Irish Nomads Fight To Save Decade-Long Home

Sep 25, 2011
Originally published on September 26, 2011 10:26 am

A group of semi-nomadic Irish known as Irish Travellers has been ordered to leave the former scrap yard east of London where they've been living.

The local government has been trying to evict most of the group since it started living on the land 10 years ago, an eviction that has long been delayed owing to legal wrangling. But on Monday, a judge will finally rule on the plea of the Travellers to remain on land that's been their home for a decade.

The controversy revolves around a site known as Dale Farm in the English town of Basildon, about 15 miles east of London. The area is home to 86 families of Irish Travellers — some 400 people living, according to custom and culture, in extended family groups.

When the Travellers bought the land, half was zoned for residential use but the other half was zoned "greenbelt," which meant it was protected from development. The Basildon Town Council has spent about 10 years and $28 million trying to clear the 52 trailers from that site.

As she walked into court Friday, Dale Farm resident Kathleen McCarthy told reporters the case is crystal clear.

"Justice — that is really what this is all about," she said. "Because it's going on 10 years now and we just need justice; we need to be let stay or find somewhere for us to go."

But the town says the zoning law is clear and has to apply to everyone equally.

The Travellers, though, say it isn't that simple. Like Roma migrants and new-age Travellers, Irish Travellers theoretically have the legal right to pursue their semi-nomadic way of life in Britain. In reality, they say, 90 percent of their zoning applications are turned down.

Basildon has offered alternative housing or plots of land, but the Travellers have rejected them all as too rundown, too permanent or too dispersed to allow them to maintain their close family ties.

"They want a site in the area where they can carry on their lives, where their kids can still go to the local school or a school nearby, and they can remain part of the community of Basildon, which is where most of these kids were born," said Matthew Brindley of the Irish Travellers Movement, a group that advocates for Travellers' rights.

Last Monday, as authorities prepared to carry out the mass eviction, the Travellers won a last-minute court-ordered reprieve to allow a high court judge to consider the case.

The judge says his ruling will concern not whether but when and how the evictions should proceed. Tony Ball, head of Basildon's Town Council, says he's confident of victory.

"We've been doing this for 10 years; we can wait another three [or] four days," Ball said.

He may have to wait longer than that, though, since the Travellers have reportedly lodged two more bids for a judicial review of their case. If allowed, the reviews could cost Basildon yet more time and more money.

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AUDIE CORNISH, Host:

A group of people from a formerly nomadic minority known as Irish travellers will be in a London courtroom tomorrow to hear a judge rule on their plea to remain on land that's been their home for 10 years. That's also about how long the local government's been trying to evict most of them. Vicki Barker reports from London.

VICKI BARKER: The controversy revolves around a site known as Dale Farm. It's in the English town of Basildon, about 15 miles east of London, and it's home to 86 families of Irish travellers - some 400 people living, according to custom and culture, in extended family groups. The travellers bought the land legally about 10 years ago. Half was zoned for residential use, and now houses 34 trailers and camper vans. But the other half was zoned greenbelt - protected from development - and Basildon town council has so far spent about 10 years and $28 million trying to clear the 52 trailers from that site. As she walked into court Friday, Dale Farm resident, Kathleen McCarthy told reporters the case is crystal clear.

KATHLEEN MCCARTHY: Justice, that is really what this is all about because it's going on 10 year now and we just need justice. We need to be let stay or find somewhere for us to go, right.

BARKER: But the town says the zoning law is clear and has to apply to everyone equally. The travellers, though, say it isn't that simple. Like Roma migrants and new age travellers, Irish travellers theoretically have the legal right to pursue their semi-nomadic way of life here in Britain. In reality, they say, 90 percent of their zoning applications are turned down. Basildon has offered alternative housing or plots of land - the travellers have rejected them all as too rundown, too permanent, or too dispersed to allow them to maintain their close family ties. Matthew Brindley is with the Irish Travellers Movement, which advocates for travellers' rights.

MATTHEW BRINDLEY: They want a site in the area where they can carry on their lives, where their kids can still go to the local school or a school nearby and they can remain part of the community in Basildon, which is where most of these kids were born.

BARKER: Last Monday, as authorities prepared to carry out the mass eviction, the travellers won a last-minute court-ordered reprieve to allow a high court judge to consider the case. The judge says his ruling will concern not whether but when and how the evictions should proceed. Tony Ball, head of Basildon's town council, says he's confident of victory.

TONY BALL: We've been doing this for ten years; we can wait another three, four days.

BARKER: He may have to wait longer than that: the travellers have reportedly lodged two more bids for a judicial review of their case - which, if allowed, could cost Basildon yet more time and more money. For NPR News, I'm Vicki Barker in London.

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