Restorative dialogue between gardaí and travellers
Traveller Mediation Service and An Garda Síochána
Restorative Dialogue between Gardaí and Travellers
This work was supported by the Edward Kennedy Institute for Conflict Intervention and the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation.
In 2016/17, the Traveller Mediation Service (TMS) ran a Mediation & Conflict Training Programme in conjunction with the Maynooth University Edward Kennedy Institute for Conflict Intervention and Kildare/Wicklow ETB. The plan to hold a Garda-Traveller Dialogue Day stemmed from a guest lecture given by Sergeant Dave McInerney of the Garda Intercultural & Diversity Office in 2016 to the first group of adult Traveller students, as part of their training to become mediators in their community.
The students’ feedback from that session was that they thought it would be very useful to arrange a meeting between themselves and Gardaí with the aim of building trust and improving relationships. The Traveller Mediation Service and the Garda Intercultural & Diversity Office approached Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation to ask if they would host the event.
The first Garda-Traveller Dialogue Day took place at the Glencree Centre on 12th October 2016. It was attended by Garda Ethnic Liaison Officers and students from the Traveller Mediation & Conflict Training Programme. The session was entitled Building Trust and Bridging Divides: a Facilitated Conversation. A second Dialogue Day was then held at Maynooth University on 20th February 2018, hosted by Maynooth’s Kennedy Institute and attended by 30 people. Feedback from participants at both days was very positive, and centred on the value of the sessions in increasing understanding between the two communities through open dialogue. A third Dialogue Day took place at Maynooth University on 1st May 2019 and was attended by 29 people.
Feedback from the three days showed that Gardaí and Traveller participants found the opportunity for honest and open dialogue to be extremely beneficial. It allowed for the ‘hearing of perspectives not often heard’ and opportunities to brainstorm and commit to specific activities locally. For example, one Garda committed to calling into their local Traveller Centre with another local Garda to introduce themselves within two weeks of the Dialogue Day.
There was frequent acknowledgement that both sides wanted to improve relations and had shared concerns. Travellers expressed a desire for engagement with the Gardaí on a positive and consistent basis. Gardaí accepted that there were areas where they could change their approach. The Trespass Act was highlighted as something which had had a negative impact on Garda-Traveller relationships and forced Gardaí to act in ways they may not have done previously.
Everyone agreed that the opportunity to meet and discuss issues and concerns was beneficial and should be done more frequently. Small group discussions used restorative circle processes, enabling everyone to be heard and practical actions to be identified. For example, groups came up with plans to enable ongoing Garda-Traveller interactions outside of response policing and investigations.
Participants recognised that Gardaí need to be more proactive in engaging with Travellers, especially Travellers in school given the young demographics of the Traveller population. Participants also agreed that the ‘conversation between Gardaí and Travellers must continue’, with dialogue days at District level enabling the development and improvement of relations. Good communication was seen as key to creating effective working relationships, building trust and preventing and minimising tension. It was commonly suggested that regional dialogue would help establish and maintain points of contact between local Gardaí and Traveller communities. One of the agreed outcomes from the May 1st 2019 Dialogue Day was that TMS would work closely with the Garda National Diversity & Integration Unit to replicate this work more frequently by organising a number of regional Dialogue Days every year.
The first regional Dialogue Day took place in Athlone on 11th October 2019 for Garda and Traveller representatives in counties Longford, Laois, Offaly and Westmeath. The session was facilitated by the Traveller Mediation Service and the Garda National Diversity & Integration Unit, and provided a similar opportunity for participants to engage in informal dialogue on issues of local concern, with the aim of building understanding, and enhancing cooperation. Feedback from participants was similar to that of the 2019 Maynooth Dialogue Day, the main difference being that the value of local networking was discussed.
Below is a representative sample of the feedback received, in response to specific questions:
What did you find interesting or useful about the day?
- Hearing the experiences of both Gardaí and the Traveller community
- It was very interesting to see everyone engaging positively together with the same idea of improving relations
- Excellent networking opportunity/making local contacts
- Learning that TMS are always available to assist Gardaí and can be trusted
- Meeting and learning how to better liaise with people from different agencies locally
- The willingness by both groups to work together and have honest discussions
- Listening to each group’s thoughts on Gardaí and Travellers, and working through the reasons behind the tense relationship between us
What did you learn about the Gardaí or Travellers that you didn’t know before?
- That we can talk and build relationships
- That both are willing to work together in a positive way
- How both sides might view each other
- Cultural elements of how the Travelling community would like things to be dealt with
- That not all Gardaí on the ground were aware of the Traveller Mediation Service.
- That there are local Travellers who are trained mediators
- That people on both sides recognise that changes need to be made and are willing to work towards a better working relationship
- That Gardaí want to work with Travellers to make positive change
- There is more positivity between Gardaí and Travellers than thought
What part of the day did you enjoy the most, and why?
- The sharing of ideas and opinions in the small groups
- Interacting with Travellers and understanding them better
- Interaction on a human level, not as a Garda or Traveller – the barriers were taken away
- Enjoyed the casual atmosphere and found it to be a very positive day
- Opportunities for interaction and networking
- The discussion groups and developing ideas of how to move forward
What suggestions do you have to build relationships between Gardaí and Travellers in the future?
- More similar workshops at local level
- Cultural awareness training and mediation at the local level
- Gardaí & Travellers to meet more often to understand each other better and build trust
- Working with younger Traveller population and changing attitudes on both sides
After three national and one regional Dialogue Days, the consistent message from participants from both communities has been that they value the opportunity provided by these restoratively-facilitated sessions to improve understanding, build trust and have honest conversations. The use of circles in all sessions created an informal atmosphere and helped provide the dynamics needed for each present community to speak honestly to each other – in pairs, in small circles and in the full group circle.
Unfortunately, we had to postpone our regional Dialogue Days in 2020 scheduled for Galway and Cork because of Covid-19, but we hope to recommence the regional Dialogue Days as soon as it is safe.
A senior member of the Garda National Diversity & Integration Unit said of the initiative: ‘The Garda-Traveller Dialogue Days are great examples of how barriers can be broken down by communication, dialogue and collaboration. They provide opportunities for both Garda and Traveller Communities to understand better each other and identify areas for change.’