3 September 2014 Books

I jog around the park I still have arthritis in my left knee, but I manage to get round the park. A warmish day. I scan some books.

Mary’s back not much better today, rabbit for tea and her back pain is still there.


Sir Alexander Stirling – obituary

Sir Alexander Stirling was a British ambassador to four Middle Eastern countries who survived an assassination attempt in Baghdad

Sir Alexander Stirling

Sir Alexander Stirling

6:52PM BST 01 Sep 2014


Sir Alexander Stirling, who has died aged 86, was one of the Foreign Office’s most knowledgeable Arabists.

Stirling served as ambassador to four countries in the Middle East and survived an assassination attempt in Baghdad. He came from a generation of diplomats who devoted their careers to understanding the Arab world. Sometimes dismissed by their colleagues and by politicians as the “Camel Corps”, they provided a deep understanding and experience of the Middle East.

Alexander Stirling was born in Rawalpindi on October 20 1927, the son of Brigadier A Dickson Stirling, DSO, of the Royal Army Medical Corps. Always known as Alec, he was educated at Edinburgh Academy and, after service as an RAF officer in Egypt, at Lincoln College, Oxford.

He joined the Foreign Office in 1951 and learned Arabic at the renowned Middle East Centre for Arabic Studies in Lebanon. He then had successive postings to the embassies in Beirut, Cairo, Baghdad and Amman.

In 1969 Stirling was appointed Political Agent in Bahrain, one of the Trucial States under British Protection. Only the year before, he had accompanied a Foreign Minister on a tour of the Gulf to assure the rulers there that, regardless of the withdrawal from Aden, Britain would not be leaving The Gulf. The decision of the Wilson government in 1968 to renege on this assurance and withdraw all forces east of Suez was, Stirling believed, a betrayal of trust which troubled him deeply.

Throughout his career Stirling was known for his firm principles, integrity and straightforwardness. He got on well with the Sheikh of Bahrain, and in 1971 was appointed Britain’s first ambassador to the newly independent state. In 1972 he moved on to Beirut, the first in a series of very difficult and demanding posts. Lebanon was on the verge of its 15-year civil war, which broke out in 1975 and led to an invasion by Syria in the following year.

Stirling returned to London for a stint at the Royal College of Defence Studies before being appointed ambassador at Baghdad in 1977. Relations with Iraq were at a low point: Britain was concerned by the rise of Saddam Hussein and his creation of an aggressive police state, while at the same time anxious to do business with this oil-rich country. For their part, the Iraqis were suspicious of Britain, seeing it still as an imperialist power which had preferred the Shah’s Iran to the Baath party in Iraq. In July 1978 Abd ar-Razzaq an-Naif, a former Iraqi Prime Minister and opponent of the regime, was shot outside the Intercontinental Hotel in London’s Park Lane and died the next day. A doorman at the hotel gave chase and caught the culprit. The British Foreign Secretary David Owen expelled six members of the Iraqi Embassy and Airline for complicity, and in retaliation six members of the British Embassy in Baghdad were declared persona non grata.

Stirling found himself operating in a sour atmosphere with fewer staff to help him. Saddam Hussein, though only Vice-President, was the de facto ruler of the country. Bodies found in the river Tigris were routinely described by the police as victims of “road accidents”, and a Jordanian member of the British Embassy’s consular staff, who had been harassed by the Iraqi Security Service, simply disappeared on his way to the airport for a holiday in Amman. Stirling described Saddam Hussein as the most evil man he had ever met.

The most dramatic day of his time in Iraq came on June 19 1980, when three gunmen rushed past the embassy guards throwing grenades and firing into the building. Stirling himself missed death by an inch when one of three bullets aimed at him passed across his chest and through the lapel of his jacket.

His staff recall him as being “completely unflappable”, setting an example of calm and courage. He managed to dictate two urgent telegrams to London during the 30-minute siege, neglecting to mention his own near fate .

Two of the gunmen were killed by the Iraqi police and the third took poison. The Foreign Office, learning later about the bullet-hole in Stirling’s jacket, asked for the garment to be sent to London for display inside the FO. But his thrifty Scottish wife, Alison, had already sent it to the invisible menders and it was back in service.

The identity of the attackers was never established, but they were believed to be dissident Iranians seeking revenge for the dramatic operation by the SAS some weeks earlier to free hostages held in the Iranian Embassy in London.

After Baghdad, Stirling moved to Tunis, where he became the main point of cautious British contact with Yasser Arafat, the leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, who had been forced to flee Lebanon and set up his headquarters in Tunis.

Stirling quickly got bored during this posting. He liked to be busy, but the Arab/Israeli peace process was at a standstill — and Stirling was not the kind of man who enjoyed being greeted with a hug and a kiss by Arafat. Accordingly, he asked to move to Khartoum, where he spent his last two years before retirement. He loved the Sudan and its people and took the opportunity to travel extensively, once being petitioned by Dinka tribal leaders in the south who believed he could restore the benefits that the Sudan Political Service had brought them more than 40 years earlier under British rule.

In 1985 terrible famines engulfed neighbouring Ethiopia and Chad, causing tens of thousands of refugees to pour into the Sudan. Stirling played a leading role with Oxfam, Save the Children and Bob Geldof in ensuring that relief supplies reached those most in need.

After retirement in 1987 he continued to promote welfare and development in the region for a further 20 years, through his work with SOS Sahel International.

Alexander Stirling was appointed CMG in 1976 and KBE in 1984.

He married, in 1955, Alison Campbell, who survives him with two sons and two daughters.

Sir Alexander Stirling, born October 20 1927, died July 16 2014


Gun illustration A deep rift in US society. Illustration by Gary Kempston Photograph: Gary Kempston/Gary Kempston

The great divide in America

America’s “racial rift” was created by two-and-a-half centuries of brutal, unapologetic slavery – embedded, meanwhile, in the country’s constitution – followed by a century of keeping now free African Americans down and in their place (22 August). Then, 350 years after the first African slaves were brought to Virginia, the civil rights and racial equality of African Americans were finally acknowledged in law.

