Recently, I had the opportunity to sit in on some introductory lectures in a local college where pupils from secondary schools who might be considering third level education were given presentations on the social and community studies course offered by the college.
When discussing the concept of community with the visiting pupils, the lecturer who conducts these presentations invites pupils to offer examples on how the term “community” can be used to exclude other people. In all four presentations, one pupil would invariably mention Travellers as an example of a group who exclude others and the rest of the pupils would always nod in agreement. The pupils talked about how Travellers apparently strongly disapprove of inter-marriage with settled people. One of the pupils who offered this example was an exchange student from Germany. The first time this happened, the lecturer seemed taken aback by how oblivious these pupils were; surprised, as I was, that they would mention Travellers, a minority group who face extraordinary and ostensible racism in Ireland, as exclusionary rather than the settled community from which this widespread racism comes. He would then ask them if they agreed that settled people also use community as a means of excluding Travellers and they would halfheartedly agree, almost as if the thought was an imposition!
The fact that even a German exchange student, in Ireland for less than a year, had picked up on this attitude shows just how prevalent and powerful this kind of thinking is. The idea is that Travellers are the ones who are insular and exclusive. The actions of settled people are an afterthought (if thought of at all). It’s common to hear settled people complain about Travellers as a group of people who won’t play by the rules, who are contemptuous of settled society, who just refuse to adapt to the standards of the communities in, or adjacent to, where they live. The reality, of course, is that ‘adapting’ is made almost impossible by property laws that are seemingly designed to empower authorities to evict Travellers and hinder their ability to lead stable lives. Irish Travellers face legal persecution abroad, too. Basildon District Council famously went so far as to devise complex legal strategies to kick Travellers off land they legally owned at Dale Farm in 2011.
Racism against Travellers is pervasive. In February, for example, a house that Travellers were set to move into was burned to the ground, reminiscent of KKK tactics in the American Deep South. One horrible anti-Traveller facebook page is dedicated to the most appalling racism but has tens of thousands of likes.
The problem with the kind of thinking illustrated by the pupils is that it frames conflicts that arise between Travellers and settled communities in terms of Traveller insularity rather than in terms of the racist attitudes and legal persecution faced by Travellers. It leads people to think about these conflicts as being the result of an unwillingness on the part of Travellers to engage with settled people. This is a problem because it’s untrue but also because it’s easy to justify the maltreatment of Travellers (or at least to turn a blind eye to it) when we think they have essentially brought it upon themselves because they are so isolationist. Racism creates the conflicts, and stereotypes about Travellers ensure this reality is disguised.
The truth is that good relations between Traveller and settled communities cannot begin to be forged while anti-Traveller racism remains so pervasive and legal persecution is the law of the land. That is how we should think about the conflicts that are unfortunately far too common. Until that happens, I don’t think we’ll see the kind of social progress and legal reforms (property laws are not the only problem) that will improve the lives of Travellers and pave the way for progress on relations between both communities.