“What Needs?!”: Minority Rights and Group Rights, the Case of Dale Farm

Kosko, Stacy J. (2010). "“What Needs?!”: Minority Rights and Group Rights, the Case of Dale Farm" Paper presented at the 7th annual conference of the HDCA, 21-23 September 2010, Amman, Jordan.

Irish Travellers (“Gypsies”) are part of a traditionally nomadic group of Irish origin. The Dale Farm Traveller site in Southeast England, the most populous Traveller site in the UK, ignited a controversy in 2005 when the local council voted to evict 86 families. This paper will address the ongoing eviction crisis at Dale Farm and its significance with regard to the national and international debate surrounding group and minority rights. Brian Barry (2002) and others argue that many legal exceptions under the “group rights” rubric are harmful to social cohesion or at best unnecessary. Will Kymlicka, James Nickel and others disagree. Group security rights, in particular, “protect the existence and safety of minority groups as groups” (Nickel 2007, 164). The British government has come out strongly against the “existence” of group rights but has also repeatedly asserted that Travellers have certain rights that look an awful lot like group rights. Resolution of this debate has powerful implications for the human development of thousands of British citizens and possibly for the survival of Traveller culture as a whole. The profound levels of social exclusion suffered by many Travellers have not only exacerbated racial tensions but have also contributed to disproportionately low education and employment levels, life expectancy, and health quality, with extremely high infant and maternal mortality rates. The Council of Europe report by the European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance found that “Roma/Gypsies and Travellers are among the most disadvantaged and discriminated against ethnic minority groups in the United Kingdom and experience among the most severe levels of hostility and prejudice from society in general” (European Commission Against Racism and Intolerance 2005). Experts have identified the lack of suitable “pitches”—legal places for Travellers to park their caravans and live for short or long periods—as a key contributing factor, with ramifications that cut across a variety of socio-economic indicators and exacerbate inter-group conflict, undermining the goals set out in Britain’s recent Race Relations Act (which include promotion of racial harmony) and damaging the country’s reputation as a stalwart supporter of human rights. Above and beyond the recognition—now enshrined in British law—that every single person residing in the United Kingdom is a bearer of human rights, the particular needs of Gypsies and Irish Travellers highlighted by this case also require protections that can only be afforded by certain minority rights. In the long run, explicit group rights may also be needed to adequately protect Gypsy and Traveller culture and traditions. Many philosophers, policy experts, and governments, however, have launched impassioned challenges to the legitimacy of group rights. 2 Brian Barry, with his powerful challenge to multiculturalism in Culture and Equality (2002), is among them. While he is right that many group-differentiated minority rights—including, in this case, those that apply to Gypsies and Travellers—are in fact applications of the universalizable equal-treatment-for-equal-needs principle (and are thus derived from and collapsible into individual human rights), he is wrong that the liberty and well-being of individual members of these communities always can be fully protected without any form of group rights. In this paper, I refer to the work of James Nickel (2007) to differentiate between individual, minority, and group rights. I then examine the case of Dale Farm, with particular reference to the acute problem of ensuring that every British citizen—including Gypsies and Travellers—has “a decent home.” Finally, I argue that both Brian Barry and the British government can have their cake and eat it too: the UK can provide the necessary protection for Gypsy and Traveller culture and traditions under a policy umbrella that essentially assumes group rights, while maintaining that it is seeking only to protect the individual (equal) liberty of all British citizens.
scroll to top