`They saved an awful long time for this holiday'

IN A CRAMPED, plushly decorated caravan, below a railway line in Lewisham, south-east London, the relatives of a group of holidaymakers accused of a mid-air brawl waited for the lunchtime news.

As images of her three granddaughters laughing as they were ejected from their holiday flight filled the screen, 84-year-old Anne Doherty squinted, holding one of her many statues of the Virgin Mary. "I'm very worried about them. My grandson's got asthma," she said. "They only went on holiday to help his chest."

The home of the Virginia 12 is a long way from the blue waters of Jamaica's Montego Bay, where they had been bound. The group of caravans rented by the "travellers" sit in the middle of a car park littered with supermarket trolleys and patrolled by large black dogs. These "holiday homes" cost pounds 50 a week - somewhat cheaper than the pounds 1,500-a-couple cost of their aborted trip to the Caribbean.

"They saved an awful long time for this holiday," said Tonie Smith, 12, the son of Noreen Sanders, one of the holidaymakers. He was staying with his grandmother in Bermondsey while his mother was away.They had, he said, been looking forward to their escape from the Lewisham caravan site for more than a year.

"That's the first time they've ever been anywhere. They took a few drinks because they hadn't flown before."

According to a male member of the family who declined to be named, the party's ejection from the flight came about purely as a result of anti- Irish feeling. He, like many members of the extended family, had plenty of theories both as to why the authorities had decided to ruin the "once in a lifetime" trip - and why the Lewisham party had been the only ones to suffer. "They're out there for a joyride," he said as he strode up and down the busy road. "What's wrong with a holiday?"

Inside the caravan, Bridget Driscoll, mother of three of the party, drew heavily on her cigarette. She said she hadn't slept since her daughter, Elizabeth, phoned her in tears on Sunday. As few of the community can read, they have been dependent on the television to piece together the story. "All we want is to have them back. They didn't murder anyone. They didn't rape anyone," she said. "We are a well-bred, respectable family. One man caused the problem. It's not fair, punishing so many people for other people's dealings."

Despite the end of their dream holiday, and the ignominious circumstances of her family's foray into the public eye, Mrs Doherty, still glued to the screen, couldn't quite contain her pride.

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