Off to with Mary to the clinic not too bad thought it would be more crowded. Back in five weeks.


Billie Whitelaw – obituary

Billie Whitelaw was an actress and muse of the surrealist playwright Samuel Beckett who terrified as the hellish nanny in ‘The Omen’

 'Knock on any Door: The Ballad of Queenie Swann'   TV Billie Whitelaw as Queenie Swann

Billie Whitelaw as Queenie Swann in ITV drama The Ballad of Queenie Swann  Photo: ITV/REX

Billie Whitelaw, who has died aged 82, was one of the most intelligent and versatile actresses of her generation. She came to prominence in the post-war fashion for social realism, though she made her name in the surrealistic drama of Samuel Beckett, for whom she was the “perfect actress”. The role that propelled her to worldwide fame, however, was that of Mrs Baylock, the sinister nanny and protectress of the devil-child Damien in the blockbuster horror film The Omen (1976).

If she never reached the front rank of British cinema, her forthright personality and north country vitality made their mark alongside Albert Finney in such films as Charlie Bubbles and Gumshoe. In the 1950s and 1960s her face became fondly familiar in television drama – she was named actress of the year in 1961 and 1972.

On the stage, her acting achieved lasting status in the works of Beckett. The playwright was so deeply affected by her voice as the Second Woman in Play (Old Vic, 1964) that he resolved to write a piece for her: the 17-minute monologue Not I (Royal Court, 1973 and 1975).

When she had played that twice to immense acclaim he wrote another, Footfalls. Thus she came to be considered as the leading exponent of Beckett’s “minimalist” dramas; and under his supervision went on to play Winnie, the woman buried in sand, in Happy Days (Royal Court, 1979) and was appointed in 1993 Annenberg/Beckett Fellow at Reading University.

Not I was probably Billie Whitelaw’s most celebrated performance, because on an otherwise blacked-out stage only her mouth was visible. She compared the acting experience to “falling backwards into hell”.

When she first saw the script – the fragmented, breathless, babbling discourse of a crazed old Irish crone recalling her life and assorted experiences in the silent presence of a shadowy, cowled, father-confessor figure – the actress told the author: “You’ve finally done it. You’ve written the unlearnable and you’ve written the unplayable.” Later she asked Beckett whether the character – known as Mouth in the cast list – was meant to be dead or alive. He replied: “Let’s just say you’re not quite there.”

An intellectually unpretentious Yorkshirewoman who prided herself on plainness of speech, Billie Whitelaw confessed herself “very embarrassed” whenever she read in print that Samuel Beckett claimed to have had her voice in mind while writing this or that passage. His death, in 1989, affected her so acutely that she referred to it as “an amputation”. Though she would never perform his plays again, she kept his memory alive with a series of one-woman lecture tours to various American colleges – even if the stage fright that had often threatened to cripple her acting career never left her.

“I’ve never really felt like a proper actress,” she once told an interviewer. “I still feel like that six-year-old girl who was frightened when the bombs were raining down out of the sky in Coventry.” She was always happiest at her cottage in Suffolk, chosen specifically for its remoteness from London life.

WIth Gregory Peck as Robert Thorn in The Omen (REX)

Billie Honor Whitelaw was born in Coventry on June 6 1932 and educated at Thornton Grammar School, Bradford, after her family moved north to escape the German bombs. Her father, Perceval, died of lung cancer when she was 10 and Billie’s mother, Frances, encouraged the diffident child to join a drama group as a way of building her confidence and alleviating a nervous stutter.

After a stint as an assistant stage manager in repertory, where she hoped that one day she might become “a song and dance person”, she made her first acting appearance in Pink String and Sealing Wax (Prince’s, Bradford, 1950) and her London debut as Victoire in Feydeau’s Hotel Paradiso (Winter Garden, 1954), repeating the role at Oxford Playhouse two seasons later.

With Joan Littlewood’s Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, Billie came to critical attention as Mag Keenan, the Roman Catholic heroine of Alun Owen’s north country working-class comedy Progress to the Park, which transferred to the West End (Saville, 1961). After heading the Keith Waterhouse-Willis Hall revue England Our England (Princess Theatre, now Shaftesbury), she played Sara in Eugene O’Neill’s A Touch of the Poet, which toured to the Venice and Dublin theatre festivals in 1962.

Joining Laurence Olivier’s newly established National Theatre Company at the Old Vic in 1963, she acted the Second Woman in Beckett’s Play; Franceschina in the Jacobean drama The Dutch Courtesan at the Chichester festival, where she also played Desdemona to Olivier’s Othello; and at the Old Vic in 1965 she played Maggie to Michael Redgrave’s Hobson in Hobson’s Choice.

When the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Aldwych production of David Mercer’s After Haggerty moved into the West End (Criterion, 1971), Billie Whitelaw took over the role of Claire. Two years later Beckett wrote Not I for her.

