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If only the residents of Dale Farm had been treated with more mercy

Now it is too late: the law has taken its course and the law, once it gets going, is difficult to stop

By on Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Riot police hold their line (Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire)

Riot police hold their line (Photo: Chris Radburn/PA Wire)

This whole Dale Farm business is a sorry mess and, as I write this, is being streamed live over the internet. Yes, the law is equal for everyone, and yes, the planning laws must be respected by all, without any exception. However, it seems a frightful pity that roughly £20 million of taxpayers’ money has been spent on the eviction so far. Couldn’t some compromise have been worked out? Couldn’t we have saved that money, and found some solution acceptable to all?

Of course it is all far too late for that. The law has taken its course and the law once it gets going is difficult to stop, or so it seems. This should be a warning to us all about the dangers of legalism. Law of its very nature is impersonal, but it ought, surely, to have some reference to the concept of mercy.

The children of Israel had a law, a very complex and seemingly exhaustive code, designed to cover most situations that might arise. But you can never cover all possible eventualities, as St Thomas Aquinas himself admitted (see Summa I II, 96, 6), and so one needs to have some concept of mercy or leeway.

This is what Exodus (22:20-26) has to say, coincidentally in a passage that will be read this Sunday:

The Lord said to Moses, ‘Tell the sons of Israel this:
‘“You must not molest the stranger or oppress him, for you lived as strangers in the land of Egypt. You must not be harsh with the widow, or with the orphan; if you are harsh with them, they will surely cry out to me, and be sure I shall hear their cry; my anger will flare and I shall kill you with the sword, your own wives will be widows, your own children orphans.

‘“If you lend money to any of my people, to any poor man among you, you must not play the usurer with him: you must not demand interest from him.

‘“If you take another’s cloak as a pledge, you must give it back to him before sunset. It is all the covering he has; it is the cloak he wraps his body in; what else would he sleep in? If he cries to me, I will listen, for I am full of pity.”’

We are all one day going to be judged according to the Law of God; but at the same time we hope for a merciful judgment, in other words that a little leeway will be afforded us, a bit of understanding. Luckily the divine law is mediated to us through the heart of Jesus. But as we want to be judged so we should judge others. I wish the residents of Dale Farm had been treated with a little more mercy.

  • Londonistar

    If only the Dale Fram residents had acknowledged they were breaking the law and bearing down unjustly on their neighbours in the village and the council and the taxpayer, right back at the start. If only they had shown respect for the law and not broken it so willfully and repeatedly over ten long years forcing the hand of the local council who have a duty to consider the village. If only the Council had not extended the land to them in the first place since they were so clearly going to abuse the privilege they were so kindly afforded. It is a question of responsibility and the latter extends to the Dale Farm residents to have acted responsibly with the land they were provided rather than force such an ugly and violent situation. The Dale Farm residents were happy to use the Law. But when it did not return the outcome they wanted they were happy to resort to violence affording no mercy to the people tasked with clearing up this protracted mess.

  • Anonymous

    I appreciate your sentiments Father and agree with most of what you say, but when a group so willfully disobeys a law that everyone else has to comply with and for such a long time also I don’t see that the authorities have any choice. You should read this interesting article:

  • Anonymous

    101 years of leeway.

  • theroadmaster

    Justice tempered with mercy should have been the guiding principle to the final outcome in this particular contentious case.  After 10 years of indecision and tax-payers already footing the bill for approximately £18 million spent on resolving the legal wrangling, a police-enforced clearance of the disputed area sanctioned by court order resulted this morning.  While acknowledging that occupation of council-owned land by unauthorized individuals or families invites a legal process to resolve it, I think that a more congenial agreement could have been arrived at between the parties involved in the stand-off.  Possibly the occupiers could have been allowed to remain on the property on a land-lease basis that could be reviewed every 5-10 years with a suitable sum being paid by them on a annual basis to the coffers of the Council.  The families were practically owner-occupiers anyway after having resided on this strip of land for around a decade or more.  I just thinks that things could have turned out different if a little more imagination had been used by the council bureaucrats and judicial authorities who initially delayed and then went for a drastic option

