I'm no racist, says politician under fire over gypsy tirade

A POLITICIAN who accused gypsy travellers of "environmental terrorism" insisted last night that he wasn't racist.

The comments by Neil Cooney, a Labour councillor, sparked calls for him to be sacked.

At an Aberdeen City Council meeting discussing the establishment of official temporary sites for travelling people, Mr Cooney used the term as he described the condition in which some areas had been left.

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Alfie Kefford, the chairman of the Gypsy Council, said Mr Cooney's remarks were "highly offensive" and called for him to be removed from office.

He said: "We are extremely angry at what this man has said and want him sacked.

"He would not be allowed to use terminology like that against any other ethnic minority, but because we are gypsies he thinks he can get away with it."

Kate Dean, the Liberal Democrat council leader, told Mr Cooney she was disappointed that "racist, xenophobic and discriminatory language" was rife in the council chamber.

Mr Cooney said he felt the response to his comments had been "extreme".

"It is quite over the top," he said. "In no way am I a racist and I am not xenophobic or discriminatory.

"I suggested that, on some occasions, travellers were environmental vandals and on one or two occasions you could call it environmental terrorism."

He added that he had been referring to a minority of travellers who left rubbish at the sites.

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"I am totally in agreement with having settled sites for travellers, but they should not be given preferential treatment and allowed to flout the law," he said.

The local authority is considering setting up a number of "halting sites" where travellers could stay legally. It is hoped this will help reduce the number of unauthorised camps on private and council-owned land in and around Aberdeen.

Under Scottish law, gypsy travellers are classed as an ethnic minority and they cannot be moved from an unauthorised site if the local authority has not provided an adequate number of spaces.

The Commission for Racial Equality also raised concerns yesterday about Mr Cooney's comments.

A spokeswoman said: "Travellers are an integral part of our communities and have as much right to receive services as anybody else.

"There is a great tendency to draw stereotypes on the basis of the behaviour of a minority of individuals.

"It is unacceptable to stereotype any group in this way."

Nina Giles, the director of Edinburgh and Lothians Racial Equality Council, told The Scotsman: "There were problems a few years ago in Edinburgh over sites for gypsies, but I don't remember this sort of language being used.

"It is not helpful to race relations to label a particular ethnic group like that. There is also no evidence to base the statement on."

There are believed to be between 200,000 and 300,000 gypsy travellers in the United Kingdom.

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