Thomas McCann, Aodhán Ó Ríordáin and Margaret McDonagh at the Mincéirs Whiden to launch its Traveller Voting Pack
By Shwetali Sapte and Victoria Prince
“Let’s make this year the year of equality,” said Minister of State for Equality Aodhán Ó Ríordáin at the launch of a new initiative to encourage democratic participation among Ireland’s Traveller community.
Coming on the heels of the same-sex marriage referendum, and before their expected new ethnic status later this year, all-Traveller organisation Mincéirs Whiden launched its Traveller Voting Pack on 16 June to encourage the community to vote and make Irish democracy more inclusive.
Travellers have possessed voting rights since Ireland became a free state, but Irish law requires a citizen to have a fixed address for a minimum of six months to be able to vote.
Still, while most of Ireland’s 40,000 Travellers have settled in recent decades and can avail of their franchise, they are still far from being viewed as equals in society.
According to Mincéirs Whiden, Travellers are among the most ostracised groups in Europe and face social, political, and economic exclusion from the settled community.
Founded in 2008, the activist organisation says it aims to achieve acceptance for the Traveller way of life, as well as improve living standards for their people.
“Travellers have been excluded from the democratic process since the transition of this State,” said the group’s Thomas McCann. “These decades of living on the outskirts of society have taken their toll on the community.
“Unemployment is high and the suicide rate is six times the national average, while life expectancy is 15 years lower for male Travellers as compared to settlers.”
When it comes to political involvement, some Travellers have successfully run for election – such as Martin Ward, former mayor of Tuam, and past Longford Mayor Tom Stokes – and Mincéirs Whiden hopes to increase that number to improve Traveller representation.
With the 100th anniversary of the 1916 Easter Uprising coming next year, the group has set out to secure the same rights and representation for their community as Irish rebels sought for themselves a century ago.
By emphasising solidarity between Travellers, using voting rights to create a strong representative voice in the political system, and politically mobilising the community to bring about social reform, Mincéirs Whiden hopes its efforts will make Ireland’s democracy fundamentally comprehensive and help lessen ethnic discrimination.
A panel discussion at the launch raised the idea of individual capability versus the collective power of the community. McCann commended the acts of individuals who not only register to vote but actually vote as well, but was also quick to emphasise that the voice of an entire community will be monumentally stronger than any one individual.
Poised for a change
Although the traveller community in Ireland remains marginalised in most facets of Irish life, it is clear that they are poised for a change, he added.
The panel also agreed that once Traveller ethnicity is recognised in Irish law, the Traveller community will experience positive social and political change.
Some changes are already underway, with the Department of Justice and Equality currently re-evaluating Ireland’s National Traveller and Roma Integration Strategy with plans to make the changes necessary to achieve more tolerance and acceptance among Ireland’s people as a whole.
If “this community is important”, as Minister Ó Ríordáin stated, the panel heard that now is the time to recognise the value of the Traveller vote.