Irish Travellers do not see eye to eye with the Police

The Emerald Isle is famed for its low crime levels – it’s even been called “a policeman’s paradise”. But the Republic is far from utopian. Its national police force, the Garda Siochána (or Guardians of the Peace), has been accused of disproportionate responses towards ethnic minorities, and even racism. In 2001 Amnesty International commissioned a survey of ethnic minorities in Ireland - 25% of respondents said that they had been discriminated against by the police at least once.

For almost all of their history the Irish have been a nation who migrated to countries across the world. But since the 1990s the world has been migrating to Ireland. The largest immigrant populations are from the UK, Poland, America, Germany and the Baltic states. Of the immigrants who have had contact with the police, a tenth said that they had been badly treated.

But the group who have had the most trouble with the Gardaí are the Travellers. They only make up 0.5% of Ireland’s population, but have been on the island for a millennium. Compared to the settled population, they have low literacy rates and low life expectancy. Despite years of campaigning and support from the Human Rights arm of the UN, Travellers are not recognised as a distinct ethnic group by the Irish government. Their nomadic lifestyle means that they are frequently told by police to move on, as landowners don’t want them to camp on their property.

In 2005 Dr Mulcahy of University College Dublin published his report “Policing and Social Marginalisation in Ireland” which drew on a survey conducted by the Irish Times on the experiences of Travellers. 38% said that they had been discriminated against by Garda officers. There is a perception among Travellers that the police are not acting impartially and for the benefit of all Irish citizens, but rather act at the behest of the settled community. One respondent to the survey recalls twenty police officers arriving to deal with a small argument between a landowner and a Traveller family.

On the flip side, Travellers also complain that they are under-protected by the Gardaí when they are the victims of crime. One police officer, when asked to intervene in a fight between Travellers, reportedly said: “As long as you keep it inside the gate of that site, we don’t give a shite what you do.” In one report Travellers repeatedly said that “the police response often oscillated between a failure to attend at all, or else to attend in disproportionately large numbers”.

The Travellers’ mistrust of the Gardaí is unlikely to dissolve away even if they begin to treat the Travellers with more respect, as many Traveller children learn early on that the Gardaí are at best a nuisance. The failure of the Gardaí to carry out their duty is depressingly captured in one interviewee’s statement: “a lot of my family wouldn’t go near the guards or a police station if their life was depending on it, because their experiences have all been negative in relation to the guards.”

A lot of Travellers recalled instances of good policing, and this usually related to individual police officers. The bulk of their complaints were about the organisation and its culture as a whole. Training sessions are given to new recruits in an attempt to improve relations, but when they start work it often becomes hard to practise what they had been taught.

Why do many police officers treat Travellers so badly? Interviews with Gardaí reveal that the perception that many, if not most Travellers are irresponsible and untrustworthy is commonplace. “They’re compulsive liars … to the point of not even telling you their name”, said one officer. Some believe that they are particularly violent, with one officer saying that to Travellers they are “just a target”. The fact that they are often on the move makes them difficult to police, adding to the frustration of the Gardaí. Which came first, Travellers’ lack of respect for the police or the police’s lack of respect for Travellers, is like the old question about the chicken and the egg. But it is apparent that many of the Gardaí feel that they have little choice but to police Travellers disproportionately. 

In recent years drug use and dependence has become a major problem within the Traveller community, and the number of problematic drug users has been growing. Not enough Travellers are taking, or can take advantage of drug treatment. Some Travellers have even complained of “racism, discrimination and stereotyping on the part of drug services”. Many fear that, without proper support, more Travellers will resort to criminality, which will make the police’s job harder and reinforce negative perceptions of Travellers.

Life may be hard for many Travellers, and the attitude of the police towards them certainly doesn’t help. But with the backing of a variety of campaign organisations, such as Pavee Point and the Irish Traveller Movement, there is hope that their problems will be redressed.