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Saturday, November 7, 2015

Maggie and Andy and a 70st grizzly bear named Hercules

Our 70st teddy bear: Told in an enchanting book, how a childless British couple raised a beer-drinking, 8ft grizzly as their son - and how his death left a huge hole in their lives
Maggie and her husband Andy owned a 70st grizzly bear named Hercules
His death in 2000 from natural causes had a huge impact on the couple 
Hercules The Bear by Maggie Robin is published on November 19 at £12.99

Bear Necessities is a very particular sort of women’s boutique. There are racks of tasteful, candy-coloured two-pieces, a whole floor dedicated to mother-of-the-bride outfits and, at the centre of it all Maggie Robin, a warm, affectionate and strikingly beautiful 64-year-old.
Maggie is the sort of shop owner who hugs her customers. The type who’ll make you a cup of tea while gently guiding you towards just the right pair of sparkly kitten heels.
Since a devastating death in the family 15 years ago, Bear Necessities has been Maggie’s refuge — from her grief and her sometimes turbulent marriage.
Scroll down for video 

Hercules the grizzly bear, owned by Maggie and Andy, pictured eating breakfast with Maggie Robin in 1994

Party animal Hercules the bear celebrates his 10th birthday by blowing out candles on a cake with his owners

That the death was of a 70st grizzly bear named Hercules seems — to Maggie, at least — almost incidental.
In his day, Hercules was the most famous of bears. A cuddly giant who lived with Maggie and her husband Andy, a professional wrestler, Hercules toured the world, met Margaret Thatcher, starred in a James Bond movie and once spent three weeks on the loose in the Outer Hebrides.

His death in 2000 from natural causes had a huge impact on the couple who had raised him from a cub, shared their lives with him for 26 years and considered him their son.
‘Andy was so desperate, he said he couldn’t live without a bear,’ says Maggie. ‘But I knew that to be touched by something like Hercules once in your life makes you very lucky. And also, when I’m in my 70s, I can’t be saying: “I need to go home and feed my grizzly.” '
Quite. Looking after Hercules, all 8ft and 980lb of him, involved rather more than a morning walk and the occasional tin of Pedigree Chum.

The bear lived with the couple, drinking his morning tea from a mug and sitting up at the table to blow out the candles on his birthday cake. At night he would sprawl in front of the fire while Maggie rested her feet on his enormous, furry bottom.
He ate copious amounts of prawns from Marks & Spencer, preferred his steak well done, thank you very much, and spent his days wrestling Andy in the glens and burns near their vast Scottish ranch.
The bear’s presence was so all-consuming that, for a couple of years after his death, it looked as though the couple’s marriage might not survive either.
‘It was awful,’ says Maggie. ‘Andy was just lost. His focus for life, his everything, had just been whipped away from him.
‘For the first two years I didn’t know if we’d make it. I thought: “Are we going to last?” Andy just shut himself away. He wouldn’t talk about how he was feeling.’
Life today in the well-heeled Perthshire town of Auchterarder is rather different for the Robins from the glamour of the Eighties.

Hercules with owner Maggie, who has recently written a book about him, which is published on November 19

Back then, they toured America in a big bus emblazoned with the words ‘Hercules the Scottish Big Softy’, were regularly feted by heads of state and movie stars, and were accustomed to having Disney on the phone, hoping to book Hercules for its next movie.
Andy, now 77, had a stroke three years ago, but has recovered well.
Just last year, 14 years after Hercules’s death, the couple finally replaced their beloved bear with a hilariously diminutive substitute, a Jack Russell named Robbie — a tiny ball of energy who scampers among the shop’s well-to-do customers, dragging a blanket behind him.

The couple adopted Hercules from a wildlife park for £50 in 1974.
Andy, a Commonwealth wrestling champion, had fallen in love with the idea of owning such an animal after being asked to wrestle a chained, muzzled black bear during a trip to New York.
That poor beast had had its teeth taken out, and on his return home Andy became obsessed with the idea of getting one of his own — and treating him like an equal.

But surely even the most smitten of young wives (Maggie was just 21) don’t simply say ‘yes, dear’ when their beloved suggests bringing home one of the world’s fiercest animals as a pet?
She shrugs. ‘I just thought it would be lovely. I walked into it. I know it’s nuts. But I love animals, so it made a strange sort of sense.’

The couple reared Hercules by hand, slowly training the little bear to become comfortable around humans, to wrestle Andy without tearing an arm off and walk around un-muzzled.
Experts the world over rang them up to say that a grizzly bear could never be domesticated, and they would both end up dead.

