Irish Travellers at Dale Farm: Activism, Race, Ethnicity and Cultural Identity

September 22, 2011 - anthropology / catholicism / ethics / ethnography / experience / housing / land / law / race / Roma / Travellers

As the attempted eviction of Travellers from Dale Farm seemed more likely, claims surfaced in the media that the Travellers themselves had left and that only “activists” were remaining at Dale Farm. Reporting for the Guardian from inside Dale Farm, John Bingham wrote “The girls are angered at suggestions in the media that there are no travellers inside, only activists. ‘We’re more than grateful, says one.’We’re all activists,’ adds another.”

This call for support was posted on the Dale Farm Travellers blog: “Today, we are witnessing the beginning of a new solidarity movement, with settled people standing up with Gypsies, Travellers and Roma to help fight for their rights.” The Travellers blog lists SMS alert system, a legal hotline, a twitter account, a link for donations and a “welcome pack” for activists available as a Microsoft Word Document, a PDF and the free and open source OpenDocument format. The welcome pack is a 16 page document covering the political and legal context, cultural sensitivity and other topics. The following background information is excerpted from the welcome pack:

“In 2004, Trevor Phillips, former Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and now Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), compared the situation of Gypsies and Travellers living in Great Britain to that of black people living in the American Deep South in the 1950s.” (9)

“Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers have been held to be ‘ethnic’ groups for the purpose of the Race Relations Act (RRA) 1976. In CRE v Dutton,1 the Court of Appeal found that Romani Gypsies were a minority with a long, shared history, a common geographical origin and a cultural tradition of their own. In O’Leary v Allied Domecq,2 HHJ Goldstein reached a similar decision in respect of Irish Travellers. Although a county court judgment, it should be noted that, in Northern Ireland, Irish Travellers are explicitly protected from discrimination under Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 article 5…” (9)

“In 2004, Trevor Phillips, former Chair of the Commission for Racial Equality (CRE) and now Chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), compared the situation of Gypsies and Travellers living in Great Britain to that of black people living in the American Deep South in the 1950s.” (9)

“Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers have been held to be ‘ethnic’ groups for the purpose of the Race Relations Act (RRA) 1976. In CRE v Dutton,1 the Court of Appeal found that Romani Gypsies were a minority with a long, shared history, a common geographical origin and a cultural tradition of their own. In O’Leary v Allied Domecq,2 HHJ Goldstein reached a similar decision in respect of Irish Travellers. Although a county court judgment, it should be noted that, in Northern Ireland, Irish Travellers are explicitly protected from discrimination under Race Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1997 article 5…” (9)

Comments on The Guardian’s Live Blog posted during coverage of the Eviction event on September 19, 2011 reveal a range of reactions to both the legal question of whether the Travellers have a right to live on or build on the land, but more importantly uncover the range of racial/ethnic and cultural prejudice against them.

A reader using the name “today12” wrote:

“I grew up in Crays Hill and attended the local school, which now has the 2nd worst attendance record in the UK and the worst sats results. Out of the 110 pupils, 107 of them are ‘travellers’. Many of them too are also abusive, antisocial, messy and once set a car on fire and pelted the firemen when they arrived. There has been a shooting murder on the site because of traveller rivalry. I do wish their supporters would consider the lives of the local residents. Many Crays Hill residents are afraid to speak out because of retribution; not because they support the travellers. Also there are many more sites they can live on in the Basildon area, it’s on the council’s website, but they are just ungrateful and what to cause trouble.”

A reader using the name “Essexfella” wrote:

“As a local I can tell you all that the opinion of the majority in the area is that they should not be there. Local people have been fighting for this for 10 years. Yes they own the land but it has no permission to build.

If you want land in Essex that can be built on, you pay more for it. Why should any part of our community buy cheap land and then flout the planning laws?”

On the Dale Farm Traveller’s blog, racist comments include:

Posted by “Craig Compton”:

“by by pikies, by by scum.

by by pikies, your time has finally come.”

Posted by “Jennifer Cooper”:

“it will be a good day tomorrow when the whole lot of you scrounging pikeys are evicted.”

“i would be very happy to call any of these filthy low life pikeys and a few others things to their faces. enjoy your last evening, the bailiffs are coming to move you the gypos tomorrow. wish i could come a watch. just think this time tomorrow you will be enjoying your next squat spoiling the countryside somewhere else.”

Posted by “Zoey”:

“Muppet. Blame the government because a bunch of scroungers try and pass themselves off as Roma? maybe we should sue you for all the money the scroungers have siphoned off the taxpayer. Eh? How bout that??

Fire up those bulldozers soon Constant and co.”

One anonymous commenter repeatedly posted excerpts from an article appearing in The Daily Mail on September 17th, 2011 titled “Travellers’ real homes are back in Ireland and they will NOT be ‘homeless nomads’ if they are evicted.” The article  describes homes in Ireland owned by some of the applicants named in the petitions to allow residents to remain on Dale Farm. The article uses “evidence” of home ownership and financial resources to refute the claim that the residents of Dale Farm would have nowhere to go were they evicted.  The homes mentioned are in Rathkeale, Ireland.

The Telegraph reports, in a photo caption “The unofficial portion of Dale Farm is exclusively occupied by members of the Irish Traveller community, whose cultural roots are in the town of Rathkeale, County Limerick, Ireland.”

Several commenters on the Travellers blog referred to the case earlier in the month of forced laborers rescued from another Traveller site. One commenter, responding to a question about why 90% of Gypsy and Traveller land use planning applications are rejected asked “Do you condone slavery then?” implying that supporting the rights of the Travellers at Dale Farm meant supporting slavery and forced labor Police claim to have found at another Traveller site. Another anonymous commenter challenged the authenticity of the Travellers’ identity and the use of the discourse of ethnic cleansing: “The people at Dale farm are not real gypsies or romani. How can you compare the eviction to Ethnic cleansing?”

According to reporting by Alexandra Topping, John Baron, MP for Basildon and Billericay, supported  the decision to evict, stating: “I believe we have the moral high ground; everybody has to obey the rules . . . People talk about human rights for minorities, but what we shouldn’t forget is that the majority have human rights too and we are putting that into practice.”