Travellers in Ireland: An Examination of Discrimination and Racism: Part 3Denial of Racism
While there is a willingness to acknowledge that there is widespread prejudice towards Travellers in Irish society and also a recognition of discrimination against Travellers there is still strong resistance among the Irish public, to calling the treatment of Travellers racist. The title of an education pack "I'm No Racist, and What Is It Anyway?", (Calypso Productions, 1997), is a clever depiction of this resistance. The reasons for this denial of racism are complex and varied. First of all, Irish people are not unique in their tendency to deny the existence of racism in ourselves and in our country. Most countries have similar experiences of people seeing racism in the distance while refusing to acknowledge it at home or in themselves. Secondly, there is a tendency to see racism only in relation to skin colour. When the issue of defining the meaning of black and white arises and is combined with the task of categorising a range of other shades of skin pigmentation the issue ceases to be so simple. Usually, this involves resorting to confused usage of such concepts as 'races', 'race relations' and nationality. For instance, it is frequently said that Travellers cannot experience racism because they are white, are not 'a different race' nor a different nationality.
This denial, confusion, as well as a tendency to blame the victim is evident in this excerpt from a written submission by an Irish MEP to the Committee of Inquiry into Racism and Xenophobia in 1990:
"Ireland is a racially homogenous country with no ethnic minority groups. As a consequence there are no racial problems of the kind experienced in countries with such groups. Neither is there a large presence of foreigners. . . the position could alter if the influx became sustained. . . there is however a minority group of travelling people giving rise to some of the problems associated with racism."
The mistaken tendency to equate 'race' with colour has been refuted by many academics such as Charles Husband, who refers to this quote from Charles Kingsley's correspondence about his visit to Ireland in 1860:
... "I am haunted by the human chimpanzees I saw along that hundred miles of horrible country ... to see white chimpanzees is dreadful; if they were black, one would not feel it so much, but their skins, except where tanned by exposure, are as white as ours".
This quotation reflects the racialisation process whereby members of a group, in this instance the (white) Irish, are identified as belonging to a 'race' category on the basis of fixed characteristics which they are assumed to possess. Central to such race-thinking are notions of superiority and inferiority, and of purity and pollution. These notions are clearly evident in the following excerpt from a debate in the House of Commons in 1953 referring to Africans: "Let us remember that 95% of them are primitive people. One of the reasons why they are not generally accepted into hotels is because their sanitary habits are not all that could be desired ... The effect of alcohol upon an African is remarkable ... alcohol seems to bring out all the evil instincts in the African in the most astonishing way ... " (Miles and Phizacklea, 1984)
Racism, as reflected in these references, is more than a prejudicial attitude. It involves a pattern of social relations, structures and an ideological discourse which reflects unequal power between groups. This understanding of racism will be examined and developed further below but as it is dependent on a racialisation process let us first take a look at the role of the media in this process and in the reproduction of racism towards Travellers.The Media and Racism
The following newspaper accounts illustrate how the negative portrayal of Irish Travellers contributes to the ideological racist discourse. Under a section on crime in the Sunday Independent (28th January, 1996), was the following headline: Time To Get Tough On Tinker Terror 'Culture'. According to the article by Mary Ellen Synon, Gardai believe that Travellers are responsible for over 90% of attacks on the rural elderly. The writer states that Traveller culture ... "is a life of appetite ungoverned by intellect ..... It is a life worse than the life of beasts, for beasts at least are guided by wholesome instinct. Traveller life is without the ennobling intellect of man or the steadying instinct of animals. This tinker "culture" is without achievement, discipline, reason or intellectual ambition. It is a morass. And one of the surprising things about it is that not every individual bred in this swamp turns out bad. Some individuals among the tinkers find the will not to become evil". An article on Travellers by journalist Brendan O'Connor, also in the Sunday Independent (25th May, 1997) used another sensational headline: Patience Runs Thin When Uncivilised Travellers Spill Blood to cover a piece on Traveller feuding. The writer gave a detailed account of the feud in a cemetery and concluded that "It just doesn't happen in a civilised society". He then went on to justify his use of the term "knacker": "Where I come from the word "knacker" doesn't mean someone of any specific socio-economic or ethnic background. It means someone who behaves in a way that society abhors. And that's what the people who desecrated a Tuam graveyard last June were, knackers and scumbags". The same journalist insists on using similar language in other reports, and the sub-editor used the offensive term in the headline.
"Good relations knackered"
The conflict is not between settled and Traveller. It's between decent people and 'knackers'.
(Sunday Independent 31 August 1996)
The anti-Traveller discourse features frequently in both national and especially local newspapers and radio. Very often, as in the following, local politicians are being quoted:
"They are dirty and unclean. Travelling people have no respect for themselves and their children". (County Councillor quoted in Irish Times, 13th March, 1991)
"These people have been a constant headache for towns and cities throughout the country". (County Councillor quoted in Cork Examiner, 13th June, 1990)
"Killarney is literally infested by these people". (County Councillor quoted in Cork Examiner, 18th July, 1989)
"They are a constant problem, moving from one open area to another and creating problems". (County Councillor quoted in Cork Examiner, 13th June, 1990)
"Deasy suggests birth control to limit traveller numbers" (Headline in Irish Times, Friday, June 14, 1996.)
In the Dail Report column referring to remarks by Mr. Austin Deasy, T.D. Fine Gael, the deputy is reported as saying that the problem of Travellers would not be solved by providing more halting sites but by ensuring that Travellers' numbers be contained by birth control and assimilation into existing housing estates.
"Traveller tradition not a divine right. Brendan O'Connor applauds Councillor Ann Devitt for suggesting that Traveller culture is not sacrosanct, and that the time has come for them to change their way of life. "(Sunday Independent June 15 1997)
"The sooner the shotguns are at the ready and these travelling people are put out of our county the better. They are not our people, they aren't natives." Remarks of a Fianna Fail Councillor at a Waterford County Council meeting. (Sunday Independent, 14 April 1996)
These samples of media coverage of Travellers provide some indication of how Travellers are perceived and treated in Irish society. This paper argues that such coverage and the social relations associated with it constitutes a form of racism. As Helleiner demonstrates, "the powerful discourses of the press contribute to the creation of an ideological context which legitimates coercive state policies, everyday discriminatory practices, and ultimately violence against Travellers" (Helleiner, 1994).
According to Helleiner:
"While press reports of the 1960's and much of the 1970's, were explicit in their portrayal of the Travellers and the travelling way of life as problematic, during the 1980's overtly racist discourses were increasingly replaced by more sophisticated discourses of exclusion."
However, the above sample of media coverage would seem to indicate that this claim of a shift from overt to more covert racism was inaccurate and it was certainly not borne out in the 1990's coverage. MacGréil in his Prejudice in Ireland Revisited (1996), states that "Irish Travellers are still seen and treated as a 'lower caste' in society. . ." According to his research findings there has been a substantial deterioration in attitudes towards Travellers since 1972-3, leading him to conclude that "Irish people's prejudice against Travellers is one of caste-like apartheid." Kenny in her investigation into the interaction between Traveller ethnic identity and schooling concludes that "dominant sedentary society and its institutions remain the instigators and maintainers of institutional and interpersonal racism and exclusion, which has pressured Travellers over a long time-span into distorted performances"(Kenny, 1997).
Quite clearly, a racialisation process inferring the inferiority of Travellers is the outcome of media and political discourse. Let us now return to the issue of definitions and theoretical approaches.
-Racism and Racial Discrimination
-Approaches to Racism