Irish travellers gain legal status of ethnic minority

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The Independent Online

Irish travellers were granted legal protection under the Race Relations Act in a landmark court judgment yesterday.

Irish travellers were granted legal protection under the Race Relations Act in a landmark court judgment yesterday.

The Commission for Racial Equality said the judgment on the travellers, who had been denied the protection given to other ethnic minorities, was a victory for a group that routinely suffered discrimination.

Eight travellers, originally from Ireland, are claiming discrimination against five pubs in the Harrow and Enfield areas of London, which they say refused to serve them. They brought the case after secretly recording what happened when they asked to be served in the pubs in April 1998.

Lawyers for Punch Retail, the owner of three of the pubs, argued that they were not covered by the Race Relations Act, at a preliminary hearing at Central London County Court last month.

But Judge Goldstein rejected their argument yesterday, saying Irish travellers should be covered by the Act in the same way as other ethnic groups. The judge said Irish travellers had a shared history going back to at least the mid-19th century.

"Modern Irish travellers are guided by the culture and traditions which have been handed down by generations. They do not go around reading history, they practise it," he said. His judgment means that the travellers, who are all in their 40s, can carry on with their claim of discrimination against Punch Retail. The company has the option of appealing within 42 days.

Four of the travellers were in court to hear the judgment. Patrick O'Leary, Michael, Margaret and Kathleen Kiely said in a statement: "This a great moment for us. For the first time in our lives we feel we can proudly and publicly tell everyone we are Irish travellers.

"We have suffered much when it comes to discrimination and prejudice. We are confident that we are now in a better position to deal with that. We hope this success will encourage other Irish travellers to use the law whenever they are discriminated against."

The Commission for Racial Equality's chief executive, Susie Parsons, said: "The court was right to note the extent of the discrimination and prejudice experienced by Irish travellers. The law must be seen to deliver justice for all, especially for those most at risk of discrimination.

"The CRE will seek to publicise this judgment so that everyone understands that discrimination is both morally wrong and against the law."

Chris Myant, a spokesman for the commission, added: "Everybody agrees that Irish travellers are the victims of significant discrimination. However, they are one of these groups that has a distrust of the law and does not believe it will help them. These are not the first Irish travellers to be refused a drink in a pub but they are the first to come forward."

If they are successful in their discrimination claim, the group could receive compensation of about £1,000 each. But, Mr Myant said, "the money is nominal. The issue is a point of principle that they wish to be able to use public facilities in the same way other people in Britain can."

In the ruling, Judge Goldstein said excluding Irish travellers from the protection afforded by the Act would leave three anomalies. The Court of Appeal had already decided Romany gypsies were covered by the legislation and the two groups shared characteristics. It would also go against the provisions against discrimination provided by the European Convention on Human Rights, which is being incorporated into English and Welsh law.

The group already has protection in Ulster under the Northern Ireland Race Relations Order. It would be "strange" if British legislation protected them in "Ireland but not in England", he said.