Tensions over housing in the Celtic countries an issue that has bedevilled governments and administrations for decades are still an issue as 2008 dawns.
The Celtic League General Secretary has been researching the tensions which led to violent protest in Brittany and Cornwall last year when property was burned and serious injury narrowly averted. It is not a new phenomena both Wales and Mann experienced direct action on the property issue in previous decades and there are also concerns articulated periodically in Ireland. Rhisiart Tal-e-bot says the anxieties felt in Brittany and Cornwall are legitimate and he cautions against stifling avenues for legitimate democratic expression.
'Being called a xenophobe is a small price to pay for highlighting the social inequalities that exist in the housing market today that enables outsiders to completely out price local people in the purchase of homes in their community.
Accusations of racist and xenophobe flew in the face of Councillor Seimon Glyn and his supporters back in 2001 when he dared to speak out against English people buying property in Gwynnedd. In Cornwall, until fairly recently, to propose a restriction on the sale of houses as second homes was to open yourself up to criticism that you were narrow minded and/or an extremist.
It is important for people to voice their concerns when they see that their communities are slowly disintegrating or becoming ghost towns, because young people are not able to compete in an open housing market that allows rich outsiders to buy up property as second homes. Moreover, it is the responsibility of civil society to draw attention to the difficulties that young people have to buy or rent accommodation within their speech communities, close to their family and social networks or in the area in which they have always lived. This is happening in the Celtic countries today and a variety of factors are at work that lead to the demise and gradual death of culturally (and sometimes linguistically) distinct living and vibrant communities.
Indeed trends in the labour market do have some impact on why people move in and out of communities and this has been one of the more common and traditional explanations of the movement of people. However today, the situation is somewhat different and more complicated than it has been in the past. It is a fact that in some parts of the Celtic countries, houses are being bought up by property speculators, rich people looking for second homes and older people looking for a pretty place to spend their retirement. The situation has become so acute in certain areas that it is possible to think that you are in a different country altogether from the one you visited.
Take the Mayor of Saint Ceneri, a town in the west of Brittany, for example. Mayor Tatham is not Breton or even French, but an English man from Yorkshire and the only English Mayor in the whole state of France. Saint Ceneri is in the Orne department of Brittany, where it is estimated that between 6,000 and 7,000 British people live. In eight years the number of British people living in Brittany has doubled to 10,000, according to Government statistics, and the figure is increasing. This has caused some tensions in recent years.
In the Spring of 2005 in the Breton town of Bourbriac, a demonstration occurred following a spate of 'Brits out' graffiti. Protesters chanted 'Brits out' and burned estate agent brochures'. As a consequence of the protest the French and English press descended on the town, daubing it the 'town of hate' and the group that organised the demonstration, A-stroll (meaning 'together' in Breton), decided to disband. According to one of the coordinators of the group , Guillaume Bricaud, they decided to fold A-Stoll because the members did not want to be seen as xenophobic or racists. The group said that their aim was to draw the Government's attention to the fact that young people were being priced out of the housing market.
In this instance, through the negative mass media attention that followed, the press succeeded in closing down a democratic organisation that was working to specifically address Breton community housing related issues for young people. Consequently, two years later, in the summer of 2007, an English family narrowly escaped with their lives after petrol was poured through their front door and set alight. In the same night two British owned homes in a neighbouring town were burgled and a camper van set alight. No one claimed responsibility for the attacks, but the demonstration and the attacks all took place in the west of Brittany in largely Breton speaking areas.
If no action is taken by the authorities to alleviate the strain (and this is unlikely to happen by a Government that don't even recognise the existence of the Breton language or people) or without a democratic and organised group to specifically tackle these difficult and controversial issues in an imaginative way, then inevitably tensions will erupt.
In Cornwall an 'eruption' occurred earlier this year with the burning down of several houses by a group calling themselves the Cornish Republic Army (CRA). The group also attacked the properties and made threats to prominent businessmen who they have accused of pushing up house prices.
The General Secretary of the League, Rhisiart Tal-e-bot, asked two of Brittany's nationalist party's what their view was on the situation. Gael Briand from Union Démocratique Bretonne (UDB), said:
"We accept people in Brittany from everywhere, but we notice that most of the time, these people are richer than the Bretons and live in their house only a few weeks in the year. Some others don't try to live with the Bretons. But it's the same with people from Paris.
So, in a few words, the problems are that young people are excluded from the coast and can't buy something in their own territory, some villages die because of inactivity and there are some communities where there are only English and rich people.
My article about this question will be published in le Peuple Breton in the February 2008 issue."
Christian Guillemot from Parti Breton, another nationalist political party in Brittany, made the following statement to the Celtic League:
"Subsequent to the publication of various press articles on the settlement of European citizens of British origin in Brittany and the development of negative feelings and comments concerning them, the Breton Party condemns all intimidation attempts and negative responses based simply on their geographical origin. The Breton Party highlights the historical and cultural links which unite the different nations within Great Britain with Brittany. Indeed, the Breton language and culture came to Armorica as a result of large-scale migrations from Great Britain.
The Breton Party also draws attention to the important economic role played by these British citizens both in terms of the construction and restoration of traditional buildings and the arrival of new populations and businesses in largely deserted areas. This is reflected, for example, in the rapid development of Dinard airport thanks to this new flow of people.
From a cultural point of view, the Breton Party points out that many British citizens offer a significant contribution to the Breton culture and language and support for these people depends above all on the determination of the Breton people to promote and share their culture.
The Breton Party emphasises that the right to settle in any EU country represents major progress in terms of European construction and that thousands of young Bretons currently live in Great Britain due to the limited job opportunities offered in France outside Paris.
Whilst its main priority is to enable Bretons to live in their country, the Breton Party stresses that the considerable income gap between Bretons and numerous other European regions is what penalises the former compared with purchasers from strong growth regions. The intimidation campaigns directed towards British citizens in Brittany will do nothing to support the areas most affected by desertification or to attract key firms and employment with appropriate tax systems and infrastructures"
Unfortunately Emgann were unavailable for comment, but despite these positive words from two of Brittany's biggest nationalist party's, the Celtic League believes that the difficulties that young people in Brittany (and Cornwall) face in being able to find accommodation within their communities still needs to be adequately addressed.
In Wales the situation is being tackled effectively and democratically by the language and housing campaign group Cymuned. Despite early accusations of racism and xenophobia they have campaigned successfully to change people's attitudes and have even engaged the Welsh Assembly Government in dialogue about creating a Housing Measure for Wales. This has come about after years of struggle, which also saw the burning down of holiday homes throughout the Welsh country side.
The Celtic League hope that a similar pattern of destruction of homes will not continue to occur in Brittany or Cornwall in the future and will therefore actively support and encourage any group that aims to campaign specifically on the above mentioned issues through democratic and peaceful means.'
(This article compiled for Celtic News by, Rhisiart Tal-e-bot, Celtic
League General Secretary)