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Fight for Autonomy and then Solidarity

Travellers remain out of sight and mind in the North

There has been a perception that Travellers North of the border have benefited from progressive legislation which recognised our ethnic status some two decades before the South. In the Republic, our legal status was that of a social group, until 2017 when we were Formally recognised as an indigenous ethnic group.

Irish Travellers are a minority native to the island of Ireland and according to the 2011 census represent 0.07 percent (ie 1,267 individuals) of the population in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, the All-Ireland Traveller Health Survey in 2010 concluded, based on its own statistical research that at least 3,905 Travellers resided in the North indicating that much more research is necessary, but also that there is an enormous disparity between the number of travellers residing in the six counties and those who are engaging with agencies.

Tellingly in a report of just that name, launched in April, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission launched a report in april, citing 13 systematic concerns about traveller accommodation. These included inadequacy of sites for travellers, lack of funding and racial discrimination.

Researchers recognised that there is “evidence that Travellers have been subject to discriminatory behaviours and attitudes from public authorities and the settled community”.

This emerges “through actions, but also through inaction and general inertia regarding Travellers’ issues”.

The report found that “negative public opinions and bias towards travellers also impacts negatively on Travellers, in particular concerning planning applications”.
It considered that “efforts to ensure the participation of travellers in decision-making processes regarding accommodation by public authorities are ineffective and inadequate”.

Irish Travellers have been recognised as an ethnic minority in the North for 21 years and yet it has clearly not been a panacaea that was pitched during the 2016 #TravellerEthnicityNow campaign.

How are we to address the marked lack of improve- ment in terms of health inequalities, education, employment and civic participation?
There is an absence of Travellers in key positions in statutory agencies and no political representation whatsoever. While many Traveller organisations throughout the country produce excellent work, too often Travellers are touted as the public face of a project while settled people maintain actual authority.

Despite community-development rhetoric, NGOs in the six counties have made little or no progress in recruiting Travellers in any meaningful way.

While all organisations or projects receiving funding claim that inclusivity and community empowerment is their goal, without substantive input on how these organisations should serve us, Travellers are relegated to being mere recipients of philanthropy rather than becoming active partners in our communities’ success. Even in board positions, Travellers are not provided with the requisite resources, support or authority to act as mandated for an organisation.

There are no Traveller-led NGOs or advocacy groups and very few full-time Traveller employees in Traveller organisations. Had the equality and community empowerment discourse we’ve been fed since 1997 been in any way sincere there would be Traveller-led organisations across the six counties and already established projects would now be headed by community members, the fact that they’re not is a glaring indictment of the failings of the Traveller community-development sector.

Although lack of engagement can’t be laid solely at the door of such Traveller organisations, responding to the absence of representation without investigation as to why dedicated and educated activists choose to pursue other avenues is key.

Those recruited simply to diversify often fail to finish their terms, leaving organisations in a quota-filling cycle instead of assessing why Travellers may not feel comfortable or appreciated in their organisation.

If we’re to address this issue, we need to understand both the power dynamics within the sector and the mistrust it can inspire in the Traveller community.

Included primarily to legitimise a particular project, when Travellers attempt to exercise leadership, they are often discouraged or directed elsewhere, in line with the organisation’s own requirements.

Employing a minority for purposes of meeting funders’ demands and as a means of potential access to a traditionally inaccessible community, yet failing to invest in their personal education and training, which would inevitably have a multiplier effect, is the opposite of community development.

While the majority of organisations have good intentions, a lack of accountability and a culture of catering to funders’ requirements rather than the community’s needs is making many able and talented Travellers, who have the capacity to influence real change, disengage.

When I worked with Traveller projects in my youth on a tokenistic basis, my presence was little more than a symbol of the organisation’s progressive credentials and a justification for their failing to engage in more meaningful work.

The alienation begins in governance, where policies and funding requirements are set. Diversity statements and commitments mean little without dedicated action. Aggressive reform of this process is long overdue.

When an organisation’s only experience of Travellers is as a service user at crisis point, there is a risk that certain opinions can develop and, though individuals may feel exoneration through protesting or providing tick-box employability courses, there is hypocrisy in ignoring the disparity within their own ranks. In this situation, charity doesn’t only affirm the moral superiority of the donor – despite profiting from social injustice, it also effectively buys permission to control the recipient, rendering it entirely counterproductive. Stigmatised individuals such as Travellers are already acutely aware that others may judge and treat them stereotypically and so, in professional settings, often feel increased pressure to perform well, generating passivity, and this includes remaining passive for fear of seeming confrontational or confirming prejudices. Evidence shows that this very specific form of internalised oppression can harm the progress of any individual for whom there is a stereotype-based expectation of poor performance.

I found it particularly challenging to work in organisations whose primary focus was that of chasing funding to pay our own wages. My colleagues, who had no personal responsibility to the community they were employed to serve, could leave at 5pm and return to their own lives.

Those of us who are community members feel added guilt and pressure, acutely aware that anything we are engaged in can have wider consequences. Funders expect results to be quantifiable and so projects designed to ‘develop’ and ‘empower’ become nothing more than numbers games. Participants are inevitably drawn from the same pool, buying in to projects which seldom last longer than a few months and then dropped once the funding runs out, only to be contacted again once another pot of money becomes available and those who wish to apply for it need Travellers.

This cycle is slowly eroding any trust between travellers and organisations and it is limiting any real development. The quality of many of these initiatives is also extremely questionable; our young women want and deserve much better than makeup and beauty courses, our young men want and deserve much more than a basic level qualifications without structures in place to progress further.

Millions have been spent on Traveller development programmes in the six counties and while funders are told that its being used for such noble causes as employability courses and development, the reality remains that the vast majority of it is spent on wages.

If Travellers in the South can learn anything from two decades of ethnic minority status up north, it is that if the old ways of doing things worked, then they’d have worked by now.

Any successful civil rights movement works from the ground up, from within a community. We have more than enough talented, passionate and dedicated Travellers to challenge and ultimately dismantle the structures that have compounded our inequality and stifled our progression.

To see any changes, we need to form our own organisations: properly constituted, able to compete for funding and part of a broader political movement. We need to work diligently in the struggle to improve every community that we’re a part of, from the local to the global; and the way to do this is to invest in our people.

There is evidence that meaningful change is within our reach. We are seeing the increased presence of Traveller activists in wider political movements and trade unions. This politicisation is inspiring very different expectations of NGOs and charities, the groups that we have seen until recently as the primary catalysts for our social change. We are acknowledging that the degree and complexity of our challenges in today’s world exceeds the capacity of any one sector to resolve.

We need to stand up for our own rights autonomously, ourselves. After that we should seek solidarity with other communities.

Amy Ward