22 February 2005

The missing millions

Every dog in the street knows who stole the 26 million from the Northern Bank. It was clearly the Boy Scouts.

So I simply cannot understand why the British and Irish governments, the PSNI and the Garda Síochána think otherwise. Ask Catriona Ruane. Her experience with Colombian injustice has sharpened an already astute judgement and she will tell you it most certainly could not have been the Republican movement.

For one thing, the IRA has a squeaky clean record over the past few years and has lost its expertise in the balaclava business. It has put all its arms out of use (no photographs available at this early stage) so, as sure as God made little Irish apples, it could not possibly be IRA foot soldiers who put guns to the hostages’ heads.

On the other hand the Boy Scouts are highly trained and at full ‘be prepared’ alert. Even parents are barred from the special closed training and drill sessions – every Tuesday. A carefully disguised form of arson (lighting fires with a single match) is part of the military-type instruction. Insiders even speak of trainees as young as six – known cynically as ‘beavers’ and ‘cubs’ – wearing uniforms and chanting slogans.

Nor have Scouts made any secret of carrying sharp pointed instruments of a kind prohibited by airlines – mallets, tent pegs, nail-clippers. One multi-functional weapon (code named ‘pen knife’) has a device for extricating Girl Guides from horses’ hooves. At short range it could overcome any security guard especially if he were asleep or reading the Sun newspaper. And Scouts are part of a world-wide movement, so finding a fence to launder the Northern Bank twenties should not be a problem.

They also have known links with the Boys’ Brigade and the Scripture Union.

Meanwhile the tough-talking International Monitoring Commission is recommending on-the-spot fines and penalty points, and it is widely rumoured that the Sinn Féin president has been dropped from the Fianna Fáil Christmas card list.

Yet the Scouts go free. Calling to account members of the elite Rovers would of course have political repercussions and that’s the nub of the problem. Any such move might derail the peace process and possibly disrupt parents’ night at the 55th East Belfast.

With no obvious concerns about prejudicing a future trial, the Government will press on with telling the media of its suspicions so that any jury can make up its mind in advance. It will accuse but not arrest. It will get tough but it will avoid action at all costs.

Too may twenties depend on it.

15 February 2005

Top of the class

The other day I had to dispose of a sheet of asbestos so I dutifully rang Technical Services for instructions. Drama. Panic. Alarm.

I had to wrap it in plastic, seal it carefully and hand it over to a suitably qualified person at the amenity site. Fair enough, though the sheet was unlikely to produce a bluebottle’s eyeful of the harmful dust. But rules are rules and we must obey.

It occurred to me however that, equally ranked with such delights as asbestos dust and arsenic, is tobacco smoke. They all earn a Class A carcinogenic (cancer producing) award from the Environmental Protection Agency of America. Imagine the reaction if asbestos dust swirled around pubs and restaurants just as tobacco smoke does at the moment. As to addiction, the UK places tobacco alongside most Class A drugs.

It’s ages since I’ve sounded off on smoking, so I thought I should have another go.

Last time it was at the start of the ban in the Republic and the questions were: would the ban work, would the public obey, would the licensed trade be ruined, would other countries follow? Answers on a postcard please.

Well the Irish public has accepted the new regulations though some of the criminally insane near the Border come north for a carcinogenic night in the pub only to drive home (semi-legless) and cause a depressing number of serious road accidents.

But the big result is the growing belief that if Ireland can make a move why can’t the rest of us.

The Government has produced a fudge, though somewhat more courageous than their total failure to deal with tobacco advertising, in spite of explicit promises to do so.

When Labour came to power the extremely affable Health Minister in Northern Ireland, Tony Worthington, assured the Health Promotion Agency that an advertising ban would be straightforward and wondered why it hadn’t been imposed ages ago. Tony was later sacked by Mo Mowlam – for undisclosed reasons.

But substantial restrictions on smoking are beginning to put down roots throughout the world, including Australia, Canada, Cuba, France, Italy, Montenegro, the Netherlands, Norway, Tanzania and the United States. Restrictions in Iran and India are being largely ignored but little Bhutan in the Himalayas has successfully banned tobacco products altogether.

