Time to debate our treatment of Travellers

9 Mar 2018 Nick Garbutt    Last updated: 9 Mar 2018

Picture: Bryan Ledgard

This week saw the publication of a report into discrimination against Travellers published by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission

Out of Sight, Out of Mind is an examination of accommodation for Travellers in Northern Ireland.  It finds evidence of racial discrimination by public bodies and concludes that current inadequacies in housing provision can dissuade and prevent Travellers from pursuing their culture, including their traditional nomadic lifestyle.

This raises disturbing questions because, for many politicians of all persuasions, and indeed swathes of the general public the permanent “settling” of Travellers and the ending of nomadic traditions would be a welcome outcome.

This gets us to the heart of a debate which is long overdue and very rarely raised. It is time to question the extent to which it still appears to be respectable for so many people, including prominent politicians, to vilify an ethnic group in language and circumstances that would be regarded as totally unacceptable if directed at any other minority.

What are the roots of this and why does it still happen?

The Human Rights commission report defines travellers as  any member of a traditional Gypsy or Traveller community living in or travelling through NI with a long-shared history, culture and traditions that includes identifying with or continuing to practice a nomadic way of life.

In fact there are two recognised groups in these islands: Roma gypsies, who originate from Easter Europe and Irish Travellers. The Roma have long been recognised as a distinct ethnic group, Irish travellers only quite recently.

Popular opinion often characterises the Roma as romantic and traditional, whilst Irish Travellers are seen as representing a criminal sub-culture and their history and heritage questioned and derided.

Indeed, remarkably,  the Irish state resisted recognising Irish Travellers as an ethnic minority until last year.

This despite the fact that their origins go back centuries, long before the Roma arrived in these islands around 300 years ago. Their precise origins have long been disputed by historians, who have no written records from the people themselves to rely on.

Some believe that they originate from families displaced from their lands during the Plantation in the early 17th Centuries, others that they are descendants of victims of the Irish famine in the 1840s.

Recent research however has uncovered that they are far older than that. In 2005 the socio-linguist Dr Alice Binchy published research suggesting  that they are the last remaining remnants of pre-Celtic Ireland . This she postulates from analysing Travellers cants which she believes are based on a now lost Irish language, and some family names she traces back to medieval bards.  

In 2011 a team of geneticists from Edinburgh University established that Travellers have a distinct genetic identity – as different from settled Irish as Norwegians are from Icelanders. They believe that they have a shared heritage but that this diverged between 1,000 and 2,000 years ago.  

The fact that they are a distinct ethnic and indigenous minority is fact. It is no longer open to question and responsible commentators and politicians should act and speak accordingly.

Travellers pre-date modern concepts of land ownership and are part of an ancient nomadic tradition that goes back to the dawn of humanity. Many small communities travelled from place to place to hunt and to trade with settled communities. In past times many Irish Travellers were skilled tin smiths, hence the term “tinker”.

Inevitably over the centuries, as the notion of property and settled law grew, tensions between nomadic and settled groups will have started to rise. Despite this there was still plenty of common land for communities to travel to and from and although some conflict has always existed between settled people and travellers, modern development, planning laws and the consequent squeeze on land has brought matters to a head, not just in Ireland and Britain but across Europe.

In 1936 the criminal biologist Dr Robert Ritter was appointed head of the Racial Hygiene and Demographic Biology Research Unit of Germany’s police force. He conducted research into Germany’s gypsy population. He concluded that there were two types – those of mixed blood who were “the products of matings with the German criminal asocial subproletariat" and “pure” gypsies “a "primitive" people incapable of real social adaptation."

It is remarkable how close his characterisation appears to be to so many popular views of nomadic communities today.

Ritter’s research was acted on in 1938 with the publication by Heinrich Himmler of Combatting the Gypsy Menace which outlined the need for a “final solution to the gypsy problem.”

This started with the forced sterilisation of gypsy women and moved swiftly to the establishment of concentration camps where gypsies were used for experimentation and ultimately it is estimated 220,000 were killed.

There did not seem to be any great protests from the general population. When the Nazis set up their first “gypsy camps” many local people protested because they wanted to "safeguard” public morals, public health, and security.

Germany’s Axis partners were often enthusiastic in joining the persecution. The Croatian authorities practically exterminated its entire gypsy population, killing 20,000.

What is little known, and many will find disturbing, is that Dr Ritter was not charged with any offence after the war and found academic work in 1946. His associate on the project the anthropologist Dr. Adolph Würth served in the Baden-Württemberg Bureau of Statistics until 1970.

It wasn’t until 1979 that the German government recognised that the persecutions were racially motivated.

Nobody is suggesting that anyone expressing disquiet with Irish Travellers or discriminating against them is in any way a Nazi or devotee of Ritter. However there are lessons from history, and in the case of the Travelling community we do not appear to have absorbed them.

Casual racism is rife and unchecked. In 2012 an Irish district judge described travellers as “Neanderthal men lying in the long grass and living by the law of the jungle”

Writing in the Daily Telegraph in 2004 Kevin Myers said of traveller culture:

“It is patriarchal, caste-based, dirty, diseased, alcoholic, illiterate, violent, misogynistic (often brutally so), low-achieving - two thirds of traveller-children have abandoned all education by the age of 15 - and, most of all, short. …

“Only multicultural mumbo-jumbo at its most fatuous crowns this dismal tribal phenomenon with the title "culture". .. The world will be far happier when the traveller-tradition is hastened to a humane end.”

And imagine what the outcry would have been in 2013 if former British Home Secretary David Blunkett had said this about any other ethnic grouping save for the Roma it was aimed at: “We've got to be tough and robust in saying to people you are not in a downtrodden village or woodland, because many of them don't even live in areas where there are toilets or refuse collection facilities.

"You are not there any more, you are here – and you've got to adhere to our standards, and to our way of behaving, and if you do then you'll get a welcome and people will support you."

There is no question that Travellers like all marginalised and deprived groups have significant issues. Low educational attainment, health and alcohol problems, and criminality do have to be tackled.

But this can never be achieved by demonising an entire ethnic group. We certainly do not do that with any other.

Every now and then a member of the Traveller community steps up to give another side to the story. Two years ago the editor of the Travellers Times Mike Doherty was given a platform in the Guardian

The article is well framed and articulate, but just as remarkable is the bile it provoked in the comments section beneath it, which makes for a depressing read.

It would appear that today not only is the notion that travellers are members of a “criminal asocial subproletariat” appears to be alive and well and a respectable one to express but that those who oppose it are routinely vilified for their troubles. This needs to be addressed.

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