The news of 115 Roma people being driven out of their homes in Belfast must have taken many aback 40 years.
It sounded like 1969 all over again with the Loyalist mobs driving Catholics out of their homes in various parts of the North. Ofcourse it was not the same though it was again Loyalists doing the persecuting of a minority.
The area where the attacks took place, known as the Village, has become renowned for aggression towards foreigners moving into the area. Earlier in the year, 46 Polish nationals fled from their homes after co-ordinated attacks, following football violence at a match between Northern Ireland and Poland. Chinese and Slovakians have also been targeted over recent years.
Statistics from the Police Service of Northern Ireland show race hate crimes increasing in the North from 453 in 2004 to 1,000 last year. All of which has helped contribute to Belfast attaining the unofficial title of the racist capital of Europe.
The fact that the Roma were targeted should come as no surprise. Roma, Gypsies and Irish Travellers are among the most discriminated against peoples in the world.
Discrimination against the travelling community has long been evident throughout the UK. It is seen in health and education services as well as in the lack of provision of accommodation.
Since the Caravans Act was repealed by the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, travellers have been in a state of perpetual motion, moved on from one authority to the next. The present government has moved to address the problem putting pressure on local authorities to identify sites for use by the travelling community. This though has met with some ridiculous responses from the right such as the claim from Conservative MP for Epping Forest Eleanor Laing that the government was compulsory purchasing pieces of land “next to people’s homes.”
The level of anti-traveller discrimination was illustrated recently when I interviewed Kathleen Stokes who lives in Dagenham. She told how she had lived in a house for 10 years so her kids could go through school. “Education is important, “ she said.
The story of Kathleen youngest son is instructive. All four children have been bullied at school for being Irish Travellers but he fought back and was expelled. “When he went to another school, my second eldest advised him not to say that he was a Traveller,” said Kathleen. “He hasn’t, so now he is just seen as being Irish and is not bullied.”
The discrimination against the Travelling community is blatant. How often do you hear comedians making jokes about the community or passing snide remarks about “pikies.” Unfortunately, despite race discrimination legislation and the existence of the Human Rights Commission, the position of Travellers in the community is probably akin to that of Black, Irish and Asian people during the 1960s and 70s. Events in Belfast just show the worst outcomes when this mix of acceptable racism and far right wing political groups come together against a background of sectarian bigotry.
It is though not all bad news. The response of the politicians and majority community in Belfast has been one of welcome and support. The Churches have provided accommodation and support to the Roma refugees. It is this type of standing up against fascists and racist bigots that will result in their demise and the creation of a more tolerant society in the end.
In Britain, despite the efforts of the Conservative Party to join in with the scapegoating of the Travelling community the government has stuck by its policy of seeking sites for them to stay.
Last month (June), was Gypsy, Roma and Traveller History Month when the focus was on children. In boroughs like Dagenham and Barking, which has a traveller education service, there have been real efforts made in the schools to educate children as to the lives of the travelling community. There have been real celebrations of culture going on.
The Catholic Church has also become voluble in defence of Travellers. At Dale Farm in Basildon, Essex, the council has been attempting to move the travellers on from their now long settled site. Father John Glynn, parish priest of Our Lady of Good Counsel in Wickford, where many of the Travellers go to mass has also spoken out for them and is acting as a mediator with the council over the ongoing dispute.So it can be seen that there are moves toward a better understanding being established between the settled and travelling communities. The plight of the Roma in Belfast is a low point but there are plenty of other signs of positive developments toward a more tolerant and understanding society developing.