By Bernard Sweeney.
Since the formation of the Irish state, Travellers have been subjected to a sequence of oppressive policies, much the same as those that were weaponised against all Irish people prior to 1922.
Since the creation of the Free State with the liberation, albeit partial, of the Irish people, it could be argued that those who benefited most were the Anglo Irish – those who were either direct descendants of the British ruling class, or those who had become the more culturally anglicised by adopting a foreign class system of capitalism and exploitation. For Travellers, little changed under the new state. For us, it was as if the British never left; it was merely one oppressor being replaced by another.
Coloniser mentality remained
While physical elements of British rule were removed, the mentality remained the same; the system never changed except in name. This meant that Irish Travellers remained imprisoned and controlled by the leftover psychology of colonisation. The psychologist and revolutionary Frantz Fanon addresses this phenomenon in his seminal work, Black Skin, White Masks.
Fanon helps us to understand the complex ways in which identity is constructed and produced; the feelings of dependency and inadequacy that colonised peoples experience. Those who have lost their native cultural origins look to the invaders for guidance, and this produces an inferiority complex – and may then result in the colonised trying (consciously or otherwise) to appropriate and imitate the culture of the coloniser. It stand to reason therefore, that the upwardly mobile Irish then began to view Irish Travellers as they themselves had once been viewed by the British.
Settled people’s history tells of all the atrocities that befell the Irish people during the British occupation and conquests: the mass evictions, the brutality, the famine/genocide, and how our ancestors lived, suffered and died. But what we were not told was our own story.
Our history shall be written
We were not always known as ‘Travellers’. Irish Travellers were known over the centuries by many names – as we were, and still are, the living link between the Ireland before the British invasions and the present day. This is widely recognised in our contribution to Irish traditional music, oral history, song language, and our commitment to a clan system, something we still just about cling on to. Before we were labelled as ‘Travellers’ by settled people, we were known amongst ourselves as Mincier– a title we must reclaim.
During the Elizabethan Conquest, it became clear what the British intentions were when they started destroying the clan system, breaking down what was left of old Ireland. Gaelic Ireland had flourished for thousands of years, but this was now to come to an end, replaced by a foreign system.
Passage of time saw one generation of Irish people after another colonised, forced and assimilated into a culturally British way of life. In time the British language replaced our own: it was taught in all schools and universities; English history replaced Irish history; the traditions, cultures and structures were all designed and governed by the British.
The sentiment of this article is not anti-British, it is to illustrate that how sometimes we don’t really even know our own mind, so deep-rooted is this process. And how Irish society as we now know it is still a longstanding result of colonisation and 800 years of oppression that has not gone away.
Our education system is British, gone are the traditions of oral history in a language of our own. Our legal system, lifestyle and political systems are all drawn from the British. It stands to reason that after hundreds of years of this conditioning, that Irish society then turns on its own minority.
The social discord that exists between Traveller and non-Traveller communities is a symptom of systematic oppression, one that is rooted in the history of this island. Progress is often hindered by political bias and in some instances, political bigotry, but underlying this is a lack of understanding of how this history has created these divisions in our country. It should be stated that once this history and its psychological implications are fully understood, then it will be realised that to be anti-Traveller is to be anti-Irish. We are, after all, Ireland’s only indigenous ethnic minority.
Where do we go from here?
Creating a bridge to allow progression requires a forum of substance wherein big ideas and substantial structural issues can be examined and constructively presented to decision-makers.
I’d like to propose that a Traveller Citizens’ Assembly be established, modelled on the Irish Citizens’ Assembly, without participation from politicians unless selected by the Assembly. Let it be constituted equally of all genders and across all age cohorts and geographical locations.
These assemblies would be chaired by a barrister, lawyer or judge and the deliberations and recommendations of the Traveller Citizen’s Assembly would be submitted directly to governing bodies. Where legislative issues are deliberated, submissions would be made directly to Joint Oireachtas Committees.
I and many other Traveller activists strongly believe that a Traveller system of internal democracy can be developed wherein Travellers nominate and elect our own representatives on to local authority policy groups, state boards, Oireachtas Committees and NGOs. This process will enable Travellers to democratically elect their spokespersons and representatives onto governing bodies charged with Traveller inclusion.
Such a system will in and of itself provide a mechanism for aspiring public representatives to develop their skills, and it would give Irish Travellers the platform to build a better society for all people and communities.
Politically informed decision-making is now more important than ever. When we are living in a world with a multitude of issues, each decision has a profound effect both on the planet and its inhabitants.
Electoral education and participation
There are many steps can be taken. Voting is vital and maybe should be made compulsory, there perhaps could be also be a political education process to at least try to inform people of the various political ideologies, so that more informed decisions can take place.
Inclusiveness In the electoral process could be increased by making it easier for people from all backgrounds, including Travellers and other minorities to get accessible information by going to a website or downloading an app, perhaps allowing people to check the live register online, and to provide links to YouTube videos informing them and showing them how to fill in particular forms.
There has been nothing of this sort in electoral drives south of the border, though it must be emphasised that systems and attitudes need to change drastically if the dearth of Travellers engaged in electoral politics is to be changed in any meaningful way.
If political parties are genuine and sincere in ending racism against Irish Travellers, I would suggest co-opting at least one Traveller onto each political party – not merely in a tokenistic way, but to allow full autonomy of each Traveller in their political party to veto decisions and votes and to work solely for the assembly of Travellers on promoting equality and inclusivity.
Full autonomy to deviate from decisions that are detrimental to our own community is imperative. If we are to promote Traveller political participation, we cannot be expected to endorse any party or policy that ultimately aids our own oppression.
Bernard Sweeney is a committed Mincier activist. He has recently developed and launch his own Traveller media project TraVision, a platform for discussions on all issues concerning the Traveller community. Follow him on twitter @1bernardsweeney.
Image above shows Bernard Sweeney, left, host of TraVision, with guests Martin Collins, Vincent Browne and Kathleen Lawrence, in Pavee Point, Dublin. Photo: Dara Mac Dónaill.