The intra-Traveller debate on ‘Traveller ethnicity’ in the Republic of Ireland. A critical discourse analysis

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Brandi, Silvia
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University College Cork
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This dissertation assesses from an under-explored angle the enduring contention over Travellers’ ethnic recognition in the Republic of Ireland, particularly over the last decade. The novelty of this study concerns not only its specific focus on and engagement with the debate on ‘Traveller ethnicity’ among Traveller activists. It also pertains to the examination of Travellers’ arguments for and against ethnicity in light of critical theorisations as well as insights from identity politics. Furthermore, the adoption of a Critical Discourse Analytical framework offers new perspectives to this controversy and its potential implications. Finally, this thesis’ relevance extends beyond the contention on ‘Traveller ethnicity’ in itself. It also draws attention to the complex dynamics of colonisation and appropriation between the global and the local. Particularly, it points to the interplay between international human rights discourses and the local ones, formulated by NGOs struggling for equality. In this way it sheds light on more general issues such as the dialectical potential of human rights discourses: the benefits and pitfalls of framing recognition claims in the legalistic terms of human rights. In this study it is argued that the contention on ‘Traveller ethnicity’ defies a simplistic polarisation between Irish Travellers and the Irish State since it has been simultaneously played out within the Travelling community. Specifically, this study explores how ‘Traveller ethnicity’ has been introduced, embraced, promoted and contested within Traveller politics to the point of becoming a hotly debated and divisive issue among Traveller activists and at the heart of the community itself. Putting Traveller activists centre-stage, their discourses for and against ‘Traveller ethnicity’ are examined and assessed against one another and their potential implications for Traveller politics, policies and identities are pointed out. Contending discourses are historically contextualised as the product of specific structural, material and discursive configurations of power and socio-economic relations within Irish society. Discourses for and against ‘Traveller ethnicity’ are assessed as being significant beyond the representational level. They are regarded as contributing to dialectically constitute Travellers’ ways of being, representing and acting. Furthermore these discourses are considered as sites and means of power struggles, whose stakes are not only words, but relate to issues of power and leadership within the Travelling community; adjudications over material resources; the adoption of certain policy approaches over others; and, finally, the consolidation of certain subject positions over others for Travellers to draw upon and relate to mainstream society. This study highlights an ongoing ideological struggle for the naturalisation of ‘Traveller ethnicity’ as a self-evident ‘fact’, which involves no active choice by Travellers themselves. Overall, ‘Traveller ethnicity’ appears to constitute an enduring source of dilemmas for the Travelling community. These revolve around the contradictory potential of ethnicity claims-making —both its perils and advantages— and its status as a potent political strategic resource that can both challenge and reinforce existing power relations, policies and identities.
Traveller ethnicity , Identity politics , Critical discourse analysis , Human rights discourse , Irish travellers
Brandi, S. 2013. The intra-Traveller debate on ‘Traveller ethnicity’ in the Republic of Ireland. A critical discourse analysis. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.