November 2020 blog - A conference of hope in times of darkness by Chelsea McDonagh

The Traveller Movement's Annual Conference is always the highlight of the year for me but the noticeable difference between this year’s conference and last is no doubt the transition to Zoom and the absence of post conference drinks and chats in the Coronet! Despite this and my fears of being ‘zoomed out’ the online conference was enjoyable and minor technological difficulties did not deter us. I went away feeling a renewed sense of hope, the strength in the voices of fellow activists reminding me that I’m not alone and the support of those from other Minority Ethnic groups reminding me that this is not a niche issue that only we care about.

Far too often the voices of Gypsies, Roma and Travellers can be far removed the world of policy and policy makers, and it often feels as though we are talking into the void. The Traveller Movement’s Annual Conference was an opportunity for us to bring together people from across a range of sectors and civil society groups to hear about the issues most affecting Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people.

Senator Eileen Flynn delivered the Key Note Speech and she is the first Irish Traveller elected as a senator in Ireland. Being elected to the Houses of Oireachtas was a beacon of hope for many of us who see ourselves reflected in her appointment. Listening to Eileen speak was like a breath of fresh air, she spoke candidly of the struggles on her journey and the challenges that she continues to face.

Not much has changed for our community. Having one person in the Houses of Oireachtas doesn’t mean we have equality. I sometimes feel pigeonholed. Having one Traveller senator doesn’t take the responsibility away from other politicians - Senator Eileen Flynn

Whilst it seems as though we are a long way off having a Gypsy, Roma or Travelled elected as a Member of Parliament (MP), we have to remember that the current approach to equality and diversity is flawed. A single representative or even a few being elected does not invalidate or solve the institutional discrimination faced by Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people. Indeed, a similar comment was made by Romany activist Luke Smith who pointed out that Gypsy, Roma and Traveller people joining the police is not a golden ticket to solving the systematic issues within the Criminal Justice System. It is a reminder that there is still much work to be done and whilst these can be seen as positive steps, they are not the end of the journey.

The conference was an opportunity to strengthen and relight the fire of my own activism which has felt like a mere ember in recent months, and listening to the wealth of speakers reminded me of the importance of the work we do. Eileen’s rallying calls for us to work together, to support each other and to give each other a hand, rather than kick the ladder down behind us is still echoing in my mind. I go away with a renewed sense of purpose and a drive to ensure that not only are our voices heard and our concerns listened to, but that they are enacted upon.