For what cause did Jill Phipps die?

A young mother became a tragic victim in an accident at Coventry on Wed nesday night, as she protested against live animal exports. Paul Vallely traces the short life of a dedicated campaigner

Chains of flowers and purple ribbons were fastened to the perimeter fence at Coventry Airport yesterday, close to the place where Jill Phipps died on Wednesday beneath the wheels of a lorry carrying calves bound for export. The tributes beneath th e wreaths were distinctly personal. "Love you always" and "Jill, God Bless", they read.

But either side of the wreaths were placards with more distinctly political messages: "Stop This Cruel Trade Now", "Cows milk for you; calves for the slaughter men", "Please help to stop live export. Public pressure works".

There are two sides to the death of the woman the popular press described as a pretty 31-year-old mum. Alongside the private grief of her elderly parents and her nine-year-old son there is the public anger of her fellow protesters, who have begun to speak of her as a "martyr to animal liberation".

Ms Phipps is not the first animal rights protester to die during a demonstration. Over the past five years two hunt saboteurs were, in separate incidents, crushed by vehicles in the course of their protests. But there is something about the current unlikely alliance of middle-class housewives, radical vegetarians, sentimental animal lovers and seasoned Criminal Justice Act protesters that speaks directly to the British psyche.

It is possible that Ms Phipps's death will soon be forgotten by all but her friends and relatives. But it is also possible that it will acquire the kind of iconic status which could prove a turning point in the controversy over whether the nation should tolerate the export of live animals to questionable foreign destinations.

Given the nature of British public opinion, much might turn on how Ms Phipps comes to be perceived and where she is seen to stand in that motley spectrum of protest. Neighbours at the terraced house she recently bought in Hillfields in Coventry with her partner, Justin Timson, described them as "travelling types" who always seemed to have a lot of trouble with their old van.

"Jill's bloke is Australian and he makes and sells didgeridoos for a living, but they do seem to be short of a bob or two," said one. Relationships with the couple, and their two mongrel dogs and pet rats, were amiable even if most did not share their fervour for animal welfare.

Most will, like Tony Newton, the Leader of the House of Commons, who spoke of the matter in Parliament yesterday, simply want to send sympathy to the family. But there will be those, such as the leading livestock exporter Richard Otley, who proclaim her "largely to blame" for her own death.

"Everybody has a certain amount of responsibility for their own safety," he said last night. "If they choose to throw themselves in front of lorries, they must to some degree take that responsibility into their own hands. It was only a matter of time with demonstrations of this nature involving heavy lorries before a policeman or a demonstrator was hurt."

Ms Phipps was the daughter of a postman. At school, teachers report, she was artistic and talented, and could easily have gone on to university had she not left with eight O-levels at the age of 16, announcing that she wanted to be a naval cadet. In the event, she followed her father into the postal service and married soon after.

But throughout her childhood what most marked her out was her love of animals. "She rescued dogs from the street and always seemed to be pestering us for a new hamster or terrapin," her father, Bob Phipps, said yesterday. She was encouraged by her mother, Nancy, who was herself involved in campaigning against the fur trade. "It all started when she was about 11," her mother said, "she came with me to a demonstration at a fur farm and she carried on from there."

Soon afterwards she became a vegetarian, and persuaded the whole family to do the same. Not long after she got involved with the Animal Liberation Front, joining an affiliated group known as the Eastern Animal Liberation League. With her mother she took part in campaigns against a local fur farm and a fur shop in Coventry, which both closed down under the pressure.

Then in 1986, with her mother and sister, Lesley, she joined a raiding party on the Port Sunlight factory of the soap manufacturers Unilever in a protest over animal testing. With 30 other demonstrators, they entered the premises and smashed computer equipment, causing thousands of pounds worth of damage. At Leicester Crown Court, her mother was sentenced to six months imprisonment and her sister to 18 months. The women were sent to Holloway. Ms Phipps's sentence was suspended only because while awaiting trial she had become pregnant.

Not long after the baby was born she divorced her husband and for the next four years lived as a single parent. She downgraded the level of her activism, though she continued to take part in demonstrations while her son, Luke, was at school. During the school holidays she often took him with her to hunt sabotage meetings and anti-vivisection protests. Only last week she walked from Coventry to Westminster to protest about the export of live animals. She spent her 31st birthday last month demonstrating o utside the home of Christopher Barrett-Jolly, who runs Phoenix Aviation, the firm that operates the export of calves from Coventry airport. Yesterday, masked protesters returned to the home and overpowered a police guard to smash most of the windows int he £250,000 Georgian house.

It was the advent of the veal export trade to her home town which prompted Ms Phipps to step up her activity once again. She became one of a small group of protesters who have staged a daily vigil outside the city's Baginton Airport since the beginning of November, when the export trade shifted its focus there after being forced by protesters to quit the airport at Bournemouth. Her nine-year-old son and her mother and sister were often there with her.

When one of the charter planes flying in to collect the calves crashed in December, killing five people, she stepped up her presence and made an outspoken attack on the Phoenix boss.

"This whole disaster is down to Barrett-Jolly's greed," she said. "If he had not been exporting live animals, this plane would not have been in Coventry. The only people I feel sorry for are the families whose relatives died. I don't feel sorry for the dead people, they were just as guilty as Barrett-Jolly." Next day she was outside the airport's freight gates with banners reading: "Wanted dead or alive: Christopher Barrett-Jolly".

Wednesday was to be just another protest. She turned up at the airport with 34 other campaigners. Only days before her death on the rough tarmac road running past the ramshackle metal gates of the freight delivery yard at Baginton, Ms Phipps had forecastthere would one day be trouble at the airport. "Yes, I think people could be hurt," she said. "We are so determined to stop this trade, we will go that far."

Those who stood with her might have predicted that, if anything happened, Ms Phipps would be one of those in danger. For hours she would stand quietly, chatting with friends and stoking the picket-line brazier to keep warm. But when the lorries arrived, she would erupt into what one of her fellows called "a ball of fury". On several occasions she was seen running straight into the path of the articulated vehicles.

An hour after she arrived on the day she died, the lorry appeared. Most of the protesters were further down the road but a small group, including Ms Phipps who had arrived earlier, were at the entrance of the airport when the articulated lorry came up the road. As it bypassed the main group of campaigners, she ran, arms outstretched, headlong towards it. She clambered up the front wing. Her sister watched in horror as she slipped and fell beneath the wheels.

Another protester, Gill Gates, was just yards away. "She was just behind me," she said. "I turned around for a second and my friend was on the ground. I don't know if she slipped, fell or was knocked over by the truck. Police yelled for the lorry driver to stop and it did, but with the wheels right on her body." Paramedics tried emergency treatment but she was dead on arrival at hospital.

Back home Justin Timson was working on the van belonging to Coventry Animal Alliance when he heard the news. "She would be overjoyed to know her death was not in vain," he said. "Throughout history it has taken violent protest to achieve things. Sometimes this is what it takes. It is just so bad it had to be Jill."

Her father was not convinced. "Jill was no martyr to the cause," he said yesterday. "She had a young son to live for. She did not want to die."

The days to come will pass their own verdict.

Additional reporting by Danny Penman and Martin Whitfield.

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