Dale Farm eviction: Travellers 'remain unpopular cause'

Traveller protesters at dale Farm
Image caption What is happening at Dale Farm has a significance beyond immediate events, says our correspondent

A planned eviction of plots at the Dale Farm travellers' site in Basildon, Essex - part of which accounts for the UK's largest illegal site - has once again brought into focus the issue of travellers and their acceptance by wider society.

They were a familiar sight on the rural roads of Ireland during my childhood, driving their traditional caravans and piebald horses, crouching under tarpaulin in makeshift camps or squatting by open fires.

On the streets of our cities and towns you might encounter traveller women, wrapped in plaid blankets and asking for money to buy milk for their children.

We knew them then as "Tinkers", a word now regarded as pejorative by the Irish travellers. In his poem "The Tinker's Daughter", the County Kerry writer Sigerson Clifford, described the prevailing social attitude.

"The farmer walked his weedful fields and he made the tinkers travel on."

The travellers were part of our scenery but few made them welcome. The people of the traveller clans were the ultimate outsiders in Irish society.

In those days the idea that a UN committee would declare its support for travellers, as the committee on the elimination of racial discrimination did earlier this month, was unthinkable.

Wednesday's visit to the Dale Farm site by Professor Yves Cabannes, a former chairman of the UN advisory group on forced evictions, is a mark of the profound change in the Irish traveller community.

Education embraced

From the 1960s onwards travellers began to organise, often with the help of Catholic clergy who lobbied the local and national government on their behalf.

Although still lagging well behind the settled communities in Britain and Ireland, traveller children embraced education in a way that simply was not possible for their parents.

Image caption Signs of prosperity mix with icons of a traditional religious devotion

Candy Sheridan, who campaigns on behalf of the Dale Farm residents, is a case in point. With Irish roots but raised in England she went to convent school and emerged as an articulate champion of her people.

She was twice elected as a Liberal Democrat councillor in Norfolk. It is the women who are the agents of change, she says.

"They don't want the roadside living, the forced evictions. They want their children to have an education."

But Irish travellers find themselves pulled between opposing forces. The desire to keep to a way of life that can involve travelling for months at a time militates against the desire to educate their children.

And in both Britain and Ireland settled communities are frequently bitterly opposed to their presence.

The involvement of some travellers in crime has been highlighted extensively in the media. Complaints of anti-social behaviour like the dumping of rubbish and fighting are common on both sides of the Irish Sea.

The man who has become the public face of opposition to the Dale Farm camp, Len Gridley, says he has received death threats for his stance.

"They want it both ways… we're not going to put up with them anymore," he says.

What is clear is that the travellers' growing political awareness has not yet been matched by any large-scale support in the wider community.

Among the settled community they remain a profoundly unpopular cause. Addressing that crisis will prove the longest, and most difficult, challenge.

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