Apartheid has no place in a republic

The Connors family, subjected to a dreadful tragedy last week with the loss through fire of ten family members, were very much a part of my childhood and teen years. Every week, Mrs Connors and two or three of her children would call to my parents’ house in Churchtown where my mother made tea, buttered bread, poured glasses of milk for the young ones, and conversed woman to woman and mother to mother with Mrs Connors.

There was never a hint of anti-Traveller bias in our house. My parents would not have tolerated it for a second.

My father was a committed republican with a deep understanding of the words and ideals of the Proclamation of the Irish Republic for which his father went out to fight and for which his mother provided supports and a safe house for revolutionaries. He brought those ideals into his everyday life in the way he treated other people regardless of their religion or their social standing.

My mother was born in Ballinasloe, a town deeply associated with Travellers, at a time when Travellers, or Tinkers as they were known then, were very much part of the fabric of society, particularly of rural society. Regular association with Travellers was part of her life until she came to Dublin, and Mrs Connors was probably the first Traveller woman that she had the opportunity to meet and converse with regularly since her move to Dublin.

Even as a child it was obvious to me that there was a mutual respect there. And it rubbed off on my siblings and on me. The Connors family were Travellers in the same way as the Browne family was a chemist’s family or the Stokes family was a motor trade family. It was simply a fact.

The notion of inequality only came into it because of the circumstances in which the Connors family were forced to live.

Travellers relied heavily up until the early 1960s on their skill as tinsmiths, supplying buckets, jugs, basins and so on to households, farms and shops. The arrival of cheap plastic products wiped out that means of earning a living, just as the arrival of mechanisation onto farms wiped out their seasonal work as farm labourers and their trade as horse-breeders and traders.

Travellers were the victims of the ‘market’ in the same way as British steel workers today are the victims of the ‘market’. A once very useful community of workers and people rendered useless, overnight.

Both of my parents, now deceased, would be distraught at last week’s news of the killing of ten members of Mrs Connors extended family. And it was a ‘killing’, given the conditions in which they were forced to live – dumped on the wastelands in unsafe buildings, or harried from place to place when they provided better mobile accommodation for themselves. This was a disaster waiting to happen.

There are solutions to all of the issues around Traveller life and their relationship with wider society – and society’s relationship with Travellers. It should not take a half a century to arrive at mutually acceptable solutions, but it has, and no end in sight. The triumph of failure.

Respect and dignity come to mind as a starting place. Citizenship with rights and responsibilities come to mind – on both sides of the divide. Adequate homes whether mobile or settled, together with health services, education and access to training and work come to mind. The sort of things, in other words, that we demand for the settled community, some of whom are also failed by the State most often among the working class.

Like the working class, Travellers are as intelligent, as gifted, possess as much latent potential as members of any other social class. What they are denied from the earliest age is the opportunity to achieve their full potential, and consequently denied their due measure of happiness and prosperity. They are, just as members of the working class are, denied access to those instruments of advancement that are the preserve of the middle class and the wealthy, and instead thrown onto the scrapheap, and then blamed for the degradation imposed on them.

That is an insane thrashing of valuable human resources. Only a sick society would countenance this, and only an idiotic economist or a venal politician would go along with it, or worse still, promote it.

And to anyone tempted to bring up lawlessness on the part of the Traveller community as an ‘Ah, but’, let me just say this. ‘Go to Hell’, and on your way there cast an eye on every strand of Irish society, every social class, and tell me that lawlessness isn’t present there too. Tell me that white-collar crime hasn’t brought terror into people’s homes, or that rampant corruption at the level of the State and the political class hasn’t led to premature deaths of citizens in their thousands.

It is time to end this blight of perpetual failure as a society to resolve the relationship between Travellers and the rest of society and vice versa. It is not just for the good of Travellers, it is for the good of society, of ourselves as humans, to rid ourselves of this inhumane set of attitudes.

There is a far superior set of values laid out in the Proclamation of the Irish Republic.

“The Republic guarantees religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizens, and declares its resolve to pursue the happiness and prosperity of the whole nation and of all its parts, cherishing all of the children of the nation equally, and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.”

Apartheid has no place in that republic.

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About Tom Stokes

Tom Stokes is a writer and journalist, and has taught media and journalism at foundation and under-grad levels. He holds a BA in Communications and Cultural Studies and an MA in Journalism from Dublin City University. He is a grandson of John Stokes, a striking tram driver in the 1913 Lockout and a Volunteer in Boland’s Mill in the 1916 revolution. He is an organiser of the Citizens’ Initiative to establish a new national day in Ireland on April 24th, to be known as Republic Day, and is co-organiser with Marie Mulholland of the campaign to have Ireland's new children's hospital dedicated to the memory of Dr Kathleen Lynn, to be named The Kathleen Lynn National Children's Hospital. View all posts by Tom Stokes

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