The Irish Traveller Community

Fionola Meredith looks at the second largest ethnic minority group in Northern Ireland

The indigenous Irish travelling community is the second largest ethnic minority group in Northern Ireland, estimated at around 1400 people. Nomadism is a defining aspect of their cultural identity, and this lifestyle has been historically underpinned by a preference for self-employment and a diverse range of economic activities. These have included tin-smithing, horse-trading, seasonal agricultural labour, and door-to-door sales of domestic wares.

Historians have observed that there has always been a significant degree of informality and flexibility to travellers’ work since they were forced to apply and adapt their skills to a number of different areas in order to become economically viable. So geographical mobility, and the ability to offer multiple marginal services, has characterised the traveller community in the past.

Kinship and family ties are another defining element of traveller cultural identity. Traditionally, the average group of travelling people included two to four families: parents, married sons, their wives and children. Funerals, weddings and fairs provided opportunity for extended families to meet. These strong ties of kinship—which endure in the contemporary traveller community—have been accounted for by two main factors: the traditional pattern of arranged marriages in the travelling community, and the travellers’ isolation and disconnection from the settled community.

However, the traditional traveller economy was adversely affected in the years following the second world war by a number of factors, including farm mechanisation, rural depopulation, improved rural transport and the mass production of plastic goods. Such changes rendered many traditional traveller crafts, trades and services redundant.

In response to the decline in the rural population and increasing urbanisation, the post-war years have seen travellers forced to seek out new economic opportunities in towns and cities. A minority have been able to adapt their economic practices to this environment by developing new trading opportunities, such as scrap metal, tarmacing and market trading. However, the majority of travellers are now dependent on social security benefits. Their traditionally nomadic lifestyle has been seriously affected, with the majority of travellers in Northern Ireland now living in towns and cities: 30-40% live in the Belfast area.

According to a recent report by the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister Equality Scheme, the ability of many Irish travellers to adapt economically has been severely frustrated by a number of factors. These include significant limitations placed upon their mobility by the restriction of suitable sites, preventing them from conducting trade, accompanied by competition from an increasing number of businesses established by the ‘settled community’ in relation to scrap metal, recycling and tarmacing.

The formalisation of market trading with the Casual Trading Act in 1995, the introduction of the Casual Trading License, and the designation of specific casual trading areas, has also acted to impede Irish travellers’ trading opportunities. There also remains a relatively high level of suspicion and hostility towards Irish travellers from the ‘settled community’, limiting the take up of services that they can offer.

The impact of these factors on the traveller economy, together with the lack of sufficient serviced sites, has been identified as the key explanation for the increasing marginalisation of Irish travellers in relation to employment, health, housing and education.

Another factor that contributes to the disadvantaged status of the travelling community in Northern Ireland is long-term unemployment. Only 11% of the community are in paid employment, while 70% of those who are economically active have had no paid work in the last ten years. Poor levels of educational attainment and high levels of illiteracy are also key issues.

The vast majority of travellers hold no formal qualifications, and 92% have no qualification equivalent to or higher than GCSEs. There are high levels of non-attendance at secondary school and almost nonexistent attendance at tertiary level.

Poor living conditions play their part. Travellers are eight times more likely to live in overcrowded conditions than the general population of Northern Ireland. Many still have seriously curtailed access to basic amenities such as running water, electricity and sanitation, including some of those living on serviced sites.

Health concerns compound many of the difficulties the travelling community encounter. The mortality rate for traveller children up to the age of  ten has been found to be ten times higher than average. Overall, the life expectancy of travellers is around 20% lower than that of the general population. Only 10% of the traveller population are over 40 years of age and only 1% are aged over 65.

High levels of prejudice from non-travellers has a long history in Northern Ireland, contributing to and reinforcing the social, economic, cultural and political exclusion of the community. In particular, the post-war drive towards economic modernisation led to the portrayal of the travellers as anachronistic and deviant due to their nomadism and lack of land-ownership and their independence from wage labour, a central element of industrialised capitalist economies.

The rejection of the travelling community by non-travellers has been termed ‘sedentarism’, a particular form of racism directed towards ethnic nomads. Sedentarism has been defined as ‘a system of ideas and practices which serves to normalise and reproduce sedentary modes of existence and pathologises and represses nomadic modes of existence’.

Hostility towards the travelling community has continued and developed into the twenty-first century. Recent research has suggested that 40% of people in Northern Ireland do not believe that the traveller’s nomadic way of life is valid and should be supported by the government. Over half the population do not want travellers as residents in their local area, and two thirds of people would not willingly accept a traveller as a work colleague.