In her new book about the couple’s life with Hercules, there are lots of old pictures of Maggie, leggy, blonde, puckering up to give the bear a kiss or riding around the garden on his back.
At every step of his development it was as if Hercules were thumbing his big wet nose at the experts. Maggie says he was gentler with her than with Andy, and she called herself his mum.
‘It was a much more innocent time,’ says Maggie. ‘You could do tons of stuff with a bear and nobody really bothered you.
‘Nowadays, with all the red tape, you can’t do anything without health and safety. Herc would have been locked up, and it would have destroyed him. He loved to go out, wandering over the hills.’

Andy, a professional wrestler, pictured with Hercules the bear. Hercules died in 2000 of natural causes

Neighbours in Sheriffmuir, near Dunblane, where the Robins ran a pub, grew accustomed to seeing the beast lumbering around in the nearby heather, before coming into the bar and downing a few shandies with the locals by slurping from a pint glass.
‘He was a happy drunk,’ Maggie explains. ‘And he was always very careful when he was indoors. He didn’t like to knock anything over.’

She recalls when a young blind girl came to see him at the Edinburgh Playhouse. The girl was so excited to meet the bear that she gripped him very tightly round his neck. Maggie’s heart was in her mouth.
‘I was very nervous because she had a tight grip on him, she was touching his eyes and his ears, and she was just so excited,’ she says.

‘But he seemed to know he needed to be careful. He just sat there and let her touch him. It was way beyond anything I could ever have expected. He was a gentle giant.’
She insists he was never violent towards her or Andy. Not really, anyway. ‘I mean,’ she says airily, ‘he caught you with little nips if you were lying over the top of his tummy and he had his big teeth over your face. It was just like playing with a cat. But much bigger.’

They treated the bear like a baby, so much so that they never got round to having children of their own.
‘It was just the three of us,’ says Maggie. ‘We were a family, and we were happy with that. He was my boy. You actually feel like you’ve had a child with a bear. You’ve just got that connection and that depth of feeling. It was quite amazing.’
Not having a conventional family still nags at Maggie’s heart. ‘Now I think, well, I would have quite liked to have had children, but we just never seemed to have the opportunity. We were so wrapped up in life with Herc, plus there’s the idea of a toddler roaming around . . .’

She pauses. ‘Hercules was a big, 8ft bear. It would probably have been fine, but it never seemed like the right time.’ She sighs. ‘My grandmother used to say to me: “You won’t have any of the smiles, but you won’t have any of the tears.” ’
Instead, Maggie built up a career as an accomplished horsewoman, rising to become a national ladies show jumping champion. But there was one episode that threatened to throw their life off-course: during the shooting of a Kleenex advert in the Outer Hebrides in 1980, Hercules went missing. A huge military operation was launched in an attempt to find the bear, but for weeks there was no sign of him.

‘We were up in a helicopter and looking at everything down below. I couldn’t understand why I couldn’t see this great big thing moving about,’ she says. ‘But he would be frightened, and his natural instinct was to hide.
‘A lot of locals were scared or thought he would eat their sheep, but I knew he wouldn’t touch anyone because that’s not who he was. He liked his food cooked, his spaghetti, his meat properly done.

The couple adopted Hercules from a wildlife park for £50 in 1974. Neighbours in Sheriffmuir, near Dunblane, where the Robins ran a pub, grew accustomed to seeing the beast lumbering around in the nearby heather

‘And his sheer gentleness meant he wouldn’t attack you. It would be like saying Robbie [their dog] would turn round and eat you.’
Hercules’s eventual recovery after 24 days — cold, starving and 15st lighter — served only to cement his reputation as a gentle soul.

A documentary was made about life at home with him, and he was voted a TV personality of the Year. He even appeared with Roger Moore in the Bond movie Octopussy. 
He became a genuine celebrity, much beloved by everyone, except footballer Graeme Souness, who apparently took great fright while presenting Hercules with an honorary Rotary Club membership and legged it into the nearest toilet.

Such was the bear’s reputation that, driving down the motorway in their specially adapted bus, the Robins would see police lights flashing behind them and panic, only to have the officers ask: ‘Can we have a look at the big fellow?’
No wonder, then, that his death in 2000, after months of deterioration following a back injury — devastating to a beast of Hercules’s size — sent shockwaves through the Robins’ marriage. Even today, 15 years on, the pain is still there for both of them.

