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Racist attitudes towards Travellers must be dealt with urgently

IN 1869, not long after the American Civil War, Philip Sheridan, a US army general, was heard to remark: "The only good Indian is a dead Indian."

There are many people in this country who feel that way about Travellers and the decision yesterday to acquit Padraig Nally of the manslaughter of John ‘Frog’ Ward is likely to feed a frenzy of prejudice and bigotry against an already maligned ethnic minority.

There is a tacit acceptance of prejudice against Travellers, a fact of life in Irish society. It is as ugly and vicious as the racism which prevailed against American Indians, Africans and the Irish abroad. It is, in fact, nothing short of racism.

While there is a willingness to acknowledge that there is widespread prejudice towards Travellers in Irish society and also a recognition of discrimination against Travellers there is still strong resistance among the Irish public to calling the treatment of Travellers racist.

The publican who refuses to serve Travellers and the county councillors who denounce a whole community display not just prejudice and bigotry but a peculiar Irish form of racism: discrimination against our own.

It is unlikely that public opinion on Travellers will have changed that much in the past decade even if opinion on other matters has. It isn’t that long ago that Irish society accepted things it no longer finds tolerable. The very notion of corporal punishment in schools is now considered unthinkable, yet most middle aged adults will remember being beaten in a system where casual brutality was the norm.

People change and society at large can be encouraged to think differently. All it takes is education, patience and political will but the real tragedy for Ireland’s Traveller community is that it has no coherent political voice.

As far as most Irish Travellers are concerned, they are living under an apartheid regime and anyone who feels in any way triumphant at the decision to acquit Mr Nally should reflect on the dangers in lumping members of a particular community together and tarring them all with the same brush.

While Mr Nally was justified in using reasonable force to eject Mr Ward from his property it defies commonsense to assert that it was also reasonable of him to shoot the intruder twice and beat him senseless with a stick. On the face of it, nobody would want to see a frightened old man end up in jail for making a mistake, but what Mr Nally did was simply outrageous.

Pádraig Nally is not an evil or bad man. He is, in all probability, a good man but sometimes good people do bad things and his behaviour on the day he killed Mr Ward went way beyond what decent people should demand of their fellow citizens.

John Ward might have been looking for a good hiding, but he did not deserve a death sentence.