Migration Within A Country: The Case of the Irish Travelling Community

Channel 4 has discontinued its Big Fat Gypsy Weddings franchise a decision that has been welcomed by many. Has the network actually provided viewers with valuable insight into the secretive community or made a laughing-stock of a group already harshly discriminated against? Conflicting viewpoints make it clear that the jury is still deliberating. Nevertheless prejudice against Irish travellers is still ripe as my opinion below on migration goes on to suggest.

Migration can often be the instigator of many social and economical issues. For the Mediterranean countries that are experiencing a steady influx of migrants from North African countries, overcrowding is a pertinent challenge. Racism is another area which engenders heated debate on social and political issues. Studies in the area of migration in European countries have shown how the explosive nature of this phenomenon makes it easy for racist and extreme-right and political movements to mobilise. However, most of these studies deal with people migrating from one country to another country. What can often be excluded are groups of migrants which travel within a country. These groups also experience a high level of racism even though the people are nationals of country in which they are travelling through. One group which experiences such prejudice is the Travelling Community in Ireland.

The Irish Travelling Community has been in existence for hundreds of years but many people are not aware of their historical impact as there has not been much historical reference made to them. Any reference which is made simply refers to the Community as not having stuck to a singular way of life. This lack of information in history exemplifies the fact that the Travelling Community and their values have been brushed aside for as long as their existence by the Irish Government, and indeed the Irish people themselves.

The Irish Travelling Community is not familiar outside Ireland, perhaps only in the United Kingdom where they also often reside. However, they have much in common with other migrants such as the European Roma, Sinti and Gypsies. Like these other communities, they have a strong nomadic tradition. These groups also all have a tendency to live in extended families and have a history of needing to defend and protect themselves from the prejudices of the majority group.

The Irish Travelling Community has ways of life and values much different to those of the ‘settled’ people in Ireland. They have their own unique language. The Traveller languages are Cant, Gammon and Shelta and are not spoken outside of the traveller group. There are many Traveller customs and ways of life also exclusive to the community. Children of the Travelling Community grow up outside of the educational system. The people have a tradition of self-employment and their own rituals and rules for death. Travelling women marry at a young age and it is not uncommon to have marriages within families. Once married, the women are expected to sacrifice independence and take charge of all domestic duties. On the most part, the Community keeps to themselves as they rarely marry outside their own, are self-employed and rarely inhabit ‘settled’ areas. Nevertheless the discrimination against the Irish Travelling Community is widespread. Even though Travellers experience discrimination in many areas of everyday life, what angers the Community the most is the discrimination they face by the Irish Government.

The Irish Travelling Community is often ignored in legislation and it is only in recent years the Community became an ethnic option on the Irish Census. Bear in mind the fact that for a long time Travelling people have been recognised as an ethnic minority through the courts in England and Wales and Northern Ireland includes Irish Travellers in their equality legislation under the definition of an ethnic minority. Ireland’s own Equality Acts of 2000-2004, failed to include Travellers as an ethnic minority. They were instead listed as a separate group to whom protection will be provided in that particular legal instrument. The Community was again sidelined, quite literally, in the State Report to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination when the group was mentioned briefly in the appendix of the report. This act was seen as a way of affirming the opinion that Irish Travellers are no more than failed settled people and an economically deprived social group rather than the ethnic minority they are. It is disappointing to see that these attitudes have not changed since the 1960’s when the Commission on Itinerancy was published which described the Travelling people as vagrants and social misfits and saw them as an impoverished underclass in need of rehabilitation. There was also an attempt to put this viewpoint into action during this era when Travellers traditional values and lifestyle were totally undermined by government policy which ill-advised them to settle in houses.

In recent years more effort has been made to ensure equality and recognition for the Travelling Community as an ethnic minority. Reports, such as the Task Force Report on the Travelling Community in 1995, sought to acknowledge Traveller culture and identity in a positive light and to address Traveller issues from a human rights perspective. Membership of the Traveller community was identified as one of the nine grounds for discrimination under the Employment Equality Act 1998 and the Equal Status Act 2000. However, few cases have actually made it to the courts. A number of organisations have been set up in the interest of Travellers’ rights, for example Pavee Point and The Irish Traveller Movement. These organisations strive to put Travellers rights and recognition at the forefront of society. They often speak out against the treatment of the Travelling Community by the government and call for the establishment of a National Traveller Agency with dedicated responsibility for Traveller policy and with authority to drive service provision for Travellers.

To this very day, the ideology of Irish government policy appears to be one of prejudice against the Travelling Community. Legislation has attempted to fit the Community into a specific, and very different, cultural mould and governments have been surprised at its disastrous effects. Attempts to shape the Traveller people like this will not work as Travellers will not allow their identity to be consumed by a majority group. For racial discrimination and social conflict to be diminished between the Travelling Community, the Irish government and the settled community, certain measures need to be taken. Most importantly Traveller cultural identity must be recognised and Equal Status legislation must be introduced which names the Irish Travelling Community as an official ethnic minority. Until then, the Travelling people will continue to remain victims of racial discrimination of both the individual and the institution.

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