Yet events in Ferguson, Missouri, have sadly revealed that the racial rift remains. Was it ever possible, however, that America, even with the best will, might conquer its dark, poisonous history of racial division and oppression in the space of half a century? We have come far but have so much farther still to go.
Jim Haas
Pullman, Washington, US

• As your front-page article (22 August) rightly pointed out, events in Ferguson highlighted the racial division and social injustice that still plague American society. But the rift goes deeper than that. The military hardware from Afghanistan and Iraq was repurposed with precisely the intention to be used against US citizens should they organise enough to threaten what must now be called the Obama regime.

Meanwhile, we learn that US, Russia, China and India are strangely united when it comes to blocking the work of the International Criminal Court, secure in the knowledge that voters won’t demand a reckoning at the ballot box (22 August). As long as electorates around the globe can be pacified with tax breaks and fail to make the connection between war crimes abroad and repression at home, Falluja pigeons will come to roost in the US. If we don’t demand that our leaders support real international justice, we will continue to reap the bitter, poetic kind.
Ana Simeon
Victoria, British Columbia, Canada

Moving past policy gridlock

Thank you for publishing the articles by Seumas Milne (Another war in Iraq won’t fix the last one) and Paddy Ashdown (Break-up can’t be prevented) side by side (22 August). They seem to reach broadly similar conclusions despite the different arguments they use to get there.

Milne’s suggestion that the west should not get involved in Iraq again because of the 2003 conflict would lead to a long-term foreign policy paralysis. The culpable inadequacy of the west’s Iraq intervention should encourage us to engage in a less partisan and more ethical way.

Ashdown’s primary point is the irrelevance of the Sykes-Picot agreement to the present situation. Borders have been widely redrawn in Europe since 1989, and new states have been created in the African continent. The reluctance of western governments to acknowledge the possibility of a redrawing of national boundaries in the Middle East looks increasingly anachronistic.

The west’s primary concerns should be: 1) to seize the opportunity to draw Iran back into the international fold and support Iran to play a positive role in stabilising and de-radicalising the Iraqi Shia community; 2) to support Turkey in building a new relationship with its Kurdish neighbours and its own Kurdish minority, which will underpin a future Kurdish identity; 3) to work with Saudi Arabia to eliminate support for extremism stemming from the Arabian peninsula, which will strip Isis of its financial and moral backing.

These suggestions move strongly away from the self-interest in western governments to a more principled stance.
Stuart Lockton
Kendal, UK

The instruments of suffering

The voice of sanity at last! (Annie March, Reply, 15 August). It cannot have escaped the notice of readers, or indeed anyone exposed to the daily fare of 24-hour news channels, that while the populations of conflict zones such as the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of the Congo or even the relatively prosperous Middle East can barely assemble the wherewithal to keep body and soul together, there is never any shortage of sophisticated weapons for the warring parties; in fact, these areas are always awash with them.

The logistical problems involved in supplying the basics of life to the victims of war just do not seem to apply when it comes to guns for the combatants. I think we know why, if not exactly how: we should also know that the footage of human suffering we are becoming so inured to will not go away until there is a resounding call across the civilised world to dismantle the operations of those who provide the instruments of this suffering.
Chris Reeve
Granada, Spain

What’s in a name?

I refer to the strange last sentence of Jonathan Freedland’s piece Isis wages war on weakness (15 August): “For sometimes weakness can be just as dangerous as strength.” Strength is not dangerous. Power is. Its blatant exercise is. Weakness is.

Weakness as a result of oppression and abuse is always – not just sometimes – dangerous. We need lots more strength – emotional, ethical and moral – in the world today than is evident. And in this context, the title of the piece is inappropriate as well.
Veena Krishnamurthy
Bangalore, India

• If there is one good thing to be said about the Islamist group Isis, then it’s that they’ve changed their name to IS. I’m glad, because Isis is a respected and beautiful Egyptian goddess, heralded, for example, in Mozart’s aria O Isis und Osiris (The Magic Flute), and innocent of the horrific crimes committed in her name. So, for Isis’s sake, please refer to the terrorists by their recently chosen name, IS, in future.

It would be even better still, if the name was soon shortened by a further two letters.
Jennifer Clayton-Chen
Munich, Germany

• The religion followed by the Yazidis is considerably older than 1,000 years. It pre-dates Christianity and Islam. It is linked to ancient Mesopotamian religions and Zoroastrianism, which is said to have influenced Judaism during the Babylonian captivity.

It should also be noted that, before the US and other western nations became alarmed by the Isis movement and the media in general began to air its disgust of the brutality of Isis, Iraqi and Syrian Kurds were active in resisting the movement not only in combat but by giving refuge to Iraqi Christians and fighting to create a safe route off Mount Sinjar for the stranded Yazidis, and that the majority of Iraqi and Syrian Kurds are also Sunni Muslims.
Felicity Oliver
Ostermundigen, Switzerland

Swearing allegiance

Emer O’Toole thinks she is hard-done by having to choose between her conscience and Canadian citizenship (22 August). When I was 16, my parents and I (all north-England born and bred and immigrants to Canada in the early 1950s) became Canadian. Well, my parents did.

My mother was a hearty supporter of the leftwing Labour politics of the time, and her anti-royalist views (along the lines that the entire house of Windsor should all be lined up and shot) were often voiced as one of her main motivations for leaving Britain for good. A near-contemporary of Queen Elizabeth, she morally deplored what she saw as the enormous wealth and decadence of the royal household.

So in 1968 when I was on the brink of paying my $2 and becoming a Canadian like all the rest of my family, I baulked at taking the oath to bear true allegiance to the Queen and all her heirs and successors. It would have been a fundamental lie following me with invisible fingers for the rest of my life.

