Gypsies promise fight to preserve their way of life: Ian MacKinnon and Michael Durham report on the hostile reaction to a government proposal that travellers be forced to settle in permanent homes

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The Independent Online
CONFRONTATION between gypsies and the authorities appears inevitable if the Government presses ahead with its planned legislation to force them to abandon their travelling lifestyle and settle in homes.

Gypsies say that the move, outlined in a consultation document by the Department of the Environment, represents a concerted attack on their way of life, which one leader equated with a 'form of ethnic cleansing'.

But all maintain that they will defy the attempts to force them to settle and some argue that their history, stretching back centuries, is rooted in repression and that this legislation will simply pull together the often disparate world of travellers.

The term gypsy, as used by non- gypsies, is a gross simplification - a blanket name to define those who live in caravans, who may or may not actually travel around the country. Of all those who live in caravans in Britain, gypsies are the only ones that have the distinction of being recognised as an ethnic group and thus protected from discrimination under the 1976 Race Relations Act.

Their small victory was the result of a Court of Appeal ruling in 1989, which made this distinction after a pub in Hackney, east London, put a sign on the door banning travellers. Travellers were not held to be an ethnic group, but gypsies were, so the sign was deemed discriminatory.

To complicate matters, gypsies in England fall into two groups, Sintis and Romanis, who often speak a smattering of the Romani language, which bears a similarity to some languages in India where they originated.

However, there are a number of distinct ethnic groupings within the community which do not enjoy the protection of the law, yet have a history dating back centuries. The origins of Scottish travellers are oscure, but references have been discovered as far back as the 12th century. However, because of the harsher climate a high proportion live in houses.

Tinkers are another distinct group, which historians believe are the remnants of an ancient class of wandering bards and poets, and speak a language of their own called Shelta.

But they are different to Irish tinkers who had been travelling around Ireland for many centuries before being joined by those who took to the road during the famine. Pedlars, as the name suggests, were the first travelling salesmen.

Each group had its traditional ways of earning a living, but the most common was fruit picking, supplemented by the sales of clothes pegs by the women and horse trading by the men.

Latterly all the various groups adapted their lifestyles so that there is now no distinction over how they earn their money. Many turned to activities like scrap- metal dealing and tarmacking driveways, which lend themselves to the way of life, but the bleak economic outlook resulted in at least some having to rely on social security.

Yet, while the distinctions have become blurred, all are still fiercely proud of their way of life. And even if they choose to remain on the same pitch rather than travel, most could not contemplate living in a house.

Peter Mercer, president of the Gypsy National Council for Education, Culture, Welfare and Civil Rights, said: 'The Government is trying to force people into houses who have lived this way for years. The vast majority of the gypsy community still live in caravans. They don't want to live in houses. You can't hook a house up to the car and pull it away.

'Most of us will fight to the bitter end to defend our right to live as we want to. The Government will never succeed. Being a gypsy is more than just a way of life, it is a race of people. We have been here for 500 years, and we are still going strong. Nobody can force us to settle down. We will just fight back against persecution, as we always have. What the Government envisages is cultural genocide.

'They are trying to destroy a way of life and a race of people because some of them are occasionally a bit of a nuisance. But the public will be on our side. We will go to the European Court. They will never succeed.'

Equally defiant was Tommy Lee, general secretary of The Romany Guild. 'This will certainly not mean the end of gypsies in this country. We are survivors. We will always find ways of carrying on our lives without settling down. They'll never get this to work.

'If they try to push this measure through, we will make sure our protest is heard. We cannot sit by and watch our people being made to live in places where they don't want to live. There are 13,000 gypsies, with legally taxed and insured vehicles, who can block the streets of the City of London.

'We have got to defend ourselves. This is a racist document, like apartheid. They'll never get me into a house,' Mr Lee added.

(Photograph omitted)