Award winning writer accuses Labour MP of racism

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Brian DonohoeLabour MP Brian Donohoe has come under fire from a leading writer over his remarks that travelling people are ‘a scourge on our communities.’

Mr Donohoe made the remarks in the Ayrshire Post in a report on the camp set up by travellers in Mossblown in his constituency of Central Ayrshire.

South Ayrshire Council officials have served an eviction notice on the 22 caravans on the site in Annbank Road, Mossblown. The travellers are believed to be the same group who were recently evicted from two sites around Prestwick.

Mr Donohoe told the Post: “It’s my opinion that local authorities here are far too much on the side of the travellers and not enough on the side of the people who live here and make a contribution.

“This is a scourge on our communities and much more has to be done.”

The MP calls for what he terms ‘the Tamworth solution’ to be used. In Tamworth in Staffordshire, according to Mr Donohoe, “basically what happens is that the minute a travelling community arrives they send in agencies like social services, customs and excise to check the place over.

“It then becomes more hassle than it’s worth for travellers to bother going there.”

Mr Donohoe, who says travellers should stay on official sites – Scotland has a shortage of such sites – has long campaigned against illegal camping by travellers, and in April he attacked North and South Ayrshire Council “pandering to these people” who, he alleged, “don’t care about the disgraceful mess they leave behind” in areas that “stink like a rotting tip and it costs the taxpayer in the region of £8,000 to clean up after them.”

The MP has been tackled for his views in a series of e-mails by Eleanor Thom, the writer who won the Scottish First Book of the Year award in 2009 for her novel The Tin-Kin which features the experiences of her mother’s family who were Scottish Travellers.

Newsnet Scotland has obtained these e-mails which, as they were copied to the Ayrshire Post, are in the public domain. Both correspondents are aware that we are publishing the e-mails in full without any redaction.

 

ELEANOR THOM TO BRIAN DONOHOE

“I am writing to you in response to an article I have just read in the Ayrshire Post, published today. The article is about the Travellers who are currently stopping in Mossblown, and mostly it features your reported comments on the situation.

I was compelled to let you know how upsetting and disturbing I found the statements you made, and in particular the language you chose to describe the people involved and the way this complex situation should be dealt with.

It is offensive to refer to the arrival of any group of people in Ayrshire as a ‘scourge’, and it’s shameful that you find it acceptable to say this about Travelling People. Your comments are racist, and they are exactly the kind of remarks that encourage the fear of Travellers so common among the settled population, which leads often to violence and intolerance on both sides. I think it is really irresponsible of you as a public figure to make such remarks to the media.

I was also uncomfortable with your choice of wording for your suggestion on how to resolve the issue. You call it the ‘Tamworth Solution’. This is reminiscent of a phrase used by Adolf Hitler when he wished to eradicate Gypsies and Travellers as part of his Holocaust. Surely it would be wise to avoid such connotations when discussing what is essentially the removal of a group of people you clearly dislike, off what you consider to be your patch. I find it revealing that you felt this turn of phrase was appropriate.

If you would like to open your mind to another possibility for living together harmoniously, and learn about Travelling people and the difficulties they face, I would invite you to read the following 2009 report from the Equality and Human Rights Commission. It is called “Gypsies and Travellers: Simple Solutions for Living Together”. You can find it online here:

 

http://www.equalityhumanrights.com/key-projects/good-relations/gypsies-and-travellers-simple-solutions-for-living-together/

 

FROM BRIAN DONOHOE TO ELEANOR THOM

You make the fundamental error of believing there is ANY connection between ‘race’ and the ‘Travelling People’

You take a very ‘romantic’ view which for someone so intelligent is extremely concerning.

I have spenT 20 years examining the situation trying to ‘connect’ with the ‘Travellers’ who have singularly failed to demonstrate any responsibility for the actions that cause so much grief.

Perhaps you should do the same before accusing me of making outrageous statements.

 

ELEANOR THOM TO BRIAN DONOHOE

Thank you for your very fast reply to my email. I’m afraid your suggestion that there is no connection between ‘race’ and ‘travelling people’ is not correct at all. I would like to draw your attention to the following statement made by the Scottish Government:

http://www.scotland.gov.uk/Topics/People/Equality/gypsiestravellers/ethnic

I have no romantic notions about Travelling people. I am from a Travelling family that settled in the early part of the last century, and I still have cousins who travel permanently in Scotland. I am very aware of issues on both sides, and having worked with Travellers as well, I am aware of acute problems with attitudes both within the Travelling community and within the settled population.

