Travellers block entrance as Dale Farm tensions rise

 

With just hours to go before today’s evictions from Dale Farm in Essex, it was difficult yesterday to tell who was in charge at Europe’s largest Traveller settlement, writes MARK HENNESSYat Dale Farm

SOME TRAVELLERS went to Mass in the Our Lady of Good Counsel Catholic Church in nearby Wickford, while some took away valuables for safe-keeping.

A few even went for sunbed sessions. Each had their way of counting down the hours before today’s evictions from Dale Farm.

Tensions are rising at the Essex camp, where several hundred Travellers are threatened with removal from 8am today by Basildon council bailiffs, following a 10-year planning battle over the Travellers’ erection of the camp, partly on protected green-belt lands.

Divisions have emerged among them, too. For months, Candy Sheridan of the Gypsy council has led the legal fight to save the camp, though she has fallen foul in recent days of some of the dozens of activists who have moved into the camp in recent weeks.

Last evening Sheridan had intended to hold a last-minute meeting between council officials and the Travellers to go through the details of today’s operation, but she cancelled it, unhappy with charges being made against her by some of the activists.

Instead, Sheridan planned to overnight on the legal, but largely unoccupied, section of the camp, which has become home to some elderly Travellers and home, also, to caravans from the illegal part that were ferried in by Transit vans during the day.

Despite the Travellers’ protestations that they will not move from the lands that they own, it is clear that many caravans – far more than could be accommodated in the legal part of the camp – have been taken away in recent days.

However, the owners insist that they will be inside the gates, which closed at 6pm last evening for a headcount to be made of the numbers inside, and, again, finally at 11pm. “Anyone who wants to be gone has to be gone by then,” said an activist.

Speaking outside the gates to journalists, Kathleen McCarthy said they would lock themselves “to anything that we can find” to prevent the bailiffs removing them. “What choice do we have? We have nowhere else to go. Do any of you think that we would humiliate ourselves in this way, if we had anywhere to?” asked Ms McCarthy, who has been one of the most prominent voices for the Dale Farm residents during numerous legal challenges.

Urging prime minister David Cameron to intercede, Mary Slattery said the Camerons had lost a child. “But what about our children? He’s there in his warm, beautiful house. Does he want our children to go out on the side of the road?”

Travellers had been ejected by the same bailiffs from an encampment elsewhere in Essex, she said. “Well, the same thing isn’t happening here. Our children are praying every night to Jesus that they’ll be left alone and able to go to school.”

During an afternoon “council of war”, Travellers and activists debated the response to be offered to the bailiffs, some wanting confrontation or active resistance, others fearful that matters could get out of hand quickly.

An arch erected from scaffolding which stands at the entrance to Dale Farm emblazoned with a sign, “No Ethnic Cleansing Here”, is the first line of defence, since it has to be dismantled before off-loaders can be brought in to take away mobile homes.

Some proposed erecting barricades of gas bottles; “empty, of course, but the bailiffs won’t know that”, said one; while some of the Travellers, only half-seriously, pondered setting fire to the trees.

English New Age Travellers were aghast. ‘That’s green belt – you can’t touch that,’ one said.

During a 5pm briefing at “Camp Constant” – the camp-within-a-camp occupied by the activists – veterans welcomed the recently arrived, all of whom are preparing to rise at 4am to be ready for the bailiffs.

“We could have people up on the scaffolding with ropes around their necks. I saw that delay bailiffs once for four days. Four days!” urged one supporter enthusiastically. “Well, you know I’ll be put up there tomorrow, don’t you?”

Early yesterday morning, some of the activists brought out a concrete mixer and tried to build a brick wall to block the temporary road built across a field by the council for vehicles needed today.

The wall will only last seconds, but the activity was deemed worthwhile.

“This is a private road. We are protecting a private road,” said the activists as they worked, unaided by the Travellers.

Traveller Mary McCarthy was happy to do TV interviews, saying in one: “I have been here for 10 years. Ten years, and the council wants to make women and children homeless. If we had anywhere to go, don’t you think we would be gone already?” She held to a despairing hope of a last-minute reprieve, though none is likely. “The battle is not lost, because the battle hasn’t begun yet. We are not running off this land until we have to do so.”

However, the response from the Travellers and the activists to the 8am arrival is impossible to judge. “I don’t believe in fighting. Fighting only gets you handcuffs,” said Richard Sheridan, a resident but also president of the Irish Travellers’ Movement in Britain. He was irritated for much of the day on foot of a Sunday newspaper account of his past convictions for cigarette smuggling, but he was not alone in his jaundiced view of the press. Throughout the day, tensions were high.

An ITV crew irritated “press officers” from the activist group because they interviewed Travellers without permission outside the encampment, while others caused tensions by doing the same inside. Tempers were raised further as a Sky News cherrypicker rose through tree branches on lands owned by Dale Farm’s nearest settled resident, Len Gridley, who has had difficult relations with the Travellers for years.

“They have no permission to do that. They can’t look in on us like that,” complained one woman to an activist as the cherrypicker was moved and moved again to find the best spot for “eye-in-the-sky” pictures for this morning’s television broadcast.