‘It’s been really difficult for Andy to move on,’ she says. ‘That seems a ridiculous thing to say after all these years, but Hercules was his right arm.
‘And you know what men are like, especially big, strong men like Andy. Hercules was the only thing on this earth that Andy’s ever given himself up to completely.’
Not even you? She shakes her head. ‘Not even me. A lot to me, but not like that. It’s always been very hard for him. He just would not accept that Herc would not be here.’
Maggie’s grief was quieter, sadder. For years, she kept a tuft of the bear’s fur, getting it out every so often to inhale its sweet, musky scent.

‘That was my comfort blanket,’ she says. ‘I didn’t even tell anybody I had it until about three years ago. It was mine, and I didn’t tell a soul.’
She still has the fur, but the smell — like Hercules himself — is long gone. Her memories of him, however, are still vivid. 

‘You wouldn’t believe the number of people who come into the shop and tell me they saw him somewhere,’ she says. ‘It’s nice to hear the stories.’
She keeps some photographs, and a few old framed newspaper clippings on a wall at the back of the shop for curious customers to peer at. ‘I just loved him, that was all,’ says Maggie.
Listening to her remarkable story, it’s clear the feeling was mutual.

Hercules The Bear, by Maggie Robin, is published by John Blake Publishing on November 19, at £12.99.
by Emma Cowing

Evander Holyfield has 230 million reasons to live

THE REAL DEAL: Evander Holyfield connects with Mike Tyson during their heavyweight world title fight in Las Vegas in 1997. Tyson was disqualified for biting Holyfield 

Last time you read about Evander Holyfield, chances are he seemed in a bad way.

Maybe he was still dreaming of one last shot. Maybe he was selling his 109-room mansion, all those hard-earned belts and his bloodied gloves and robes.
Well, I'm pleased to relay that "The Real Deal" has some new deals in the offing, which might pay dividends. And he seems happy again.
Holyfield, boxing's only four-time world heavyweight champion, formally announced his retirement from the ring last year, at the age of 51.

The $230-million he earned over a 26-year career was gone, as were three wives. But 11 kids remained, by six different women. They've cost him his fortune, but they also point the way to a brighter future.
One son, Elijah, is one of the best high school running backs in American football, about to make the transition to college football.

Another, Evan, hopes to follow in his father's footsteps and make his name in the ring. Although, for the old man, hope is not enough.
At Evan's gym in Atlanta, Holyfield snr tells it like his momma told it. "My momma said: 'No excuses - you determine your own destiny, by what you choose to believe and what you choose to say'."
So when Evan suggests that "maybe" he wants to go to the Olympics, "just like Dad did", Holyfield snr gets preaching.

"People who suggest things might happen don't become champions," he says. "People who become champions are the ones who say: 'This is what I'm gonna do'." Asked how many times he's had this lecture, Evan says: "A lot."

Holyfield snr grew up poor in the Atlanta suburb of Sugar Hill but his momma, Annie, showered him with wisdom. "She had sixth-grade education but that was good enough for me," says Holyfield, who was the youngest of nine children.
"I didn't have a father but I had the right momma. She could have quit at any time - but she was the real 'Real Deal'. She used to say: 'Son, don't be a coward - a coward dies a thousand times but a man dies once.'

"I grew up in a black neighbourhood and my brothers always told me: 'White boys can't fight.' Then, one day, I had to fight a white kid called Cecil Collins. When I hit him, he hit me back. And when they announced Cecil as the winner, I cried, ran home to my momma and told her I quit.
"She told me: 'I ain't raised a quitter, you got to go back.' I did go back - and Cecil beat me again. I cried and threatened to quit - but my momma sent me back again.
"And eventually I beat him. I passed the test. When I went home, my momma told me one of life's most important lessons - 'Quit because things don't go your way and you won't reach your goal. So don't quit.' And I didn't."

Nobody ever accused Holyfield of being a quitter again, at least not between the ropes. After winning a bronze medal at the 1984 Olympics, he cleaned up the cruiserweight division.
Then came the big boys in the heavyweights and the bigger money - Buster Douglas, Riddick Bowe and Mike Tyson unleashed.

Last week was the 25th anniversary of Holyfield knocking out Douglas and winning the heavyweight world title for a first time.
The date went largely unmarked, because Holyfield is that kind of fighter, his greatness destined always to be underplayed.

This lack of recognition welded to his momma's early lessons and a strong religious faith made Holyfield the pathologically stubborn man he is.
Even now, he thinks he'll get it all back and make it all better - the mansion, the belts, the pockmarked dignity.

"Losing everything was hard," says Holyfield. "The Bible says: 'The second half of your life is going to be better than the first half.' I made $230-million in the first half, so I've still got reasons to live."
Over at Elijah's football practice, Holyfield snr casts a critical eye over another one of those reasons.
"I'm proud of how Elijah carries himself, proud of his attitude. I'm the 'Old Deal'. He's the 'Real Deal'. In fact, you might say he's the 'New Deal'."

