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Belfast Travellers: Services and Policies

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Published: Tue, 14 Aug 2018

Case Study – Belfast Travellers

The case study examines the provision of accommodation and other services for the travelling community in the Belfast area over a 30 year time period. During this time many different agencies, including the Department of the Environment (DoE), the Belfast City Council (BCC), the Northern Ireland Housing Executive (NIHE) and a number of voluntary sector organizations, were involved in attempting to provide services to the travellers. This essay will examine the degree to which the travellers participated in specifying their needs and in designing policies to address them, and relate such consultation to different concepts of participation mentioned by Cornwall (2003). The concluding paragraph will evaluate the success, or otherwise, of such participation in delivering a sense of empowerment and self-reliance to the travelling community.

Although community development has been a strategy of both statutory and voluntary sectors in Northern Ireland (NI) for many years[1], until relatively recently it does not seem to have been applied to the travelling community. This process works at a community level, through community groups and the appointment of local community development workers who “engage with the community to identify needs, raise issues, and develop programmes … to address those needs”.[2] Although this strategy was no doubt consciously applied to the settled community, there is little evidence of it being used before 1992 with the travelling community. For example, the initial issues for providing accommodation for the travellers involved the provision of camping sites. At the Colin Glen site there were problems of overcrowding, compounded by the relocation to the site of families unrelated to those already there, which caused conflict between the groups. A contributing factor to this deterioration was the lack of consultation with the travellers before moving additional families to the site. The entire site was eventually abandoned[3]. Initially the BCC provided sites, but these were often poorly serviced and were built without proper consultation. Responsibility for providing accommodation for travellers was later moved to the NIHE, and travellers were consulted about which families would be housed in group housing, developed through the use of housing associations.[4] However, they were not active in the running of the housing associations.[5] A report from 1980 titled Services for Travelling People in NI, issued by the Coordinating Committee for Social Problems, stated that the various voluntary sector agencies involved with the travelling community felt that they had effective policies, even though there had been no consultation with travellers.[6] More encouragingly, the Belfast Travellers Site Project (BTSP) was set up in 1985 with a committee consisting of 50% travellers and 50% settled people. Its aims were to improve sites in Belfast and to have an input into policies regarding travellers in general.[7] In 1992 BTSP initiated a number of community-based activities, and one of their most important initiatives was that travellers were employed to work as community workers in their own communities. This initiative seems to fall within Cornwall’s description of “invited participation”.[8] Amongst the successes of the community development approach, the committee felt it had contributed to “an increase in the travellers’ sense of worth and the value of their particular culture”.[9]

The state also played its part in trying to create an environment in which citizens could give input about issues affecting them. More attention was given to a rights-based approach to development, and in 1998 the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission was established, which gave the travellers an opportunity to make official complaints.[10] This resonates with what the study guide has to say about the “concept of citizenship” [11] as well as with Cornwall’s concept of an “aware citizenry”[12]

Probably the most important improvement in the possibilities for participation came from the creation of An Munia Tober ((The Good Road) in 2005, from an amalgamation of a number of smaller community groups.

Their objectives are “to provide services and act as an advocate for travellers, as well as offering opportunities for travellers to be involved in their own development” [13]

In general, the voluntary sector has been consistent in trying to encourage the travellers to share in decision making and to participate in the management of projects, and several agencies have included representatives from travellers. However, travellers still feel that there is insufficient consultation. Those that do participate often feel that their views are not given due weight. For this reason, groups that work with travellers continue to promote their active participation, and try to help them to obtain the skills they need to contribute effectively. A proposed “All Ireland study on Travellers”, due to have started in 2007, intended to train travellers as researchers. The intention was not only to teach new skills, but also to impart increased ownership, improve confidence, and thereby reduce any inhibitions against forcefully arguing their case. [14]

The success or failure of the various interventions in obtaining participation from the travelling community, and thereby imbuing them with a sense of empowerment and self-reliance, is difficult to judge. Certainly, the failures to obtain input and participation resulted in notable disasters, such as at Colin Glen. The Traveller Movement (NI) concluded that there had been “a policy failure of staggering proportions” in the treatment of travellers in general.[15] However, the success of the NIHE in accommodating over 50% of the travellers in group housing, consulting with them about which families to house together, demonstrates that a participative approach can produce good results. The policies of the BTSP in employing travellers as community workers, and in involving greater numbers of travellers in educational and health related activities, have contributed to an improvement in their sense of worth. On balance, both the negative consequences of non-participation, and the positive results from consultative approaches, tend to indicate that participation does contribute to a sense of empowerment and self-reliance.

Bibliography

Course Book

Cornwall, A. (2003) Looking back to move forward in Cornwall, A. Beneficiary, Consumer, Citizen: Perspectives on Participation for Poverty Reduction, Stockholm, SIDA.

Le Mare, A (2006) Belfast travellers: a case study of the provision of housing and services for the travelling community in Belfast

Word Count: With footnotes:1065

Without footnotes:1006

1


Footnotes

[1] Belfast Travellers, 2006: 7

[2] Belfast Travellers, 2006: 7

[3] Belfast Travellers, 2006: 9

[4] Belfast Travellers, 2006: 10

[5] Belfast Travellers, 2006: 15

[6] Belfast Travellers, 2006: 11

[7] Belfast Travellers, 2006: 11

[8] Cornwall, A. 2003: 76-7

[9] Belfast Travellers, 2006 12/13

[10] Belfast Travellers, 2006 14

[11] Course Book: 65

[12] Cornwall, A. 2003: 76

[13] Belfast Travellers, 2006: 16

[14] Belfast Travellers, 2006: 17

[15] Belfast Travellers, 2006: 13


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