At the beginning of March, the Irish government formally recognised Travellers as “a distinct ethnic group within the Irish nation”. Cheers broke out in the chamber and MPs stood and applauded the Traveller activists who had packed into the viewing gallery.
On the street outside and in a hotel across the road, many more Travellers had gathered to witness the historic moment of recognition, for which the community has campaigned for decades.
Although the change confers no tangible additional benefits, it is a major step forward for Ireland’s 40,000 travellers and for the whole country which, for so long, has treated this ethnic community with prejudice and contempt.
To understand why this campaign has now succeeded, after many years of effort, we need to look at two key events in 2015.
In May of that year, Ireland famously became the first country in the world to introduce same-sex marriage by popular vote and, suddenly, became the progressive darling of the world. This was a new feeling for Irish people – we’re used to being regularly reminded that our country is hopelessly religious and socially conservative – and politicians developed a taste for it.
They quite liked the idea of being “the best small country in the world” for progressive social reform.
Then, five months later, early in the morning on 10 October, a fire broke out in a ramshackle temporary halting site on the outskirts of Dublin. Ten people from two Traveller families died, five of them children.
Traveller activists demanded that the disaster be treated as a turning point, highlighting that families around the country were living in similar appalling conditions, neglected by local and national government.
Their statements deliberately tapped into the progressive momentum created by the marriage referendum, weaving Travellers’ rights into the narrative of the new, more inclusive Ireland. And it resonated. Politicians grasped that – moral arguments aside – they had an opportunity to show off their progressive credentials once again, to make a symbolic change that means a lot to one small community, but has no cost for the population at large.
Indeed, both Traveller and LGBTQ activists have identified a powerful campaigning narrative, one that’s built on a positive idea of a richer Ireland, not on the dark abuses of the past.
“We’re building a new, progressive, compassionate Ireland,” the message goes. “And you need to be part of it.”
But the greatest test of this message is still ahead: with the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, recognise women’s bodily autonomy and provide basic abortion services. Despite other progressive advances, this is an issue that most mainstream politicians are too afraid to touch.
And it is difficult to put a positive spin on abortion rights, in a country where the religious pro-life narrative remains immensely powerful. It’s easy to build an inspiring ad campaign around couples getting married, or a minority community celebrating its culture. It’s a lot harder to create an inspiring campaign about basic healthcare, even before you bring in painful issues like rape or fatal foetal abnormality.
That said, the Repeal campaign has made extraordinary strides in the last year or two, learning the lessons of the marriage equality campaign in particular. You can now buy impressively stylish sweatshirts and button badges showing your support for repeal. Artists, musicians, comedians and writers are using their voices and work to support the campaign, slowly turning it into a rich cultural movement.
And after decades of profound silence, more and more people are coming forward to tell their personal stories, and to paint a picture of a warmer society, in which women’s choices are respected and understood.
They’re building a new, progressive, compassionate Ireland. And pretty soon, the mainstream will want to be part of it.