It might not be about Holyfield being happy. But there's far too much sadness in boxing, so it's nice to know he is.

A Plane Crash Won’t Weaken Putin’s Resolve in Syria

                            Mourners at the Palace Square on Nov. 1 in St. Petersburg, Russia.
For days, unnamed Western intelligence officials and Western heads of state have been implying that a bomb could very well have downed the Russian Metrojet plane carrying 224 Russians to St. Petersburg after a sunny vacation in Sharm el Sheikh. By Friday, French news media were reporting that a “sudden and brutal event” heard on the plane’s black box recordings was the likely culprit. Even the Kremlin, which has been vociferously denying  the terrorism connection, canceled all Russian flights to Egypt and began making arrangements to airlift tens of thousands of Russian tourists still in the country.

If the plane was in fact felled by an act of terror — and let’s recall that the local franchise of the Islamic State claimed responsibility almost immediately — the attack seems to send a pretty clear message to Moscow: Welcome to the Middle East. But if this was in fact a terrorist attack avenging President Vladimir V. Putin’s air campaign in Syria, how will Putin react? Will he change his Syria policy in response? How will Russians respond to the sacrifice of hundreds of Russian civilians on the altar of Putin’s geopolitical ambitions?
If one examines the dynamics in Russia today, there seems little reason to expect the Kremlin to change course or face a public backlash.

When he launched Russia’s military campaign in Syria, Putin framed it as, first and foremost, a battle against terrorism and for domestic security. “The only real way to fight terrorism,” he said at the time, “is to act pre-emptively, to fight and destroy fighters and terrorists on territory they have already seized, and not to wait until they come to our house.” A terrorist attack on Russians abroad, if that’s what this was, only underscores the immediacy of that mission: Russians are in the Islamic State’s cross hairs, and we have to take the fight to them. This line of reasoning shouldn’t surprise any American who remembers 9/11.

If anything, Russian civilians becoming victims of Islamic State terror is not an internal problem for the Kremlin, but an external opportunity. “If there’s a terrorist attack in Egypt, that’s a problem of world safety,” says Masha Lipman, an independent political analyst in Moscow. “It’s not just our problem.” That is, after wriggling back into the company of Western powers by helping with the Iran deal and muscling back to at least the illusion of great power status by flying thousands of sorties over Syria, the Kremlin can use the terrorist attack as a way to cozy up to the West: You see? We are all in the same boat, all of us facing the same threat from the Islamic State.

It was the same card Putin played when he was the first world leader to call George W. Bush on 9/11 to offer sympathy. It was a call that intensified a lurching program of U.S.-Russian counterterrorism cooperation, which Washington seemed loath to end even as it imposed sanctions on Moscow in 2014.

Russian news media have been emphasizing — however disingenuously — that the Kremlin and the West have a common enemy in the Islamic State, and that Moscow is in many ways doing what Washington has only been talking about. Now, some in Russia fear that Western taunts of “we told you so” could enrage the Kremlin. “The United States and its allies might do the worst thing imaginable: use the terrorist act as propaganda against Russia’s Syrian campaign and thereby show solidarity with the terrorists,” says Gleb Pavlovsky, a Russian political scientist who served as a Kremlin adviser in the first decade of Putin’s rule. “I’m very afraid that there will be a new branch of the propaganda war where the West will blame the Kremlin for the terrorist act.” And the more the West lectures Russia on the dangers of engaging in the Middle East, Pavlovsky says, the more the Kremlin will respond with anti-Western propaganda.

It is unlikely that Putin will change anything militarily, especially if the West expects him to. Putin is notoriously averse to external pressure and often acts perpendicularly to it. If he responds at all, he responds at his own pace and often when attention and expectations have shifted. “There is a scenario of quick exit from Syria,” says Pavlovsky, “but only after demonstrable results. And it is very unlikely right after this.”
Nor is a public backlash likely. Russian television has covered the catastrophe in great detail, showing grieving relatives and the mass candlelit vigil in front of the St. Petersburg Winter Palace. But don’t expect the vigils to turn into anti-Putin, antiwar demonstrations. Russians are inured to tragedy. It doesn’t move them to action, but to fatalist declarations.

