The struggles and Politics of Travellers in Neoliberal Ireland

8 October 2018
Amy Ward holding up #Traveller Ethnicity Now Campaign

Irish Traveller activist Amy Ward reflects on the struggles and Politics of Travellers in Neoliberal Ireland.


For both social and economic reasons it is clearly undesirable that a section of the population should be isolated and follow a way of life which is harsh, primitive and
 of low economic value both to those who follow it and to the nation and, most important, which tends to create a closed and separate community which will become increasingly inferior to the rest of the national population and from which it will become increasingly difficult to escape … All efforts directed at improving the lot of itinerants and at dealing with the problems created by them, and all schemes drawn up for these purposes, must have as their aim the eventual absorption of the itinerants into the general community.[1]

The above quote, from the report of a government sponsored Commission on Itinerancy (1963), encapsulates how the Irish establishment along with large sections of Irish society have historically viewed the Traveller community, and how they have resolved to deal with the ‘itinerant problem’ as they understood it...........writes Amy Ward

Travellers were ‘primitive’, ‘inferior’, a people apart from the Irish nation, and destined to be a constant source of irritation unless assimilated into the majority ethnic group.

Some forty-three years on, on 1 March 2017, Traveller ethnicity was finally recognised in the twenty-six counties. This decision lagged almost two decades behind both Britain and the six counties and came after many years of political indifference, hostility and wilful inertia on the issue,[2] with repeated calls by UN bodies and various EU institutions to recognise Traveller ethnicity snubbed by successive governments. Members of Dáil Éireann appeared to undergo an epiphany, suddenly discovering the well-documented and much publicised sufferings of generations of Irish Travellers by state sponsored assimilation policies, socially engineered marginalisation and systemic racism. In her excruciatingly vague address, Joan Burton TD suggested that we

…commit to mending the wounds of the past … As Nelson Mandela said, in the end, it is all about young people and it is all about education. I hope these statements tonight will give the young men and the young women in the community their opportunity.

Others made equally ceremonious, entirely non-committal speeches in what appeared to be a gesture to pacify the unruly Traveller movement whilst demonstrating their own progressive credentials.

The government’s decision to officially recognise Travellers as a distinct ethnic group can be attributed to a number of internal and external pressures. Firstly, and most significantly, it is indisputable that a lifetime of uncompromising campaigning by Traveller activists and allies, involving education, cultural awareness programmes and direct political action, drove the issue into public consciousness.

The moment of official recognition in the Dáil was, for many Travellers, one of catharsis, the culmination of years of work. For others, particularly those from a younger generation, the campaign had worked as a catalyst, prompting introspection and politicisation thereby strengthening a developing political movement and giving new impetus to its key demands. Secondly, international pressure on the Irish government had been mounting,[3] culminating in the threat of legal proceedings by the European Commission and a timely and critical intervention by the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights.[4]

These two factors in turn drew on and influenced a changing social and political landscape in which exposure to European trends helped to facilitate a liberalisation of Irish attitudes and a positive move towards multiculturalism. In this context, the government’s decision was necessary by international standards, in tune with popular opinion and, above all, politically expedient.

There are many within the liberal commentariat and on the soft left who have pointed to this historic event as a triumph of liberalism, as an end in itself – much like the positive result of the Equal Marriage referendum is regarded as the realisation of ‘equality’ for the entire LGBT community. With the removal of these obstacles to participation in Irish life, so the narrative goes, individuals from these once marginalised communities are free to compete with others as equals and on their own merits. The elevation of Leo Varadkar, the gay son of Indian immigrants, within Fine Gael and now to Taoiseach gives such arguments unwarranted credence and puts a gloss on the brutal system that governs us.

Although liberalism promotes diversity in society and confers certain social and political rights, it has also proven an effective ideological tool of neoliberal capitalism, nurturing individualism and limiting the parameters of debate so that economic rights or the right to challenge economic injustice aren’t so readily entertained. This has served to fragment the collective agents of social change and breed acceptance of deep structural inequalities as the result of individual failings. The dangers of allowing ourselves to be cajoled down this route should be apparent.

In the course of the Dáil discussion, Gerry Adams TD was alone in linking the local to the global and alluding to the impact of neoliberalism, noting ‘the rapid pace of new technologies, the use of plastic and other cheap goods [which have] brought about major changes in Travellers’ lifestyles’, namely the decline of nomadism. An understanding of traditional Traveller collectivism,[5] reciprocity and methods of trade serves to elucidate how far-reaching has been the impact of changes in the global economy and a fundamental restructuring of the labour market on the Traveller community.

Outsourcing and mass production in the Far East, made possible by exploitatively low labour costs, have diminished craft traditions and undermined the strength of organised Irish labour in general. Globalisation has intensified both the precariousness of work and the marginalisation of Travellers through mass production of cheap goods and increasing global competition, along with shifting trends in cultural tastes and aesthetics. This process of neoliberal restructuring therefore poses a significant and discernable threat to traditional industries, not least to Traveller trades, which now survive on the peripheries of both global and local capitalist economies.

