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There’s something about government and Travellers

Spending on Travellers has been smashed, and their voice drowned by 64% cuts to their organisationsNiall Crowley 

Government cares little, and less
Government cares little, and less

Travellers don’t get much of a mention in the Programme for Government. That’s what happens when you are a small minority, times are harsh and equality is quietly slipping off the agenda. Travellers might have taken consolation from the commitment to “tackling Ireland’s economic crisis in a way that is fair, balanced, and which recognises the need for social solidarity”. If any Travellers did, they must be well disillusioned by now.

Pavee Point recently published research by Brian Harvey that concludes that the headline figures on the effects of austerity policies on Travellers “tell an egregious story of an extraordinary level of disinvestment by the Irish State in the Traveller community”.

From 2008 to 2012 only 64% of the funding allocated for Traveller accommodation was spent, though there were 1,824 Traveller households needing accommodation

Overall, government spending has dropped by 4.3%, from 153.4bn in 2008 to 151.1bn in 2012. In the same period government spending on Traveller education was reduced by 86.6%, on the special initiative for the employment of Travellers by 50%, and on Traveller accommodation by 85%.

The one mention Travellers got in the Programme for Government was a commitment to “promote greater co-ordination and integration of delivery of services to the Traveller community across government, using available resources more effectively to deliver on principles of social inclusion, particularly in the area of Traveller education”. Political promises must be one of the most devalued currencies in this financial crisis.

Traveller education has not fared well. The Visiting Teacher Service was closed in 2011, the system of Resource Teachers for Travellers in 2011 also, and thirty-three Senior Traveller Training Centres in 2012. Interagency activities supported by the Department of Justice and Equality were closed down in 2012.

The Pavee Point report highlights not only reductions in expenditure but also significant underspends in all these areas. In the period from 2008 to 2012 only 64% of the funding allocated for Traveller accommodation, for example, was spent by local authorities. This cannot be justified by reduced need. There were 1,824 Traveller households identified in 2011 as needing accommodation.

There has also been an extraordinary increase in the number of Traveller families being dispersed in private rented accommodation over this period. Seven per cent of Traveller families were in private rented accommodation in 1998. This figure has risen to 32% in 2011. Dispersal isolates Travellers from their wider family and community networks and removes them from a context where their culture is lived and affirmed.

This calls to mind the 1963 Report of the Commission on Itinerancy – a report that has been discredited as racist and assimilationist. The 1963 Commission stated “it is not considered that there is any alternative to a positive drive for housing itinerants if a permanent solution of the problem of itinerancy, based on absorption and integration is to be achieved”.

In the search for funding to cut, it is always easiest to start with those areas where the backlash will be limited and isolated from any popular support. The government has also taken steps to ensure any such outcry is muted. The funding for national Traveller organisations has been reduced by 63.6% between 2008 and 2012. In the same period funding for Traveller community development projects has been reduced by 32.1%. The voice of Travellers has been undermined and their ability to resist these cutbacks has been diminished.

Across society, communities and their organisations have increasingly turned in on themselves and their own issues. This has left little room for solidarity and shared action. There has been a failure to mobilise for equality. As a result, there is limited popular demand for this value to animate Government.

Maybe, though, it is payback time. Over the last two decades Traveller and Traveller organisations made significant progress in highlighting the racism experienced by Travellers and in asserting the ethnic identity of Travellers. The administration gave some ground under pressure but the old thinking never went away. Crisis has provided the opportunity to reassert this old thinking. In the short-term, absorption is cheaper than recognition. The 1963 Commission report never went away.