There was an article published recently about Travellers. That’s Travellers with a capital T. I won’t refer to the person who wrote it nor the newspaper in which it was published as I haven’t read the piece. This isn’t about that. I only mention it because my twitter (yay I’m back on twitter) was somewhat exercised by that article.
I didn’t witness many flame-wars as my current interaction with the twitterverse is tending toward echo-chamberish. That may change, but for now I’m trying to follow only those people who I’d actually like to spend time with. Despite that policy, it was impossible not to be aware that arguments were taking place, arguments inspired by that article.
As is usually the case with almost all impassioned discussions concerning Travellers, the term ‘racism’ gets used with liberal abandon. That’s a big word; racism. Bigger even than homophobia as it doesn’t have the protection and support of a religion. But is it justified?
Can a white Irish person really, I mean really really, be racist about another white Irish person? Well, not to blame the Brits, but when they imposed/gifted us the English language, we acquired the use of Proper Nouns. We have rules about Proper Nouns. We don’t let just any group of gingers, nerds or fans use of a Proper Noun.
Travellers have the capital T. We have, in our formal language, accepted that they are different. Kerryman versus Corkman different? No. Kerry and Cork do have cultures distinguishable from each other, though barely. And a large part of that difference is simply just taking the piss out of other. We watch the same TV, play the same sports, commit the same crimes, take the same drugs, vote for the same parties, are let down in the same way by the same heath system and live in identical semi-detached houses.
Travellers are different. For one thing they die much younger than the rest of us. They are poorer than us. They do a lot worse in school. They have precious little political representation. And most weirdly of all, they are not wedded to private-property in that way most of the rest of us are. That may explain the term ‘traveller’ evolving into Traveller.
So yes, a white Irish person, if he or she wishes it, can be racist towards another white Irish person.
That’s a remarkable thing. When I was growing up I never got the chance to be racist to, or about, anyone, except the Brits. And I’m half Brit, so there’s that. One was never racist against ‘tinkers’ because ‘itinerants’ were only ‘knackers’ and sure how could a ‘pavee’ be a race? Only the ‘black babies’ in Africa and Irish people were races. And the fucking Brits of course.
Now we have black and brown skinned people and even white (other) people who are all most certainly worthy and legitimate targets of racism. Thing is, they are too much like us. They want to watch the same TV and commit the same crimes etc, as the rest of us. Most importantly they want to live in the same houses as we do.
Their myriad cultures will mesh with our cultures and Ireland will(is) become(ing) a whole new collection of cultures without anyone, except the most inveterate and irredeemable ancestor-worshippers, noticing or even caring.
Travellers, even with their capital T, not so much.
This is where it gets difficult. Should they and could they integrate better? Are they in fact already integrating but we focus on a rump that contains a high proportion of criminality? What is culture anyway? Do we have a duty to support their culture? If a culture becomes economically unviable, should it be allowed evolve out of existence? Am I obliged to care and to pay?
As I learned on twitter, (thank you James) it does very much come down to property. Growing up, besides being taught a benign contempt for Travellers, I was imbibing a culture of property-ownership. It’s a need to own a house that appreciates, protected from landlords, the State, neighbours and interlopers that is beyond reason, even if there are historical, economic and even reasoned imperatives at play.
When I was in college nearly 20 years ago we learned about Developers (capital D) being obliged to designate 20% of every new development as Social Housing. It had been decided that the best way to cure poor people was to separate them from each other and drop them into estates with people who had bought into the buying.
We learned this as we were training to be the carers of poor people’s children. We were certain this was a good idea, but imagine our outrage when Developers (I think back then they didn’t have the big D) threw a strop. The argument they made was, poor people are bad for property prices.
One of my first jobs looking after the children of poor people was in a very plush housing-estate. Across the road, over to the right a bit, screened by a bank, a fence and trees, was the 20%. Developers did not get their big D for nothing.
The people who know such things, decided property could catch poorness, and the people they pay to run the country, agreed. Thus by a clever (more smug than clever to be honest) reference to the transitive property we can deduce that Travellers are simply awful for house prices.
That matters to me in my negative-equity millstone. I’d like my house to double in price so I can stop being terrified. If it were to double in price then when all the shit, hits all the fans, I’ll just be penniless.
So I imagine I would be less than pleased if a Halting Site was situated near my house. If I lived in an estate, I can see where I might get a bit concerned if a Traveller family was moved in near me. And if my life had taken a different course I would say something. But my life went this way so whatever misgivings I might have, I would stifle them, because feelings are not always right.
Can I condemn those who do have genuine property price issues? No.
That however is but one (if significant) strand in the Gordian Knot (yeah I watched Alexander) that is the tension between us and them. They have a capital T, so it is us and them.
They remain a minority that is self-consciously and proudly different. They have a Culture. I just don’t give a fuck about other people’s cultures. I care about individuals even though I am educated just well enough to know of the existence of sociology.
I live in a welfare state. I could not imagine living in a country that doesn’t have a ‘safety-net.’ No matter how influenced I am by libertarian thinking, I don’t think people should live under bridges just because they have a mental-illness, or addiction problems or are hiding from an abusive partner or ran away from bad parents or simply couldn't meet the mortgage payments. Neither should they be reliant on charity.
I want the safety-net and I am comfortable with the idea of a home being a right. I'm happy to debate how best to vindicate that right, because of all the rights our species has made up, having a home is the one I’d be happy to see us defined by. Even if a Developer does get a cut in the process.
But how the hell does one ensure an individual has a home, if that person feels compelled to travel?
And that one sentence, despite my twelve hundred word meandering preamble is the point of this over long blog post. And to get beyond this preamble one must simply (not simply at all) accept that the ‘home’ part of that question must trump the ‘travel’ part, every time and in every way.
So lets take the right to a home as read (and good luck getting that right recognised beyond the haphazard, substandard and begrudging system now in play). How then do we vindicate that right for Travellers? That’s a trick-question. We don’t vindicate that right for Travellers. There is no such thing as a Traveller Culture. Travellers are just like every other group in the World, they are a collection of cultures, aspirations, tensions and individuals.
They can broadly (very broadly) be divided into three groups. Group one are settled and wishes to remain so, they have bought into owning their property. Group two wishes to travel part of the year and have a safe, homely place to stay when not traveling. The third group wish to remain on the road more or less full time. Of course there is also a very important fourth group, anyone who changes their mind.
The right to a home can be met in all these circumstances. This is merely a matter of will, resources, imagination and goodwill. It should not however be confused with the desire to preserve Traveler Culture.
Anyone who demands that the preservation of Traveller Culture be the responsibility of the State should be patted on the head with maximum contempt and sent on their way. Cultures must be free to evolve. The Traveller cultures in this country should be as unrecognizable a century from now as the rest of the various other cultures on this island will be. Preservation is the job of museums, it cannot be a realistic social policy.
Homes, permanent or temporary, of consistent quality, Halting Sites that add value to their environment, a flexibility in our services and an investment in accommodating difference is an achievable social policy. It is an intervention by the State that just might make 'Irish on Irish' racism as stupid as it sounds.
But how to convince tax-payers, who don’t have a capital T, but think of themselves in terms of a capital T, that this investment in social capital will have positive tangible outcomes? How does one convince people who hate Travellers that more resources used to improve the lot of Travellers will improve the lot of all? That is something for smarter people than me to work out I’m afraid.