In a personal statement, Phil Scraton sets the recent attacks on Roma in South Belfast in the wider context of persistent anti-Traveller racial violence in the UK.
Over thirty Roma families, including many young children, were forced to leave their homes in South Belfast and within a week most families left Ireland, following several weeks of sustained violent attacks. The police were slow to react and the families were left virtually unprotected.
Sports halls are places of fun, energy and exhilaration. They free us from our worries, liberate our minds and exhaust our bodies. But they are also the first port of call when profoundly distressing events unfold. After Hurricane Katrina they were mass dormitories for survivors, at Hillsborough the stadium’s hall was designated a temporary mortuary and, earlier this year, they were short-term home for those made homeless by the Victoria fires. Like churches, they become places of sanctuary and suffering.
In Belfast’s Ozone sports hall, exhaustion, suffering and fear were written on the faces of the men, women and many young children exiled from their homes by those who wear racism and sectarianism as badges of honour. Families sat amid possessions hastily packed in black polythene bags. Introducing myself, trying to communicate, I choked as people initially withdrew, intimidated by my skin.
Thirty years back
In an instant I was back thirty years in Liverpool working with Irish Traveller families. Then, as now, I recognised the barriers of self preservation raised by those enduring the realities of hatred and regulation in equal measure. Involved with the on-site Travellers’ school in contesting imminent evictions and in reading and writing letters for families, I was trusted – but these were families that endured daily the direct impact of unremitting interpersonal and institutionalised racism.
I visited the West Midlands where, during an unlawful eviction, three children died in a fire as a trailer had been ripped from its jacks. The moment I met the families will never leave me. Johnny ‘Pops’ Connors described his experiences of surviving as an Irish Traveller in a hostile world: ‘my wife kicked black and blue by the police in her own trailer three days before the baby was born; my little son very badly injured and my trailer smashed to pieces; the hospital refused to treat us; the councillors said, “kick them out at all costs”‘.
Although I lived in Toxteth, this was my first experience of extreme race hate. What kind of men would recklessly evict Travellers, killing their children in the process? What kind of state, supposedly an advanced, inclusive, democratic state, would sanction such acts of brutality? What kind of an investigative and inquisitorial system would deliver verdicts of accidental death? Why did academic research and the care professions seem unconcerned?
Nothing prepared me for that experience. The intense odium and unrestrained violence directed towards Irish Travellers that led to the killing of three children; the lack of public outrage or media coverage appeared to condone what had happened. It seemed that by their very existence, by their way of life, Gypsies and Travellers had brought death to their own door.
Back in Liverpool on the windswept site of urban dereliction that was Everton Brow, home to over fifty Irish Traveller families, the local community demanded evictions, threatening the use of direct force. Leaflets dropped through letter boxes throughout the area spewed a hateful message: ‘Tinkers Out! The residents of Everton are sick of the filth and squalor brought to their community by Irish tinkers. Local councillors’ promises have come to nothing. If these dirty parasites are not removed we will do the job ourselves. They are a danger to the health of good and decent families. This is an ultimatum: get the tinkers out, or else.’
The city council responded in typical fashion. At four in the morning, in the half light of midsummer dawn, a posse of private hire bailiffs approached the site along deserted inner-city streets. Accompanied by land rovers and lorries, the hired hands were protected by a phalanx of Merseyside police officers.
The police encircled the site while the bailiffs knocked up families. Men, women and terrified children, all in various states of undress, attempted to halt the eviction. The bailiffs hitched the trailers to their lorries and wrenched them from their mounts.
A few weeks later a Warrington councillor called for a ‘final solution’ to the ‘gypsy problem’. Given the genocide directed against Roma prior to and throughout the Holocaust, his outburst was calculated to instil fear within the local travelling population.
Roma, classified as genetic asocials by the Nazis, have remained the ultimate, collective illustration of ‘otherness’. Even their mass deaths have been erased from our collective memory, their suffering marginalised. As historian Ira Clendinnen notes, Gypsies and Roma remain ‘largely absent from discussions of the Holocaust, as they are absent from the monuments which memorialise it’.
In this climate of hate the portrayal of the ‘outsider’ is literal. There is no adoption of, or adaptation to, a distinct cultural identity, no room for a negotiated acceptance of a different way of life. The daily reality of life on Everton Brow was local authority harassment, local community attacks and heavy-handed policing. While men and women defended their homes and families, their children screamed in fear.
Six years ago, 15-year-old Johnny Delaney was killed by young racists in Ellesmere Port. He lived with his family on the Travellers’ site in Liverpool. Knocked to the ground, he was repeatedly kicked and one of his attackers stamped on his head with both feet. Later he said Johnny deserved the kicking ‘because he was only a fucking gypsy’.
Giving two young men sentences of four and a half years for manslaughter, the judge concluded there had been no racial motive. This outraged Johnny’s father and mother, Patrick and Winifred, who campaigned tirelessly to have the killing recognised as racist.
In 2006 Patrick died. One tribute stood out: ‘Patrick took every opportunity to challenge the inequalities that Gypsies and Travellers experience in the criminal justice system. He was destroyed by the lack of justice to such an extent that it killed him.’
The racism that took these lives is the racism that exiled the Roma this week. It is the racism, alongside sectarianism, that has been mobilised to ‘cleanse’ communities of all but those who have a shared cultural heritage. We cannot stand by and let this happen.
I stood with Jimmy Loveridge amid the rubble, mud and squalor of the Everton Brow site. That day he’d gone to the local pub and ordered a pint of beer. No one responded: ‘The fella just looked straight through me.’ Naively I asked, ‘Did he have a “No Gypsies” sign on the door?’ Jimmy smiled wryly and responded, ‘No. It wouldn’t be lawful.’ There was a pause. Then he added, ‘he’s got the sign in his head’.
When politicians talk of generating ‘social inclusion’ and academics promote ‘social capital’ they seem oblivious to the experiences of ‘outsiders’, of what it takes to deal daily with the brutal realities of ‘otherness’. That was the fear in the faces of those I met at the Ozone.
Racism and sectarianism are alive and well, their currency is hatred and their consequences implicate us all.
Read an IRR News story by Anna Morvern: ‘Shockwaves: Romanians in Belfast’