The politics surrounding the DNA findings is more important than the science behind it
are all related. Everybody is a bit of everything and we come from all over. This sounds like a hippy-dippy slogan but it’s actually the considered view of hard science. Advances in the study of genetics have shown that all of humanity shares a surprisingly small number of common ancestors, the most recent of whom lived about a thousand years ago.
However, none of this empirical knowledge has done anything to alter the enduring contrariness of human nature. Despite our similarities, we are obsessed with our differences.
New DNA analysis, jointly conducted by the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland and the University of Edinburgh, has shed fresh light on the origins of the travelling community.
There are about 30,000 travellers in Ireland, and traveller culture has been a distinct feature of Irish life for centuries. The absence of documented records means we know remarkably little about the history of travellers and why they became a nomadic people. Decades of heated debate have not been an aid to clarity. Where there is uncertainty, there will be myth — and myth is a supremely efficient disseminating tool for propaganda and prejudice.
The DNA study brings us closer to establishing some definitive facts. Yes, travellers are genetically different from the settled Irish — but to a very slight degree. At a genetic level, a settled person differs from a traveller by about the same extent as an Irish person differs from a Spaniard. In other words, the difference is marginal.
Travellers are indigenously Irish, an offshoot from the general population. They do not have a recent shared ancestor with continental European gypsies or the Roma people. Travellers are, in scientific terminology, a “subset of Irish genetic diversity”. They are part of what we are — and vice versa.
Analysis of DNA donated by travellers allowed scientists to track when and how quickly travellers arose as a distinct group. It was widely thought, not least within the travelling community itself, that the divergence occurred around the time of the Great Famine, during the mid-19th century. But the new research shows that travellers actually emerged much earlier, probably during the late 1500s. Historians can use this information to begin a more focused investigation of the social and political factors which led to this phenomenon.
Travellers’ advocacy groups have welcomed the DNA study. They say that the dispelling of the “Famine myth” is the most important outcome as it’s a notion often used by state agencies to justify a policy of assimilation. The research is also useful for travellers’ rights advocates because it lends scientific weight to the campaign for travellers to be accorded ethnic status — a longstanding goal which Enda Kenny, the taoiseach, has indicated will become a legislative reality in the coming year.
While welcoming the insight provided by the DNA research, however, some activists sounded a cautionary note about the risks of reducing identity to a question of genetics. “I think that is very dangerous territory,” Martin Collins, co-director of the travellers’ rights organisation Pavee Point, said. “We need to be very careful and not use DNA as a marker or determination of ethnicity.”
Mr Collins is right. But, if anything, he understates the case. The increasing use of genetic distinctions as a basis for political argumentation or policymaking is a deeply worrying development — and could, ultimately, play into the hands of those who foment racial division.
Given the impact of the genetic revolution, it is inevitable that the language and core ideas of the science would migrate into popular culture and discourse. Genetics are now used to explain almost everything about our identities, from weight and sexuality, to our capacity for work or propensity for crime.
Some of the contentions advanced as “genetic truths” are loosely based in science fact but many do not even merit the dignity of being called science fiction. It is essential, therefore, that we make a clear distinction between the use of genetic terms as metaphor or rhetorical flourish — and their deployment in a strict scientific sense.
The campaign for travellers to be recognised as an ethnic group is about politics rather than science. Ethnic status was granted to Irish travellers in England after the courts ruled that they satisfied the legal definition of an ethnic group. This emboldened campaigners here to push for similar recognition under Irish law as a means of improving the lot of travellers — ethnic minority status would be accompanied by statutory protections in terms of equal treatment and cultural diversity.
In truth, however, traveller ethnicity is a red herring. Irishness, like all forms of national or tribal identity, is a hodgepodge. Lots of Irish people have Viking and Norman ancestry yet nobody sees any reason for these subsets of Irish genetic diversity to be designated as a separate group.
The travelling community is divided on the question; there are many travellers who oppose ethnic status on the grounds that it will only serve as another label, another badge of social difference. There are also those who doubt that official recognition of traveller ethnicity will have any positive impact on the most pressing problems facing travellers, most notably in terms of accommodation, education, employment and mental health.
Distrust between settled people and travellers remains a big issue. The stand-off is not helped by the tendency of some traveller advocates to convey the impression that blame for all the social ills afflicting travellers lies with the settled community. Traveller rights are often presented as absolutes with no reference whatsoever to civic duty. None of these realities is likely to be affected in any meaningful way by the advent of ethnic status.
There are other areas of political endeavour where a misplaced emphasis on genetic make-up is becoming apparent. Last week the government published its migrant integration strategy — a four-year plan comprising a range of measures designed to make Ireland a more welcoming place.
Integration is a complex business and it’s wise of the government to highlight areas where it believes the state can make a positive intervention. The plan features some good ideas such as training programmes for unemployed migrants with poor proficiency in English. However, it’s also chock-a-block with piety and platitude.
Among its headline pledges is that, by 2020, 1 per cent of the civil service will be made up of people from minority ethnic groups. A civic administration that is “representative of the broader population” is a noble aim but it’s not something that can be achieved by tinkering around the edges. Arbitrary workforce targets could very quickly became a quagmire of lawyered-up wrangling over what constitutes a minority ethnic group and who can be said to belong to one.
Genetics is sophisticated science but desperately crude politics.