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‘Until barriers are broken down, nothing will change’

4 March 2013

Last year TSSA’s Conference passed policy condemning the harassment and discrimination faced by one of the most marginalised communities in Britain and Ireland. Here, London-resident Irish Traveller Marion Mahoney, writes of her experiences along with Gill Brown of the Traveller Law Reform Project.

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I AM AN Irish Traveller living on a council run Travellers’ Site in London’s Tower Hamlets. We pay rent and Council Tax – this has been my family’s home for years.

In 2004 we heard, by chance, that Crossrail was coming through where we live. We asked our council and MP about it but got no response. It was only when we went along to a meeting on Crossrail, aimed at the local Asian community, that we saw a map that showed a shaft they were going to be drilling right where our site is. When I asked if they knew about us, no one did and all they could say, both then and afterwards, was that we would have to leave or be evicted. For people in top jobs to talk to us the way they did was shocking – just writing us off, there and then.

We were afraid for our children’s future, but with support from the London Gypsy and Traveller Unit and our London Assembly member, we kept at it. Eventually I went to Parliament where I’d been asked to give evidence to Crossrail Bill Select Committee. We came up with an idea to move to the site of a nearby derelict factory, and now – some years on – we are about to move there. These days we have good communication with Crossrail – but it took a lot of work to get there.

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I have told this story because it shows how the way that many people think about Gypsies and Travellers comes from the top. All the authorities showed either almost complete ignorance or held stereotyped assumptions about us. No one was going to support us when they were planning to move us out of our legally rented homes, and what’s more, no one knew anything about our culture or who we really were. It is this which keeps us hidden and out of the mainstream.

I believe that much more needs to be done, especially in schools. Most Gypsy and Traveller children start school with a disadvantage from the start: the parents of many other children only know about us from the tabloid press and pick up prejudice against us. Over the years I have heard of parents and even teachers saying, ‘Don’t mix with them’, ‘They are dirty’ or ‘They will steal from you’. Often a Traveller child may be the only one in the class and try to hide who they are, but when it comes out, the bullying can start and without the school stepping in, that child is on the path to having poor education outcomes, just because of who they are.

Often the tabloids and ignorant radio and TV entertainers, use the word ‘pikey’, despite us trying to fight it. It is a derogatory word and is very offensive to Gypsies and Travellers as it means the lowest of the low and people who don’t count. It’s the same as the offensive words used in recent times towards black and Asian people – and it has the same result. Gypsies and Irish Travellers are recognised ethnic groups and covered by the Race Relations Act so please, if you see or hear anything offensive about us, stand up and do something. We want nothing more than for our children to be educated and integrated whilst, like many other groups, keeping our own culture. Until barriers are broken down, nothing will change.

I want to thank the TSSA for passing the resolution at your conference condemning the harassment and racism we face from the tabloids and elsewhere. We are used to fighting for our own rights and it means a lot when people come out on our side.
 

To find out more, see the London Gypsy and Traveller Unit on www.lgtu.org.uk.

 

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