Travellers are discriminated against but parents have a responsibility in arranging their children’s education and in seeking any necessary help for their literacy, writes John Byrne

THERE is absolutely no doubt that Travellers are negatively discriminated against at almost every level in Irish society.

There are countless examples of Travellers who have to book weddings under assumed names in order to find a hotel that will facilitate their celebrations, or conflicts that have arisen because residents have objected to halting sites being placed in their communities.

This type of attitude to Travellers is wrong, and should not be part of any right thinking modern society.

That said, the answer is not positive discrimination. I find myself more than a little frustrated by the outcome of the story this week of a boy in Ballyfermot who was refused access to a secondary school because his application was late.

Most of the media coverage of this story identified the child as a ‘12-year-old Traveller boy’, though it quickly became apparent that the reason the boy was refused access to the school was because his application was late.

The decision was absolutely nothing to do with the fact that he was a Traveller, yet in every media reference to the case, his cultural status was identified.

Even though it was not explicitly stated, the suggestion was that the child was being excluded from the school because he was a Traveller.

The subsequent media coverage culminated with an interview with the Minister for Education on Monday’s Morning Ireland and a change of mind by the school in question which subsequently offered a place to the boy.

On Tuesday’s Morning Ireland, a relative of the child was asked why none of the male children from her halting site had ever completed a Leaving Certificate. She suggested that the reason was something to do with oppression.

She went on to make connections between educational attainment and housing conditions. She neglected to mention that in Traveller culture, male children view themselves as men when they make their Confirmation and often find it difficult to stay in school.

There were a number of interesting peripheral issues that arose in this story.

The first is why are the child’s parents both illiterate, presumably having participated in some form of formal academic education for at least 10 years. The second is the role of the Traveller advocacy groups, and why they did not ensure that the child’s application to the secondary school was made on time.

Whatever way we look at this story, it is not the school’s fault that the child’s application was not received on time. Of course, one could argue that rigid implementation of the rules regarding application was questionable, but that is nothing to do with the child being a Traveller.

It seems a little unfair then, that there should be any suggestion (subliminal or otherwise) that the school’s application policy had anything to do with ethnicity.

If Travellers are ever going to achieve social justice and equality of opportunity, they must realise that with rights come responsibilities.

In this case, it is the responsibility of the child’s parents to ensure that their child receives an education. If they could not understand the directions that were given to them by the school, they should go to the Traveller advocacy groups (that have been established for them) and use the supports available to ensure their needs were met. They should also recognise that their own illiteracy has caused problems for them and perhaps should take steps to get help.

The difficulties between the Traveller and non-Traveller populations are complex, but positive discrimination is not the solution.

It only serves to undermine the legitimacy of the Traveller’s argument in cases of genuine discrimination and widens the gap between the two communities.

If the conflict is ever going to be resolved, there will need to be a mature and honest dialogue between the communities that is based on mutual respect.

Both parties need to be open and honest, take full responsibility for their actions and make a serious commitment to reasonable compromise in order to ensure that they can live together without discrimination, positive or negative.

John Byrne is a social care worker and lecturer in social care practice at the Waterford Institute of Technology. He is also a practising psychotherapist.


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