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.