It is almost 17 years to the day since I won a historic case that established in law that Irish Travellers are an ethnic minority and entitled to the same protections as other ethnic minorities in Britain.
After the ruling, I stood on the steps outside the court and said: “For the first time in our lives we feel we can proudly and publicly tell everyone we are Irish Travellers.” When I said these words, I believed we would finally be free from the discrimination and prejudice that my people had suffered for so long.
But as research published this week by the Traveller Movement shows, that couldn’t have been further from the truth. My people continue to suffer, on almost a daily basis, the same injustices I fought to end.
The people who took part in the research told stories of experiencing prejudice and discrimination in doing things most people take for granted.
In schools, our difference is always highlighted and our children are treated by teachers as if they will always fail. When our children are bullied or called racist names, rarely is anything done. One Traveller said that when they reported being bullied to the headteacher, they were told to “tone down the Traveller thing and maybe it would stop”. It didn’t stop. It never does.
When we try to register with doctors, we are wrongly told we cannot if we do not have a fixed abode. When my wife and I used to take our children to the doctor, they wouldn’t let them lie on the bed when they examined them and instead made them lie on the floor. Because we were Travellers – and that must mean we were dirty.
In the workplace we are regularly refused a job because of who we are. Many of us are fired once our employers find out our background and sometimes colleagues refuse to work with us. Just because we are Travellers.
Even when we go on a family trip to the pub for a Sunday roast or to the pictures, we are told we are not welcome. Again, just because we are Travellers.
People often ask me why Travellers have widespread distrust for institutions or authorities. But if your experience of these services was marked by ridicule and an overwhelming sense that you were not welcome, would you trust them to help you?
Four out of five of the Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people who took part in the research said they had experienced hate crime or hate speech. But, as the government acknowledges, few incidents are reported by these communities.
Instead of reporting racism to the police or seeking legal help, most Gypsies, Roma and Travellers said they try to hide their ethnicity: 77% said they had never sought help when they experienced discrimination.
And that is what breaks my heart most of all. Too many of us still see this racism as a fact of life – something we can do nothing about. Instead of taking legal action, we tell our children to not to let people know who they are because otherwise we will be told we can’t go swimming or to watch a film. Too many of us think, “what’s the point?”– or, as one Traveller said: “It will never stop, so why bother?”
To that I say: this is the point. If our community is finally going to be free from discrimination, prejudice and racism, we need to show, using the courts, that we will no longer stand for it and that services can no longer get away with it.
It is only by coming forward and showing that we matter too that we can make sure our children and grandchildren don’t suffer the same racism and hatred that we have.