Friday, 18 November 2011

Treatment of Dale Farm travellers shows an intolerant society getting worse

The site where the Irish Travellers lived at Dale Farm in Essex now has the look of a desolate battlefield.
On a recent day when I visited JVC diggers were completing the devastation, destroying further pathways to what had been a thriving community.
The cleared area has been dug up with huge coffin shaped ditches and deep gullies, supposedly to stop any Travellers getting back on the site. The area is littered with disconnected cables where the electricity supply has been cut off.
The deep religious conviction of the Travellers is in evidence everywhere, as wrecked statues stand piled up in the corner. A small shrine, where the ashes of one Traveller lay buried exists marooned amid a sea of mud.
In the midst of this chaos there are three dwellings still existing. The caravan of a woman with two deaf children and a man with cancer remain.
The Travellers have struggled to get generators from Basildon Council to get supplies back up and running. “The electricity was cut off for three days when the eviction took place,” said mother of four Michelle Sheridan, who confirms that the post is the latest service to be cut off.
Most of the travellers from the illegal site have parked up on the pitches of those living on the adjacent permanent legal site. There are 32 parked in this way.
“The council are now saying we are overcrowding this (legal) site, we need to get out and move on,” said Mrs Sheridan, who tells how the whole area is regularly scanned by a helicopter.
“We are living in muck,” said Mrs Sheridan, who tells how she had so far spent more than £100 going to the launderette in Basildon to clean clothes, now that the facilities for cleaning at the site have been discontinued.
Visiting the Dale Farm site now it appears as though since the media focus moved away the local council no longer feel under any obligation to even give a semblance of treating the Travellers with any respect.
“This is all about getting people off the site, they are doing what they like to people without any respect for human life,” said Sister Catherine Reilly, who has been a regular visitor to the site for the past eight years.
Local resident, Jo Campbell said she was “shocked and horrified that anyone could be left in such conditions.”
“The feeling among the travelling community of total rejection is palpable,” said Mrs Campbell. “I cannot get out of my mind that this is going on where I live.”
Another interesting aside on the day that I visited Dale Farm was the news that Kathleen McCarthy had accepted substantial undisclosed damages over a false claim made in the Sunday People newspaper that she was facing a police investigation over allegations of slavery.
The allegation arose around the time of the Dale Farm eviction, but concerned activities at Toddbury Farm, Bedfordshire, where Mrs McCarthy has relatives, The claims were found to be totally untrue.
A number of people noted the strange timing that saw the story about slavery at the Bedford site surface in the media at the time that Dale Farm eviction was about to take place.
The depressing lesson from events at Dale Farm and elsewhere is the way in which the public order solution has become so easily adopted as the only way forward. And in these cash strapped times, it appears that the cost is no problem.
The estimated cost of clearing the Dale Farm site was put at £18 million. What has this achieved? A number of lives have been destroyed and the problem has literally been shifted onto the adjacent legal site.
The insistence of a number of public figures, including the Catholic Bishop of Brentwood and the Anglican Bishop of Chelmsford, that sites needed to be found for the Travellers to move to before the eviction took place were ignored.
Would the £18 million not have been better spent providing the sites required for not only Dale Farm but other Travellers around the country?
The key to this whole situation resides in restoring the statutory obligation on local councils to provide sites for Travellers. This duty was removed in the mid 1990s.
The removal of the duty resulted in a return to the criminal justice solution. The Travellers moved around the country in a state of perpetual motion. There was no motivation for any local council to provide sites, because to do so when others were not merely made that authority a magnet for all Travellers.
The last Labour Government was moving to resolve the situation, asking local councils to identify potential sites and then move to provide provision. This however has all been reversed by the Coalition Government which appears to have returned to the public order fits all solution.
The public order solution is not limited to the Travellers world. Moves to make it illegal to squat in unoccupied buildings and drive the homeless off the streets is proof of an overall effort to criminalise increasing numbers of the poor.
The efforts to make protest more difficult are further proof of authoritarian tendencies in government.
Those who rely for their world view on the right wing media, which calls for protest to be curtailed and the jack boot of repressive forces to be given ever greater freedom would do well to revisit the 1930s comments of Pastor Martin Niemoller.
Speaking as the Nazis picked off one group after another Niemoller said: “First they came for the communists and I didn’t speak out because I was not a communist, then they came for the trade unionists and I didn’t speak out because I was not a trade unionist, then they came for the Jews and I didn’t speak out because I was not a Jew. Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak out for me,”
So who now is left to speak for the Dale Farm Travellers and others being picked off by this increasingly authoritarian society?

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