If you have spent 20 years trying to communicate with Travellers and have yet to do so successfully on any occasion, perhaps you are going about it in the wrong way. Making such comments in the press, referring to a group of people as a “scourge” could rightly be taken the wrong way by any community, don’t you think?

I do hope you will look at the report I mentioned in my earlier email. I wrote to you because the wording of your statements upset me, and I wanted to point out that the implications were there, whether intended or not.

 

BRIAN DONOHOE TO ELEANOR THOM

You underestimate me as far as this issue is concerned If you think I haven’t researched this subject you are sadly mistaken and rather naive.

I have had your ‘cousins’ at my office indeed have travelled to Perth and elsewhere in the UK to meet ‘genuine Travellers’ but experience of the rogues who unfortunately cause me to come to the conclusion that there is no structure to the Community you try to defend are at present in my Constituency and no doubt will again cause grief in Mossblown having done so in Prestwick and this week caused major problems in Irvine.

As the Joint Chairman of the Showman’s All Party Group in the House of Commons my record of defending the responsible ‘Nomad’ population is there for anyone to see.

With your background I would have thought you would have known that.

 

ELEANOR THOM TO BRIAN DONOHOE

Thank you again for your email. I was not aware of your work with the Showman’s All Party Group. While I’m sure you do very good work with them, that does not in my mind make it alright for you to cast gross generalisations about an entire group of people in the press. With your background, I would have expected you to know that.

What exactly do you mean by “genuine Traveller”? That is in itself a very questionable statement, and I can only assume you mean Travellers who were forced into houses, assimilated, and are no longer causing you “grief” by being “rogues”. It may interest you to hear that my Travelling relatives were themselves described in exactly that way by a particular local press last year. They were on a legal campsite at the time.

I’m clearly not the only person who has taken offence at your manner in dealing with Gypsies and Travellers, so to suggest that my doing so is somehow a lack of research on my part is rather a weak argument. Your language would be enough to convince anyone of your prejudice, but if you need further convincing, the quote below is from an article in Frontline Vol 2. Issue 10. July 2009. You can see the full version here: from http://www.redflag.org.uk/frontline/july09/travellers.html You are mentioned twice.

“In early 2008, after a series of inflammatory pieces in the local press, an Ayrshire Labour MP Brian Donohoe raised a debate in parliament to discuss the “problem” and put pressure on the Minister to give local authorities more powers to move people on who are perceived as a nuisance. This was backed by other Labour M.P.s including Renfrewshire MP Jim Sheridan, and left unchallenged by their colleagues. The racist language used in Parliament would be familiar to readers of the Daily Express and other tabloids which frequently stir up anti-Gypsy feeling.”

 

BRIAN DONOHOE TO ELEANOR THOM

I do not withdraw a single word of what I have previously said which is based on the experience of the cost of cleaning up the mess left behind by those ‘travellers’ who come to Ayrshire

Were you to use the influence you suggest you have to end the clearly irresponsible behaviour witnessed by events then I would think what you say would have some merit.

I challenge you to that task as I have to others who have failed to make any difference to the situation we face

 

FURTHER COMMENT:

Ms Thom told Newsnet Scotland she felt that Mr Donohoe had not appreciated that there was an issue of race involved.

Mr Donohoe stood by every word of his correspondence when contacted by Newsnet Scotland. He claims that a major part of the problem is that while many travellers are Roma, many more are not.

He said: “It’s nice to be romantic in your view of these people but I have had to deal with the reality.”

Mr Donohoe said that police had told him that the “crime rate doubles when they come into town,” and he cited a recent case of homicide in Ayrshire involving a traveller.

The MP has served for years as joint chairman of the Showmen’s Guild which he says is hailed as “an example of how nomad families should act” with the rest of society.

Mr Donohoe claimed that some people saw travellers through “rose-tinted spectacles” including local authorities who have the power to deal with travellers who camp illegally but do not use them. He added: “If they (the travellers) were responsible, I’d be the first to stand alongside them.”

Jess Smith, the well-known author and traditional storyteller from a Perthshire travelling family, commented: “Travellers have been here forever, they are not Showmen, Gypsies or Roma. They are the remnants of broken clans and tin-cairds. They have their ways and mean no harm.

“If in their midst as in all of society there are wrong minded people who infiltrate, then and only then should the power of law be put in place to remove such as these – it is wrong to heap everyone the same.”

 

NEWSNET SCOTLAND COMMENT:

There is clearly a matter for debate here. We would ask those who wish to make their viewpoint known to be aware that our moderators will not permit scurrilous personal attacks or remarks that could be construed as racist.