Time to settle treatment of Travellers once and for all

Michael Fassbender’s words echo those spoken by Fr Dermot Lane two weeks ago. He asked if anything had changed in wider society’s relationship with the Traveller community since the Carrickmines fire, writes Clodagh Finn

Time to settle treatment of Travellers once and for all

ANYTHING that unites the outstanding talents of Brendan Glesson and Michael Fassbender is an event, but that’s not why their new movie Trespass Against Us is noteworthy.

The new Traveller crime drama in itself might not make an indifferent public sit up and take notice but let’s hope what Fassbender has said about it will. The Oscar-nominated actor said he took the role because he hoped it would “provoke conversation” about tribalism and, more specifically, the relationship between Irish Travellers and the settled community.

As he put it (rather delicately, we’d have to say): “Both these communities have been living alongside each other for centuries and still, at times, they are at odds with one another. We felt like that was something worth talking about, or at least exploring and perhaps provoking dialogue.”

That invitation to dialogue couldn’t have come at a better time.

Fassbender’s words echo those spoken by Fr Dermot Lane two weeks ago at the memorial service for the five adults and five children who died in a fire at an unofficial Traveller site in Carrickmines, Dublin, on October 10, 2015.

Fr Lane asked if anything had changed in wider society’s relationship with the Traveller community in the 12 months since the fire.

It would be heartening to think the fire had marked some sort of a turning point in that troubled relationship but, mere days after the tragedy, it was clear that it had not. A group of “unhappy residents” came out of their houses which have running water, toilets and safe electrical connections to block the entrance to a temporary site for the homeless, who were grieving relatives of the dead.

One person — who didn’t want to be named, strangely enough — was quoted as saying: “We just don’t want them here. No one in the country would accept this.”

Many of us were outraged and many more signed the book of condolences opened in several locations around the country. Yet, when a national newspaper did a survey of almost 5,000 of its readers, some 72% said the residents had been right to do what they did.

If another Carrickmines were to happen today — and that’s a real risk, as 81% of Traveller accommodation units still have no working smoke alarms — would the reaction from the settled community be any different?

You’d like to think so, though one of the few quantifiable changes in the last year suggests otherwise. One year on, there are even more Traveller families living in poor conditions.

Some 5,584 Traveller adults and children live in accommodation that is overcrowded, poorly equipped and often unsafe.

A national fire safety audit found that 62% of Traveller accommodation units had unsafe electrical connections, while 31% of sites would not be able to accommodate an ambulance or fire brigade if needed.

Traveller groups might arch an eyebrow at the mention of dialogue. What they need right now is action not more talk. Their representatives have said more than once that the time has come to implement some of those fine taskforce recommendations and to finally pin down concrete strategies for health and employment.

It says something that the most recent figures on the life expectancy of Travellers is already six years old. What’s more, those shocking figures continue to pass under the radar. According to the All- Ireland Traveller Health Study of 2010, Traveller men live 15 years less than settled men and Traveller women 11.5 years less than settled women.

If that sentence read: “Irish men live 15 years less than European men and Irish women 11.5 years than European women” there would, rightly, be an outcry. Though, Europe has done more for Irish Travellers than the Irish settled community.

Earlier this year, the European Committee of Social Rights ruled that Irish Travellers’ human rights were being violated because of an ongoing failure to provide adequate accommodation.

Travellers have been very eloquent in describing the harsh reality of their experience in Ireland. But let’s not just take their word for it.

The statistics are there to show that they continue to be one of the most ghettoised and excluded groups in Irish society.

The unemployment rate among Travellers is more than 80%. The Traveller suicide rate is seven times the national average among young men and they are disproportionately represented in the prison population.

No wonder there are those who hide their Traveller identity and many others who say they feel unsafe and exposed among the settled community.

Michael Fassbender is right. We do need a dialogue, but the dialogue that needs to happen now is not between the Travelling community and the settled community but within the settled community itself.

For too long, the tensions between the two communities have been framed in a sort of ‘us’ and ‘them’ dichotomy. Let’s look at that, because if you lined out those two communities, here’s what you’d see.

On one side, there would be over four million people with jobs, laws and years of tradition behind them. On the other side, there’d be a tiny gathering of some 30,000 people, enough to barely half-fill Croke Park.

So where’s the power in that relationship? It’s time the settled community answered that question.

Actor John Connors, who recently fronted the wonderful series on Traveller history on RTÉ, has said the attitude to Travellers is Ireland’s last acceptable racism.

And he is right. It’s not untrue to say that discrimination against Travellers is a form of Irish-style apartheid.

Travellers are still fighting to be recognised as an ethnic minority. There are references to a distinct Traveller culture going back to the 12th century. There’s also hard science to prove that — a 2011 study showed that the DNA of Travellers is distinct from that of the settled population.

For too long, that has allowed us, the settled population, to push them out to the fringes of our own cosy society. Let’s start a real dialogue now on why that is so.

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