  • Anonymous

    Its not often I agree with the columnists at the Herald, but this is certainly such a time. Thank you for writing this. Some of the responses here (and on other websites where this is covered) make me feel sick inside, but hearing your thoughtful and compassionate take on things Father make me feel much better.
    I challenge anyone to watch the footage of the eviction and ask – would Jesus be the one pulling the Taser as men and women fight for the decade-old homes of their children and their elderly parents? This sounds crude, but if you disagree, try and argue that he would do so…

    I think that as a society there may be things that we would do very well to learn from the travelling community, things which the Church would wholeheartedly agree with. Respect and caring for our parents (rather than putting them in a home), and bringing up children in a family, giving time to them (rather than dumping them in childcare to pursue high-flying careers).What we need to ask ourselves as a society is – which is more important to us, the rule of law, or compassion?This is the crux of the issue. Jesus had little time for the religious laws and conventions of the time, he respected what he saw as right in the law - but the law did not dictate his moral compass, nor should it ours.

    Law is a human creation and therefore in some ways intrinsically flawed. British law allows abortion to be legal, under Catholic teaching this is a grave sin, so we cannot on the one hand use it as an argument for justifying what has happened at Dale Farm, and then vilify it when it contradicts Catholic teaching.

  • Anonymous

    It’s hard to have much sympathy for “travellers” who do not travel. I have no sympathy at all for people who were, in effect, squatters. I just hope some silly person does not get it into his or head that there needs to be an inquiry to show why, after all, the mean totalitarian polizei were not justified in evicting them. But in today’s Blairified Britain, I won’t be surprised when there is an inquiry – as there almost certainly will be. 

    I don’t see how the Law of Moses applies – though as for usury, the Square Mile & Wall Street might be no worse for being reminded of those words about usury. And speaking of the Law: how is squatting on land illegally not a form of theft ? Attacking the police is not exactly peaceable either.  

  • loyalCatholic

    Thank you Father for  highlighting this issue.

    It probably has escaped the notice of many readers and commentators but the people who were torched out of Dale farm are almost invariably CATHOLIC. They are stauch loyal Catholics, many will trace their rootless living to the land seizure and pogroms of Cromwell in mid 17th century Ireland. They have been on the move since.

    The image I find disturbing is of a Catholic woman brandishing a crucifix against a convoy of burning vehicles. I do not question her faith or sincerity

    The scenes yesterday are demeaning of our society, an embarassment in a global media village and ill serve the image of UK plc abroad. We should be collectively ashamed.Who in the Catholic hierarchy should be speaking up for these people.?

    If this is conflict resolution in 21 st century Coalition Britain God help us….

  • Anonymous

    Thank you for this wise, compassionate and thoroughly Christian view of what is happening at Dale Farm. My wife and I watched the evictions on the BBC news yesterday and were horrified. “We have a Law, and by our Law He ought to die” (John 19:7) sounds no better today than it did to the ears of Pilate. May Our Blessed Lord show all of us more mercy and compassion when we are judged, than has been shown to the travellers at Dale Farm.

  • Anonymous

    The Bishop of Brentwood spoke up for them. All credit to him.

  • Little Black Censored

    The Dale Farm squatters were behaving like General Galtieri in the Falklands – counting on the authorities’ reluctance to act. People like that push you into a corner, and will stop only when you push back. If we are to be equal under the law – and some commenters here are implying that the law should favour some over others – then the squatters had to be evicted. Resolute action earlier on would have saved a great deal of money and trouble, and not given time for the rentamob people to gather round, including the crook with the crucifix (there is plenty of information about her, if you read it up).

  • Oconnordamien

    Perhaps the wholly religious residents of Dale Farm should look to the bible and find solace. They came off far better than the people of Canaan. Of course that’s because they were moved on by secular legal decree rather by divine mandate. At least that’s my impression as I didn’t any calls for wholesale slaughter.

