Research: A Road Less Travelled

I think we would all agree that there is something very intriguing about Gypsies and Travellers, whether this be from seeing camps come and go in our neighbourhoods or through programmes such as My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. With the media presenting such strong stereotypes and negative opinions, often based on deep-grained resentment, it seems like an impossible task to bring our communities together and live peacefully but this is exactly what Dr Anne Foley wants to work towards with her research here at our University. Carrie Braithwaite met up with her to find out more.



“I grew up around Gypsies and Travellers in Cardiff and there was always a ‘them versus us’ feel. They never engaged with us apart from one that became friends with my Nan. When I was at university, studying rave culture and new age travellers, there was a campaign in the Sun – ‘Stamp on a camp’ – and it all seemed very different to what I knew growing up. Around that time, I volunteered on a Gypsies and Travellers project in Cardiff and began to see the problems they faced with policing and victimisation and my interest grew from there.”

Policing is one of the biggest issues facing Gypsies and Travellers and Anne has found that there is a real culture embedded in our society which allows Gypsies to be subject to name calling, to the point of being openly racist, and constant victimisation: “I did some in-depth interviews and surveys and found that Gypsies and Travellers are being victimised in some way on an almost daily basis – for example low level things like being followed around a shop to worse situations like being banned from pubs and restaurants all add up to a feeling of social exclusion and being more and more marginalised through no choice of their own. However the police are not engaging with them as victims.”

Which led Anne to discover the informal justice systems used by Gypsies amongst themselves to deal with conflicts in their own communities; ranging from bare knuckle fighting to formal court systems. “I researched these for my PhD and found that the way that Gypsy and Traveller communities resolve conflicts is to shame someone, or a family, over time and then gradually bring them back into the fold. With outsiders of course, they cannot use their system but equally the police don’t deal with it.”

A few different systems of justice exist and even when someone has been to prison they will still need to be punished within the community as well. The purpose of the punishments is to maintain the community as Anne explains: “They have their own court system, called a ‘creese’, where elders of the community hold a court and both parties put their case forward. It is very formal: a time is booked, people are invited to attend and a decision is made which may be a fine, for example. The money is given to the elders and then passed on to the victim. There was one case where the family took the money, shook hands and then burned the money. This meant that they had moved on and didn’t need the money. It allowed the offending family to keep face and reintegrate into the community.”

Others use a fighting system: “If one family has wronged another then they’ll each pick a man of a similar age and ability and a bare knuckle fight will take place until the last man is standing. Money is paid in by the families and the winning family takes the money. In one case, people came from all over the country. The men stripped to their waists as they always do. There was a referee. The man representing the offending family took the first punch and deliberately fell to the floor. This was their way of saying sorry and it allows everyone to move on and maintain their identities.”

I ask Anne, how can we start to break down these barriers of ‘them versus us’ and integrate Gypsies and Travellers into our communities? She believes that the key is to avoid reactive communication – for example, not just going in to a camp when a crime has taken place but going in regularly and establishing a relationship. “Other good examples of practice have been where the police have stopped and listened and made the community feel like they can go to them if there is a problem.”

Establishing more legal sites would also reduce the number of illegal camps. “Gypsies and Travellers don’t WANT to camp illegally and if there were more legal sites then perhaps they wouldn’t just see the police as their evictors. York is trying to establish more legal sites but is facing public hostility. Where I grew up there was a camp but it was well-established so there were no problems. It’s only where there is fear that there are problems. Without fear, the boundaries can break down, we can get to know each other, children integrate into schools and people realise that they are not alien and lawless. They have different codes and don’t want to live in houses but they are the same as us.”

The bad reputation of Gypsies and Travellers is not helped by the media. Anne says: “Some things in the media horrify me. The racist terminologies like ‘gypo’ and ‘pikey’ are seen as funny and programmes like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding, although they’ve produced a curiosity, are so far from reality that they’ve just created even more open stereotypes. It makes me really angry! These programmes mock the people they feature and don’t say anything about the exclusion and victimisation they face. In Celebrity Big Brother however, although people were at first hostile towards Paddy Doherty (who appeared on My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding), they warmed to him which shows that the more we get to know groups of people, the less likely we are to stick to stereotypes.”

Each council has now done a ‘Gypsy needs accommodation’ assessment and it has highlighted that there are not enough legal sites, meaning that they will continue to keep being moved on by police. Other options include buying your own land to create your own site, as in the case of Dale Farm, but most communities are refused planning permission. Councils are therefore now obliged to provide accommodation for Travellers so there is potential for positive change. However, Anne is not convinced: “The problem is so deeply embedded into society, and across Europe, that it will take a long time to break down.”


By Dr Anne Foley.  View her staff profile here

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