The effects of this are exacerbated by state policy – legislation has made the practice of traditional crafts and trades de facto illegal[6] – and by the fact that such trades are fundamental to a nomadic lifestyle and Travellers’ commitment to subsistence way of living.[7] The political class will only help to improve outcomes for the Traveller community, therefore, insofar as it directly challenges structural discrimination in an Irish context as well as the essence of neoliberalism in a global context. And the reality is that there is no appetite whatsoever within the establishment parties to challenge the dominant social and economic order under which the class they represent continues to prosper.


The decline of tin smithing, one of many traditional trades associated with Travellers
The decline of tin smithing, one of many traditional trades associated with Travellers

The history of what has transpired – or, more accurately, failed to transpire – in the two decades since recognition in Britain and the six counties has also left some of us in the cynical position of managing expectations. Across the UK, despite the existence of city- and region-specific strategies, there has been little if any improvement in Traveller health, accommodation provision, educational attainment and social standing. The mere existence of an inclusion strategy is a poor benchmark for progress, but it is worth noting that in the twenty years since ethnicity recognition in the six counties, we are yet to reach such lofty heights. The northern state may be ahead in legislative terms but this has yet to be translated into real policies that improve the material conditions of Travellers.

Returning to the twenty-six counties, one can already identify considerable divergence between the platitudes of the political class and their willingness to bring about tangible changes. One demonstrable example is the failure of local councils to draw down funds allocated for Traveller-specific accommodation, despite the popularity of the Traveller rights campaign. It was noted that as of May 2017, €1.2 million of funding reserved for Traveller accommodation was left unspent.[8] Since then, Damien English TD, Minister of State for Housing and Urban Renewal has announced that €9 million would be made available, but if there is no political will to deliver on the legislative framework  that has been developed then a 64 percent increase in capital funding is little more than lip service.

Eoin Ó Broin TD, Sinn Féin spokesperson for housing, has been vocal on this issue, calling for accountability and a fundamental ‘change in the government’s approach towards how it allocates capital funding for the purposes of Traveller accommodation’.[9] Of course he is right and the most effective way of ensuring such a change would be for SF and all other left parties to implement an internal policy change whereby all local councillors are obligated to apply for Traveller accommodation funding. It is also the case that the National Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee (NTACC) and Local Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committees (LTACCs) remain purely advisory – i.e. toothless bodies – with no mandate to compel Local Authorities to comply with their obligations. This needs to change.

It must be recognised that Sinn Féin and the wider republican movement have been consistent in their support of Traveller rights for decades, while there is emerging evidence of smaller groups such as the Communist Party of Ireland having engaged on the issue in the past. Unfortunately, however, there are still those on the broad left who will gladly pay homage to Traveller music and culture in a public arena whilst at the same time refusing to countenance the establishment of halting site in their local area.

When politicians succumb to these parish pump concerns, taking the path of least resistance, they are failing to fulfil their role as state policy legislators and representatives of the entire community. Now is the time for them to go beyond symbolic statements and grand gestures and address these wider political issues which have expedited and compounded Traveller marginalisation.

The newly released National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy 2017-2021 states that ‘the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government will ring-fence its Capital budget for Traveller accommodation and put robust mechanisms in place to monitor expenditure and delivery, including periodic reviews to assess progress in meeting needs and to identify new and emerging needs’.[10] The Traveller community shall look forward to learning what these robust mechanisms might be.

From a basic legal standpoint, recognition will not necessarily enhance the rights of Travellers. Many of the pre-existing legal standards relating to accommodation and provision arose out of causes of action already present in domestic legislation and where there is a failure by local authorities to fulfil their statutory obligations. It is important to reiterate the point that prior to official recognition Travellers already had certain rights under the Constitution,[11] although this fell far short of what was necessary to protect their human rights and was superseded by international directives.[12]

Indeed it is under such directives that the Traveller community would now hope to challenge the Irish courts. Herein lies the contradiction of (Irish) liberalism in human rights: there is an enormous difference between ‘having’ a right and the realisation of that right. A core of international treaties asserting ‘the right to work’, for example, means nothing to the millions of unemployed, just as the ‘right to accommodation’ means little to the thousands of Irish homeless, Travellers included.

The ‘right’ to work does not refer to an existing entitlement but to a political claim and so, in this sense, the politics of rights are always in potential conflict with their legal status. Human rights statements are abstract inasmuch as people do not have a ‘right to work’, but they should. Travellers do not have a ‘right’ to accommodation but they should and it could be said that this right will be realised only through political struggle, rather than law. It is in this rhetorical, political ambiguity that the ideological power of ‘Traveller rights’ lies.