    Of course they were guilty of not fleeing and fighting as hard as they could. Well William Craig Lane may have disagreed with that move, as he explained after first explaining how the dead children in Canaan were lucky to be dead, but then explaining it was the Canaanite’s fault

    “If the Canaanite tribes, seeing the armies of Israel, had simply chosen to flee, no one would have been killed at all. There was no command to pursue and hunt down the Canaanite peoples.
    It is therefore completely misleading to characterise God’s command to Israel as a command to commit genocide. Rather it was first and foremost a command to drive the tribes out of the land and to occupy it. Only those who remained behind were to be utterly exterminated. No one had to die in this whole affair.”

    So during the ten years, while their children were educated, their old people were medically treated and they had legal recourse to and by the people who wanted to cleanse them from society, I’m sure they read their bibles and think themselves lucky. 

  • Oconnordamien

    Much of my family was moved to Connaught under Cromwell, does that now mean I can invade Chelsea?
    As to which god or religion they follow, well does that trump the rights of people in that area who follow the same god but obey the law. Are you saying that because they are “staunch loyal Catholics” they should be above the law?

  • Jack Hughes

    With all due respect Father I disagree with you.

    The travellers thumbed their nose at the council for years and after stringing out the legal process for as long they could some resorted to violence SOMEONE had to draw the line and I am very glad that Basildon council (after trying to mediate a settlement over many years) enforced the law.

  • Anonymous

    There’s blame on both sides, but fundamentally, the law is an ass.  What kind of legal ‘system’ facilitates 10 years of wrangling, when that taxpayers money should have been spent on the elderly and the young?  The lack of lateral thinking the by council was matched by the cynical manipulation of the media by the (non) travellers.  They broke the law.  Full stop.

  • Thomas M.P, India

    Rehabilitate them and bring them into the mainstream society by providing for them through education and other means of living for a few generations. Gradually they will get assimilated into the mainstream society. But if you want to do this it takes a few generations’ time and a lot of patience and tolerance.

  • Adrian Johnson

    Just because they are Catholics doesn’t mean they are good, law-abiding citizens.   As Isaac Stern once said, “There’s always somebody on your side that you wish was on the other side!” 
     These travelers were reasoned with and invited to obey the law for 10 years before this necessary eviction.  The police said afterward that their force was justified as the gypsies had made provision to cause grievous bodily harm (violence) to the bailiffs who were enforcing the law.  The travelers cynically plead their Catholicism to gain spurious sympathy from other Catholics to condone their law-breaking, — and thereby they merely inspire distaste for, and distrust of Catholicism by ignorant non-Catholics. 

  • theroadmaster

    Blame is not not just the preserve of one side on this issue, I agree.  But the longevity of the traveler occupation of the disputed site along with the legal delays and the final use of the blunt instrument of massed police to move the problem up the road for me puts the illegality of the occupancy into the shade. A settlement could have been reached with a little more imagination from both sides.

  • Anonymous

    The Dale Farm residents made every possible use of the courts to defend their illegal actions, thus prolonging the dispute and costing the local council large sums of money which would be better spent on local social services. They were not prepared to make any compromise with legality, and the council had no choice but to take action. Otherwise planning policy in every district in the country would have to be torn up whenever any group decided to buy agricultural land and build houses on it.

  • Bright

    If only the law was really applied equally to all. If only the Dale Farm residents had been shown some respect. Bankers broke the law and they robbed us all of trillions of pounds. Now politicians hand over money to bankers and say they cannot afford to feed the poor or care for the sick. At this time of extreme austerity being imposed on the poorest the politicians could find 20 million pounds to victimise the poor Dale Farm residents. It is at times like this that only the love of God is there for us, because authority on this island has been stolen by the cheating and lying liberal democrats who sold out all their promises for money and power. The wretched ConDem party is a deep shame. So now is a good time to stand together and pray together and share the love of God which is the most powerful force on earth.