Town waits for National Front to descend in support of jailed farmer

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The Independent Online

The events of August 1999 when the Norfolk farmer Tony Martin shot and killed a 16-year-old burglar caused shock waves around the country.

Society was polarised between those who supported the vigilante farmer who took the law into his own hands and those, including the judiciary, who believed he had gone too far in protecting his property.

But while the chattering classes argued over the rights and wrongs of the incident, the fallout from the death of Fred Barras and Martin's subsequent jailing has continued to trouble the community around the farmer's home.

Yesterday, the nearest town, Wisbech, felt like a place under siege as it prepared to "batten down the hatches" in anticipation of invading armies. Carpenters were doing swift business, their tape measures extended across shopfronts as they set about boarding up the windows as the town once again prepared to be caught in the crossfire of opinion.

Few places have been as affected as Martin's Norfolk village of Emneth Hungate or nearby Wisbech, where the locals have voiced concerns that Martin's actions were partly a result of an overstretched police service unable to cope with rising rural crime.

Now the far-right National Front has announced it is to march in support of the farmer, who was jailed for life, and once again the local community is feeling abandoned.

While Martin's solicitors insist they do not approve of such a group hijacking the case for its own purposes, that is oflittle comfort to the shopowners of Wisbech who fear travellers will gather in counter-protest, leading to violent clashes.

Yesterday they talked of "panic and hysteria" among those caught in the middle, left to fend for themselves by a police force that already inspires little confidence.

"Everybody but everybody is closing down on Saturday. From the smallest to the biggest business they are battening down the hatches. The whole town will be a ghost town," explained Sheena Hartley, who has been busy cancelling appointments at her Wisbech beauty salon.

Deliberate misinformation by the National Front - which will say only that it is to march in either Wisbech, Ipswich or Norwich, where the Martin trial was held - has led to a semi-hysterical rumour-mill.

"We have just heard that there are 500 of them [travellers] camping out at Great Yarmouth," one elderly woman could be heard telling her friend at yesterday's crowded flower auction.

This is the same auction that will fall silent on Saturday, with its owners unwilling to risk trouble. The Saturday market and many social events in Wisbech have also been cancelled.

Yesterday, the strongest intelligence suggested that Norwich was in fact the National Front's real target, with Norfolk police confirming that a route had been agreed.

But even if Wisbech is left alone, it will not emerge unscathed. Traders stand to lose thousands of pounds by closing on their busiest day.

Local people have been "living in fear" since the Martin trial, the Fenland Citizen reported in a front-page headline last week. Few have confidence the police will protect them despite statistics that show the quiet market town in Cambridgeshire has been experiencing a fall in crime.

Now, with the threat of a pitched battle on their doorstep, the locals' lack of confidence has turned to anger. "The march should have been banned. This is a volatile area," said a shop owner, Lynn Pleasants.

"We feel very disappointed that we have not had any information from the police. If we had we could have made a judgement based on knowledge rather than hysteria."

A local GP, Dr Nilesh Patel, agreed: "It is panic. People have no confidence in the police's ability to handle the issue. There is fright and lots of paranoia."

Cambridgeshire police insisted that they had done everything possible to prepare for a potential march and inform traders. "There is a lot of rumour mongering in Wisbech. We have been trying to dispel these rumours," a spokeswoman said.

The description was certainly accurate with a variety of theories being discussed in local shops yesterday. Some were convinced that hordes of travellers were gathering on the outskirts as they spoke.

At one such site, however, there was little evidence of such hordes - only a quiet gypsy family. The approved site had half a dozen caravans complete with painted shutters and neat hedges.

"We have been living here peacefully for years before all this business happened. We are just as frightened people will come down here and smash up our homes. We are just a group of little kids, pensioners and invalids," said George Jordan, 51.

Laura Price, a 65-year-old great grandmother, spoke with quiet dignity as she tried to set the record straight. "I am sorry for Tony Martin. I don't approve of burglary any more than he does. There probably are some villains among the travelling community. There are bad apples in every barrel," she said, adding that there was a lot of hype about gypsies. "But we are just ordinary, decent people who want to get on with our lives."

It was a sentiment echoed by most people in Wisbech.