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Sunday 18 September 2011

Doherty perpetuates 'ethnic racism' myth

Reality star should use fame to urge community to take responsibility for itself, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

'When it comes to travellers," said Paddy Doherty, encouraging the public to support those about to be evicted from Dale Farm, "we're not even treated like second-class, never mind first-class, we're treated as nothing, honestly."

If this is what one gets from the winner of Celebrity Big Brother, there's little hope for any realism from travellers. While Doherty may have pulled in many votes from his community -- he's an attractive man and popular with his mostly English co-contestants and the British public -- did it never occur to him that he could use his fame to urge travellers to stop whinging and start treating their neighbours with more respect?

Before I get to the recent allegations that some travellers kept slaves, let's remind ourselves why English people resent and fear encampments like Basildon. They hate that hundreds of Irish people turn up unannounced in a peaceful place, treat planning laws with contempt, build eye-sores and strew rubbish around the place. (A friend told me the other day of a local farmer who had failed to persuade nearby travellers to stop dumping rubbish on his land; when a huge pile of asbestos was left at his gate and, because his land is private, he had to pay £1,000 (€1,140) to have it taken away.)

Locals resent the noisiness of encampments, the crime they generate and the aggression and threats that are frequent responses to complaints and appeals. They hate how local schools and hospitals are suddenly swamped. They would protest more than they do, but they are fearful of having their windows broken or their houses torched.

Most will have watched with fascination and rage the vulgarity and mad extravagance exhibited on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. They see the flash cars and hear of the expensive houses some travellers own back in Ireland and feel angry that all seem to claim they are poor although plenty are rich from lucrative businesses. They're fed up with being told to respect a culture that seems to indulge in institutionalised violence, embraces illiteracy and treats women as servants, while flaunting a grossly inflated sense of entitlement.

They are furious that because travellers have ethnic status, councils treat them with more consideration than they treat the majority, that so many claim benefits and that they are costing the taxpayer a fortune for legal aid. They detest being accused of nimbyism, prejudice and racism by people who either don't know or don't care what they're suffering. The latest useful idiot, a big-haired French academic called Yves Cabannes -- who chairs the UN Advisory Group on Forced Evictions -- stood under a UN flag at Dale Farm last week and compared what was happening in Basildon to the eviction of millions in China, Nigeria and Zimbabwe.

That must really have thrilled the locals, who know that Basildon has more legal sites than almost any other part of the country and that the council has spent years trying -- in vain -- to persuade travellers to accept alternative accommodation.

And now come the charges against members of the Connors clan, based in the Green Acres Caravan site in Bedfordshire, for imprisoning homeless men and forcing them to carry out hard labour for no reward.

I can't comment on the Connors cases, but last week, the British public has been listening in horror to tales of men who got away from various traveller gangmasters. Often picked up at employment exchanges, drop-in centres or soup kitchens, vulnerable people would be invited into a car by people who promised accommodation, work, money and the feeding of nicotine or alcohol habits. The reality was that they were paid a pittance, overworked, starved and imprisoned in appalling squalor. Graham Clark told Channel 4 News that he was "treated like a slave. You were separated from them. I wasn't allowed to use their toilet services. I had to go into a bush and wipe myself with leaves. Degrading". Alan Williamson spoke of how he was picked up in Tamworth by travellers and sold to a family in Brighton.

Like many others, it took him a long time to escape: if you're used to being beaten, you're liable to believe threats that if you run away, someone will find and kill you. Others succumbed to Stockholm Syndrome.

Why, Paddy Doherty, don't you tell Irish travellers that considering the way many of them behave, they are treated extraordinarily well? You could encourage them to admit they can be challenging neighbours, to become less incestuous, to adapt to the country they've emigrated to, obey its laws and stop playing the ethnic 'racism' card any time someone makes a reasonable criticism. "It's our culture and we'll do what we like" is not a slogan that deserves to win friends.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards