The Dale Farm eviction is the ugly side of localism

Both central and local government are failing in their roles as a guarantors of minority rights.

The Dale Farm case reminds us of the limitations of unadulterated localism. For the eighty families of Dale Farm about to be forcibly evicted in the coming days, the 'deadening' hand of the central state might be a welcome reprieve from the whip hand of the local.

Localism is buzzword of the political age, summing up the zeitgeist in no more than four syllables. The government, in its unending quest to free local authorities from control of the things they don't care about, has allowed unprincipled local authorities to abandon the people they don't care about, with equal vim.

The Traveller community, long a target for legitimated discrimination, has felt the full force of this bonfire of regulation. Evidence submitted to the CLG Select Committee enquiry into abolishing regional strategies suggests that the removal of a strategic approach to Gypsy and Traveller accommodation provision will result in lower pitch allocations. The consequence of this could be an increase in Gypsy and Traveller unauthorised sites which are estimated to cost local authorities approximately £18m a year in eviction costs alone. Moreover, clauses 91, 92 and 93 of the new local authorities bill states that Local Planning Authorities (LPAS) will no longer be required to submit their local development schemes to the Secretary of State (91), that LPAs will no longer have to implement inspectors' recommendations (92) and that LPAs will no longer be required to send their annual reports to the Secretary of State.

These changes promise to make a bad situation even worse. According to the Commission for Racial Equality more than 90 per cent of traveller planning applications are initially rejected compared to 20 per cent overall. Local authorities have clearly failed this community that only numbers between 15,000 and 30,000 people. IPPR research proposed a sensible solution seven years ago, including the treatment of permanent and transit sites as social housing and the establishment of a special purpose registered social landlord to run them. But to add insult to injury, last year's emergency budget removed the modest £30 million in place to support the establishment and development of traveller sites.

In the current situation both central and local government are failing in their roles as a guarantors of minority rights. There are just 3,729 caravans on unauthorised sites in the whole of England with a further 13,708 caravans on council and private sites. In 2009, the Human Rights Commission estimated that 'the entire Gypsy and Traveller population could be legally accommodated if as little as one square mile of land were allocated for sites in England.'

For the more unscrupulous and cash-strapped local authorities the pressure from established residents is often great, as we've seen this week in Basildon, where over 85 per cent support the council's actions. Vanessa Redgrave and the Bishop of York are all very well and good but they are a poor substitute for proper legislative oversight, ensuring that a council can't abuse a group with little political power. So where does this leave localism?

IPPR North research proposed a framework of efficiency and effectiveness to enable tough decisions about service provision to be made. Based on the principle of subsidiarity, where it appears local authorities are unable to take decisions in the interests of the wider good, such matters need to be resolved at a more strategic level. In the absence of regions this may well now need to be nationally. But we also argue for a set of 'national minimum outcomes' - some simple statements made by central government (unlike targets mind) against which local service providers can be held accountable. Such sophistications may run against the unfettered localism promulgated by the government but in this case we need to balance localism with fairness.

Lewis Goodall is Researcher at IPPR North

Getty
Show Hide image

In the 1980s, I went to a rally where Labour Party speakers shared the stage with men in balaclavas

The links between the Labour left and Irish republicanism are worth investigating.

A spat between Jeremy Corbyn’s henchfolk and Conor McGinn, the MP for St Helens North, caught my ear the other evening. McGinn was a guest on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, and he obligingly revisited the brouhaha for the listeners at home. Apparently, following an interview in May, in which McGinn called for Corbyn to “reach out beyond his comfort zone”, he was first threatened obliquely with the sack, then asked for a retraction (which he refused to give) and finally learned – from someone in the whips’ office – that his party leader was considering phoning up McGinn’s father to whip the errant whipper-in into line. On the programme, McGinn said: “The modus operandi that he [Corbyn] and the people around him were trying to do [sic], involving my family, was to isolate and ostracise me from them and from the community I am very proud to come from – which is an Irish nationalist community in south Armagh.”