That little piece of official paper is now safe and sound (along with my British passport) in a safety deposit box. No feudal oaths have been sworn, and a large piece of my personal integrity is intact.
Joy Kündig-Manning
Chancy, Switzerland

Access to medical records

I would be more willing to tolerate the idea of the police having unfettered access to my medical records if I knew that I was going to have similar access to their medical history in return (15 August). I could think of many situations in which a civilian would fare better in his or her interactions with the police if he or she was armed with an understanding of that officer’s prior medical history. For instance, it might be pertinent to know whether an officer who had stopped and searched you had ever been treated for paranoia; whether a police officer who beat an unarmed civilian during a demonstration had ever been admitted to hospital after brawling; whether an officer who kettled non-violent protesters was suffering from a persecution complex at the time.

Granting police officers the automatic right to scrutinise private details of members of the public without making them do the same in return is unfair because it implies that police are somehow less susceptible to the same weaknesses, illnesses and bad judgment calls as the rest of us. My experiences with the police, particularly at demonstrations, has taught me that this is anything but true.

Nobody in their right mind would think of giving police even more powers when they have yet to account for the way they’ve abused their powers in the past.
A E Elliott
Berlin, Germany


• The late disgraced US President Richard Nixon’s inept denial on tape of his attempt to undermine his opponents via Watergate, “I knew, I must say though, I didn’t know it” (22 August) reminds me of former President Bill Clinton’s obfuscation when he was grilled about his having sex with Monica Lewinsky. Asked to explain his statement that “there’s nothing going on between us”, he said. “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is.” I reckon that such meaningless doublespeak borders on delirium.
Richard Orlando
Westmount, Quebec, Canada

• Alhamdulillah! Oliver Burkeman (22 August) seems finally to have given up claiming that reading his article will change my life! I was beginning to wonder what I was missing out on.

As he says himself, “As soon as we are told that something is good for us, it loses its appeal.”
Alaisdair Raynham
Truro, UK


The head of Wales’s largest luxury hotel has pointed out that the Nato summit taking place in his hotel is a chance to “showcase Wales”. Well, the best advice we can give to anyone wanting to visit south-east Wales is to stay away or be put off for life.

We’re warned that motorway junctions will be closed without notice, schools throughout the region will be closed, fences surround several venues, including the tourist attraction of Cardiff castle, and major arteries in Cardiff will be closed.

This is not an opportunity for anyone other than some British and Welsh politicians to gain kudos from the prestige of hosting world leaders. They’ll rub shoulders and have a damned good jolly before, as we all know, disappearing for ever, never to be seen again or give us lot a second thought.

The taxpayers of the world are paying a fortune for this nonsense, when Nato has perfectly sound and secure premises in Brussels and elsewhere they could use for a fraction of the cost. Instead, they choose to roll around in a multi-billion pound jamboree  where even the journalists are to be treated a “reception” in a local stately home. Contemptuous of the locals they then offer the advice, on the eve of the meeting, that we have an opportunity to showcase the area.

Utter rubbish. My advice is to follow me and go to North Wales.

DVB Thomas
Usk, Gwent

Surely these summits should be hosted in isolated, easily securable “neutral” zones. Perhaps Diego Garcia or Guantanamo Bay should be the permanent base  for such gatherings in future, because the people of south-east Wales certainly wouldn’t welcome another one.

John Moore


Free school meals for all

This week, for the first time, all infant school pupils should be able to sit down to enjoy a free, nutritious school meal. This achievement is the culmination of years of hard, patient work by charities, trade unions and others. It’s also a testament to the power of politicians, of all parties, to touch the lives of ordinary families and improve life-chances by tackling child poverty.

The case for universal free school meals is compelling and the evidence clear: all children benefit, but low-income children benefit the most. Universal free school meals will improve nutrition and raise educational attainment. They will put pounds into the pockets of parents struggling to maintain living standards. They will mean 200,000 poor children in working families, previously ineligible for help, are eligible for free school meals. They could also help to banish the stigma of free school meals.

The councils already doing this struggle to remember the painful process of getting schools and kitchens ready with only a few months’ notice. Instead they talk about watching kids eating together and learning together. Teachers report improved concentration in classrooms. Head teachers have seen an increase in pupil premium registrations. Parents talk about being able to move into work without worrying about their children losing free school meals.

We look forward to seeing the success of this change, and hope to see it being offered to all school children.

Alison Garnham
Chief Executive, Child Poverty Action Group

Celia Sands
Strategic Manager, 4 in 10

Dr Colin Michie
Chair, Royal College of Paediatrics Nutrition Committee

Christine Blower
General Secretary, NUT

David Holmes
Chief Executive, Family Action

Anne Longfield
Chief Executive, 4Children

Brian Strutton
National Secretary, GMB

Fiona Weir
Chief Executive, Gingerbread


Sleepwalking into war over Ukraine?

As the centenary of the First World War has been commemorated we have heard many times the phrase “sleepwalking into war”. All the signs are there that we are doing the same now – for Serbia read Ukraine – but the consequences could be even more cataclysmic.

In your pages over the last few days we have read “Nato to stockpile weapons on Russian border” and “Nato readies rapid-reaction spearhead force in response to Russian intervention – with sizeable British contingent”. We have also seen highly aggressive views from Ian Birrell and in particular from Richard Shirreff, writing in The Independent on Sunday.

The latter says: “It means a return to deterrence, both conventional and nuclear, with credible, capable armed forces and the will and means to communicate that capability so that Putin is left in no doubt that if he steps over the Nato line, he will get hammered”.

What on earth are we doing? Why has Nato expanded up to Russia’s borders contrary to treaty? The Baltic states and Poland are hardly the North Atlantic. What if the USSR had done the same in Mexico and Canada? Don’t we remember the Cuban missile crisis? Let’s not forget the mischief-making by the EU in Ukraine and the subsequent coup supported by the West against a democratically elected (albeit corrupt) government.

Surely it is now the responsibility of our leaders to wake up? Why aren’t Obama, Putin and Cameron meeting with the other leaders of the UN Security Council?

If they don’t wake up then their people have to make them. Blair was able to toss aside the views of 2 million people in the two great marches against the Iraq war. However, recently he has been convinced that the assembly of 17 million in Egypt justified the overthrow of another democratically elected government. If that’s what we have to do we need to start mobilising.

