Impact of Conflict on Travellers
We know that conflict is not about violence, but that one of the reasons we have developed this resource is that in some instances, people have resulted to violence to try and resolve conflicts- and this, what is sometimes called “Traveller Conflict”, “Traveller/Traveller Violence” or “Traveller Feuding”- is the main reason that this website has been developed to look at ways of resolving non-violent conflict or working with people to manage conflict in ways that do not resort or escalate to violence.
Conflict, specifically instances of Traveller-Traveller conflict or “internal feuding” was identified as a huge issue for members of the Irish Traveller Movement over a number of years. Conflict has a huge impact on Travellers in a number of ways. Directly, families are affected with violence, including loss of life, destruction of property, intimidation, stress and families forced to leave their homes. Children often had to leave schools and relationships that families had built up in a geographic area were destroyed. People’s mental health suffered from stress due to violence or the threat of violence.
Families who were forced to leave one area were often asked to rebuild their lives in a new area where local authorities are hostile to providing accommodation for “non-indigenous” Travellers. Travellers in these areas often feared that families fleeing conflict would bring trouble with them. Families not directly involved in conflict often feared for repercussions if the conflict broadened out. And high profile instances of Traveller/Traveller violence received high media profile and are often spread widely via social media which adds fuel to stereotypes about all Travellers being involved in anti-social behaviour.
Tensions relating to unresolved or unmanaged conflict adds to stress which has a hugely negative impact on people’s mental health, which is a huge issue for the community, including the high levels of suicide.
Conflict and violence have different impacts at different levels within the community. For young children and young Travellers tensions between families on site can leave a lack of spaces for young Travellers to play or confine where, when or who they can interact with. Breakdown in relationships at an inter-family level can polarise younger Travellers. Safety issues and fear of violence can mean that parents limit where their children can go. If conflict breaks out, local youth services and homework clubs often close, meaning that the few places where children and young people might actually get the space to talk about conflict are closed. Where feuding escalates, families are often forced to leave an area, which is especially traumatic for children who have to leave schools and lose relationships they have built up.
There are different impacts for Traveller Men and Traveller women in relation to conflict. Both men and women can be directly involved in different forms of conflict, including violence, but in relation to feuding, the majority of participants are men, whilst the victims of violence (both physical and emotional) are both men and women, with women suffering additional forms of violence through domestic violence, which has been documented by other organisations such as the NTWF.
Conflict between families can have long-lasting legacies that has other impacts too. The fear of outbreak of violence related to feuding can be a fear around events that otherwise should be a time of celebration, such as weddings, or time where people come to mourn or share their grief, such as funerals and blessings of the graves.
Amplifiers of Conflict
Interconnectedness of Traveller families: One part of Traveller culture is the importance and strength of extended family ties. This is something that is rightly cherished and celebrated. However, if conflict breaks out, the interconnections can amplify tensions and conflict- a local issue can quickly amplify beyond the area where an issue has broken out, and move to becoming an expression of non-local conflict.
Social Media – social media can spread & amplify messages- and with loss of control. Facebook or Youtube can purposely enflame or escalate conflict (“calling out” videos etc) intentionally- but social media can also unintentionally escalate conflict. Without physical cues and connections, comments can be made that can be easily misperceived or have unintended- and very public- consequences, that once comments are made, are very hard to retract as there now is a very large online “audience”. This is something that needs to be recognised and discussed, especially with younger people, in order that everyone realises that Social media can have seriously damaging effects for relationships and create conflict
Drink & Drugs: Substance misuse can aggravate and amplify conflict and tensions. The misuse of substances on site, for example can generate tensions. Conflict could be internal within a family structure whereby parents and their offspring have different views on substance use- especially in relation to drugs, which would relate to issues of control etc. If younger people are drinking and/or taking drugs on site, it can be a source of considerable tension. People who are under the influence of drink or drugs will bypass rational responses and respond to emotional triggers more readily. Someone who is drunk may respond to a trigger or comment that, if sober, they would ignore as part of a conflict management strategy.
There is an additional factor in that some individuals are directly involved in illegal activities, including dealing drugs. Conflict resulting from access to drugs markets within the community move to a point that is beyond the work of any Traveller organisation. What a group can do is create safe spaces for people who are suffering from these forms of violence and intimidation and look to see what community or State responses are needed to challenge this.
What causes conflict?
No one conflict is unique and by looking at the iceberg, it can be seen that many factors that are “unseen” can be the cause (or part of a number of factors) that contribute to an individual/group reacting in a particular way at a particular time, which may cause a reaction based on previous relationship, or cause a specific emotional trigger. How people feel (their emotional state) will profoundly influence how they react to stressful situations, and can cause conflict or escalate conflict.
However, there are a number of factors that contribute to stress among Travellers, which can definitely contribute to people’s emotional state which will be a factor in how people respond, or indeed, create communication breakdown and loss of relationships.
Accommodation: The failure to deliver quality, well-serviced culturally appropriate accommodation has a massive contribution to Travellers health (including mental health). Failure to deliver adequate numbers of units creates situations that sites are dangerously over-crowded, which leads to greater stress. Space becomes limited as families double up. Poor sanitation, lack of access to basic facilities and electricity has demonstrated health effects on Travellers.
