Wicked prejudice now infects legal system

The acquittal of the Mayo farmer, Pádraig Nally, on the charge of the murder of John Ward, a Traveller, suggests there is not just a wicked and pervasive cultural prejudice against one of the most vulnerable groups in society generally, but that this prejudice has infected the legal system as well.

It is quite extraordinary that a court could find that the mere presence of a Traveller on the farm of a landowner was in itself sufficient provocation to rule out a conviction for murder. The Traveller was first shot, then had ten deep wounds inflicted on his head by a blunt object, and then, after the farmer had gone off and found more shotgun cartridges, killed while crouched down in front of his assailant. The law cannot be so indifferent to the welfare and rights of one of its citizens – or can it? It is one thing to lose confidence that the courts will enforce equality rights for Travellers against pub owners, for instance, but to demean the right to life is something else.

Just consider how we would react if a court in Britain, say 30 years ago, had found the mere presence of an Irish person on the land of an English landowner sufficient provocation to rule out a conviction for murder, following a vicious, brutal and outrageous killing? If a court in Northern Ireland had done so where it was a Catholic that was killed in such circumstances.

The general prejudice against Travellers is shameful. As Hilary Curley reports on page 9 in this issue of Village, most local authorities around the country have failed to meet their legal obligations to provide sufficient accommodation for Travellers. Only three local authorities have met their targets. There was a requirement to provide accommodation for 3,785 families, in fact only 1,371 accommodation units have been provided, which means that thousands of Irish citizens are forced to live in conditions that compare badly with the worst of the developing world. No sewage, no water, no electricity, pest infestation, crowded, unhealthy, unhygienic conditions. Huge health problems, life expectancy far lower than for the settled community.

In addition, disrespect in every facet of their dealings with the rest of society. Often excluded from pubs, hotels and shops because they are Travellers, denied medical care by doctors because they are Travellers. Treated abusively by Gardaí, a major problem. Sometimes denied an education because they are moved from place to place. Targeted by legislative sanction to keep them off property, forcing them to live in dangerous and even more unhygienic sites.

And then reviled because their attitude and at times behaviour reflects their anger at how they are treated. Of course there are problems within the Traveller community, feuding, for instance. But aren't such problems inevitable given how they are treated as a community?

They feel deeply angered by the refusal of the State to acknowledge them as a separate ethnic group, by which they mean a group identifiable by ancestry, culture, history, tradition and a strong sense of belonging.

This prejudice is a problem not just for the Traveller community but for the rest of society as well. It has to be addressed first through justice, then through the enforcement of equality rights, then through education and through dialogue.

A suggestion was made some time ago to establish an informal commission comprised of Travellers and settled people to examine problems within the Traveller community, problems between the settled community and Travellers and problems within the settled community in relation to Travellers. The very process of public hearings might be educative for everyone. Providing a public forum for Travellers to tell of how they have been reviled and discriminated against might help the rest of us understand what we are doing to them. There might even emerge recommendations, some of which, sometime, might be implemented.

But there is for now an issue of law. It cannot be tolerable that provocation of the kind that arose in the John Ward case should be the legal basis for an acquittal on a murder charge, especially given the brutality of the killing. It is disquieting that not a single voice has been raised about it this in the legal profession or among politicians. Are we so indifferent?