This week, The Times paint a characteristic reaction, quoting a Russian tourist in Egypt:
They shrug off the risks, exhale cigarette smoke and talk about destiny.
“Russia is dangerous and not safe either,” said Svetlana Golobitz, a pediatrician from St. Petersburg sucking on a cigarette just outside the terminal gate. “You can have an accident driving in a car or walking in the night; this is your fate,” she said. “I like this place, so I want to spend my winter here.”
This is not an unusual Russian reaction, even when it comes to terrorism. Russians are different from Americans in this respect, too: They are, to some extent, used to it. In 1999, several residential buildings in Moscow and buildings in southern Russia were bombed, killing hundreds. Then came Beslan, the theater hostage crisis and a dozen suicide bombings in Moscow.

Russia even knows airborne terror: In 2004, two passenger planes simultaneously fell out of the skies over Russia, brought down by two female suicide bombers. “At some point, probably in the 2000s, we became a country like Israel, where no one is surprised by terrorism,” says Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of Russia in Global Affairs. “It’s terrible, but it’s part of life. We’ve become like that, it’s a fact of life.” After the Dubrovka theater standoff, in which over 100 hostages died, and after the Beslan school siege, in which nearly 400 people, most of them children, were killed, “after that,” says Lukyanov, “this is nothing.”

Russian television, for its part, has denied that the Metrojet liner was brought down by terrorists — which, for Russians, means it wasn’t brought down by terrorists. One comparable example: For a year, Russian television insisted that separatists rebels in eastern Ukraine didn’t down the Malaysian airliner, and today, only 3 percent of Russians hold the rebels responsible. And unlike after a similar tragedy in America, the coverage will slowly dissipate, and so will any potential source of political rage. “If you show grieving relatives day and night and say it could happen to you, maybe, but that’s not going to happen,” explains Lipman. “After Beslan, the coverage was all wrapped up very quickly. It was done very effectively.” She adds: “Different cultures show grief differently. We don’t have this culture to endlessly focus on the tragedy. In America, you do.”

Earlier this week, a group of artists floated caskets down St. Petersburg’s picturesque canals. They were emblazoned with the words “For what?” and “For whom?” It was a powerful gesture, but not one that is likely to sway the minds that need swaying. In Russia, it is not public opinion that shapes government policy; it is the other way around. On Nov. 2, two days after the crash and when there was still no public discussion of terrorism, Putin said that “no one has ever succeeded … in scaring the Russian people.” Four days after the crash, as Lipman notes in her article in The New Yorker, Russian television showed a grand, patriotic rally, 85,000 strong, celebrating Russia’s Day of National Unity. The message is clear: The more you try to terrorize the Russians, the more strongly they’ll band together, the more firmly they will stand shoulder to shoulder, the more resolute they will be in our fight.

It is, again, a sentiment that should be familiar to anyone who was around and sentiment on 9/11.
by Julia Ioffe who is a contributing writer for the New York Times 

The Elephant And The Twig (one of life’s lessons)

There was a working elephant in India; one of those great and gentle animals used to clear forests of wood.  This elephant was born in captivity and was now about to give birth.  To her was born a beautiful baby calf.

This elephant boy, as it grew a little and when first it learned to walk, was tied with a rope to a massive tree trunk.  It wailed for mummy but mommy couldn't come as she had to work early or late whether she liked to or not. For all its young enthusiasm, might and strength, elephant boy could not free itself from the tree trunk. Time passed slowly and its sense of freedom passed with it.

As elephant boy grew in size and strength, proportionally the tree truck, in rotation, was replaced by a smaller one and a smaller one still. Soon the elephant and his great ivory tusks had grown to massive size; he was truly a sight to behold. 

By this time the once giant tree trunk had been so reduced that the elephant was now tethered to a twig by a piece of string. Its freedom had been reduced with it and the only trace of it having every existed at all was in a sleight and faint memory pulse lost in the tissue of its brain. It’s fate was sealed.

Barry Clifford 

Friday, November 6, 2015

The real crime is not arresting decline in rural Ireland

Thomas Flynn was jailed for 12 years with three suspended at Clonmel Circuit court for breaking into a house Picture: Liam Burke/Press 22

THERE is no rural crime epidemic. There is no rural crime wave, sweeping across the country, driven by marauding thugs whose stock-in-trade is terror. These statements may, to some, appear self-evident, but to anybody engaging with the media over the last few months, they need to be spelt out in plain English.
The impression conveyed by vested interests is that rural Ireland is going through an epidemic of burglaries, most of which are perpetrated by recidivist thieves terrorising home and farm owners. This is simply not the case.

There is certainly a huge amount of fear about crime across rural Ireland, but the basis for that fear is questionable. There is also a specific problem with burglaries, particularly of commercial and farm premises, in midland counties easily accessible by the motorway network.

