Anti-racism is not a pick ‘n’ choose

Institutional racism and the Traveller community

Nick O'Neill12/06/2020

The suicide rate among Traveller men is 7 times higher than the general population. Infant mortality rates are almost 4 times higher. Life expectancy at birth is 15.1 years less for Traveller men and 11.5 years less for Traveller women than the rest of the population. Life expectancy for Traveller men did not improve over the 20-year period from 1987 to 2008. The Traveller unemployment rate is now as high as 85%. Only 13% of Traveller children complete second level education compared to 92% in the settled community. Travellers are over 50 times more likely to leave school without the leaving certificate than the general population. Just 0.5% of Travellers continue on to higher education and graduate. Less than one third of funds allocated for Traveller accommodation last year had been spent by the end of October 2019, with 14 local authorities failing to spend any of their Traveller housing budget. Of the €13 million allocated for Traveller-specific accommodation by the Department of Housing, just €4.08 million was spent. The National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) estimates half of Travellers have poor literacy levels compared to one in six of the general population. Travellers are 38 times more likely to report discrimination in shops, pubs and restaurants than the settled community and 90% of Travellers have experienced discrimination in their lifetime[1].


These statistics are only the tip of the iceberg. They do not take into account the daily lived experiences of the Traveller community and the socially accepted anti-Traveller hatred which is endemic in Irish society.


The murder of George Floyd has sparked a worldwide stand against police brutality and racial injustice. As Angela Davis recently stated, “I don’t know if we have ever experienced this kind of global challenge to racism”[2]. Here in Ireland, most have united behind the Black Lives Matter movement, including our political leaders. On Friday 5th June, during an exclusive interview with Pat Kenny, caretaker Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pledged that the next government will “focus on racism, on rooting it out, on campaigns against it”. He went further to say that “black lives matter, but also black feelings matter too”[3].


However, the record of successive Fine Gael governments since 2011 suggests that black, brown, immigrant, refugee and Traveller lives (and feelings) don’t matter. The inhumane Direct Provision system and the lack of effective hate crime legislation in Ireland underline this point, as do the statistics relating to the Traveller community at the outset of this article.

The manifestations of institutional racism against the Traveller community in Ireland is evident in their poor housing conditions, low educational outcomes, healthcare inequalities and high unemployment rates. This piece will focus on the exclusion of Travellers from the labour market and the racial discrimination which has underpinned it.


Labour market exclusion  

Before COVID-19, Ireland was described as having ‘full’ employment. The CSO revealed an unemployment rate of 4.8% in November 2019, its lowest level in 13 years[4]. The pandemic has laid bare the misleading nature of this figure. It has revealed that many of those employed were in precarious and insecure work, highlighting the problem with policies aimed solely at labour market participation rather than what the job provides in reality.


This raises two important points. First, this policy approach has clearly excluded Travellers. Ireland had ‘full’ employment and yet 80% of Travellers in the labour force were still unemployed - compared to 13% in the settled population[5]. This highlights the structural and systemic barriers faced by Travellers in finding employment and sustaining it. Factors such as low educational outcomes and discrimination in the workplace are underpinned by institutional racism and inequality. According to research by IHREC and the ESRI:


“Irish Travellers report very high rates of discrimination in seeking work, where they are 10 times more likely than White Irish to experience discrimination, and extremely high rates of discrimination in private services, where they were over 22 times more likely to report discrimination, particularly in shops, pubs and restaurants”[6].


Moreover, a 2017 Behaviour and Attitudes study found that 83% of the general population would not employ a Traveller[7]. Travellers are forced to hide their identity to get jobs. It is evident that many doors are closed to Travellers and anti-Traveller racism continues to go unchecked. The Joint Oireachtas Committee on issues affecting the Traveller community highlighted in December 2019 that 43% of Travellers have experienced discrimination when trying to access employment.


Second, it is evident that there is a need for new ideas to address these barriers and a shift away from the status quo. Past policy responses to external shocks raises serious concerns about how the government will respond to an imminent second economic crisis in 12 years. In the aftermath of the 2008 recession, Traveller-specific supports were cut by 80% despite the fact that Travellers are among the most marginalised groups in Ireland[8]. This meant that by 2011, most targeted supports (especially in education) for Travellers were discontinued as part of austerity measures.


In 2017, there appeared to be renewed optimism for the Traveller community with the government recognition of Travellers as a minority ethnic group and the publication of the National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy (NTRIS), the flagship policy in relation to Travellers in Ireland. However, as NTRIS reaches its final year, there has been a significant gap between its expressed aims and full implementation in relation to employment – as well as its other main areas.


Alternative thinking

There is a concern that the post pandemic landscape will see policymakers instinctively focus on job activation and cutting spending to balance budgets – policy approaches that have disproportionately impacted the Traveller community in the past. In the short term, we must ensure that there is not a repeat of the policy response to the 2008 economic crisis and that preventative measures are in place so that Travellers are not further marginalised. As employment returns to somewhat normal levels, it will be important to not only support those who have experienced job loss as a result of COVID-19, but also people who were already unemployed and have always faced barriers to employment.


In the longer term, it is essential to address the structural and systemic barriers to employment faced by Travellers. At the heart of this issue is the institutional racism and inequality that has impacted Travellers for generations. We as a society have stood in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement against racism. It is essential that we continue this stand long after the current news cycle ends and take practical steps to eradicate racism in all its forms. The next government needs to demonstrate that it is actually anti-racist and that the last few weeks haven’t been empty rhetoric and performative PR. In terms of the Traveller community, a good place to start is with targeted measures for accessing and participating in employment.




[1] Figures from numerous sources: CSO (2016); ESRI (2017) “A Social Portrait of Travellers in Ireland”; All Ireland Traveller Health Study (AITHS) 2010; National Traveller and Roma Inclusion Strategy, 2017-2021; National Adult Literacy Agency (NALA) Opening Statement to the Special Joint Committee on Key Issues affecting the Traveller Community, 3 December 2019; Joint Committee on Traveller Education, 26 March 2019

[2] Full interview available at:







Tagged with: racism

Nick O'Neill


Nick is a Research Assistant at TASC and contributes to projects on health inequalities. 



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