Am I Equal?
When my family settled down in west Belfast 30 years ago I was very young, but even at that early stage, I knew I was treated differently from my experience of my former school in Dublin. I was segregated in the class as well as the playground with that big white line that we as kids wouldn’t dare to cross and play with the “normal” kids with the threat of a ruler across your legs by the nuns who ran the establishment.
I will always remember the girls from the camp coming in late and paraded to the back of the class with us with wet hair. I cannot remember if I knew why these girls always had wet hair, but I subsequently found out at a later stage when I found out that the nuns made the girls shower before they were allowed into the class. Again this was the vile stereotype that Travellers were dirty and unclean.
This was normal to me as a child and that is why when we came here to west Belfast, my siblings and I started to go to St. Paul’s primary school, 3 miles and 13 other schools away from the Glen Road camp, which was a completely segregated school where we had no chance of mixing with the majority community. Why didn’t we attend one of these 13 schools, one of which was only a 100 yards up the road? My parents tried and the response was on several occasions was “no place here, but there is a school for you people on the Falls road”, referring to St. Pauls. The young people of my generation back then had no national curriculum, just basic reading and writing, no playground and no chance of enrolling into secondary schools, hence me being there til i was 15. Young people didn’t get the chance of secondary schools and were excluded from the chance of getting qualifications that would benefit them in the future. I was one of them.
I’m not saying this to show me as the poor wee Traveller who was wronged, I’m just giving you the facts of what had happened to young Travellers right up until 2000 when this school had to change when the Race Relations Order came into effect in 1997, but in saying this, it took 3 years for the school to change. Even when young people at the time got into mainstream schools, they had to hide their identity to be accepted which still happens today, unfortunately.
I started a community development course with Belfast Travellers Education & Development Group in 1997, significantly on the very day the Race Relations Order came into effect on the 1st August of that year. I didn’t know at the time the implications of such legislation would have on the Traveller community as well as other groups. This was the first time ever that Travellers here were seen as a minority ethnic group and were specifically mentioned in the order as such and that we experience racism and discrimination. Before this order, it was perfectly legal to discriminate on the grounds of race in any area of life because of the NIO’s denial of racism existing here. It took 30 years after such legislation was brought into effect in Britain in 1967. We still struggle for that recognition in the south to this very day with the Irish Government dragging its heels on this issue even with international pressure to see us as a distinct racial and ethnic group from the UN and other bodies.
I didn’t know what to expect from this community development course that day, but it was promised, funding allowed, that there would be posts at the end of the one year course. I was very shy and hardly spoke to the other participants, but with the support and guidance of the tutors, Anne Baird and Allison Connolly and the direction of Paul Noonan, i started to open up and get more and more confident in speaking on behalf of my own community as well as the other participants. Anne and Allison always said to us that they were only keeping the seats warm for us. This was novel to me. This was community development, participation and partnership with settled people working with us to work on our own behalf, take the reins and one day run BTEDG as a Traveller LED organisation. At the end of the course, there were 4 Community Development posts and I was one of the successful applicants.
This was the first time anywhere in the north that this had happened, which was based on Pavee Points model in Dublin. We went out and worked with our community, we got others involved in projects, we spoke to local councils and government regarding issues of health, education, accommodation, training and employment. We worked alongside local groups for shared goals in economic development (with Robbie). This was fantastic, we are equals now along with our settled counterparts in BTEDG as well as other groups. This was the way forward and I still have this etched into my way of thinking ever since. At this time there were 3 Traveller organisations in Belfast alone, BTEDG of course, Belfast Travellers Support Group (whom I became a board member) and Traveller Movement NI and there were organisations in Derry, Newry, Armagh, Coalisand, Omagh. This was at a time where Travellers felt optimism, including me in a flourishing Traveller movement in the north with strong links with others in the south, including ITM and Pavee Point.
But this was short lived. Organisations started to feel the pinch in terms of funding. Traveller Movement NI board, who were made up of all TSG’s started to show cracks in terms of infighting and disagreement. This wasn’t the Traveller community, it was co-ordinators of the various TSGs that were loosing the sight of the bigger picture and fighting for funding of their own groups. TMNI closed due to lack of funding and this severed the only link we had in terms of a co-ordinated approach to the fight for Traveller inclusion and equality. Other Traveller groups merged, which wasn’t a bad thing and others like Omagh and then eventually Derry Travellers Support group closed.
What do we have now? We have around 4-5 organisations that work with Travellers and just a few part time Traveller workers in them, unfortunately. I don’t blame these groups or the workers with the lack of Traveller workers or participation, but I do blame their management and boards for their increasing lack of vision, community development and empowerment of our community in which their respective organisations were born out of in terms of participation and their missions of being Traveller led. This seems to have been lost and the lack of Travellers in roles within them, never mind senior roles, is a damming indictment in which their managements are working. We need to get back to the vision and optimism of 1997 and work, alongside each other in our respective groups for the good of the Traveller community, rather than fighting each other for funding or diminishing each others way of working that harms and still harms our small community. Full and equal partnership is needed within our fragmented movement which eventually should be led by us, Irish Travellers and Gypsies who are very capable of this task.
Mark Donahue Co-Founder/ Programme Manager CRAIC NI
“You’d better get born in someplace else…” Wednesday 6 August 2014, St. Mary’s University College, Falls Road, Belfast