We are ethnically different, whatever they say

Travellers’ rights can’t wait any longerBrigid Quilligan 


Recognition of our ethnicity has been at the core of our movement since the Irish Traveller Movement (ITM) was established. It underpins all our work. Travellers are an ethnic group and we have sought clarification as to why there is still denial by the State of this. Until now their standard response has been that there is a divergence of views within the Traveller community on ths issue.

No other group has ever had to wait until the whole group agreed before securing recognition and legal rights. The women’s rights movement, the disability rights movement and the LGBT rights movement certainly did not tread water until total consensus before action was taken. So why should this apply to Travellers?

It is also false. At a conference in September this year, organised by the National Traveller Monitoring Advisory Committee, Travellers resoundingly voiced their support for recognition of their ethnicity. This was no surprise to the Travellers or Traveller organisations present. We have been saying this to the State for years.

As Travellers, we always seem to have to defend our right to be a Traveller. Traveller rights are not a popular cause. But for our parents, our children and ourselves, we must continue to fight for recognition.

Our history has been written for us. We are popularly understood as dropouts from society, failed settled people. We are subjected to racism by a large section of society, yet this racism is not even acknowledged. People do not even afford us the dignity of being able to call it racism. Society has become so twisted that it is the general consensus that Travellers deserve the mistreatment we receive.

It is time we reclaimed our pride in our people, our history, our language, our art. It is time we claimed our place in society. We are proud Irish people, but we are not treated as equal. We will not give up our Traveller identity to fit in with what society tells us is acceptable. As citizens we will not tolerate the inaction of our Government on this matter any longer. We should not have to wait around until a Government, with no Traveller representatives in any of its structures, decides on who our people are. We know who we are. We not are not seeking permission, we are seeking protection.

Travellers are a distinct Irish indigenous minority ethnic group. We are a part of Irish society as a distinct culture based on genetic heritage. We have a shared history, cultural values, language, customs and traditions that are recognisable and distinct both by us and by the majority Irish population as distinct. Traveller language, Gammon or Cant, was identified as far back as the Eleventh Century. Nomadism and a tradition of  nomadism is an important aspect of our culture.

The Traveller community has identified itself as a minority ethnic group. The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination (CERD) stated that Irish Travellers satisfy the criteria for recognition as an ethnic group and called on the Irish Government to recognise Travellers as an ethnic minority. This has been to no avail and successive Irish Governments have failed to do so.

In England and Wales Irish Travellers have been recognised as a minority ethnic group distinct from non-Traveller Irish people  (in the case of O’Leary v Allied Domecq). The Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 identifies Travellers as a ‘racial’ group. Irish Travellers living in Northern Ireland, England and Wales are ethnically identical to Travellers living in Ireland. The Irish Government has consistently failed to afford Irish Travellers living in Ireland the appropriate minority ethnic status. There is very little political appetite to afford Travellers the recognition we deserve and require.

Elements of Traveller culture have been criminalised for centuries. The Vagrancy Act 1824 and different Statutes of the fifteenth and sixteenth century outlawed “vagrant persons”, “idle persons” and “tinkers and peddlars”. More recent legislative instruments such as the Local Government (Sanitary Services) Act, 1948, the Roads Act 1993, and the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2002 have resulted in the continued eviction of Traveller families and individuals attempting to live the nomadic way of life that is central to our cultural and traditional norms.

In recent years, the Government has recognised that Travellers have specific needs and have included us as a protected group under the Equal Status Act,  and made specific reference to us in the Incitement to Hatred Act 2003 and in the Housing (Traveller Accommodation) Act 1998. In doing so they are only recognising Travellers as a marginalised group with specific cultural needs who suffer discrimination in Irish society. However, the practical effect of these legislative protections has been found to be weak and subject to domestic political whim.

The Equal Status Act, for example, was weakened in 2003 in a manner that had a disproportionate effect on Travellers. Travellers are more likely to suffer discrimination in getting served in licensed premises than settled people. However, the locus for Equal Status Act cases involving licensed premises was changed from the Equality Tribunal to the District Court under the Intoxicating Liquor Act. This had a catastrophic effect on the protections available to Travellers since unlike in the Equality Tribunal, costs can be awarded in the District Court. and District Court Judges familiarity with equality legislation can vary widely.

No logical explanation has been given by any Government explaining the failure of the State to recognise Traveller ethnicity.   Denial of our people’s ethnicity allows racism against Travellers to occur in every aspect of Irish society. Recognition, however, would enable enhanced and comprehensive legal protection, cultural and community respect, and a shared pride in identity.

The matter of Traveller Ethnicity is currently being considered by the State. We ask for leadership and for the Government to do the right thing by the largest indigenous minority ethnic group in the State. If our State and those running it do not value Travellers and take actions to show this, how will the place of Travellers in society ever change?


Brigid Quilligan is Director of the Irish Traveller Movement