Wednesday, March 08, 2006

# Posted 9:47 AM by Patrick Belton  

WITH ST PATRICK'S DAY COMING up again shortly, you are likely to hear once more a great deal of nostalgia-inflected sentimentalism broadcast through a medium of green beer. You are unlikely to hear much about the Maloney family.

The Maloney family are Irish travellers, though since the 'Irish' half of that term carries positive connotations, in Britain they are referred to by the government - inaccurately - as gypsies.

British law pertaining to the Maloneys and other Irish travellers like them has not been a story of progress. In 1968, the Caravan Sites Act was introduced to the statute books to make it a duty incumbent upon city councils to provide land for Travellers to encamp upon; the 1968 act was in response to a wave of killings of travellers at the hands of vigilantes in the years preceding. This legislation, humane and progressive in the time of its enactment, was stricken from the books by the Criminal Justice Act (CJA) 1994, after which city councils no longer are bound by statute to provide land to the travellers. When travellers have attempted to buy their own land, they have been denied planning permission to build upon it in 90 per cent of applications submitted; councils, for them, are a tough crowd.

The Maloneys have been moved on from their homes some 50 times, and in the last instance sought to appeal to human rights legislation before the House of Lords to challenge their eviction from a council-run site in Leeds where they had set up without official permission. They are in a catch-22 befitting Tantalus: they are evicted by councils for building without planning permission, but 90 per cent of their applications for planning permission are rejected.

There are an estimated 15,000 travellers’ caravans in the UK; the majority are permanently stationed. According to evidence given to a select committee of Parliament in June 2004, no more than 700 families could be considered to lead a nomadic life.

The Law Lords, led by former chief justice Lord Bingham, ruled that the rights of the local authorities to evict the Irish travellers take precedence over the human rights of such squatters. The case of R. vs Maloneys gives the lie to Robert Kilroy-Silk and his erstwhile compatriots at UKIP: the European Convention on Human Rights poses no threat whatsoever to city councils' sovereign rights to continue telling the Maloneys and families like them to move on, without ever allowing them somewhere to move on ever more wearily toward, this time to stay.

Father Joe Brown, a friend of this blog whose devotion to this world's set-upon I find quite moving, leads the Irish Travellers' Chaplaincy out of the Camden Irish Centre. There is also an all party parliamentary group, the Gypsy & Traveller Law Reform Coalition, which seeks to provide once again a legal framework to safeguard the liberties of travellers as well as city councils. Instead of engaging this St Patrick's Day in its habitual solvent of green sentimentalism corroding away the hard edges of thought, why don't this year you mark it by giving Father Brown and his colleagues a listening to?
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