Alan Pearson
Guisborough, Cleveland


Civil rights for British jihadis

Barry Tighe  (Letter, 2 September) seems oblivious to the mortal danger that Isis and returning jihadis pose to this country. Protecting civil liberties is important, but not as important as protecting British citizens from terror. The freedoms that we cherish so dearly are of little use without security.

Stan Labovitch

I’m afraid I don’t share Mary Barnes’ concern that young men returning here from fighting with Islamic State in Syria are likely to be suffering post-traumatic stress and so will need our help (letter, 1 September). Better surely that they stay out there where they are among likeminded friends.

Patrick Devlin
Wembworthy, Devon

Referring to a UK jihadist who wants to return to the UK to wreak havoc here, David Cameron said he intends to take away the passport of anyone who has “pledged allegiance to another state”.

Will that also apply to British Jews returning from a stint of fighting with the Israeli armed forces? In order to participate in the “Mahal” programme, they also have to swear allegiance to a foreign state.

Elizabeth Morley
Trisant, Aberystwyth


Urgent need for a transport strategy

The Davies Report on airport plans sensibly removes the £60bn Thames Estuary Option in its preliminary findings but it is to be hoped that the final report will consider the future of UK aviation (particularly domestic flights) alongside major rail developments such as High Speed Rail and expansion plans for regional airports.

The UK urgently needs an integrated transport strategy to consider the future of all modes of transport both across the UK and internationally.

It is ironic that major multi-billion-pound infrastructure plans are afoot for airports in London when many shire counties cannot afford to foot the minuscule cost of local bus services to enable people to access employment and health facilities.

Dr John Disney
Nottingham Business School

The business of modern sport

David Stansfield suggests that “there is just too much sport in The Independent” (letter, 28 August). Given that present day sport has succeeded in entering the domain of big business rather than the  more laudable encouragement of physical exercise, might it not be more appropriate to move it (12 pages today) to the Business section (six pages today)?

Sidney Alford
Corsham, Wiltshire

The man who would be MP for Uxbridge

Just why is Boris Johnson the best Tory candidate for Uxbridge?

He left his Henley-on-Thames constituency for the London mayoralty, and now wants a parliamentary return for an ill-disguised bid for the Tory leadership and the premiership soon after the next general election.

Surely, Uxbridge Conservatives can field a competent and deserving local candidate?

Dominic Shelmerdine
London SW3



Women walk through Lalish, the spiritual home of the Yazidi religion, in the mountains near Dohuk in Iraqi Kurdistan Photo: Sam Tarling/ The Telegraph

6:58AM BST 02 Sep 2014


SIR – Iraq could become another Rwanda, as Archbishop John Sentamu warns (The Daily Telegraph, September 1), but a more generous asylum policy is only one step that must be taken.

It is true that some refugees will not be able to return to their homes and must be sheltered in neighbouring countries and further afield, but this must not result in precisely the sort of “cleansing” Isil wants.

An international force must be deployed under UN auspices to secure the future of Christians, Yazidis and others within Iraq. There must also be immediate negotiations, without preconditions, to end the civil war in Syria.

Iraq’s future depends on a comprehensive agreement between Sunni and Shia; protection for religious and ethnic minorities must be part of such an agreement. Without this, no one is safe.

Bishop Michael Nazir-Ali
London W1

Ashya and the police

SIR – How can the authorities marshal European police and similar forces to arrest a couple who are only seeking the best for their child and yet fail hundreds of abused children in Rotherham over a 16-year period?

Leonard Glynn

SIR – If Ashya King’s parents had lost faith in the NHS and felt taking him abroad might save him, they were entitled to act as they did. Surely the heavy-handed treatment they received was unnecessary.

Don Roberts
Birkenhead, Wirral

No stopping Putin

SIR – With a weak, vacillating, second-term president in the White House, only four Nato members funding defence in line within the agreed 2 per cent of GDP and an economically challenged and divided EU – who, or what is to stop President Putin getting what he wants in Ukraine?

Paul Harrison
Terling, Essex

SIR – It might interest some readers to know that the city of Donetsk, highlighted by the troubles in Ukraine, was established by a Welsh engineer named John Hughes in 1869. He was recruited by the Tsar to recreate Merthyr Tydfil in the Donbass and use local supplies of iron ore and coal to develop the steel industry.

Mainly a producer of railway lines, the city also specialised in munitions. By the time of the 1917 revolution the city, initially called Hughesovska, had become a centre for drunkenness and anarchy.

Keith Hollender
London NW6

Stunning misnomers

SIR – One of the most irritating words used by a certain type of estate agent to describe properties is stunning. They seldom, if ever, are.

Equally annoying are magnificent and superb, especially when applied to one-bedroom basement flats.

D A S Corbett
London SW3

SIR – Rona Fairhead, the likely new chairman of the BBC Trust has described the “enormity” of the job. Is she is unaware of the following meaning of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary: “The great or extreme scale, seriousness, or extent of something perceived as bad or morally wrong”?

Peter Howard
Kingsbridge, Devon

Cures for cancer

SIR – Your report quoted Professor Mel Greaves, one of our leading academics here at the Institute of Cancer Research (ICR) as arguing that many cancers could not be cured, and that rather than looking for cures we should be seeking for ways of controlling the disease. Cancers are genetically highly diverse, and do rapidly evolve and develop resistance, and that is why we have set up a Centre for Evolution and Cancer to find new and better ways of treating it.

But the institute is extremely optimistic about the potential not only to control cancer in the long term, but also to cure it. Advances in radiotherapy, surgery and drug treatment are already curing many patients with cancer, and here at the ICR we believe there is huge potential to harness our new knowledge of the biology of cancer to push up survival rates further.

Professor Greaves was speaking of the need for combination treatments, or therapies that attack the tumour environment rather than the cancer itself. His centre will be researching new, smarter approaches to cancer treatment. Some of these will aim to provide long-term control of cancers, but we will certainly not be giving up on the search for cures. At the ICR we discover more new cancer drugs than any other academic centre in the world.

