Sunday, September 04, 2011

Dale Farm: UN recognises Basildon, some of it anyway

As a Borough Councillor I am a pretty small cog in the machine that governs our country. In general the sorts of things I deal with a well below the level of interest of global institutions. So, if you had told me a few weeks ago that I would be pondering an appropriate response to the UN, I don't think I would have believed you. Now though that is pretty much what I am doing. You see the UN Anti-Racism Committee has decided to intervene over Dale Farm, calling on the site clearance to be suspended and that:
The Committee urges the State party to find a peaceful and appropriate solution which fully respects the rights of the families involved. Travellers and Gypsies already face considerable discrimination and hostility in wider society and the Committee is deeply concerned that this could be worsened by actions taken by authorities in the current situation and by some media reporting on the issues.
Heavy stuff indeed, but sometimes things are not exactly what they seem. In coming to their conclusions in what is a complicated situation it appears that the UN Committee has talked to exactly one party: the Travellers. Let us be clear, at no point has the UN spoken to Basildon Borough Council, and they don't appear to have contacted any non-Traveller local residents, Cray's Hill Parish Council, Essex County Council, Essex Police or the local school. What is actually astonishing is that having decided to back one party in the dispute they think that any of the other parties would pay attention to them. If they had shown some simple decency and met with Basildon Council then that would have been one thing. As it is, I feel that I am being lectured by someone who has deliberately decided to ignore anything I might have to say from the first. Except that isn't even the case. The UN isn't even lecturing. They didn't even send us any of their documents. Their thesis is that Basildon Borough Council should read their press release off a random news website and just react to that. I just wonder if this ever actually, you know, works?

On the substantive side of this, and remembering that this is the UN Anti-Racism Committee, a few facts might help. Basildon Borough has one of the largest number of legal Traveller sites in the country. In terms of the number of sites per hectare we are actually number one. We have had Travellers in the Borough for decades. In fact we have had Travellers on the legal part of Dale Farm for decades without any issues. The idea that there is some sort of local pathological bias against Travellers is garbage. It has also been tested in the courts, as has our provision for Travellers as a distinct group. At every stage Basildon Council has been found to not only be acting legally, but also fairly and proportionally. This matter has also faced media scrutiny for the last ten years and especially recently. No actual evidence of racism has been turned up, but, of course, proving a negative is a logical impossibility, especially against people who do nothing but scream 'ethnic cleansing'.

The most depressing thing is that things like the UN intervention and the casual use of accusations of racism simply serve to devalue tolerance and obscure real instances where racism doesn't just blight lives, but ends them. If you accuse large numbers of people of being racists when they simply aren't, then you risk hardening them to the whole issue, or at least reducing it as something they care about. If you talk about ethnic cleansing regarding a planning dispute in Essex, what do you say when sub-Saharan Africans are being dragged off Tripoli's streets just because of their skin colour? Using the same language may make people care less about the second instead of more about the first.

So, what are we going to do about the UN? You know, I think I'll wait until they call to decide.