The harm caused by passive smoking is established beyond doubt and is related not only to cancer but lung disease, heart attack, cot deaths, middle-ear disease and asthma. Other people’s smoke carries 4000 chemicals including cancer-inducing tar, nicotine, benzene, carbon monoxide, ammonia and hydrogen and over 50 others I cannot spell. Just 30 minutes exposure to this toxic cocktail can be enough to reduce blood flow through your heart.

It’s important to remember that it’s not my job to cheer you up.

08 February 2005

Judge, jury and Jacko

Dozens of mobile television stations are encamped at the courthouse. Over a thousand applications for media access have been made worldwide. The fan frenzy is worldwide too.

Santa Maria California is now a boom town and may be a tourist shrine for years to come, the place where Michael Jackson was either crucified by the greedy and the racists, or the place where, once again, a fair trial under a fair legal system exonerated the world’s greatest pop icon.

On Day One he arrived to the tumultuous welcome of his supporters, attired – symbolically, it was said – in pure white and shielded from the sun by an umbrella. The maximum temperature that day was just 59 degrees Fahrenheit – but it’s important for Jacko to preserve his fragile image.

Judge Rodney Melville is far from fragile. The prosecutor Tom Sneddon is even less so. He failed to get a conviction against Jackson in 1993 and he will go all out to make it stick this time.

Jackson exacted temporary revenge with his song ‘Dom Sheldon is a cold man . . . they wanna get my ass . . . dead or alive . . . you know he really tried to take me down.’ Sneddon may try even harder as a result.

Will it be a fair trial? Jackson has declared what seems to be an equivocal faith in the system.

‘In all criminal prosecutions,’ says the Sixth Amendment, ‘the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury . . . . and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favour, and to have the assistance of counsel for his defence.’

But a bizarre ritual has evolved to ensure that both sets of lawyers are happy with the jury. So several weeks will be taken up just to find twelve jurors and eight reserves who must then, over an estimated period of six months, turn a blind eye and a deaf ear to reports and speculations from the media. Few people believe that such a restriction will be possible.

Compare all this to the treatment of the accused in Guantanamo Bay. It is impossible of course to compare their trial conditions because they have not been offered trials. They were not informed of the real nature of the accusation, there has been no compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in their favour and any kind of legal defence is still uncertain.

Isn’t a good thing that everybody is equal before the law?

01 February 2005

Working them hard

The Coalition has hoped, and told us regularly, that elections in Iraq will be a turning point, a new beginning.

The recapture of Fallujah was to be a turning point. It surely was; things got even worse after that.

The elections may bring some slight hope but Iraq is overwhelmed by fear and uncertainty and the possibility of all-out civil war. The insurgents have plenty of propaganda to feast upon. The television pictures of British soldiers abusing their prisoners will create an enduring image in Iraq and across the Muslim world. How can that world be persuaded that we came to liberate, lead them towards democracy and improve their lives?

We might accept without question that only a tiny minority of our armed forces is guilty of abuse. Military chiefs are at pains to make that point clear.

But where do you place the following statement?

‘This so-called ill treatment and torture in detention centres . . . . was not, as some assumed, inflicted methodically, but were excesses committed by individual prison guards, their deputies, and men who laid violent hands on the detainees.’

It has all the persuasive rhetoric of Bush or Blair or Rumsfeld. In fact those were the words of Rudolf Hoess, the SS commandant at Auschwitz, sixty years ago.

We cannot equate Abu Ghraib or Basra with a Nazi extermination camp but the trial of the accused soldiers must examine and expose every detail of the line of communication between those who gave orders and those who carried them out to excess. The conveniently ambiguous phrase ‘work prisoners hard’ has to be dissected. ‘Arbeit macht frei’ – work makes you free – was the contemptuous Auschwitz slogan. Reports from Human Rights Watch claim that the re-trained Iraqi army are also working their prisoners hard.

The earlier trial of the Abu Ghraib accused has totally failed to trace the line of command upwards. A military court run by military officers might understandably be lacking in passion to do so.

In his stirring, visionary and cliché-ridden acceptance speech George W Bush did not mention Iraq once though his administration has given a terrifying hint of further military invasion elsewhere.

Has nothing been learned about the folly of military intervention? If another ‘justifiable use of force’ should go ahead, armies will make the same fatal mistakes. There will be massive ‘collateral damage’ – the slaughter of the innocents – generating hatred and insurgency, and inevitably, elements among the ‘liberators’ prepared to commit atrocities.

The phrase ‘excesses committed by individual prison guards’ will be aired again.