Professor Paul Workman
Interim Chief Executive
Institute of Cancer Research
London SW7

Australia unfair

SIR – Chris Watson wonders whether he will be treated as a “second-class citizen” when he arrives at Heathrow in November. He might care to reflect that since 1975, as a UK citizen, I have required a visa to enter Australia but he, on the other hand, as an Australian citizen, does not require a visa to enter the UK. Who is the second-class citizen?

Ursula Starkie
Clanville, Hampshire

Beep off

SIR – The day-long beeping of reversing lorries on a construction site some distance from our home is driving us to distraction. Surely it is not beyond the wit of man to devise a sound that warns those in the immediate vicinity of potential danger, while giving those up to a quarter of a mile away peace and quiet.

Doff Hughes
Wickham Market, Suffolk

The curious incident of the bird in the night-time

SIR – It is highly unlikely that the sabotage to Margaret Mackley’s shallots would have been carried out by blackbirds, as suggested by Barbara and Nick Shimmin; their diet consists mainly of worms, other invertebrates and fruit.

Last year I had similar problems with my laurentias, but I spotted the culprit early one morning; it was a stoat. I hope the clever creature did not suffer indigestion.

David Milford
Shaugh Prior, Devon

SIR – The Shimmins describe blackbirds as “nasty, malevolent creatures” and “avian thugs”. Have they never listened to their most beautiful song?

A family of four blackbirds who used to come to our back door for food have now been driven away by a sparrowhawk.

Now that is a real avian thug.

Robert Kemp
Goonhavern, Cornwall

SIR – Blackbirds are always welcome on my allotment – they sing so well.

Geoffrey White
Wellow, Somerset

SIR – It would be comical, if not absurd, for the Shimmins to endow blackbirds with human attributes far beyond their capabilities. If people don’t want birds eating their crops they shouldn’t leave them out to be eaten.

Adrian Cooper
Princes Risborough, Buckinghamshire

SIR – Further to the mystery of the missing shallot tops, recently we have had the mysterious appearance of half-eaten green tomatoes on our lawn. None of our neighbours are growing them.

They appear overnight in different areas of the garden. What strange creature only enjoys half a tomato?

Anne Stone
Maidstone, Kent

Best foot forward: one of the first pedal bicycles, invented by Kirkpatrick MacMillan c. 1846 Photo:

6:59AM BST 02 Sep 2014


SIR – Contrary to Andrew Critchlow’s claims, the original two-wheeled bicycles, from the dandy horses onward, were not “working class”. These machines were very expensive and it took several years for bikes to become cheaper to manufacture.

By the 1980s, an ordinary family could have afforded a Reynolds 531 on a month’s wages, but higher-end bicycles remained out of reach, reserved instead for the very rich or the professional athlete.

Today I can walk into any of the main cycling outlets and pick up a bike for around £250, which is hardly expensive.

Mr Critchlow rightly highlights the influence of sport on modern cycling, but there is still more to the bike than sport; it’s an Everyman that can be commuter, shopper and hill sprinter all in one.

D J Cook

Currency: Alex Salmond has said an independent Scotland should enter a currency union with the rest of the UK Photo: PA

7:00AM BST 02 Sep 2014


SIR – Alex Salmond says that the Bank of England was set up by the United Kingdom as a whole and for the UK as a whole, including the part that he would like to become independent. He therefore deduces that in the event of a Yes vote, the Bank of England should continue to be a shared resource.

He also says that the exploitation of North Sea oil, which was set up by the UK as a whole and for the UK as a whole, including the part that he would like to become independent. He deduces that in the event of a Yes vote, North Sea oil should be wholly a Scottish resource.

Can anyone spot a flaw in his logic?

Peter Brett

SIR – Can Mr Salmond really be saying that an independent Scotland would be able to re-enter the EU, and quickly, while keeping the pound?

Leslie Singleton
Pleshey, Essex

SIR – Mr Salmond wants an independent Scotland to enter a currency union with the rest of the UK. This does not make sense.

Why go to all the effort of fighting for an independent Scotland, only to surrender financial independence as the junior partner in a currency union? Just look at how Greece is suffering with the euro.

However, Mr Salmond has also said that if Scotland does not secure currency union, it will walk away from its share of the national debt. Is this his game plan? For Scotland to have its own currency but without its share of the national debt?

Peter White
Fleet, Hampshire

SIR – Presumably, Royal Mail will be charging the European rate for letters to an independent Scotland?

Malcolm Calvert
Wilmslow, Cheshire

SIR – Scotland has some very fine regiments but no independent navy or air force. Does Mr Salmond expect the defence of Scotland to carry on as usual in the event of a “Yes” vote?

John Lewis
Hardwicke, Gloucestershire

SIR – May I assume that, should Scotland vote for independence, all Scottish employees of the Ministry of Defence, GCHQ, Special Branch, the security services, and other such organisations, will have their contracts terminated?

It would, of course, be highly dangerous to employ foreigners in such sensitive positions.

John Hembry
Brillac, Charente, France

SIR – Alex Salmond compares an independent Scotland to Norway and Denmark. Does he realise how much a bottle of whisky costs in Oslo or Copenhagen? Oh, and VAT is 25 per cent.

Michael Herring
Twickenham, Middlesex

Irish Times:

Sir, – The letter by Jimmy Carter to the Taoiseach and members of the Oireachtas urging the Government to criminalise the purchaser of sexual services but not the seller is an almost unprecedented intervention in the internal affairs of another country (“Former US president urges Ireland to criminalise the buyers of sex”, September 2nd). The letter says that Ireland should take a lead which would inspire others to follow.

It is highly significant that the letter was written at the prompting of the Immigrant Council of Ireland, which has been relentless in driving the campaign. Mr Carter is known for his book on violence against women globally but hardly for his knowledge of prostitution in Ireland.

