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The Vacuum - Issue 13 - Wonking with the Community spacer The Vacuum - Issue 13 - Wonking with the Community
The Travelling Community
by Aine Toner
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Travellers are an indigenous minority who have been part of Irish society for centuries. Their history, language, cultural values and traditions make them a self defined group, and one which is recognisable and distinct. However, Travellers are highly acknowledged as one of the most marginalized and disadvantaged groups in Irish society. They fare poorly in every indicator used to measure disadvantage: unemployment, health status, life expectancy, education and training levels, accommodation and living conditions. It is therefore not surprising that the Economic and Social Research Institute (July 1986, Paper no, 131) concluded that Irish travellers, "are a uniquely disadvantaged group: impoverished, under-educated, often despised and ostracised, they live on the margins of Irish society."
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The current population of the Traveller community living in Northern Ireland is estimated to between 1,200 and 1,300. They form approximately 0.07% of the total population.
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Travelling people have lived and journeyed in Northern Ireland since before partition in 1922. Up until the 1960s, the Traveller community was part of the rural economy. They made their living in a variety of ways, horse dealing, seasonal labouring and chimney sweeping. Due to the seasonal nature of the work it was essential to remain mobile to maximise work potential. With advances in technology and the advancement of machinery, most travellers have found it difficult to make a living; their problems have been compounded by a lack of adequately serviced sites which limits mobility. More than 40% of heads of household were looking after the family/home and more than a third (37%) were not working. Over one tenth (11%) were permanently sick/disabled and only 5% were employed.
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Before 2003, no body or authority had responsibility to house travellers. Councils in Northern Ireland could have availed of a 100% funding grant from the Department of the Environment to build service sites. Only 10 of the 26 councils received funding for the proposed sites. In 1999, Lord Dubbs announced that the Housing Executive were to be responsible for the housing of travellers. No legislation was put in place until 1 December 2003 when the management and maintenance of service sites was transferred from District Councils to the Housing Executive. The New Housing Order (NI) 2003, gave the Housing Executive the responsibility for serviced sites. Serviced sites or halting sites in the Republic of Ireland describe a range of managed accommodation where Traveller families have a permanent base to park their caravans of erect timber frames sectional buildings. Facilities such as communal of individual amenity units providing toilet, washing and daytime living arrangements may be provided. Currently there are three traveller sites in Belfast: in Glen Road Heights, Hannahstown Road and Monagh Wood; two in Derry, and one in both Omagh and Coalisland.
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Increasing levels of suspicion and hostility towards Travellers by the general public further exacerbate the problems. The Traveller community face opposition from sections of the settled community. A recent survey in 2000 highlights the perceived threat of Travellers. 40% of people in Northern Ireland do not believe that the nomadic way of life of the Travellers is a valid one. The old adage of "not on my doorstep" rings true throughout the survey. Over half of the population (57%) did not want Travellers as residents in their local area and two thirds would not willingly accept a Traveller as a colleague. Many people who are not themselves experiencing discrimination fail to acknowledge it is an Issue for the whole island.
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In tandem with the maintenance of the service sites, the Northern Ireland Housing Executive carried out a comprehensive needs assessment of Traveller accommodation from January to August 2002. The findings show that 42% of travellers are living in social housing, 21% in serviced sites and 11% on the road site. The House Condition Survey is a major appraisal of housing conditions carried out by the Housing Executive and is representative of the entire population.
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The survey is able to give as current statistics as possible. From a total population of 1,228 household members, analysis by age shows that, at the time of the survey, the Traveller population was predominantly youthful, with more than half (52%) of al household members aged under 16. Almost one fifth (19%) of respondents were aged between 25 and 39 with a similar proportion (18%) were between 16 and 24 years. Disturbingly, less than one tenth (9%) of household members were aged from 40 to 59 and only 2% were over 60. This highlights that the life expectancy of Travellers is far below the national average, with Traveller men and women living on average ten years and twelve years less than their sedentary peers respectively. Moreover, traveller infant mortality is more than twice that of the majority population.
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Survey respondents were also asked about their experiences to measure the incidences of perceived intimidation or harassment within the Traveller community. Fortunately, three quarters (75%) of respondents had not experienced any intimidation or harassment. More than one fifth (22%) said they or a member of their family had faced intimidation within the previous year.
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Assistance for those who lead this nomadic lifestyle is available from the Traveller Movement (NI). It was founded, as Northern Council for Travelling People, in 1981 and over the years has evolved as approaches with working with Northern Irish travellers has developed. Today, TM (NI) is an umbrella group co-ordinating work with Travellers in their identification of needs, goals and resources.
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A similar organisation runs in the Republic. The Irish Traveller Movement (ITM), established in 1990, is a national network of organisations and individuals working in the traveller community. The ITM was formed to be a national platform, through which travellers and their organisations are enabled to challenge the many forms of racism with which travellers have to deal. A range of measures including anti-discrimination legislation need to be implemented to effectively address the strong racist undercurrent in the whole island.
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Similar concerns against the Travelling community have been voiced in the Republic. Individuals, when recognised as travellers, are sometimes arbitrarily refused entry or access to public places and services. They often experience verbal or physical abuse because of their identity. ITM conducted a survey of travellers on a range of service provisions including shops, pubs, hotels and medical and welfare services. The findings highlight the severity of the degree of racism. Over 70% of travellers who have entered pubs have been refused, "because we were travellers." Moreover, 60% of those questioned had been embarrassed in shops which resulted in 54% being asked to leave.
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There are an estimated 25,000 travellers in the Republic of Ireland, making up more than 4,000 traveller families; this constitutes less than 1% of the total national population. Furthermore, it is estimated that 15,000 Irish travellers live in Britain, with a further 10,000 travellers of Irish descent living in USA.
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Many Traveller families live in conditions that no other section of Irish society would be expected to tolerate. Inadequately services sites lack basic requirements: regular refuse collection, toilets, baths and showers, access to electricity and fire precautions. A Task Force on the Travelling Community in 1995 recommended that 3,100 units of Traveller specific accommodation be provided by the year 2000. By the end of 1999, only 98 units of this accommodation had been provided. Yet where Travellers are accommodated in properly serviced sites, it has been noted that opposition to Travellers living in the area greatly diminishes or evaporates. Furthermore, where serviced sites are well serviced they have little or no negative impact on the residential property markets.
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The outlined social and demographic data highlights the significantly disadvantaged position of Irish Travellers in the whole island. Across the range of empirical indicators relating to age, occupational status, health status and housing, it is evident that they are a group who are multiply disadvantaged.
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