Pandemic exposes Traveller marginalisation

Comment & Opinion

INEXCUSABLE INEQUALITY Members of the Traveller community at a halting site near Limerick.Pic: Heather Buckley

MAYO man, Dr Mike Ryan of the World Health Organisation (WHO) has certainly become a hero for so many of us during this pandemic. His expertise is always delivered in a sincere and accessible way. So when he expressed shock in recent weeks at the suicide rate amongst members of the Traveller community, in the context of the fall-out from the global crisis caused by Covid-19, it was clearly a genuine response.
Dr Ryan was addressing an event hosted by the Galway Traveller Movement, during which he learned that the suicide rate is six times higher amongst Travellers than in the general population.
Responding he observed: “I wasn’t aware of that, that’s a really difficult number to imagine and a terrible burden for a community to bear … There is no question in my mind that this pandemic has caused its own wounds, but it has also whipped away bandages from some very old wounds in our society, and we are paying a heavy price for the lack of inclusion and the marginalisation of people.”
Entitled ‘Build Homes, Build Health, Build Hope’, the online conference heard that Travellers have been disproportionately affected during the pandemic, with many living in overcrowded, unsanitary housing, with limited access to healthcare.
Isn’t the perennial problem that in every crisis those who are most marginalised amongst us are forgotten whilst we batten down the hatches and look after ourselves?
Noting the psychological barriers and lack of trust that marginalised communities have in our health systems, in this case, Ryan said: “The systems are driven by racist bias, ethnic bias, class bias. That then becomes very insidious, and it’s very hard to change because no one sees themselves as a racist.”

Traveller ethnicity
ONE has to wonder what practical outcomes there have been since then Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s speech in the Dáil on March 1, 2017, announced the recognition of Travellers as a distinct ethnic group within the State.
Mr Kenny said: “It is a historic day for our Travellers and a proud day for Ireland.”
He expressed hope that this day would ‘create a new platform for positive engagement by the Traveller community and Government together in seeking sustainable solutions which are based on respect and on an honest dialogue’.
Recognising ‘the inequalities and discrimination that the Traveller community faces’, he noted: “Our Traveller community is an integral part of our society for over a millennium, with their own distinct identity – a people within our people.”

Human rights
WHICH brings us to the recent report by the Irish Human Rights and Equality Commission about the under use of funding for Traveller accommodation by the country’s local authorities.
Housing continues to be a big issue for Travellers, with a consistent underspend of the Traveller-specific budget for accommodation. The review implemented by the commission aims to identify the causes of such underspends. Significantly, it confirms that in the decade between 2008 and 2018 just two-thirds (€110.6 million) of a budget of €168 million was drawn down by local authorities.
Moreover, it reveals that in most of the equality reviews nationally, there was little or no evidence of participation by the Local Traveller Accommodation Consultative Committee (LTACC) or of any consultation with local Travellers or Traveller organisations.
Similarly, while there was some evidence of good practice, Travellers had little participation or input in relation to the management of their sites in many local authority areas.
Surely, this is an indictment of our local government process and, indeed, totally undermines those positive words spoken by Enda Kenny in 2017? The State’s provision of Traveller accommodation has been the subject of ‘widespread international condemnation’ by the UN, the Fundamental Rights Agency of the EU and the Council of Europe.
It now behoves Mayo County Council to implement the recommendations made by the commission to ensure there is more equality in the manner in which they provide a service that has the advantage of significant funding.
Isn’t is so easy to decry racism and discrimination when the prejudice and apartheid is happening elsewhere? When it is on our own doorsteps, we aren’t as inclined to hold the mirror up to ourselves. The lip service of this Government’s appointment of Traveller Eileen Flynn to the Seanad is quite simply not enough.