Travellers reeling as convictions on four members reverberate through community
As a consequence of this week’s convictions in Luton Crown Court life for Irish Travellers in the UK may become even tougher
BEHIND A glass-fronted dock in Luton Crown Court on Thursday, Josie Connors wept inconsolably as Judge Michael Kay imposed sentences upon her for servitude and forced labour. Her husband, James John, stood, head bowed, with tears in his eyes.
During the week it took the jury to reach a decision, Josie, who had been on bail throughout, attended the court, along with her eldest daughter, Kathleen, who played in the court’s corridors along with other Traveller children.
The convictions could have consequences far beyond the family’s caravan site at Greenacres, near Leighton Buzzard in Bedfordshire, particularly because it was the Connors themselves who emphasised their Traveller culture, not the prosecution.
Josie’s father, Tommy snr, and brother Patrick, were also convicted on some of the charges they faced during the 13-week trial – on foot of an investigation that cost Bedfordshire police £270,000, (€343,000) not including a far larger bill for police salaries.
Three other servitude and forced labour trials, with Travellers as defendants, lie ahead: one in Bristol, one in Hampshire, while the crown prosecution service will return in April to retry some of the family on charges the jury could not agree on.
Equally, there are signals that police – wary up to now of tackling such investigations because of the perceived difficulty of getting convictions under past legislation – will be more likely to begin their own inquiries now.
The UK’s Human Trafficking Centre emphasises that Travellers are not the biggest offenders when it come to servitude, but, equally, argues that similar cases to Greenacres are “occurring in a number of places around the country”.
“No, they are one group of exploiters, but there are other groups. There are other investigations that are nothing to do with Travellers, where you have an organised crime group who are exploiting workers,” said the centre’s Sian Turner.
“There are cases where offences are being considered, but this is a very important test case for the UK because the [servitude] legislation only came in 2010,” said Turner, who frequently attended the Luton trial.
Following the convictions on Wednesday, some of those on the outside – who had not attended the trial, it must be said – argued that the Connors were discriminated against by being repeatedly described as “Irish Travellers” from the moment of arrest on September 11th last.
In truth, no one did so more than the Connors themselves, repeatedly declaring “their culture” in court amid claims that they had helped men that no one else would – a view still held on Thursday at the Greenacres caravan site and by those Travellers leaving Luton Crown Court.
Even the Irish Traveller Movement in Britain, which condemned the treatment of the victims, continues to insist that the presentation of the relationship between Travellers and the outsiders who work with them has been simplistic.
“We really need to look closer at the nature of these relationships. This is not a cut-and-dried issue and really needs research. Workmen have always been part of the Traveller economy. In our experience this is a mutual agreement,” said the Traveller movement’s Yvonne McNamara.
“Of course, there are always those in society that may take this to another level, which changes the nature of the relationship. I think we really need to be careful that we do not demonise the Traveller community for something that really is not what is being presented.
“It is important to remember that it was neither a community nor an ethnicity that was found guilty of servitude charges. By far the majority of Irish Travellers are law-abiding people who would condemn the abuse,” she went on.
Questioned about the implications of the convictions for Travellers elsewhere in Britain – most of whom live ostracised, illness-ridden lives, sometimes in poverty – McNamara said: “We sincerely hope that people will see it was individuals that were found guilty, not a community.”
However, the issue at Greenacres was not poverty. Sentencing the couple, Judge Michael Kay said the couple had “enjoyed the comforts of their lavishly appointed caravans, or static homes”, adding that “substantial sums of money” had been generated from the labour of those held in servitude. In the witness box, Tommy Connors snr was clearly proud of the fact that he had over the years become a wealthy man.
Bar a few shining lights in places in Britain, there are few signs of cohesion between settled and Traveller people almost a year after the evictions at the Dale Farm encampment in Essex – where Travellers had erected a site on land they owned, but for which they did not have planning permission.
Since then, the Travellers there have encamped on the road outside, or moved into a legal site next door, though by doing so they risk eviction later as occupancy levels are above those agreed in the planning permissions.
One in four Travellers in Britain does not have a legal place to park. They are “a community, but not a cohesive one”, argues Fr Gerry McFlynn, who tended to the pastoral needs of many young Travellers during his years as chaplain in Wormwood Scrubs prison in London.
For many of them, the Greenacres model – bar the criminal activity – would be the ideal: neat, well-tended plots, separated from the settled community, but with people having the freedom to move and to run a business.
In 2003 a study found that 4,500 new pitches throughout Britain would be needed within five years because the Traveller population was rising by 4 per cent a year. In the two years following only 280 were delivered. Because of planning and because of opposition, the situation has become even tougher.
In the years since, Travellers have increasingly bought their own land – quite significant plots in some cases, particularly in eastern England – rather than depending on local authorities, but they have then encountered objections from the settled community.
For decades, the Irish Chaplaincy in Britain has worked closely with Travellers. In a report last year on their numbers in British prisons, it highlighted the fact that Irish Travellers comprise up to 1 per cent of the entire numbers incarcerated.
One-fifth “inside” are identified as suffering from mental illness – a figure illustrated graphically during a Wormwood Scrubs visit last year, where, many Travellers sat listlessly in their cells displaying the numbing effects of medication.
The situation for Traveller women is even worse. Two-thirds of them suffer mental illness in jail, according to the Voices Unheard, A Study of Irish Travellers in Prison study.
Nearly half of all Irish Travellers jailed are aged between 18 and 21.
Two-thirds require basic education, though just 37 per cent of those jailed lived on halting sites before prison – a point that, in the eyes of some, shows that houses are not the answer.
Defending Travellers, the Irish Chaplaincy said: “Irish Travellers were, until the 1950s, an integral part of the rural economy in Britain, providing a wide range of skills and labour. Urbanisation, mass production of plastics, the mechanisation of agriculture and the bureaucratisation of society have undermined the traditional basis of the Traveller economy. Irish Travellers, as a result, have become marginalised economically and, in turn, have become increasingly marginalised socially.”
Life expectancy remains low, illiteracy is more often the norm than the exception, while deaths from heart disease, particularly of men in their 40s, and traffic accident fatalities, are commonplace. Alcoholism is more prevalent than Travellers themselves care to accept.
In 2007, researchers in Wrexham noted that Travellers had lower levels of exercise, a significantly poorer diet (particularly in respect of fresh fruit and vegetables), and had far higher rates of self-reported anxiety and depression.
For Travellers, the results are because of discrimination. For others, they happen because of the Travellers’ own lifestyle and an absolute refusal to integrate.
For the last couple of years, the public image of Travellers has been seen through the prism of Channel 4’s My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding documentary series – the greatest disaster in decades for Travellers, in the view of many.
In the wake of Luton, however, life for Travellers, already difficult, could become even more so.
“I have never encountered Travellers being prosecuted for anything like this,” said Fr McFlynn. “Driving without tax and insurance, burglaries and other things, sure, but nothing like this. It will reverberate throughout the entire community.”