I got an email this week from a builder blaming travellers for a late quote. The BT lines in his village were down, “Probably gypsies stealing the copper (ha ha!)”. When I saw him I asked if he knew any travellers. He didn’t. I asked if he’d ever met one, he hadn’t, but he was angry about the Dale Farm “squatters”. His reaction is not untypical. Most of us are struggling to know how to relate to a community for whom we have no frame of reference. In the absence of any real knowledge of travellers there’s a tendency to descend into stereotypes.
What’s particularly disturbing is the belief that it’s socially acceptable to overtly demean travellers. Vitriolic reader’s rants betray an underbelly of prejudice that is deemed appropriate to voice. In response to an article expressing fears that the eviction (scheduled for today) could have serious health implications for some travellers a reader opined, “If it was fatal it would solve the problem. Might save some money too”. Another proposed to “send them all back to Ireland”. Such unadulterated hatred would not be tolerated if targeted at any other ethnic group in Britain.
I was confronted with my own prejudices when I embarked on my career as a do-gooder at the age of 15. The nuns recruited me as a volunteer to teach literacy to some travelling children after school. They lived in a campsite on the north side of Dublin. Josephine was the same age as me and I was assigned to teach her on a one to one. She had a face more animated than a Disney cartoon. I wasn’t told beforehand but learned later that she had “broken” my predecessors. She refused to sit still for five minutes (sister Concepta diagnosed it as attention deficit disorder) and took pleasure goading me about my green uniform. Such was the abuse that travellers suffered (and still do) at the hands of settled people, that her life was necessarily insular. The taunting and bullying made mainstream schooling impossible for travelling children.
It was only when I relinquished the notion that Josephine was the only one with something to learn that we became friends. She taught me to approach people with an open mind. That because most of us live our life a certain way, doesn’t make that the only, or indeed the right way. When Josephine first invited me for tea I was terrified. I couldn’t tell my parents. Announcing my imminent elopement with Ian Paisley would have been more preferable than, “I’m just off to a traveller’s campsite. I’ll be back in time for mass”. My head was full of stories about “thieving drunken tinkers”. What I found couldn’t have been further from the myth. Josephine lived in a caravan with her parents and four siblings. Although her grandmother was staying at the time, she moved between her children’s families. They took turns looking after her and in return she imparted knowledge and love of her travelling heritage through story telling. When I arrived she had just started a story about her childhood. It lasted thirty minutes and all five children were gripped for the duration, as was I.
It occurred to me that it wasn’t these children’s attention spans that were lacking but the humanity of a society that made no attempt to understand them. A few years ago, whilst working with the police on stereotyping, I challenged an officer who referred to travellers as “pikeys”. He defended his prejudice as being acceptable on the grounds that they are “all thieving”. Fortunately, one of his colleagues pointed out that there was no evidence to support his claim. In fact the opposite was true. Our ability to dehumanise those that are different to us is one of the uglier aspects of human nature.
Almost every article I’ve read refers to Dale Farm as an illegal settlement. What is rarely explained is that the travellers legally bought the land, which was nothing more than a scrap yard at the time. They argue that it was only after they bought it that the council altered the status to greenbelt as justification for refusing subsequent planning permission. This would account for why some of the earlier settlers did get planning permission. If land had already been designated greenbelt at the time, as Basildon Council maintains, why did they sell it to travellers? What did they think they were going to do with it. Play croquet?
Having refused the travellers planning permission, the pragmatic solution would have been for the council to find a culturally appropriate alternative. One that does not involve separating the families. This is not peripheral but central to the travelling community’s continued existence. A fact that was recognised by the UN when it said the eviction should be halted until such an alternative was found. Dispersing and dismantling the travelling community is like severing limbs and arteries. One part cannot function without the whole. But Basildon Council has refused to budge, despite allegations that it intends to allow developers to build on greenbelt land elsewhere. Demanding that travellers (the clue is in the name) live in council housing is to deny their culture and their dignity. It’s asking them to become one of “us” and that’s unacceptable.
I’m not quite sure what David Cameron means by “the big society” (answers on a postcard please) but if it’s about getting involved in the community and shifting dependence away from the state then there’s a living example of it in Dale Farm. The travelling community don’t look to the state to provide child care or to care for their elderly. They don’t (currently) place a burden on council housing. No-one in Josephine’s family claimed benefits and they would rather wear rags than accept charity. They didn’t want anything from anyone, except to be accepted for who they were.
Apart from the moral case, evicting travellers from their homes makes no business sense. The cost of the proposed eviction alone is estimated at £18 million. When the costs of re housing each of these families are considered, the bill to the taxpayer will be astronomical. For the travellers this fight is more about survival than land. It’s a test case. If they go the travellers believe the 3,600 other “illegal” sites across the country will also be wiped out and with them their race. So when they say they’ll fight to the death today, they probably mean it. The politics of pragmatism may yet prevail over that of prejudice but time is running out for the good people of Dale Farm.