The intervention of Mr Carter, though well motivated, is ill judged. Ireland should be allowed to make decisions on its own laws without outside interference, which is all too common today.

The argument has been repeatedly made that trafficking for sexual purposes and prostitution are two separate things. This country has stringent laws on trafficking and the authorities have reported a decline in numbers of trafficked persons for all purposes from 2010 through to 2012. The further claim that the so-called Swedish model would “prove to be an extremely effective deterrent” is not supported by the evidence.

Indeed two Nordic countries have rejected the Swedish model after extensive investigation: Denmark in November 2012 and Finland earlier this year. According to the Danish report, “a criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services will most likely not have any actual effects on the reduction of prostitution in Denmark because a ban on the purchase of such services will be extremely difficult for the police to enforce”.

It says further “that the Swedish model may even have negative consequences for the women providing the services due to potential poorer financial conditions for these women and increased stigmatisation”.

Moreover the PSNI in a report to the Stormont Assembly questioned its value also: “Whilst there are many advocates of the Swedish model in the criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services, there is conflicting information available. Recent PSNI experience and investigations in Sweden have highlighted concern that significant levels of trafficking and prostitution still exist despite the introduction of legislation to criminalise the purchase of sexual services”.

It states baldly, “The majority of prostitution within Northern Ireland is through independent prostitutes who are not trafficked or controlled by organised crime groups”.

The Assembly’s justice committee that produced the 2013 report can hardly be said to have been impartial – seven of its 15 members had declared in favour of the Swedish model at the outset of the hearings.

Ultimately this is a debate about freedom – the freedom of consenting adults to make decisions about their private lives, however unpalatable these decisions may be to ideologically driven groups such as the Immigrant Council of Ireland. – Yours, etc,




Co Kildare.

Sir, – Journalists such as Lara Marlowe (“Gaza residents pick up the pieces after 50 days of bombing and destruction”, Front Page, September 2nd) should be commended.

Her article on the aftermath of the 50-day bombing campaign of Gaza is a reminder of the mindless destruction by the Israeli Defence Forces that was carried out this summer.

It is fair to say that people are happy that it is over for the sake of the people of Gaza, but also happy that it is not dominating the news.

People often got weary of the media coverage of the summer from Gaza, and the pictures coming out of there were hard on the psyche of any human being.

I credit Ms Marlowe for writing and The Irish Times for publishing this article and putting it on the front page. I believe articles like this need to be highlighted and published more.

It is a description of the harsh reality of what is left behind after the bombing stops and the media hype quells. – Yours, etc,


Spanish Parade,


Sir, – With its latest announcement of settlement expansion in the West Bank, Israel has again demonstrated that any apparently positive statements it makes regarding a two-state solution are disingenuous. The plan for “Eretz Israel” continues apace, although one would have difficulty seeing any reference to such a strategy in the western media. Despite not succeeding in getting rid of Hamas from the Gaza Strip, it may suit Israel to continue to have an isolated Hamas regime in Gaza which it can treat as a pariah and use as leverage for continued intransigence on peace talks.

The recent moves to a united Palestinian administration, and the attempts by Mahmoud Abbas to have the Palestinian situation dealt with by the International Criminal Court or the UN, may help bring Hamas to the negotiating table and possible dealings with a US administration. No doubt Israel will continue to undermine any attempts at a unified Palestinian cause, the ensuing delays allowing it to continue to erode physically the foundations for a viable Palestinian state.

Other current examples of annexation, such as those in Ukraine, Iraq and Syria, have brought forth US economic sanctions and air strikes, but it seems only mild rebukes are available when Israel carries out an illegal land grab following its recent collective punishment in Gaza. Thus any faith the Palestinians have in western sincerity for their cause is eroded and the message of extremism made more palatable to disillusioned Palestinian youth. All of which ultimately serve to undermine the future security of the Israeli state, and so the cycle of violence continues. – Yours, etc,


Linden Avenue,

Blackrock, Cork.

Sir, – A recent survey of GP trainees by the Irish College of General Practitioners shows that only a quarter definitely plan to stay in Ireland, mainly due to an uncertain future for GPs here. This must be worrying for a Government that is promising free GP care to all.

The ones to suffer the most will be the elderly, those with chronic illness and the terminally ill as they will lose the continuous, personalised GP care that benefits them the most. As in the hospitals, the HSE will be left trying to employ a succession of locum doctors at even greater cost to the exchequer. A no-win situation. – Yours, etc,


Loughboy Medical Centre,


Sir, – John Collins (September 2nd) suggests that junior doctors, as “high earning-power graduates”, should give back years of service to the State in return for the cost of their training. Mr Collins, like many others, may not be aware that up to one-third of current medical graduates did the four-year graduate entry medicine course, fees for which can be €16,000 a year and have left some, like me, over €100,000 in debt.

This scheme was set up following the Fottrell report’s prediction of a worrying shortage of Irish doctors. Sadly, there is no tax relief on our repayments for these educational loans, which most of us will be paying back for the next decade. The result is that many of us are forced to go abroad, where pay is better, so that we do not default on our loans. – Yours, etc,


Newtown Hill,

Tramore, Co Waterford.

Sir, – I read with interest the recent letters regarding the Barrow towpath. I have walked the section from Graiguenamanagh to St Mullins countless times and, along with many others, never tire of the beautiful landscape. Many of those against the upgrading of the towpath have written and spoken of the beauty and tranquillity afforded by the walk. I would ask them therefore to show an openness of mind and a generosity of heart in helping to accommodate the many people who do not find access to the walk so readily, including cyclists and non-ambulant people.

Those against the project contend they are protecting nature and local wildlife. I would point out that the original construction of the towpath would have involved removal of trees and hedges. No lasting damage was done and look at the legacy left for us to enjoy today.

I recommend completion of the project proposed by Waterways Ireland and trust Nature to continue to work her magic. – Yours, etc,


Sion Road,


Sir, –- The debate on the Barrow Towpath is timely. As an ever-hopeful cyclist, I fully agree with the sentiment regarding a preferred surface such as compacted grit.