This problem has grown in recent years. For example, burglaries in Co Offaly have increased by 67% in the last five years. The recent public meeting in Thurles, Co Tipperary, which attracted a huge attendance and where much anger and testimony was vented, illustrated the high incidence of burglary from farms in particular.

That meeting followed the criminal conviction of a vicious gang who terrorised the Corcoran family in Tipperary two years ago. The family had been subjected to a terrifying ordeal, and the gang members received lengthy sentences. The family were extremely traumatised by what was a life-altering event, but the incident was highly unusual.
In August, John O’Donoghue of Doon, Co Limerick died of a heart attack after discovering his house had been burgled. This was an extremely tragic incident and generated much anger. Again, however, it was not indicative of any trend.

The crime statistics from the CSO show that while burglary increased in the last five years — as would be expected in a recession — by 20%, four fifths of that increase occurred in the greater Dublin area. Outside the midland counties, with a few exceptions, there has been a relatively small increase in rural Ireland.
Any violation of one’s home is traumatic. Even when, as is the vast majority of cases, the thieves have come and gone before the crime is discovered. But those who live in Dublin, Cork and the other cities are far more likely to be targeted.

Human stories naturally have a huge impact on the public consciousness, and those that came to the fore in recent months understandably generated much sympathy and anger.
What resulted was a campaign by elements of the media, ably assisted by garda representative bodies fighting for more resources. This led to a response from Government, which culminated in last Monday’s announcement of Operation Thor by Frances Fitzgerald.

Operation Thor, which includes deploying high-powered vehicles, motorway patrols, and tackling the sale of stolen goods, is designed to tackle the specific issue affecting the midlands. Time will tell whether it is an appropriate response.

That is the positive outcome. The negative outcome is the campaign has generated huge fear. Up and down the country rural dwellers, many elderly or vulnerable, have slept with a lot less ease in recent weeks and months.

The only organisation to broach the possibility that things have been blown out of all proportion is Muintir Na Tire, the group which set up the community alert scheme 30 years ago. Appearing before the Oireachtas Justice committee on Wednesday, they referenced the possibility that crime can be “overhyped”.

“The fear of crime can be almost as harmful as the actual effects of crime,” the group said in a statement.
Generating unwarranted fear is a major outcome from all the hype, but it is not the only one. Kicking up fear and anger about crime also provides an easily digestible distraction from the really serious issues blighting rural Ireland.
Rural Ireland is in long term decline principally due to economic forces. The change is not unique to this country, but is felt keener here because of history, culture and the higher proportion of people who still live outside cities and towns.

This decline was masked for at least 15 years, firstly by the construction boom, and then by a recession . In a political culture that caters only for the short term, precious little was done through policy to tackle the transforming landscape.

During recent years the Government’s concentration on righting the economy relegated normal governing matters such as formulating a long-term vision for rural Ireland. Instead, we’ve had the piecemeal withdrawal of services, political knee-jerk reactions and the setting up of a task force to find out what’s wrong. In the great tradition of these things the findings of the Commission for Economic Development of Rural Areas has received a lukewarm response.

So, as the night of recession lifts, a cold dawn is emerging in rural Ireland. There is a general feeling of abandonment in many areas, rooted in the belief that the State is pulling out, retreating into the major towns and cities.

The outcry over the closure of garda stations is symptomatic of the prevailing sentiment. It’s difficult to sustain the claim the closures have any impact on rural crime. On one hand we’re told that organised gangs of thieves are behind burglaries, yet on the other we are to believe that they were heretofore put off by the presence of a single garda in a rural station for a few hours each afternoon.

For many the significance of the closures lies not in anything to do with crime, but the psychological impact of the latest example of the state’s withdrawal. One more service gone, the shutters pulled down on one more vestige of a kinder, gentler time. One more reason to fear the future.
Across rural Ireland there are many individuals and organisations focused on tackling the problems of economic decline but a national policy is required. That will be difficult, messy, and will require difficult decisions to be made in the short term in order to secure some security over the longer term. But that needs to be the focus if Rural Ireland is to have a future.

The alternative, retreating into victimhood, or hyping simple issues like crime, may temporarily satisfy frustration, but does little to address the real problems.
A few years back, we were told by other vested interests that the abandonment of rural Ireland was exemplified by changes in drink driving and fox hunting laws. This was spurious nonsense. This time around, it looks like the recent campaign will ensure that rural crime is a major election issue.

If so, the main event is being missed. Rural Ireland has far bigger fish to fry. An organised and sustained concentration on arresting economic decline is what should be to the fore of any group which purports to represent the interests of rural Ireland.
Michael Clifford

Video Minute: 9-Year-Old Toby Lee - Blues in Bm

Photo Minute: After dinner-clean your teeth

After dinner: clean your teeth

 Getting dinner..........

