We'll fight eviction to the death, say irate Travellers
The Irish traveller camp that featured in the hit TV series My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding is at the centre of a major confrontation between the traveller community and the British Conservative government.
Some 51 families have been served with eviction notices to move from the Dale Farm camp near Basildon by tomorrow. The camp is the biggest Irish traveller settlement in Britain.
The families facing eviction, many of whom have been there for 10 years, said they will fight "to the death" any attempt to evict them. Left wing and other groups are already making plans for "mass support" for the travellers if the police and bailiffs move in.
Essex police and the local council are reported to have set aside a budget of £18m (€20.56m) -- though this is denied by both -- for the exercise which seems set to go ahead.
The eviction will test the Conservative government's 'Localism Bill' which, opponents say, was brought in specifically to target the hundreds of Irish traveller camps set up in breach of planning laws in recent years.
The growth in the numbers of travellers in Britain in the past decade was due in large part to the introduction of the Trespass Act here in 2002, which was quickly and strictly implemented by gardai. The Trespass Act was introduced after a series of incidents in which huge amounts of rubbish, including tonnes of asbestos, were left in public parks and sports fields by travellers around Dublin.
The growth of the Irish travellers' numbers in Britain has created a major undercurrent of resentment, mainly in rural areas, and part of the Conservative government's policy base is involved the tightening of planning laws and granting more powers to local councils.
Dale Farm was raised in the House of Commons in March when, in response to the local MP John Baron, Prime Minister David Cameron said: "I know he speaks for many people about the sense of unfairness that one law applies to everybody else and, on too many occasions, another law applies to the travellers."
The evictions at Dale Farm camp are being seen as the test of the incoming "localism" legislation.
There were about 50 families living legally on the site a decade ago but since then a further 51 families, mostly related to the families already there, arrived and settled without permission on land designated as "green belt". Half of the estimated 1,000 travellers living on the site face eviction.
They were served with eviction notices in 2005 but appealed this to the High Court which upheld Basildon Council's order to evict. The Court of Appeal backed the judgement earlier this year and the eviction order was reinstated to take effect from August 29.
Dale Farm first made the headlines in Britain in 2004 when parents of children in the local Crays Hill Primary School withdrew their children and the school's board of governors resigned over the growing attendance of the Irish traveller children. The school's attendance fell from 200 to just over 50 children, all but a few Irish.
Since then the school's attendance has risen to just under 100, almost all traveller children. The displacement of the children is one of the most controversial issues. According to the local primary school the traveller children are thriving in education despite a high absentee level.
Mary Ann McCarthy, who faces eviction, told the Sunday Independent last week that she had grown up on the side of the road in Ireland unable to read or write but could now do so as she had been taught by her grandchildren.
"It's scandalous. The children are doing great in school. There are a 100 at school."
She said the children from the camp don't attend secondary school because they were bullied. "Children went to the secondary and got bullied. Two or three of them were bullied and they stopped going and the others wouldn't go back. They have tutors now in a cabin."
She said there were pregnant women and others with serious illnesses facing eviction.
"They are going to bulldoze us off. It was never a beauty spot it was a scrapyard and the people here cleaned it up."
Earlier this month some of the women told television journalists that they would fight the evictions "to the death" and were shown placing gas canisters across the entrance which they said they would set on fire.
The travellers' campaign to stop the eviction has drawn widespread support. The Catholic and Church of England bishops of Kent, the Rt Rev Thomas McMahon and Rt Rev Stephen Cottrell, visited the site last month and called for the evictions to be halted.
The UN's rapporteur on housing, Raquel Rolnik, issued a statement condemning the eviction order and called for a "peaceful" settlement of the dispute. Amnesty International also supports the travellers' right to remain.