This evening, when Enda Kenny makes an announcement to the Dáil recognising the identity of Irish Travellers as a distinct ethnic group, it will be an historic moment for Irish society. This recognition, which has been a very long time coming, marks the end of a campaign that has been fought for decades by Travellers to be recognised in their home country as an ethnic group. So what’s being done today is formally ending the long denial of Traveller ethnicity that has taken place in the Irish state.
As the statement that from the Joint Oireachtas Committee admitted
“Travellers are, de facto, a separate ethnic group. This is not a gift to be bestowed upon them, but a fact the State ought to formally acknowledge….”
It is an historic day. It is a cause for celebration. The structures of society means that it will be announced by the Taoiseach, but it draws to a close a long historic campaign by Travellers to be recognised as a distinct ethnic group. In the UK they’ve been recognised as such since 2000, in the North of Ireland since 1997, and no one naively believes that this will end discrimination or racism experienced by Travellers, but it is a victory that was fought for and won from the State.
The Irish State has a long and convoluted history of recognising Travellers as being different to the majority population, and this has led to Travellers living on the margins, largely excluded from Irish Society. The fact that Travellers were different led to the State treating them differently. That difference was seen as a problem in the past by this State. Being a Traveller was something that should be ‘fixed’ and this led to the ‘absorption’ policy. It led to many policies about what should be done to Travellers or what should be done ‘for Travellers’ often without consultation or negotiation.
It is one thing recognising difference, it is another placing a value on it, and seeing that difference as something that should be celebrated, supported, cherished and recognised.
In the 1916 proclamation there is a line about
“..cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”
Today should mark the end of one of those carefully fostered differences.
Victories in history are seen as these choreographed staged moments where speeches come from the mouths of the powerful, but they are built by people. Travellers have consistently, and with great pride, held onto their identity in the face a hostile war that has been waged against them. Today let us remember the Travellers who went before, who have held onto their identity, but have not lived to see this day. Let us remember Travellers who campaigned for this day to come and lost faith that it would ever arrive.
This is not just a victory for Travellers, today is a victory for people who believe in changes being made in the interests of society and people, today is a victory for those who believe in social justice, for those who believe in equality, for those who wish to see an Ireland where we don’t just recognise and accept difference and diversity but celebrate and rejoice in them.