On July 9 1943, during the Holocaust, when, though Jewish people were cremated in their millions by Nazi Germany, the Irish state allowed only a tiny number of Jewish refugees into Ireland, Oliver J Flanagan TD made his maiden speech in the Dáil: ‘There is one thing that Germany did, and that was to rout the Jews out of their country. Until we rout the Jews out of this country it does not matter a hair’s breadth what orders you make. Where the bees are there is the honey, and where the Jews are there is the money‘. The House, shamefully, did not react.
Seventy years later, his son, Charlie Flanagan TD pens an article in the Irish Times arguing against the campaign to grant Travellers the status of an ethnic group. Travellers, he claims, are just like other groups in Irish society: farmers, Gaeltacht people, Kerry people and, yes, Jewish people, the same Jewish people his father wanted to rout out of Ireland. While acknowledging Travellers’ disadvantage, and while ‘significant progress has been made’ in improving their condition, designating them as a separate ethnic group is dangerous, he insists, as this will weaken their position and – heaven forbid – lead to members not regarding themselves as ‘being Irish at all’.
The article met with a wall of silence. No letters to the paper, very little on social networks, until Brigid Quilligan’s excellent article a week later. The ethnic group debate has been raging for a long time now, particularly since Justice Minister Michael McDowell withdrew funding from the Citizen Traveller project, declaring Travellers are not a separate ethnic group.
Ethnic groups, writes the anthropologist Frederick Barth, are biologically self reproducing (you are born a Traveller, you cannot become one), have common cultural traits and common fields of communication (nomadism is the Traveller way of life and state of mind, and Gammon or Cant is the Traveller language), and are identified by others and self identify as a separate group. Even in the current era of mass migration, there are very few groups who remain so distinct. Over the years, successive Irish governments attempted to settle the Travellers, in the belief that once they settle, they will cease being Travellers. Their ethnic group status is recognised by Britain and Northern Ireland. Ethnicity denial, argues Robbie McVeigh, is a slippery slope. Nazi Germany exterminated a large proportion of Europe’s Roma people. Although Nazi anthropologists measured their skulls and noses to establish their identity, post war Germany refused to pay reparations arguing they were not incarcerated and murdered as a (non-Aryan) ethnic group but rather as criminals. Today, Roma and Traveller people throughout Europe are deported and their camps destroyed in Italy, France, Germany, Ireland – even though they are EU citizens. Next time Roma and Travellers are massacred because they are Travellers, European states can continue to deny their ethnic status but this won’t change their separateness and disadvantage.
It is clear why travellers want to be recognised as a (specifically Irish) ethnic group. Far from demanding special privileges, Travellers are demanding recognition and equal rights, and a basis from which to conduct an effective antiracist struggle. Quilligan insists that being accorded ethnic status will not reduce Travellers’ Irishness, but will be an important step in improving their health, education and accommodation status (did you know that Travellers have a lower life expectancy than settled Irish people, that 84% of them are unemployed, that the suicide rate among them is six times the Irish average?)
But why is the Irish government is so intent on ethnicity denial? I think it does not have to do with the fear that if recognised they will not perceive themselves as ‘being Irish at all’, as Flanagan suggests, but rather with naked state racism against Travellers, Ireland’s largest ethnic minority. I suspect the main reason is the Fine Gael / Labour coalition’s fear of the sanctions of the international conventions Ireland is signatory to and the reparations that might follow. Recognising Travellers’ ethnic status – while not an answer to all their problems – is a first step towards their equality.