As fewer units become available, Travellers by default almost become in competition with each other to secure the limited bays or units as there is far, far greater demand than supply. Lack of transparency at times by local authorities creates situations whereby some families feel that their needs are going unmet, whilst other families with “connections” are having their needs met. In at least some instances, the lack of availability of units has forced families onto sites where there has been conflict before, but failure to take the bay would result in them being taken off the council housing list.
When families do leave Traveller-specific accommodation due to feuding, they are deemed as having made themselves homeless. Some families use their perceived physical power to force members of other families off sites to make room for their own relatives- again, actions which have roots in the lack of accommodation options for families.
Culture: Nomadism facilitated responses to tensions among families by allowing people the freedom to move to avoid conflict or escalation of. With the criminalisation of nomadism and the decrease in Traveller-specific accommodation, this strategy is no longer viable. People who are unable to move away from each other can be located in the same site as people they are in dispute with, and the longer the tensions go unresolved, the greater potential (or inevitability) of conflict escalating.
Traditional forms of conflict dispute among Travellers include the concept of a fair fight, whereby scores were settled and resolved. It has been suggested that with the decrease in nomadism, fair fights can create additional tensions, in that men who fought to settle disputes are often continually in contact with each other, leading to the potential for tensions to rise, and further conflict caused by rematches. Illegal gambling which can involve huge sums of money is now often associated with “bare knuckle boxing”, which is widely shared on social media, which can have huge impacts on creating or perpetuating tensions between families.
Part of Traveller culture is the centrality of family and extended family and pride in that identity, and “family honour”. There is a large part of identity, especially for men, in defending a family’s name- and without agreed strategies for de-escalation, facing down from violent conflict is seen as a loss of face.
Employment & Status: Central to the identity of many men, Traveller and non-Traveller, is their Status within their family and the status given to them by their role as provider. The changes in Ireland in the 1960s (see an analysis of racism in this section [link]) and the damage to the traditional Traveller economy has had huge impacts on Traveller employment. Institutional barriers to education and employment have left chronic levels of unemployment within the community, especially for men. This loss of status as providers for families has had a huge impact on men. Traditionally Traveller organisations have had greater success in creating spaces for Traveller men to look at these issues.
Criminal Activity: Traveller organisations cannot overlook the fact that some aspects that create conflict relate to criminal activity. There have been instances whereby violence that has been committed relates directly to drugs and the money and power that comes from illegal drug dealing.
Impacts of conflict on Traveller Organisations
Travellers in Traveller organisations (staff, volunteers, management members, participants on schemes) can be directly impacted by conflict in that members of their extended family may be linked to a feud which can impact on their participation within the project or working with families from “the other side”. Projects often fear for their members’ safety when violence erupts as certain families may be unable to access other sites in the area.
While these are the immediate effects, there are further long-term effects that seriously undermine the ability of local and national Traveller organisations to carry out their work in a number of ways. Traveller organisations may have spent years working with the local community to develop collective views on the issues they faced. In the aftermath of conflict, collective actions becomes very difficult. Creating collective spaces for discussions or bringing people together at meetings in certain locations becomes impossible due to fear or unresolved conflict. Trust between families can be lost. The provision of accommodation in the area is effected with families leaving accommodation and in some instances, accommodation being damaged or destroyed.
Years of work building relationships between families and services is immediately undermined (with schools, doctors etc.) as families leave the area. Relationships between service providers and Traveller groups becomes strained as the role of the Traveller group in “managing” conflict is often called into question as well as instances whereby badly needed local services are withdrawn for perceived security issues for staff. Negative stereotyping is reinforced with individuals within State agencies as they revert to seeing Travellers not as people or citizens but as “problems”. Destruction of badly-needed Traveller-specific accommodation reinforces the belief that Travellers need to be housed and the reluctance to draw-down funds for halting sites and group housing schemes, which will have far-reaching consequences. Traveller organisations are often left with trying to manage tensions once bays become available on sites should families be forced to leave.
In areas not directly affected by the conflict, Traveller organisations can still feel some of the fallout. If families move into an area to escape conflict, the local Traveller group’s workload immediately increases with families on the side of the road with no services or links to local agencies. Large numbers of evictions usually follow as well as political and media pressure. Tensions in sites can grow if families escaping conflict in one area double up in bays in another area seeking refuge.
How Traveller groups engaged with conflict has had knock-on effects in the past. In cases where projects feared that any involvement would only escalate tensions or where there were genuine concerns for participants and staff, some projects closed during periods of intense stress. While this may have been perfectly understandable it left the community feeling abandoned and losing faith in what was supposed to be “their organisation” in the hour of their greatest need. This has led to people becoming disillusioned with community development. In at least once case an intervention by a local groups was viewed as “taking sides” given the make-up of the board being more from one family involved in conflict.
In some projects, the fear of discussing the impact of the conflict on the project has led to divides among Travellers of different families involved or divides between Travellers and settled staff due to the greater stress that conflict places on Travellers and a lack of spaces to tease out these impacts.
For these specific reasons (fear of escalating conflict, feeling lack of expertise to handle the issue, safety, not wanting to inadvertently be seen to be pro-or anti- a particular family), many local groups felt they did not have the skills or capacity to deal with Traveller conflict and looked towards ITM to develop one.