Hate Speech –
A Traveller family were living in an unofficial halting site in a small town. Michael and Mary (the parents) and their family were had been on the housing list with the local County Council for 10 years or more. The County Council offered the family a house in a housing estate in the local town. The family were delighted to be offered a house here, as it was close to the area in which they already lived, and their kids went to school in this town. Within the next couple of weeks, the family were meant to collect their keys to the house. However, the neighbours heard that a Traveller family were moving in and started a petition to try to stop them from doing so. As the residents of the estate started to get people to sign the petition, more and more people became involved in trying to stop the family from moving into this house. One of the residents then decided to set up a group on WhatsApp, which eventually included more people than just the residents from the estate.
Michael’s son, Michael Jnr., was added to the WhatsApp group by accident and started to see the comments that were being sent. In his words: ‘there were some very degrading comments about my family, and Travellers in general, even though a lot of the people didn’t know my family’. One person, who made very hurtful and threatening comments that left the Michael’s family feeling frightened and very upset, was a Garda. Michael became worried about this as he said that they should expect protection from the law and not feel threatened by them. He asked an NGO (a restorative community project) for advice. The NGO staff, who were trained in restorative justice, suggested that they could explore a restorative conference between the family and the Garda.
In preparation with the NGO’s facilitators, Michael spoke about the resistance shown by the residents who did not want his family to take the house. Michael was hesitant to go into detail about who said what and what exactly was said. One of the two facilitators preparing the case noticed some fear and asked about this, at which point Michael mentioned the WhatsApp group and showed the facilitators some of the group’s content. This included the comment from the Garda, which particularly worried Michael and Mary because they did not feel protected by the law that they upheld all their lives: they were law-abiding citizens with no criminal record, and none of their family were in trouble with the law. Mary explained that she felt intimidated, but the Council told them they could not be offered a different house as there was a shortage. The facilitators then met with the Council’s housing officer, who spoke about the shortage of housing and noted that many other people wanted to live in the house. This person expressed a willingness to meet with the Traveller family.
The Garda in question was not willing to meet the facilitators upon first contact, but a meeting was eventually organised by a Sergeant after the family made a complaint. The Garda seemed anxious when meeting the NGO facilitators. He apologised for what he said in the group and expressed a willingness to meet the family because he didn’t realise he caused so much hurt and despair. He stated that the family deserved an explanation from him. Michael and Mary were asked if they would be willing to meet with the Garda and the Council. They both agreed, as long as it took place at a neutral venue. Mary wanted an apology and to ask the Garda why he didn’t want them to move into the estate when he didn’t even know them. Michael wanted to let the Garda know the effect on his family and that they wouldn’t take the house because of the fear of not being protected by the law. Michael also wanted to let the Garda know that not all Travellers are the same and that there are good and bad people in all communities.
On the day of the conference, everyone turned up, except the housing officer who sent their apologies as an emergency had arisen. The facilitators felt tension in the room as the parties took their seats. One facilitator eased this by welcoming everyone, thanking them for coming, and asking them to introduce themselves. The group agreed on ground rules for the meeting. Michael then began by asking the Garda why he posted the comment in the WhatsApp group. He said that he and his family could never live in that estate as long as that Garda was around and felt that all Travellers were criminals. He asked why the Garda brandished his family as criminals without knowing them. The Garda thought for a minute and explained that his wife’s parents lived in the estate and they were ringing his phone all day, putting pressure on him to do something. He explained that he was caught up in the moment and didn’t actually mean that he was going to do something bad. He said that if he could take it back he would. He also said that he felt terrible for the comments he made and for saying that they were criminals.
Michael asked the Garda whether he had something against Traveller people in general. The Garda answered by saying that he didn’t know many Travellers, but there was a sense of fear among the people living in the estate because of the perception that the media had instilled. The Garda said that he should have done his job better: he should have tried to ease concerns within his community and should not have joined the group. He then apologised. At this stage, Mary turned to the Garda and started to explain the effect that this had on her and her family, and that she wouldn’t be taking the house now as she didn’t feel safe there. Mary spoke about the fear, hurt and anxiety that she was left with after learning about their comments, and that this had a seriously negative affect on her and the wider Traveller community. The Garda was disappointed with himself and that his actions had such an effect on this family and the wider community. He asked Mary what he could do to make up for his actions. Mary stated that she would look for a transfer to a different town and asked the Garda to advocate on their behalf with the County Council to help them get the transfer. The Garda agreed to help the family in any way he could.
The facilitator summarised everything that was said, before asking what each person wanted to see happen going forward. Michael suggested that the Garda should do some voluntary work with the local Traveller organisation so that he could get to know Travellers, and it would help change his perspective on Travellers. The Garda agreed to volunteer for two hours per week with the local Traveller youth group. The Garda also agreed to help Michael and Mary look for a transfer, even though he assured them that they had nothing to fear if they decided to move into the house in the estate. He also apologised again for what he had done.
After five weeks, one facilitator did follow-up calls with the parties, starting with Michael and Mary, who had moved to a new home in another town. Michael spoke about how happy and at ease they were in their new home. Mary stated that the Garda was very helpful in helping them get the transfer, and that he even visited them in their new home.
The facilitator then met the Garda, who was still volunteering with a local Traveller group. He spoke about what he learned about Travellers since he started volunteering. Before, he said, he never knew much about Traveller culture or their traditions, but now he embraces them. The facilitator then spoke to the Sergeant, who discussed the effect that this conference had, not only the Garda that was involved, but also on other members of An Garda Síochána based in the same station. The Sergeant said that it had been a positive outcome for all involved.