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Sinn Féin TD criticises Traveller criminality

Padraig Mac Lochlann TD at Leinster House, Dublin. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

Travellers involved in criminality are a disgrace who have shamed their own community and shown disrespect to settled people, Sinn Féin TD Pádraig Mac Lochlainn, who is half- Traveller, has said.
Some of the “mistrust” felt by the settled community has been justified by “very poor behaviour and worse” by some Travellers, said the Donegal TD, who has urged the State to recognise Travellers as an ethnic group.

“There is criminality within the Travelling community. They are a disgrace, those involved in criminality, they let down their own community and they shame their own community,” he said.
“I’m not in denial that there have been some in the Travelling community that have let down their people by criminality and by disrespect for the settled community. So it’s a two- way street. This is not about hugs and kisses.”

The first TD from a Traveller background, Mr Mac Lochlainn was born in Leeds in 1973 and brought up in Birmingham by “two strong Traveller women”, his grandmother Lizzy Gavin and mother Mary Mac Lochlainn.
His father, Réamonn Mac Lochlainn, was in the Provisional IRA and was jailed in England for nine years. The family moved back to Donegal in 1983. His father died in a swimming accident two years later.

Traveller ethnicity
Mr Mac Lochlainn has spearheaded the campaign for the State to recognise Traveller ethnicity, with the debate he initiated in the Dáil this week provoking a passionate speech from Minister of State for Equality Aodhán Ó Ríordáin on Tuesday night.

Mr Ó Ríordáin did not read his official script but suggested the Government was slow to grant ethnicity because of the response from focus groups.
“Aodhán’s speech was very courageous because he set aside the Civil Service script and spoke from his heart, and it was a great speech. And he meant it, I know he means it. On this issue we’re colleagues and we’re allies and we’re friends,” Mr Mac Lochlainn said.
The Sinn Féin TD said he had been terrified by some “vile commentary” voiced on social media about the tragedy of the 10 people who died in the fire at the halting site in Carrickmines, Dublin, last month.

The next step for society should be to have an honest conversation to address the “quiet prejudice” against Travellers that had grown up among some otherwise tolerant settled people. “That is the slippery slope to bigotry and to racism.”
He stressed those who advocated for Travellers’ rights had no difficulty in saying antisocial behaviour and criminality must be tackled head-on. “It is not Travelling culture to be involved in criminality,” he said.

Deeply disrespectful
Mr Mac Lochlainn said the vast majority of Travellers were “good, decent people” but he had spoken out about an incident a number of years ago when a group of Travellers from “down the country” came to Buncrana in his constituency and “took over” amenities at the shorefront for two weeks in August.

“It was a deeply disrespectful thing to have done to another community. I conveyed that to the Travellers who were there.”
Mr Mac Lochlainn said all citizens had responsibilities as well as rights. “It’s not a right-wing thing to say . . . People think it’s Thatcherite to say that. It’s not. It’s Republican to say that,” he said.

“This is one of the last great civil rights challenges in Ireland, the Travellers issue. We’ve buried it under the carpet, we’ve papered over the cracks for too long. And we need to now have an honest conversation, warts and all.
“And everybody needs to accept their responsibility on both sides of the debate for what needs to be done.”

He invited people with concerns about some Travellers’ behaviour to come and speak to him or other public representatives, adding that he had no illusions that advocating for Traveller ethnicity was a vote-winner.
Mary Minihan

Ray Burke: A giant who upheld our democracy

Ray Burke's 30 years in public office were so brilliant that wealthy men 'fell over themselves' to make donations.

RAY BURKE was clean. He was not a crooked politician, who used his 30-plus years in elected office to enrich himself through corrupt means. He was a political figure of such ability that wealthy people fell over themselves to throw money at him in the form of political donations.
In this respect, he was a giant of his time.
That is the only conclusion that can be drawn from the news that findings of corruption made by the Planning Tribunal against Mr Burke are to be withdrawn.

For anybody under the age of 40, it should be explained here that Mr Burke was a senior Fianna Fáil politician for nearly 30 years, during which he held a number of ministerial portfolios.
He was also a major figure on Dublin County Council for most of that period, right through years of highly controversial rezonings and the type of developer-led planning that was little short of disastrous.

The prevailing system made an awful lot of overnight millionaires in turning the muck of agricultural land into rezoned gold. Allegations that Mr Burke had accepted bribes were the reason why the Planning Tribunal was set up in 1997. That prompted his resignation from politics. The tribunal, which also looked into other matters, cost at least €159m, and sat for 15 years.

