Irish squatters told to hit the road

Vivien Slattery has lived her whole life – all 16 days of it – in a tidy mobile home, one of dozens on a crowded site beside green English fields. Her mother grew up here, surrounded by friends and extended family.

Within days, baby Vivien and more than 200 others will be evicted from the settlement east of London; the Irish ‘Travellers’ are the losers in a decade-long battle with local officials.

The Travellers are a traditionally nomadic group similar to, but ethnically distinct from gypsy or Roma people, and their plight has drawn attention from the United Nations.

┬áThe local authority says it’s a simple planning issue as the 86 families lack permission to pitch homes on the land. But the Travellers call it ethnic cleansing.

“There’s no need of it. There’s no need for them to treat us the way they are treating us,” says 23-year-old Kathleen Slattery as she feeds her infant daughter Vivien a bottle of milk.

“They just want us gone. They want us to vanish in thin air,” she says. “They’re not even taking a 2-week-old baby into consideration.”

The conflict over the settlement, known as Dale Farm, has raged since 2001, when the group bought and settled on a former scrapyard next to a legal Travellers’ site 50km east of London.

The local authority waged a long legal battle to remove them, which it finally won at Britain’s High Court last month.

Evictions are due to begin tomorrow, after an appeals judge rejected a last-minute legal bid by the Travellers.

But the feud’s roots are much older than this case.

“There have always been conflicts between nomadic and settled communities,” says Jake Bowers, a gypsy writer and editor of the Travellers’ Times.

“I think it is made worse in this country. The British have a great deal of enthusiasm for their homes being their castles and there is a perception that gypsies bring down property prices.”

There are estimated to be between 15,000 and 30,000 Irish Travellers in Britain, where they are recognised as a distinct ethnic minority by the Government. Their roots, and their strong accents, lie in Ireland, but many have been in Britain for generations.

But over the past few decades, laws limiting unauthorised camping, economic changes and a desire to see their children educated has led many to settle down – sometimes legally on land provided by the Government and sometimes without permission.

Local authorities near Dale Farm say they are not anti-Travellers, they are just trying to enforce the law barring development on a “greenfield” site.

The eviction campaign has wide public support in the area. The letter pages in local newspapers and internet forums are filled with largely hostile comments, with many using derogatory terms like “pikey” and “tinker” to describe the group.

Len Gridley, whose house backs on to Dale Farm, says the Travellers have made his life “hell” for a decade. Last month, he was arrested after trying to set fire to a fence.

Traveller evictions are relatively common across Britain but few are as large, or as high-profile, as that at Dale Farm.

The UN Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination has urged authorities “to find a peaceful and appropriate solution” to the crisis.

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