It is probably better to have what I say explored and the discussion anyway. I will speak to the opening statement provided to the committee but I will keep it to five minutes.
In trying to help the work of the committee, I thought I would focus on two experiences that I had, essentially as an expert witness on this issue. I suppose that is important because it is sometimes quite difficult, as members will see in the statement I made to the committee, to find a case against Traveller ethnicity. In both of those processes there was an attempt to construct that case and it is important for the committee to hear that as far as it is possible for me to represent it.
In the first one, I am talking about an experience specifically focusing on Traveller ethnicity in Northern Ireland and work that I did for the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights which addressed the issue of Traveller ethnicity alongside other issues. In the second one, I was an expert witness in a court case in London which was addressing the question of the principle of whether Irish Travellers should be protected under the Race Relations Act in England and Wales. In both of those examples, I was an expert witness supporting the position on Traveller ethnicity but there also was an expert witness making a case against it. That is why I think the documentation is important in terms of the broad discussion of the issue.
In terms of subsequent discussions, there have been three arguments in opposition to Traveller ethnicity.
The first is that it would not be good for Travellers and that it would be politically reactionary. The second is that it would be just too costly for the State to recognise Traveller ethnicity. The third, the one I will engage with substantially and which we can discuss, is that Traveller ethnicity is not proven. It is argued there is just not enough evidence to make the judgment.
The question of whether recognition of Traveller ethnicity is good for Travellers is one for Travellers to answer. Overwhelmingly in Ireland, North and South, Travellers support the recognition of Traveller ethnicity. This is a valid position to hold. I would not argue that one should not provide that analysis, but it is not the same as the question as to whether Traveller ethnicity should be recognised. It is an argument about the politics of holding the position.
On the point about recognition being too costly, there are two points to be made. The first is that cost is not the primary way in which people should make decisions about issues of justice. Second, when one considers the consequences of recognising Traveller ethnicity, both in the North and across the water, one realises there were no great costs. Travellers were more centrally incorporated into an infrastructure of anti-racist work and practice but the immediate costs were not great.
Let me address the question of whether we need more evidence, although I will not reiterate the point I made in the court case. If one considers the evidence in detail, one must conclude that the only case one can construct in opposition to Traveller ethnicity is that there should be less evidence, and that there is too much evidence in support of the principle. As I stated, if one wanted a very tangible, immediate example – I could go through them in detail – one would look to the Westview Cemetery in Atlanta, where one finds the grave of the founding father of the Irish Traveller community in the United States. His gravestone states he was born in Ireland in 1830. The really important implication is that Tom Carroll and the other Travellers who emigrated to the United States took Traveller culture and ethnicity with them. It was clearly formed before the Great Irish Famine, an Gorta Mór, so there is no question but that the identity or culture was established at least in the first half of the 19th century.
If we examine the London County Court judgment in detail, it will be evident to us that the issue of the long-established history was probably the most difficult for the court to engage with. Once it accepted the existence of that long history, it was very hard to make any case against Traveller ethnicity in terms of the established principles of Mandla v. Lee, the British court case that set out what needs to be established in deciding whether a group has an ethnic identity. The judgment of the judge in that case was correct. His conclusions are included in my submission but I will speak to them very briefly. The judge concluded:
Our conclusions therefore are that of the two essential characteristics, namely the long shared history and the cultural tradition, we are satisfied that both these criteria have been sufficiently satisfied.
Therefore, Travellers in Britain sufficiently met the two key criteria for constituting an ethnic group. The judge considered some of the other elements of ethnicity and found that they were broadly established. We can discuss these if the members want. The case was heard in 2000. In the intervening period, I have heard nothing that would weaken that case.
The most significant legal intervention has moved us in another direction. I refer to the recognition of the Scottish Travellers as an ethnic group. Given that Irish Travellers are an ethnic group in England, Wales and the North, and that Scottish Travellers are recognised as an ethnic group, it becomes even more difficult to argue that Travellers in the South of Ireland should not be or cannot be seen as an ethnic group. We can discuss this if the members want.
My final point is very important to the broader work of this committee. The issue of denying the ethnicity of Travellers has much wider implications for the reputation of Ireland as a country that respects human rights and equality across the world. I do a lot of work on these issues across Europe. I note that people are conscious of the denial of Traveller ethnicity at various international bodies, and this has consequences. It is important to realise that when the denial of ethnicity is carried out, it should be carried out very carefully and thoughtfully, and it should be done with an awareness of the historical and contemporary implications.
As I have stated many times, people need to realise that the Nazis denied traveller ethnicity, gypsy ethnicity, in Germany. This was one reason for the Porajmos, the genocide of gypsies and other travellers in the Nazi period.
There is no question but that the ongoing ethnicity denial by the State reflects badly on it. There is no question but that it does our reputation damage among the international community. We need to be very aware that in discussing a matter that, in a more immediate sense, is about the circumstances of Irish Travellers in Ireland.