The tribunal has been forced to revise its findings on foot of a Supreme Court ruling that those against whom allegations had been made had been deprived of private statements made by the main whistleblower to the tribunal, James Gogarty. The court was of the opinion that this prevented the full testing of Mr Gogarty’s evidence and credibility.

The effect of that has been that any case in which Mr Gogarty was involved — even in a minor role — has now had to be revisited to ensure nobody’s rights were trampled on. Thus, anybody who was cast in a bad light by Mr Gogarty’s evidence now has their reputation restored through the erasure of adverse findings. An earlier court ruling also determined that nearly all parties would also have their costs paid by the State.

Last January, the tribunal withdrew some adverse findings against Mr Burke and others, but now it has emerged that the remaining corruptions findings, dating from 2002, are likely to be erased.

These principally concern Mr Burke’s relationship with a pair of developers, Tom Brennan and Joe McGowan, who held the politician in such esteem that they doled out money to him hand over fist when they were the biggest house builders in the Dublin area.
The tribunal is reported to be erasing findings that the two lads made corrupt payments to Mr Burke. This would effectively render the financial relationship between the politician and the developers as perfectly legit. And what a relationship that was.

A company owned by Mr Brennan and Mr McGowan built Mr Burke’s house in north Dublin in 1973.
Mr Burke told the tribunal that the site cost £7,500, which he acquired from the two boys in lieu of professional auctioneering fees. (Mr Burke was an auctioneer for the first half of his political career, while he bestrode the council engaged in compulsive rezonings.) There is no record of how he accumulated these fees.

The house itself cost £15,000. There is no record of Mr Burke paying for it. A solicitor involved in the transaction told the tribunal no money changed hands. Mr Burke said there was money paid, but it was “a word of honour between men”.

Originally, the tribunal found that the house was given by the developers to Mr Burke for “an improper motive connected with Mr Burke’s position as an elected representative of Dublin County Council”. That finding is now under review. Mr Burke sold the house in 2003 for £3m.
From 1973 through to 1982, the two lads paid Mr Burke a monthly sum of £1,000. During this time the politician was a major power broker in Dublin county council. Mr Burke told the tribunal this money was for auctioneering fees for work he performed at weekends. No invoices, records of sales, returns or contracts were produced to back up this claim.

In the early 1980s, there were a series of payments to the value of £160,000 which the tribunal found to have been corrupt. This money, according to Mr Burke, Mr Brennan and Mr McGowan, was actually political donations, to be used for political purposes. Much of the money was routed through off-shore accounts.
In one instance, Mr McGowan told the tribunal that he was such an admirer of Mr Burke’s he had organised a number of functions in England to raise funds for him. The tribunal didn’t believe any of it.

In today’s money, the accumulated amounts that passed between these parties amounts to millions of euro. When Mr Burke retired, he was found to have retained what he described as a “political fund” of £200,000, which would be north of €1m today, for political purposes like fighting elections.
Now, despite three Garda investigations, and a tribunal that sat for over five years in examining his financial life and times, it would appear that his record is to be wiped clean.
No criminal court or tribunal has determined that he accumulated his vast wealth while in politics for any untoward reason.

Other findings of corruption in relation to Mr Burke’s receipt of money from building firm JMSE and developer Michael Bailey, were dropped in January. It is understood that yet more findings that he received corrupt payments in 1989 in relation to Century Radio, are also gone.
In all cases, there is little dispute that Mr Burke received the monies. A paper trail led to most of the deposits, and the lack of a paper trail in relation to his house led the tribunal to conclude that it was provided free gratis. The matter in dispute was whether these payments were made in order to receive favour from Mr Burke through his elected office, or as legit donations to allow him conduct his political life.

There is no dispute either but that the sums involved far exceeded any costs for elections or to cover the relatively trivial sums politicians routinely splash out for workers or constituency causes.
The sums could, in some cases, have financed a general election for the whole party.
The only real sanction that Burke has had to endure is for tax evasion. He was sentenced to six months in prison in 2004 for failing to make returns. He received a bill for €2m from the Criminal Assets Bureau, and reportedly settled for €600,000.

But there is no evidence or proof that he did anything corrupt. Maybe he’ll now look for his money back from the CAB. If all that money he accumulated was political donations, then no tax was payable on it.

As far as any suggestion that he was corrupt goes, Mr Burke can now hold his head high. The record will show he was a man whose superlative political talent ensured that wealthy individuals fell over themselves to throw money at him in the name of upholding the ideals of democracy. 
Michael Clifford

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