Irish Travellers’ win over Wetherspoon chips away at the ‘last acceptable racism’

20 May 2015

The Wetherspoon’s Coronet on Holloway Road in north London is a massive warehouse-style pub in the premises of a former cinema. Its single cavernous space is often a gathering place for football fans on their way to the nearby Arsenal Emirates stadium. When there isn’t a football match on, it’s a semi-permanent home for a largely Irish London and English working-class clientele. It’s a typical, if over-large, boozer, in a multicultural area that’s only had a smattering of gentrification.

On 17 November 2011, a group of delegates from the Traveller Movement annual conference, which included an inspector of Cheshire constabulary, a senior lawyer and partner of a law firm, a priest, and two Irish Traveller women headed to the Coronet for an early evening pint. When they got to the door, however, they were told by the bouncer that they were “not allowing Travellers or people from the Traveller conference to enter”. The allegation was denied by JD Wetherspoon, which owns the pub, and the legal face-off between a tiny minority representative charity and one of the largest pub chains in the UK began.

At first glance it looks like a lot of fuss about a few hurt feelings and the eight successful claimants were awarded damages by Judge Hand QC for exactly that. But as the story fades from the news agenda, the celebrations and congratulations on the Gypsy and Traveller campaign networks continue unabated. This is because the three-year legal battle that Wetherspoon fought tooth and nail was always about more than hurt feelings. For us it was also about principles, about sticking another dent into what has been described as the last acceptable racism.

I have been working for the Traveller Movement as their campaigns and communications worker for four years, and I have heard many stories about everyday racism. It’s ubiquitous, casual and mundane, and it blights the lives of every single individual that makes up one of the oldest ethnic minorities.

I think the most poignant story I have heard was that of Tommy W, a young Irish Traveller who lives on a Traveller site in the east of England. Tommy, like most young Travellers nowadays, can read and write, has “settled” friends in the local town and likes to keep fit. Like many young Irish Travellers he can also drop his accent and “pass” as an English settled person; a useful survival skill given the deadening weight of the racism that can ambush him even when he just pops into a shop for a pint of milk.

Tommy and his friends regularly use the gym in the local market town and after one visit Tommy got home only to realise he had left his wallet behind in the changing room. After frantically searching his car just in case, he put on his”posh English” voice, rang the gym and asked the receptionist if she could please check the changing room. She told him that he would be lucky if it was still there because those Irish Gypsies had just been in and left. When he went down he didn’t get an apology, he got thrown out instead.

In this same market town, his mother and six female friends were refused service in an Indian restaurant. They were apparently told, in front of all the other customers, that they could have a takeaway but the owner didn’t want their sort actually eating at the tables. She told me she “could have died with the shame of it”.

A Romany Gypsy I know in Lancashire is a qualified builder and a roofer. He often works under contract for bigger firms and when the subject of “pikeys” and “gyppos” comes up at lunchtime he just has to sit there with lips clenched and his cheeks flaming. He can’t come out about his identity and he can’t speak out because he fears he would get no more work.

There’s the youngsters coming across vitriolic racist rants on social media and the online comment threads of some of our most liberal newspapers. And Gypsy police officers describe how racism is institutionalised within most police services.

The list goes on. Every day it gets longer and more hateful and more absurd, but that’s why we fought the Wetherspoon case to the bitter end and why we will continue to fight similar cases. We have only just begun.