Dale Farm

Tomorrow is going to be an ugly day in Essex. It need not be so, but there are forces in society which just do not know when to give up. And sadly, in these days of spin doctors, they use every device at their disposal to mislead.

The site clearance of Dale Farm (see below) need not be a cause for violence. Indeed, it need not be happening at all, but for the fact that the travellers seem to regard themselves as above the law. It is not my intention today to revisit the legality of Basildon Council’s actions as, quite clearly, they are acting lawfully. (Whether there are other aspects of law that affect the issue of sites for travellers is a different matter and should not be used to muddy the waters.)

The travellers would like you to think that this a struggle by an oppressed minority against the might of the state; that the old, the vulnerable, the sick and the young are being persecuted;  that their rights are being trampled by jackbooted racists. They want you to feel guilty.

In reality, this is a simple dispute over planning law that has escalated beyond what is sensible. The site should really have been cleared six years ago, but our circuitous legal system allows for repeated challenges and this has piled on delay after delay. I do not blame the travellers for this protraction – who wouldn’t use every legal weapon they could find to defend what they see as their rights.

But even though the travellers admit that they have reached the end of the road in the legal fight they still refuse to clear the site and maintain that they will stay put and that they have nowhere else to go, a claim that has begun to unravel in recent days.

Seems they would have gone on down if the price had been right

On 6 September it was claimed that Richard Sheridan had been in secret negotiations with Basildon Council in which he had offered to move the travellers off the site to eitherBirminghamorScotland. The price would have been £6 million of public money, or something of the order of twenty times the market value of the land. When approached about this by the BBCSheridanwas “unavailable for comment”, which, as any follower of politics knows, is a euphemism for “I don’t want to answer that because I’ve been rumbled”. So much for the subsequent claims that the travellers have nowhere to go and could only move if there was “culturally appropriate” accommodation for them. Seems they would have gone on down if the price had been right.

While we’re on the subject of alternatives – it has been claimed fairly recently that some of the travellers camped illegally on Dale Farm own properties in the town ofRathkealeinCountyLimerick. Allegedly, Anne Sheridan owns a bungalow in the town, while Mary Quilligan has a terraced house as well as two three-bedroom apartments in a new multi-million pound development of 33 homes being masterminded by another Dale Farm resident, Michael Quilligan. It has been claimed that another wealthy traveller linked to Dale Farm, Richard O’Brien, is developing 44 houses near Rathkeale, called the Castle Park estate, and a third housing estate is being built by a member of the Sheridan clan who is closely linked to the Essex site. Richard Sheridan denies that anyone on the illegal site at Dale Farm owns property in Rathkeale, but given the misinformation currently emerging from there it’s very difficult to take this at face value.

In recent days, as well, the former owner of Dale Farm, Ray Bocking, has chucked in his sixpennoth. He claims that it was Basildon Council which laid down hard core and tarmac on the site. The Council deny this in quite emphatic terms and point to the fact that they served enforcement orders against Bocking for unlawful use of the site as a scrap yard. In an interview in May 2008 it is clear that he is vey bitter towards Basildon Council, claiming that they put him out of business and “forced” him to sell Dale Farm to the travellers. (At the same time, Bocking’s godson, Dean Fewings, threatened to sell his land, on which he was also unlawfully operating a scrap dealership, to travellers.) Bocking has rather shot himself in the foot and cannot be regarded as an unbiased participant.

Mary Flynn

There have been claims that several of the travellers are too ill to be moved. (There’s apparently someone with a “potentially fatal” case of nasal polyps! Try as I might I cannot take that one seriously.) And then there is Mary Flynn. She was one of the main claimants in the most recent action in the Courts. It is claimed that she is too unwell as she has severe breathing difficulties and has to use an electric nebuliser. Is this the same Mary Flynn pictured as recently as 1 September outside her chalet chatting to reporters? And what’s that in her right hand? Severe breathing difficulties, but clearly not bad enough to stop her being up and about and dragging on the Mayfair Blues.

I admit that I have no sympathy for the travellers. I think they’ve brought this on themselves and have had ample opportunity to make alternative arrangements. Recent coverage has not changed my mind. Tomorrow will be ugly, and the ugliness will be carried on all major news channels. In their call for foot soldiers in the “Battle of Dale Farm” it is the travellers and their supporters who are using the language of violence. It doesn’t need to happen. Even at this late stage the travellers can prevent it by abiding by the law and leaving peacefully.