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Sunday 4 September 2011

Complain about Traveller sites in the UK and you're called a racist

But council must back eviction of 100 families or greenbelt law will be unenforceable, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

There are heart-breaking scenes at Dale Farm in Crays Hill in Essex, where the brutal, racist Basildon local authority, backed by uncaring judges, is to throw out on to the roadside around 100 innocent Irish Traveller families.

Sick people will have their lives put at risk, children will be denied an education. On television, desperate women plead to be allowed to stay in the place they call home. They take comfort in the support of the decent people of England who are outraged by this shocking ethnic cleansing. These people are not squatters -- they are being evicted from land that they own.

Standing shoulder-to-shoulder with "this strong, wise, warm and gentle community", Vanessa Redgrave, an Oscar-winning actress and Unicef goodwill ambassador, speaks for many when she says she is "appalled that such an eviction can be upheld by our government".

She is backed by bishops showing solidarity with this "distressed and frightened community". The Catholic Irish chaplaincy in Britain argues that it is "senseless and inhumane" to make these people homeless.

Well, that's one way of looking at it. Here's another.

In Ireland, Travellers are classified as a 'social group', whereas in the UK they have 'ethnic' status, which yields extra rights and protection. This is why the UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has become involved in the row.

Complain about the behaviour of an ethnic group and you're a racist. In 2009, for instance, a Devon farmer wrote to his council to explain why he opposed plans to build a permanent Traveller camp next door. He was told that no account would be taken "of representations of a racist nature" and that if he repeated his offence, it would be referred to the Commission for Racial Equality or the police. This upsets the English, who know themselves to be about the least racist people in the world. Ironically, Paddy Doherty, star of My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, is a hot contender to win Celebrity Big Brother.

For the many Irish Travellers with extensive business interests in Britain and on the continent, Essex is a better base than Rathkeale, Co Limerick, where many of the Dale Farm families originated.

It's more than a decade since Irish Travellers bought and legitimately built on a scrapyard. In 2002, John Sheridan bought a substantial plot of land for £120,000. It was cheap because it was greenbelt land, designated for agricultural use only. Families then brought dozens of caravans on to the site and began to build illegally.

Irish Travellers are good at defeating planning restrictions by legal and illegal means. A favoured approach is to buy a plot of greenbelt land quietly, move in on the Friday of a bank holiday weekend, post a planning application through the relevant council door just before closing time and set about the site with bulldozers and earthmovers. By the time planning officers are back at work on Tuesday, they're dealing with a building site and facing a long-drawn-out legal battle.

In Crays Hill, as in many of the other areas where this has happened, local residents who protested at the illegality, noise and mess were intimidated and threatened, which is why there are so few prepared to speak up in public. One exception is Len Gridley, who says life has been "hell" for a decade.

The enforcement of planning laws in England is notoriously harsh. Add a foot to the agreed spec for a conservatory, and you have to knock it down. So ordinary residents are enraged to see so many illegal Travelling communities getting away with blatant flouting of the law. And what makes locals even less sympathetic is the obvious prosperity of many of the Travellers. Flash cars and wads of cash are in evidence with no explanation of where the money comes from. When at Christmas or for funerals the Dale Farm families and their relatives from other UK sites travel to Rathkeale -- where some of them have houses -- many do so in Mercs and Porsches and Range Rovers.

Basildon Council has negotiated over the years and offered alternative accommodation to all those families to whom they owe a duty of care. Flats and houses have been rejected as "culturally inappropriate". Locals ask why -- if Travellers have "a strong aversion" to bricks and mortar -- they have built brick structures and refuse to travel.

This time, although it will cost millions and Travellers are threatening "a bloody and violent" struggle, the council must face them down or greenbelt law becomes unenforceable anywhere.

Vanessa Redgrave is a fine actress and a notorious idiot who for years supported the Workers' Revolutionary Party. Among those threatening violent opposition to the evictions are international anarchists spoiling for a fight. If any Traveller gets hurt, the victim card will be played and concerned Irish and UN voices will chide the authorities for their repressive actions.

Sometimes I wonder how the English can stand us.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards