Carrickmines-fire2

In the Sunday Business Post,, 25 October 2015

This week Garda Tony Golden got a huge and emotional send off, and rightly so. Thousands attended the funeral of the slain policeman and there was sustained coverage of his life and tragic end throughout the week.

However, by contrast, there were a staggering ten people killed in a fire in Carrickmines, including five children, and there didn’t seem anything like as much coverage. The focus here moved very quickly on to the resistance of some residents to the relocation of the fire’s survivors into their area. But the fire’s original victims were almost lost sight of. This is extraordinary. One feels that if this was a settled family, there would floral wreaths going down O’Connell Street and candlelight vigils outside the GPO. We barely even know what the fire’s victims actual look like.

The reality is that the Irish public have mixed feelings about the Traveller community. And, if we are to be honest, the Traveller community has to take much of the responsibility for that. There is, of course, tremendous sympathy for the victims of the horrendous fire in Carrickmines, but there is also be a widespread feeling that people should not be living in Portacabins in this day and age, in rough halting sites, and in often dangerous conditions.

The reality is that the original nomadic lifestyle of Irish Travellers has changed and modernised, but not in a good way and, in an increasingly regulated and homogenised society, Traveller culture is a major challenge, to say the least. Hey were once known as itinerants or Tinkers, as a play on their casual occupation as tinsmiths repairing metal work selling horses, and, according to both my parents (from Cavan and Mayo, respectively) Travellers were usually welcomed to country towns as an often colourful and unusual part of rural life.

But things have changed. Now Travelers are as likely to be associated with social problems, with persistent feuds and violence, with alcohol and domestic abuse and with the low-scale criminality and theft.  In a society which is increasingly prone to Nimbyism – as in Not in My Back Yard – be it about electricity pylons or wind turbines, one can see why settled communities would not want to live beside a halting site, with a strong possibility of litter, abandoned vehicles, loose animals and urban blight. This is not an irrational prejudice. It is a perception founded on long experience.

The broader public is generally fair and recognises that the good parts of Traveller culture. Indeed, public attitudes have actually changed greatly in recent years, helped by the exploits of our Olympic boxers and TV shows like The McDonaghs and My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. The public recognises that violent feuds, bare-knuckle fighting and crime is only one part of Traveller culture – just as gangland crime or drug-selling is for the settled community – but it is a frequent and endemic part and that has to be acknowledged.

For example, Travellers represent a very small number of our population, but they represent a hugely disproportionate amount of the prison population. Only this year alone, there have been convictions for violent bar brawls and attacks on property, not to mention a shocking incident when a man was shot dead at a Traveller wedding in Fermanagh.

When the shocked priest said he didn’t want to do any more Traveller weddings, he was accused of being prejudiced! You can’t win. More shocking for others, was the age of the bride and groom, at 16 and 17 years, another feature of Traveller culture that many settled people would have a problem with.

But you rarely hear these concerns aired in our media. In fact, the disconnection between the public and the media/political bubble on this is huge and is especially felt in rural Ireland where the association between crime and Traveller is strong. Not for the first time, there is the sense of a PC liberal lobby in Dublin lecturing the rest of the country.

For example, a long discussion this week on RTE Radio’s News at One between the presenter and a Sinn Fein TD was all about how society needs to be ‘educated’ more about Traveller culture and encouraged to ‘overcome its prejudice.’ There was little context, or wider discussion. And yet on the Drivetime programme a few days earlier, reporting on rural crime, Fergal Keane reported on the depth of feeling among country people he was meeting about the connection of Travellers with such crime, and that this was not being reported.

Public sympathy is strong for the Carrickmines fire victims but the haste with which the broader public moved on, is a sign that the Traveller culture is still seen as truly different, apart and at times, beyond and above the law.