through the Trespass legislation, changes laws governing market trading and laws covering horse ownership. These laws have meant that traditional aspects of Traveller culture are almost impossible to express. Despite these policies, which have had serious impacts on the community, Travellers continue to see themselves as Travellers and show pride in their identity and heritage (link to Traveller Pride)

Why is ethnicity Recognition so important?
The Irish Traveller Movement was founded in 1990 on the principle that Travellers are an Ethnic Group and recognition of Traveller Ethnicity has been at the core of our Movement. Central to our analysis of the issues that Travellers face is that denial of Traveller identity and policies of assimilation have created vast inequalities for Travellers in health, accommodation, employment, education and participation in Irish society. ITM’ vision has always been that in order for real change for Travellers, ethnicity needs to be recognised.

Traveller ethnicity recognition is at the heart of the question of how Travellers might become less unequal in Irish Society. The report of the Task Force on the Traveller community highlighted the importance of recognition of Traveller culture:

“The recognition of Travellers’ culture and identity has an importance for Travellers and their status in Irish society. Identity and belonging is vital to everybody and is equal to physical wants and needs. Identity and sense of community cannot be ignored because identity is fiercely cherished by everyone and community is vital for everyone’s sense of belonging.”

In addition, the publication of the Equality Authority report Traveller Ethnicity in 2006 also highlights the contradictions in the Irish Government’s position. The report establishes a clear case for the acknowledgment of Traveller ethnicity:

“An understanding and recognition of Traveller ethnicity is central to the effective promotion of equality of opportunity for the Traveller community.”

Why is ethnic recognition important?
The recognition of Traveller ethnicity is a matter of huge significance for Travellers. Recognition of Traveller ethnicity would finally create an opportunity for a sustainable relationship between Travellers and non-Travellers and the institutions of the State. It would mean that Travellers could build on the pride and esteem they have in their identity with the realisation that the State will no longer try to undermine, deny or destroy centuries of culture.

As our former Director Brigid Quilligan said in 2012 at a conference on Traveller ethnicity:

“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”

At our AGM in 2009, former CEO of the Equality Authority gave the keynote address called “Ethnicity – the Key to Equality” concluded that “equality encompasses a range of different objectives. These include:

  • Equality in the distribution of resources in society, resources such as incomes, jobs, health, education and accommodation. Travellers experience serious inequalities in this regard with high levels of unemployment, a low presence in third level education, low life expectancy and many families still living on the side of the road with basic facilities.
  • Equality in relation to who holds power or has influence in Irish society. There are no Travellers in the Dail, Seanad, or judiciary for example. Traveller organizations are represented in social partnership but express increasing frustration at their lack of influence within social partnership.
  • Equality in access to relationships of care, respect and solidarity with the wider society. Travellers’ experience is one of relationships characterized by tension, disrespect, abuse and conflict with the wider settled society.
  • Equality in the status and standing afforded to different groups in society. The denial of Traveller ethnicity undermines any status and standing for Travellers in Irish society.

It is important to understand that these different equality objectives are interlinked. Where a group does not have status or standing it will not enjoy relationships of respect with the wider society, it will find it hard to exercise any influence over decisions and it will experience barriers in seeking to access resources. In this way the recognition of Traveller ethnicity can be seen as a key to unlocking the struggle for equality for Travellers. The recognition of Traveller ethnicity will secure a new status and standing for Travellers that will shape new terms on which resources are made available to Travellers, that will shape new relationships of mutual respect with the settled community and that will underpin a new influence for Travellers in their dealings with the state. The recognition of Traveller ethnicity won’t secure equality for Travellers. However it provides a new and solid foundation from which to pursue equality for Travellers.”

ITM’s ethnicity Campaign
The ITM formed to campaign for Traveller ethnicity recognition- it was one of the central aims and reasons for our formation. Analysis of what ethnicity meant, what recognition would mean, lobbying nationally and internationally for that recognition has been part of all our work. However, after a motion at our AGM in 2008 by Blanchardstown Traveller Development Group, a specific petition and campaign began. Launched on the 10th December 2008 (as part of ITM Celebration of UN International Human Rights Day) Traveller organisations began conversations among the community on ethnicity, identity and getting Travellers to sign petitions calling for their ethnicity to be recognised.

Based on this, we began a specific lobbying campaign, and in conjunction with other Traveller groups, have built political allies to the point where in 2014 a joint party Oireachtas Committee agreed that Traveller ethnicity should be recognised and set out steps for how this should happen. ITM and other national Traveller groups continued to work with Government Departments to strengthen this call, including ensuring a second Joint Oireachtas Committee report at the end of 2016 would generate further momentum. ITM and others ensured that the Council of Europe and European Commission were lobbied to add their voices for ethnicity recognition.

The work of thousands of Travellers, locally, regionally, nationally and internationally was finally successful on Wednesday 1st March 2017 as Traveller ethnicity was formally recognised by the Irish State. The campaign for Traveller ethnicity recognition was successful- the challenge for ITM and others is to build on that success and lobby for real equality and participation of Travellers in Irish Society.

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