Needless to say, the Labour leader’s office has continued to deny any such thing, but while we may nurture some suspicions about his behaviour, McGinn was also indulging in a little airbrushing when he described south Armagh as an “Irish ­nationalist community”. In the most recent elections, Newry and Armagh returned three Sinn Fein members to the Northern Ireland Assembly (as against one Social Democratic and Labour Party member) and one Sinn Fein MP to Westminster. When I last looked, Sinn Fein was still a republican, rather than a nationalist, party – something that McGinn should only be too well aware of, as the paternal hand that was putatively to have been lain on him belongs to Pat McGinn, the former Sinn Fein mayor of Newry and Armagh.

According to the Irish News, a “close friend” of the McGinns poured this cold water on the mini-conflagration: “Anybody who knows the McGinn family knows that Pat is very proud of Conor and that they remain very close.” The friend went on to opine: “He [Pat McGinn] found the whole notion of Corbyn phoning him totally ridiculous – as if Pat is going to criticise his son to save Jeremy Corbyn’s face. They would laugh about it were it not so sinister.”

“Sinister” does seem the mot juste. McGinn, Jr grew up in Bessbrook during the Troubles. I visited the village in the early 1990s on assignment. The skies were full of the chattering of British army Chinooks, and there were fake road signs in the hedgerows bearing pictograms of rifles and captioned: “Sniper at work”. South Armagh had been known for years as “bandit country”. There were army watchtowers standing sentinel in the dinky, green fields and checkpoints everywhere, manned by some of the thousands of the troops who had been deployed to fight what was, in effect, a low-level counter-insurgency war. Nationalist community, my foot.

What lies beneath the Corbyn-McGinn spat is the queered problematics of the ­relationship between the far left wing of the Labour Party and physical-force Irish republicanism. I also recall, during the hunger strikes of the early 1980s, going to a “Smash the H-Blocks” rally in Kilburn, north London, at which Labour Party speakers shared the stage with representatives from Sinn Fein, some of whom wore balaclavas and dark glasses to evade the telephoto lenses of the Met’s anti-terrorist squad.

The shape-shifting relationship between the “political wing” of the IRA and the men with sniper rifles in the south Armagh bocage was always of the essence of the conflict, allowing both sides a convenient fiction around which to posture publicly and privately negotiate. In choosing to appear on platforms with people who might or might not be terrorists, Labour leftists also sprinkled a little of their stardust on themselves: the “stardust” being the implication that they, too, under the right circumstances, might be capable of violence in pursuit of their political ends.

On the far right of British politics, Her Majesty’s Government and its apparatus are referred to derisively as “state”. There were various attempts in the 1970s and 1980s by far-right groupuscules to link up with the Ulster Freedom Fighters and other loyalist paramilitary organisations in their battle against “state”. All foundered on the obvious incompetence of the fascists. The situation on the far left was different. The socialist credentials of Sinn Fein/IRA were too threadbare for genuine expressions of solidarity, but there was a sort of tacit confidence-and-supply arrangement between these factions. The Labour far left provided the republicans with the confidence that, should an appropriately radical government be elected to Westminster, “state” would withdraw from Northern Ireland. What the republicans did for the mainland militants was to cloak them in their penumbra of darkness: without needing to call down on themselves the armed might of “state”, they could imply that they were willing to take it on, should the opportunity arise.

I don’t for a second believe that Corbyn was summoning up these ghosts of the insurrectionary dead when he either did or did not threaten to phone McGinn, Sr. But his supporters need to ask themselves what they’re getting into. Their leader, if he was to have remained true to the positions that he has espoused over many years, should have refused to sit as privy counsellor upon assuming his party office, and refused all the other mummery associated with the monarchical “state”. That he didn’t do so was surely a strategic decision. Such a position would make him utterly unelectable.

The snipers may not be at work in south Armagh just now – but there are rifles out there that could yet be dug up. I wouldn’t be surprised if some in Sinn Fein knew where they are, but one thing’s for certain: Corbyn hasn’t got a clue, bloody or otherwise. 

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser