As we as a country move further towards a diverse and pluralistic society, the question of the integration of minorities proves more pertinent, and indeed more troublesome, than ever before. We as a society must decide where the line between the acceptance of a general cultural consensus, and the accommodation of its transgression, is drawn.
At a recent seminar entitled 'Celebrating Traveller Culture', sociologist Fr. Michael MacGreil suggested that the creation of separate schools for travellers would help in the preservation of their culture. He also went on to say that when Travellers are “treated adequately their conditions will improve”, and negative attitudes regarding them could be replaced by more “reasonable and just dispositions”.
This of course raises the question of what exactly is in need of preservation, and at what point do cultural differences present an obstacle to social cohesiveness. While I respect any group’s right to observe their own traditions and customs, that does not negate their responsibility to integrate into a certain social structure. This includes observing the rule of law and, where possible, contributing to the economy through employment. It is quite apparent that as a whole, and when compared to the rest of the general population, Travellers- in general- do not fit these criteria.
While I have no doubt that Travellers experience widespread discrimination; if they expect to be treated with respect they must, in turn, respect their settled neighbors and the system which supports them. It is a two-way road.
Travellers make up a disproportionate number of the prison population, their children are six times more likely to be taken into alternative care and have a paltry 16% rate of employment. These statistics are simply unacceptable. The fact that the vast majority of the Travelling community contributes nothing in the way of economic activity is a reality which can’t be ignored, and no amount of politically correct pontificating to the contrary changes this.
With the provision of rights comes responsibility. Their responsibility lies in their obligation to reasonably assimilate with the rest of the population. If their culture is to be preserved, then they must also accept the more shameful aspects of their lifestyle and work towards there eradication. So surely to improve attitudes regarding them and, indeed their conditions in general, greater community contribution and commitment is required.
The creation of a two-tiered school system would surely serve to further promote an insular community when their contribution to the general community is often minimal as it is.
Fr. MacGreil also implored that we foster greater interaction between the settled and Travelling communities through local community projects and events. Surely the most fundamental and obvious place for such relations is in the class room self? Why segregate them in school and expect to foster good relations elsewhere? And if we instigate separate schools for travellers, why stop there? Why not have schools for Poles, Africans, Muslims and every colour and creed imaginable?
Because to do so would be to create countless groups of people disengaged from the rest of society. Instead of a someway homogenous society, we would be creating an incoherent mass of self contained tribes that have little interest in the greater community. If we are to have a diverse and multi cultural society (as we now have), then we must ensure that it is one where the various minorities involved integrate effectively and accept our cultural norms. This goes for the Travelling community as well. Is there not a point where the accommodation of alternative cultures actually threatens the broader consensus? I believe so.
It is unfortunate that Travellers fare so poorly in terms of education and life expectancy and it goes without saying that attempts should be made to rectify this. However to say that it is simply prejudice and the general population’s ill treatment of Travellers that is to blame for their woes, as Fr. MacGreil does, is naive and incorrect. Due to their nomadic lifestyle, most Traveller children receive little in the way of a steady education and as a result most leave school at a very early age.
Now, if they are poorly educated and have trouble finding employment that is due to a decision they made allowing their children to drop out of the school system. What should we do to remedy this? Perhaps create a network of mobile schools on wheels to allow education to go where ever the pupils do?
To deprive your children of an education in this day and age is simply irresponsible and destined to create problems in later life. So what then? If the state were to intervene and seek custody the cries of “discrimination!” would be left ringing in our ears for as long as it takes a sprightly young solicitor to prepare a case.
If they choose to live the way they do, the state can only go as far as reasonable to accommodate them; this means not going so far as to be of detriment to the majority. I believe the solution to the problems they encounter lies in their own hands to a large degree. Playing the victim will not solve anything and perhaps it is time that some of them accepted this.
For in a democracy it is the majority that should dictate to the minority and not the other way round.