I suggest this type of surface, known in France as stabilised earth, would suit walkers, anglers, artists and cyclists alike without the risk of ruining this peaceful amenity. A tar and chip surface, with all its expensive investment in heavier foundation requirements, etc, should not be entertained – the effect of such development would have a seriously negative impact on the towpath’s existing character.

Canal and river towpaths should be developed in a highly sensitive manner to retain their magnificent rural qualities, blissfully separated from the obnoxious noisy highways which are, let’s be honest, not to be recommended for extended use by walkers or cyclists.

Following the splendid restoration of the Inland Waterways, I believe we need to encourage far greater use of these assets for the benefit of waterside communities. What could be more sustainable than attracting zero-emission cycling tourism and leisure? And I have no wish to pedal roughshod over a walker’s paradise! Without too much bureaucracy, a code of conduct by towpath users needs to be established.

The Grand and Royal Canal towpaths are already being advanced as future Greenways. We must earnestly hope the planners will move with caution to ensure all users may continue to enjoy this priceless network of engineering heritage in all its splendour. And no more tar, please! – Yours, etc,




Co Carlow.

Sir, – Recent correspondence concerning towpaths refers exclusively to their use by walkers and cyclists. Let us not forget that the reason towpaths were put in place on the banks of rivers and canals was to accommodate the horses towing the vessels. Could I suggest that equestrians be also allowed to use them? – Yours, etc,




Co Limerick.

Sir, – Criticism of the selection by Sinn Féin of Cathal King as their candidate for the Dublin South West byelection by Women for Election and the National Women’s Council of Ireland goes too far (“Sinn Féin criticised for choosing male byelection candidate”, September 1st).

The primary consideration of an organisation or an ad hoc grouping in picking a candidate for an election is simple – is this the best person to get them a seat in the election and do the best job if elected?

To suggest, solely on the grounds of his gender, that Mr King has done something wrong by offering himself to his party as a candidate, or that the party in turn was wrong, is to go against the very equality that organisations such as the the National Women’s Council of Ireland have built their reputations on. In treating people equally, considerations of gender, age, sexual orientation or whatever else should not be factors in making the right choice for a role. Selecting or not selecting people for positions on the basis of their gender is wrong and in many other areas of life it’s illegal.– Yours, etc,


College Gate,

Townsend Street,

Dublin 2.

Sir, – It’s pretty rich of Seamus McKenna (September 2nd) to ask for people to acquire “some acquaintance with mathematical principles”. Although the human population is obviously still increasing, what has declined (and probably permanently) is the rate of growth. The population of the world reached seven billion in 2011, six billion 13 years earlier, and five billion 12 years before that again. In other words, the most recent billion was reached more slowly than the previous billion. And this will continue.

If Mr McKenna survives to the year 2050, he could well see world population actually decline and the policy debate will be exactly how generous states will have to be, in terms of maternal and paternal leave, to encourage couples to have babies. – Yours, etc,


Evergreen Road, Cork.

Sir, – There must be an optimum population that balances quality of life with quantity of people.

The number for this optimum population will be a matter of opinion, depending on what people regard as a good quality of life. Broadly speaking, if we want everybody on Earth to live as we do in the “West” (a child born in Europe today is set to use around 30 times the amount of energy over a lifetime than a child born in Africa), then at seven billion people, we are already past the carrying capacity of the planet, which is the Thomas Malthus scenario.

At the other extreme, if we could all be satisfied with an acre or two of land, exist as subsistence farmers and travel by horse, then the planet could support over 30 billion people, and still leave room for a few wild plants and animals.

What is certain is the Earth isn’t getting any bigger but our population and, more importantly, our energy use are growing. – Yours, etc,


Ocean Point,

Courtown, Co Wexford.

Sir, – Una Mullally (“Workplace has become terrain of insecurity and exhaustion”, Opinion & Analysis, September 1st) sheds light on the travesty that is the culture of under-employment and precarious employment in Ireland, and the experience of many thousands of people who eke out an existence on short-term and atypical contracts, unable to make medium or long-term plans given the flexible and insecure nature of their employment status. Such contracts reduce employees to an expense and a sort of commodity to be consumed by employers, rather than as a resource to be cultivated and treated with dignity.

However, your columnist misses the point by identifying the “inflated salaries of those in the public service of past times and the lack of accountability that typified many of our sectors” as a source of the employment problem. We will not create a fairer society by assigning blame to a sector made up of hundreds of thousands of public servants, the vast majority of whom do not receive “inflated salaries” by any standard. – Yours, etc,


European Trade Union

Institute Visiting


Pembroke College,

University of Cambridge.

Sir, – Ray Carey makes a fair and valid point (August 30th) when he notes the double standards that prevail at Catholic funerals.

When a close relation of mine died two years ago, I was forbidden by a particular curate in a country parish to deliver a short and prepared script about her life and was told in no uncertain terms that he would not be allowed to permit me to read this out after communion.

However, a prayer at the end of the eulogy was considered acceptable, and I was only allowed to read out the prayer and nothing else.

Every time I see a big showy public funeral, it reopens the hurt of this refusal, and reminds me not only of the refusal itself, but of the different standards that apply to celebrities and public figures.

Death is supposed to be the great leveller for us all, but not it would seem at Catholic funerals; so this does not exactly show a good example or leadership, so either the rules should apply to all, or else they should be scrapped. – Yours, etc,


Palmerston Grove,


Dublin 6.

Sir, – I urge your readers to break with the past, drop British spelling and join the future with American spelling. – Yours, etc,


Sunny Court,

Walnut Creek,


Sir, – What an excellent piece by Fionnuala Fallon (“Forever greens”, Magazine, August 30th) on kale, that unjustly neglected vegetable. Steamed, braised or raw, it’s delicious. – Yours, etc,


Stamer Street,

Dublin 8.

Sir, – Welcome back, Michael Harding. Tuesdays just haven’t been the same without you.– Yours, etc,


Mountcastle Drive,

Edinburgh, Scotland.