Traveller ‘rights’ have become the latest expression of the natural urge to resist oppression and intolerant public opinion. We have options, through legal claims to be admitted to the privileges of the law and political demands to have the whole of the law improved or changed; and it is via the latter that any discernable progress will be made. Instrumental throughout the campaign were allies, politicians and activists and it is now time for those political allies to implement targeted policy measures, directly addressing the inequalities and discrimination faced by the Traveller community, in full and effective consultation with Travellers and ensuring mechanisms for accountability.

Whilst of course ethnicity recognition is important and I would not wish to talk down the work of the movement, it is sickening to see politicians make reference to the Carrickmines tragedy in the Dáil while the survivors are forced to live in inhumane conditions beside a town dump. When there are still 1,300 Traveller families – approximately 7,000 people – living in substandard and unsafe accommodation, when Travellers have become all but invisible in the narrative around the national housing crisis, even though it is Travellers existing without access to water, sewage facilities and electricity, it is nauseating to hear politicians praise the cultural contribution of Traveller musicians.  The government’s response to these issues, much like the majority of the speeches given at the ethnicity address, amounted to the usual equivocation and deflection.



Carrickmines tragedy
Carrickmines tragedy

The National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy, as noncommittal and incomplete as it may be, is a step in the right direction and, if funded and fully implemented, could go some way to address some of the government’s failings. The launch of this strategy should not be used to deflect scrutiny of Ireland’s human rights violations,[13] nor should ethnicity status be seen as the end of a struggle but the beginning of the next phase. Within circles of Traveller community development, engaging the possibilities of leadership can become problematic in part because the idea of leadership carries with it legacies of a sector dominated, rightly or wrongly, by non-community members.

Suspicious of the charity and NGO sector, many community members and representatives have found themselves in a state of extreme frustration as to how to actively instigate the institutional and ideological transformations the movement advocates. While there are differences of opinion, priorities and ideas, across the movement, the one point everyone seems to agree on is the need for education and the politicisation of Travellers. With a grassroots movement on which to build, generations of strong Traveller activists and allies have brought us to this point, it is up to a new generation of politicised activists to continue the work and the only way to achieve this, to have Travellers rights realised, is through education.  

Paulo Freire described the adult literacy process as an act of knowing through which a person is able to analyse critically the culture which has shaped him and to move toward reflection and positive action upon his world. Such education is cultural action for freedom, through authentic dialogue rather than for domestication.[14] Political education, a clear understanding of the broader context of our lives and the systems by which decisions are made, is vital.

The Traveller community is rich with organic intellectuals, those whose knowledge and expertise is a product of marginalisation and struggle, and who are committed to rising with the community rather than above it. Organic intellectuals emerge out of the economic structure of their society and therefore ‘give [their] class homogeneity and awareness of its own function, in the economic field and on the social and political levels’.[15]

Considering Traveller marginalisation in the context of global capitalism and globalisation, a social order that subordinates peoples and economies worldwide, reinforcing exclusion and the suppression of knowledge and culture, it is vital that we see the emergence of a united, self-determined, self-organising social movement, operating within larger national and international movements which are contributing to a new counter-hegemonic logic.

Arguably, the progressive trade union movement is the only force with the resources, collective strength and international networks to bring together a broad front of natural allies with a view to building a progressive social movement that occupies the spaces through which our vision of society can be created, diffused and reproduced. One would expect a shared experience of neoliberalism to make natural allies out of the Traveller movement and organised labour, yet there exists no organic relationship between the two.

Not only is there an absence of institutional relationships, but there are no Travellers in senior trade union positions and no prominent rank and file activists who hail from that community. Worse still, it is unlikely that there are more than a handful of Travellers with trade union membership. Part of this is because Travellers give little credence to engaging in trade union structures, but if that is the case it is due to the consistent failure of the movement to reach out to the community and carry out the basic bread-and-butter task of organising and representing Travellers as workers. This would give the impression that Travellers, along with migrant workers, rank low in the priorities of the trade union movement, if they register at all. Many

It is encouraging to see that the more progressive trade unions have stepped into the political space long vacated by the Irish Labour Party. This has given hope to hundreds of thousands of people and carries huge potential to develop into a powerful social movement. But whilst we celebrate the historic, albeit partial, victory of the Right2Water campaign, it remains the case that almost 1 in 3 Traveller households living in mobile or temporary accommodation have no sewerage facilities and 1 in 5 have no piped water source.[16]

It is important, therefore, given the wide range of challenges facing the community, that any future campaigns or political initiatives led by the trade union movement incorporate the needs of Travellers and seek to mobilise them as part of one collective struggle. It is in this way that we can best support one another.

If more Travellers engage with radical political initiatives and the trade union movement, this would be our best hope for challenging the effects of neoliberalism in Ireland in ways that make the realisation of Travellers rights a viable project.