SSJ20160: There Is No Universally Accepted Definition Of Ethnicity. Similarly, There Is No Universal Definition For National Minorities Or Racial Groups: Race And Racism Assignment, UCD, Ireland

There is no universally accepted definition of ethnicity. Similarly, there is no universal definition for national minorities or racial groups. However, these terms are used across national legislative codes and international agreements, often in contexts in which, if a group is recognized as having ethnic status, significant rights accrue to that group, with associated responsibilities on the part of the state.

This article does not seek to problematize these terms nor to question their application in the context of Irish Travellers. Rather, this article will unpick the legal ramifications of recognizing Irish Travellers as an ethnic group in a context whereby almost uniquely many of the rights that are associated with such recognition were already granted by the state and where the state had at least recognized though not fulfilled its responsibilities to that group.

In the EU, both the Racial Equality Directive and the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights prohibit discrimination based on racial or ethnic origin, while the Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities specifically protects the rights of groups and individuals based on national origin. However, Pap (2014) argues that policymakers and legal professionals require a decision on which definition to use in order to adequately protect the rights of the specific group.

In Ireland, there is no agreed definition for the ethnic group. The term is not defined legislatively. The census problematically conflates ethnic, national, and racialized identities, asking respondents to specify their“ethnic or cultural background” in accordance with the following categories: Irish/Irish Traveller/Any other White background/African/Any other Black background/Chinese/Any other Asian background/Other. Pavee Point, the Irish Traveller and Roma Centre, describe an ethnic minority group as one which shares some or all of the following: culture, religion, history, language, or place of origin. This, they state, differs from a national minority.

The statement by Prime Minister Enda Kenny recognizing Irish Travellers as an ethnic group emphasized that no new rights would be conferred on the community as a consequence. This article addresses the assertion that the historically significant recognition of Irish Traveller ethnicity by the state has no implications for Travellers’ rights and explores the reasoning behind the statement.

Following a brief profile of the Traveller community for the benefit of international readership, we present a summary history of the Traveller ethnicity debate, outlining the dimensions of Traveller ethnicity and the logic that is perceived to have informed the Irish state’s denial. We then present an overview of the recognition of the ethnic status of Travellers in adjacent jurisdictions, namely, England, Wales, and Northern Ireland.

The Taoiseach’s statement recognizing Travellers’ ethnic status is presented next, and the position it asserts regarding the effect of recognition on Traveller rights is established. We explore the expert and activist opinions that informed this position and consider their perspectives on the utility of ethnic recognition in the absence of additional rights.

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