Irish Independent:

The letter by former US President Jimmy Carter to the Taoiseach and members of the Oireachtas urging the Government to criminalise the purchaser of sexual services but not the seller is an almost unprecedented intervention in the internal affairs of another country.

It says that Ireland should take a lead, which would inspire others to follow. It is highly significant that the letter was written at the prompting of the Immigrant Council, which has been relentless in driving the campaign.

The intervention of Mr Carter, though well motivated, is ill-judged. Ireland should be allowed to make decisions on its own laws without outside interference, which is all too common today.

The argument has been repeatedly made that trafficking for sexual purposes and prostitution are two separate things. This country has stringent laws on trafficking and the authorities have reported a decline in numbers of trafficked persons for all purposes from 2010 through to 2012.

The further claim that the so-called Swedish Model would “prove to be an extremely effective deterrent” is not supported by the evidence. Indeed, two Nordic countries have rejected the Swedish Model after extensive investigation: Denmark in November 2012 and Finland earlier this year. According to the Danish report, “a criminalisation of the purchase of sexual services will most likely not have any actual effects on the reduction of prostitution in Denmark because a ban on the purchase of such services will be extremely difficult for the police to enforce.”

Moreover, the PSNI, in a report to the Stormont Assembly, questioned its value also: “Recent PSNI experience and investigations in Sweden have highlighted concern that significant levels of trafficking and prostitution still exist despite the introduction of legislation to criminalise the purchase of sexual services”. It states baldly, “The majority of prostitution within Northern Ireland is through independent prostitutes who are not trafficked or controlled by organised crime groups”.

Ultimately, this is a debate about freedom: the freedom of consenting adults to make decisions about their private lives.

David Walsh, Maynooth, Co Kildare

David and Goliath at Croke Park

In light of Donegal’s progress to not one but two All-Ireland Football Finals this September, it is time that the notion of dividing the county into two is given active consideration to give the rest of us a chance.

Congratulation Donegal, you were the best team on the day and no complaints, but you do get my point…

Brendan O’Murchu, (Hurting Dublin Supporter), Blackrock,Co Dublin

It’s hard to put into words what happened in Croke Park on Sunday, so I will leave it to Jim McGuinness’s lovely sister, Noreen, who sent the following text to my wife and I, on her way home after the match: “It was a day that dreams are made of. A proud Donegal supporter on the way home”.

Well, to me, that just said it all, like all the many proud Donegal supporters, a very proud sister, who was so proud of her wonderful brother, who along with his wonderful team, was without doubt “the David that slew Goliath” against all the odds.


Brian McDevitt, Glenties, Co Donegal


Israeli action is not a land grab

I wish to take issue with the article by Robert Fisk regarding Israel’s “land grab” (Irish Independent, September 2). Really? Firstly, it’s a housing project in Judea and Samaria, not a settlement in the West Bank.

Secondly, it is not Palestinian land. There is no such thing until there is a Palestine. There is no Palestine because the Arab League doesn’t want one. All the Arabs want is to rid the neighbourhood of the infidel state of Israel. The Palestinian Arabs, both Hamas and Fatah, have no independent capacity to act, nor do they want to live in peace alongside the Jewish state.

If they wanted a new Arab state next to Israel, they could have had it in 1948, 1967, 1973, and when former US President Bill Clinton, and former Israeli leaders Yitzhak Rabin and Ehud Olmert made proposals, but they don’t want it. They are accustomed to the role of UN welfare bums.

So stop gnashing your teeth over the poor so-called Palestinians. If they wanted a country, they’d sign a peace treaty with Israel and set up internationally recognised borders within which they could build as they wished, and so could the Israelis, and they would have to forgo the dream of destroying Israel.

By the way, this new plot of land Israel is planning for was considered by the Bush administration as an area Israel would keep in a peace deal. US President Barack Obama knows this.

Len Bennett, Montreal, Canada


Prayers in state schools

Why are state schools still saying prayers at the beginning of school each day?

Surely in a secular society this type of thing should be prohibited, especially when one considers the huge ethnic changes in population over the last 20 years?

Paul Doran, Clondalkin, Dublin 22


Media speculation in Ashya case

Whatever the motivation of the parents and family of young Ashya King to bring him abroad for treatment of his condition, the endless speculation in the media does little to help this desperately ill child, who cannot speak for himself.

Over the coming days, no doubt, there will be many who will come forward with opinions on the family, their beliefs, their lifestyle, the kind of cat they owned and what they had for breakfast. There will be accusations followed by sympathy and then accusations again.

Focus needs to be on the child. Whether there is a specialist somewhere in Europe who will come forward with the treatment he needs, or whatever the outcome may be, Ashya is the most important person here. May he live to tell the tale.

Marguerite Doyle, Santry, Dublin

Scourge of Ebola is a global issue

Your report on the dreadful Ebola outbreak is informative for several reasons. First, the outbreak is the world’s foremost health problem at the current juncture.

As the virus continues to ravage some parts of West Africa, it is important to remember that the virus first appeared in 1976 in Sudan and the Democratic Republic of Congo, in a village near the Ebola River, from which the disease derives its name. But what makes the recent outbreak so serious and so severe is not only its geographical distribution over huge swathes of land which have been racked by civil war, and overwhelmed by disease, despair, destitution, overpopulation and mounting foreign debt, but also the severe shortages of healthcare facilities, which are either severely disrupted or largely destroyed.

Most healthcare facilities there lack running water, electricity and essential equipment, and healthcare workers with adequate protective equipment who are trained in infection control are in short supply.

Burial ceremonies where mourners come in contact with the deceased’s body have been recognised as one of the main routes of virus transmission.

The disease is threatening to become a humanitarian crisis of international proportions if we do nothing to stop its transmission.

Hence the need for the emphasis on international health cooperation, the transference of modern technologies and top expertise and the categorical commitment of global political and medical authorities, engaging community participation, to deal with the scourge of the disease.

Dr Munjed Farid Al Qutob, London, NW2

Irish Independent


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