Irish travellers

Are you rascist? Football matches or elsewhere? Are you sure?

No rascism even in the heat of the moment.....

I’m not a football fan – I’ve only been to a few matches and I’ve never grasped the off-side rule and, frankly, if someone explains it to me I’m asleep by the end of the very long sentence.

But I have been interested in this latest argument about FIFA’s boss and rascism. It’s made me think about rascism and how it affects us all.


Sepp Blatter has said that racist remarks on the field of play should be dealt with at the end with a match with a handshake and various other comments. Listening to a debate about this on Five Live, I listened to a female caller and a male caller argue the issue.

The woman, talked about her children, of mixed race, who  suffered abuse because of the colour of their skin. For her, dealing with such comments, even if said in the heat of the football match, was something serious which should be stamped on strongly.

For the male caller, it was a storm in a teacup. He talked about playing in football matches where things were said in the heat of the moment which would never be said in the office, in the pub or elsewhere. The emotions and adrenalin of the match caused such things to happen. He said, as a man with dark skin, he’d said things that he’d never ever say in any other environment. He said it was not rascist.

The woman countered, saying that things said in the heat of the moment, off the cuff, often revealed what someone really thought deep down. So such comments had to be punished.

I thought about this carefully. I applied it to myself. What do I think?

I have many friends whose skin isn’t the same colour of mine. I don’t think of myself as rascist at all. Just as I don’t think of myself of homophobic  – I have many gay friends. Frankly these friends are my friends and the rest is irrelevant.

But I also believe that everyone has prejudice in them and it’s dangerous to think otherwise. If we think we’re immune we may not recognise when something we say or do hurts someone else.

I’m reminded of two things that sometimes pop into my head unbidden and when they do I mentally slap myself for being so stupid.

One is seeing a gold coloured old Mercedes or BMW with a black man driving, of any age, and the words ‘drug dealer’ come into my head. Why is that? Where have I got that message from? I have no idea, no memory of where this comes from. I know it’s not real, it’s not logical and I feel ashamed to even allow this to pass fleetingly through my mind.

Another relates to groups of Irish travellers, who visit  each year in Swindon. As soon as I see a group of caravans I think ‘mess, criminal damage, petty pilfering’. I know why these thoughts come unbidden into my head, because I’ve written many stories from residents who do feel those things.

However, I have had a group of travellers move on to land near my house – nothing was stolen from me or my neighbours. There was mess and I can’t say I liked them being there. But they caused me no personal distress.

Should something we might not always be able to control be punished?

One of my children, while at pre school, refused to hold another child’s hand because she thought that child’s hand was dirty. These children were three at the time and the other child was black. I was called into the school about this matter. I was horrified that my child thought such a thing. I apologised to the child’s parent and explained to my child that this was wrong. Even though I knew she didn’t mean to be rascist. And rightly so. Years later, my child cannot believe she ever even thought such a thing.

When any of these things happened to me – or happen to me – I berate myself and remind myself that it’s unacceptable even though it’s not deliberate.

So overall, I have to agree with the mum in the argument. Things said in the heat of the moment may be rascist , and may well pop out of the mouth without the brain being engaged, but it’s still not all right.

And the moment we don’t act to stamp it out, we’re allowing rascism to creep in under the radar.


Irish travellers’ site near you – good or bad?

What would you do if Irish travellers moved in next to you....?

I’m watching a tv programme on the BBC about an Irish traveller site in Essex where residents and travellers have come to loggerheads over their encampment, much of which is illegal.


It’s clearly been going on for years and stirs up strong emotions.


I find the Irish travellers’ way of life fascinating – I don’t agree with all of it, especially their treatment of women, which for me is frankly backward. But if the women are happy with the way their lives are mapped out in that culture, well, fair enough.


I’ve encountered Irish travellers several times both privately and personally in Swindon and I’m still curious. I remember as a child in Somerset, groups of Irish travellers camping out in small coppices near our home in the traditional caravans, or wagons, with horses. I have no memory of there being any problems at all.As a journalist, I’ve encountered several impromptu encampments in Swindon and they are always, without fail, followed by complaints from residents, usually it’s claims of burglary, thieving and verbal abuse.

When I did a story about it once, a resident made lots of claims and the next day I went on to the site, with a local community police officer, to talk to the travellers.   They denied all claims and were extremely friendly. The women invited us in, we had a cup of tea and it was very chatty – I felt we really had the opportunity to tell stories from both side of the fence.


As I was leaving, several vans, trucks came across the field as the men arrived. Immediately the women went inside, shut the doors and left us with the blokes. They were very friendly and I didn’t feel intimidated at all, but felt it was a strange culture which was, and is, alien to me.

Nevertheless, their word was as valid as anyone else’s and I wrote a story rebutting residents’ claims.

The day after, the original resident I’d interviewed, called me and threatened me – he felt it was totally unreasonable that I should go and see them and ask for their side of the story. They didn’t pay taxes, they didn’t contribute, so they weren’t entitled to a right of reply or a say about anything. I’m pleased to say I (reasonably) told him that I disagreed – as did my boss at the time.


Some years later, when heavily pregnant, a group of Irish travellers moved onto wasteland at the back of the housing estate where I lived at the time. Day to day there was no problem. Nothing was stolen and we lived very close.


However there were some difficult moments. I was walking around with one child and her bike and a little boy tried to take it from her – no one came to keep him in order, he clearly thought he could have the bike and there was no parent around to make him behave.


Then one day when it was very hot, there was a huge whooshing noise – out of the back window, I saw a huge tower of water, 30ft high. On the ground, the travellers’ children were screaming and laughing. They had opened the drain and used water to fill up huge water containers and just left it. The problem was that the whole estate were on water meters so we pay for what we use – none of us wanted to pay for what someone else was using, or for what was wasted. Later that day the water company came and asphalted over the water pipe.


Sometimes we fear that which we don’t understand – as a journalist I should know that better than most. But I’m sure that with tolerance, you just have to scratch under the skin to see we’re very, very similar.

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