Aberdeen Labour must examine councillor’s position on Travelling Community

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  By a Newsnet reporter  

Following the publication of a hard hitting Scottish Parliamentary report highlighting the appalling levels of discrimination that the travelling community in Scotland faces, an SNP MSP has urged the Labour-led administration of Aberdeen City Council to examine the role of a heavily criticised councillor.

Mark McDonald MSP has written to Councillor Barney Crockett, the Leader of Aberdeen City Council, expressing his concern over the role of a councillor who has been publicly criticised for his attitudes to the travelling community by high profile equalities organisations.

Councillor Neil Cooney earned widespread condemnation in 2007 from organisations such as the Commission for Racial Equalities when he accused members of the travelling community of “environmental terrorism”.

Speaking just after the incident was reported, Alfie Kefford, the chairman of the Gypsy Council, said Mr Cooney’s remarks were “highly offensive” and demanded that the Labour party sack him.

He said: “We are extremely angry at what this man has said and want him sacked.

“He would not be allowed to use terminology like that against any other ethnic minority, but because we are gypsies he thinks he can get away with it.”

The Labour-led administration of Aberdeen City Council has since appointed Councillor Cooney as convener of the Housing and Environment committee which has responsibility for policy relating to the travelling community.

Under Scottish law, Gypsy Travellers are classified as an ethnic minority and they cannot be moved from an unauthorised site if the local authority has not provided an adequate number of spaces.  Many local authorities routinely fail to provide suitable sites for travelling communities.

The term “Gypsy Traveller” is widely understood to embrace both Romani Gypsies and Irish Travellers.

The Romani Gypsy population of Europe is believed to descend from people from northern India who adopted a nomadic lifestyle in the wake of the Arab and Persian invasions of India in the 11th century.  Although the original Gypsy language Romani (or “deep Romani”) has been extinct for several generations amongst travelling communities in the British Isles, it is most closely related to languages of Central and Northern India. 

The largest Gypsy populations in modern Europe are in Romania and Slovakia.  Romani should not be confused with Romanian, the official language of Romania, which is related to Italian.

Gypsy people have suffered centuries of discrimination.  Until the mid-19th century the Romanian Gypsies were held as slaves by powerful landowners.  During WW2, the Gypsies, along with the Jews, were deported to death-camps by the Nazis.  Hundreds of thousands of Gypsies are thought to have perished in the gas-chambers.

In the British Isles, Romani Gypsies are closely associated with the Irish Travelling community.  Many Irish Travellers trace their descent to Irish families who were dispossessed of their lands when the British Crown planted Ireland with English and Scottish settlers, others adopted the nomadic life in an effort to find food during the Irish Famine.   

Commenting, SNP MSP Mark McDonald said:

“At a time when a Scottish Parliament report has rightly highlighted the appalling discrimination faced by the travelling community, it is difficult to see why the Labour-led administration believes that Councillor Cooney is the appropriate person to convene the council committee responsible for the Traveller community.

“Given that the Commission for Racial Equality have previously expressed their concern at the unacceptable language he has used towards travellers in the past, I think it is essential that the Labour-led administration reflects seriously on his suitability for this role.

“If the Labour-led administration in Aberdeen expects to be taken seriously in its efforts to eradicate discrimination towards the Travelling community, then it needs to look long and hard at the wisdom of a councillor who has used such unacceptable language towards a marginalised community holding such a position of influence.”