As the gypsy debate reaches crisis point Wiltshire Councillor Simon Killane has revealed his own roots as the son of an Irish traveller. He tells JOE WARE why he believes gypsies must be allowed to settle for the sake of the children’s education
Wiltshire Councillor Simon Killane has spoken spoke publicly for the first time this week of his roots as the son and grandson of Irish travellers, as planning rows over gypsy sites in Hullavington and Wootton Bassett gather pace.
Coun Killane, 38, who won the Malmesbury seat on the new Wiltshire Council in May, grew up in rural poverty in County Longford, Ireland.
He believes a grant from the European Union, which allowed him to go to university, kept him away from trouble and now he believes education is key in the Wiltshire gypsy debate.
He said: “Education is so important. Without the ability to read and write and use computers and the internet it is very hard to get by these days.
“Ninety per cent of everything I do with the council is online. Children need access to good schooling otherwise how will they get by?
“In the past travellers have done odd jobs but that is becoming more controlled and less available.
“Or they turn to a life of crime as the only way to survive.
“We need a system that reduces the likelihood of crime and provides opportunities for children to learn as citizens of this country.”
Coun Killane was never on the road himself but despite being born in a house and always being part of the settled community, he picked up snippets of information from his father about his tough life on the roads of Longford.
Coun Killane said: “My father, Joe, was born into a family of 12 and they were brought up by his sister Nora after his mother died of TB when he was about seven.
“They lived in one of those timber caravans and he used to sleep under it because there wasn’t enough room inside.
“Sleeping under a caravan throughout an Irish winter must have been pretty miserable.
“He never talked about his childhood.”
At the age of 12 Joe Killane moved to Scotland to pick potatoes before later moving to Birmingham as a builder, where he met Coun Killane’s mother Bridget who was working at the Bird’s custard factory.
She had just left an enclosed Belgian convent having been sent there by her frightened mother after she was accosted by a man in the street in Ireland.
Six weeks after meeting, Coun Killane’s parents were married.
The couple returned to Longford to raise their six children. Coun Killane grew up without luxuries but with close community bonds. He said: “We had an outside tap and no toilet.
“When I was growing up it was common for children not be sent to school, especially girls.
“But I was lucky. In the 1970s the government passed laws making school compulsory so we got an education.
“My father was very practical and did lots of odd jobs but he never learned to read and write and that always stopped him from progressing in his career.
“I was able to go to University in Galway and Sheffield and get a degree in mechanical engineering.”
Coun Killane moved to Malmesbury when he got a job as a product designer at Dyson.
On the problem of gypsy communities in Wiltshire he said the issue is not black and white.
“There are a lot of confrontational views and no trust on either side,” he said.
“I can’t buy a plot of land and do what I like with it. We have a planning process and it needs to be followed.
“But there needs to be a respect for the travellers’ way of life. In many countries nomadic peoples are accommodated.
“Just moving the problem on isn’t a solution. There needs to be more understanding from all sides and a planning system which is fair to everyone."
The caravan saga so far
The row over gypsies has been going on in north Wiltshire since 2003 when caravans moved on to a site in Minety.
In 2005 the then planning minister John Prescott ruled the gypsies could stay until 2005 but told the old North Wiltshire Distirct Council it had to make more provision for travellers.
In October 2008 the Minety gypsies won the right to stay on their site in Sambourne Road because the council had not found new sites.
Last year the old district council identified five potential new sites in Calne, Chippenham and Wootton Bassett but all the proposals met with fierce opposition from people living nearby.
In Chippenham hundreds of people with banners took to the streets for a protest rally.
Eventually the council decided to put off making a decision and pass the task over to the new Wiltshire Council which came into force in April.
As yet the council has not come up with any specific sites but planning applications from gypsies who have bought pockets of land continue to cause protest.