As Mouth in ‘Not I’

After repeating the role of Mouth at the Royal Court two years later, she played the amiable, easy-going provincial newspaper librarian in Michael Frayn’s comedy Alphabetical Order (Hampstead and Mayfair) before interpreting another of Beckett’s anguished characters, May, again written for her, in Footfalls (Royal Court, 1976), spectrally communing with the ghost of her mother. Following a spell as the gin-soaked Moll in Simon Gray’s Molly (Comedy), a reworking of the Alma Rattenbury murder case of the 1930s, she returned to the Royal Court in 1979 as Winnie in a revival of Beckett’s Happy Days, with her waist – and, in the second half, her whole body – immersed in sand.

In John Barton’s adaptation for the RSC of The Greeks (Aldwych, 1980), Whitelaw played Andromache, Athena and the Chorus Woman; then it was back to Beckett in two short plays, Rockaby and Enough at the National Theatre (Cottesloe, 1982). The following year she was acclaimed for her role in Christopher Hampton’s Tales from Hollywood (Olivier, 1983).

Away from the theatre, she was best remembered for her role in Alfred Hitchcock’s penultimate feature film Frenzy (1972), and for her chilling performance in The Omen as Mrs Baylock, described by one critic as “hell’s version of Nurse Ratched”. The latter role won her an Evening Standard Award for Best Actress.

She brought the same sense of looming menace to the criminal matriarch Violet, serving biscuits and tea to violent gang members in Peter Medak’s acclaimed film The Krays.

With twins Gary and Martin Kemp in ‘The Krays’ (REX)

Though rarely out of work, Billie Whitelaw was generally better served on the smaller screen than by cinema, beginning as Martha the maid in an adaptation of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden in 1952 and continuing in numerous mini-series and made-for-television films into the 21st century.

Her various performances in The Sextet (1972), an anthology of eight plays run across two months on the BBC and co-starring Denis Waterman, were recognised with a Bafta award for Best Actress. She was Josephine to Ian Holm’s Napoleon in Napoleon and Love (1974), and collaborated with her husband, the screenwriter Robert Muller, on the horror series Supernatural (1977), as the beautiful and enigmatic Countess Ilona.

In 2007 she made a late reappearance in cinemas with a gloriously eccentric performance as Joyce Cooper, the hotel owner with a dark double life (and a submachine gun) in Simon Pegg’s police drama spoof Hot Fuzz.

Yet the bulk of Billie Whitelaw’s time in later years was spent with family and in charitable endeavours. In spare moments she would tend her garden in Suffolk, often digging with her bare hands. “I’m not really interested in acting any more”, she confessed. “I always thought it was a bit of a flibbertigibbety occupation.”

She was appointed CBE in 1991.

Billie Whitelaw married, first, the actor Peter Vaughan; the marriage was dissolved in 1966, and she married, secondly, Robert Muller, who died in 1998; their son survives her.

Billie Whitelaw, born June 6 1932, died December 21 2014


Kim Jong-un inspects a submarine. Photograph: Kns/AFP/Getty Images
Kim Jong-un inspects a submarine. Photograph: Kns/AFP/Getty Images

Satire is a weapon to undermine power; there is no such thing as an innocent comedy depicting revolution in a real-life authoritarian state (US may put North Korea back on state terror list after Sony ‘cybervandalism’, 22 December). No surprise Sony hasn’t put out anything similar about China or Russia. Wrong to pull the film, yes; but crass to have made it in the first place.
Mark Lewinski
Swaffham Prior, Cambridgeshire

• Surely a call to assassinate a living head of state is tantamount to conspiracy to murder? If Hilary Mantel’s fictional story about the assassination of an already dead head of state caused such a controversy, surely calling for the assassination of Kim Jong-un is a much more egregious undertaking. Marina Hyde (Sony and the movie pitch we thought we’d never hear, 20 December) makes no mention of the supposedly leaked emails showing that Sony Entertainment chief executive Michael Lynton spoke with US department of state officials and North Korea specialist Bruce Bennett from the Rand Corporation to seek opinions on the film and potential threats posed by North Korea.

It has been claimed that several of these emails reveal that at least two US government officials gave a rough cut of the film their blessing. It has been suggested that the US thinks such a film could indeed inspire North Koreans to rise up against their leader. True or not, this surely needs examination?

Surely the call by George Clooney et al to withstand “terror” threats against the film in the name of artistic freedom, while correct in principle, are picking on an inappropriate target as far as attempted artistic censorship is concerned. The fundamentalist Christian lobby in the US would be a far more appropriate one.
John Green

• When Sasha Baron Cohen released Borat in 2006, he didn’t have to worry about reprisals from Kazakhstan because it was the attitudes of the citizens of the US that were mocked – and enough of them were prepared to laugh at themselves to make it a success. But how many bone-headed money-obsessed moguls did it take to decide The Interview was a good idea? How could Sony, whose company HQ is in Tokyo, think it was a good idea to release a limp comedy poking fun at an embattled and notoriously prickly dictatorship which has nuclear devices and ballistic missiles and is only about 1,000 kilometres away?
John Wallace

• Should I be  amused or surprised at President Barack Obama’s lack of knowledge of the American film industry’s history (Obama’s threat to North Korea over Sony hack, 20 December)? In the 1930s, to continue doing business in Germany after Hitler’s accession to power, Hollywood studios agreed not to make films that attacked the Nazis or condemned Germany’s persecution of Jews. This bargain involved the heads of every major Hollywood studio. The studios dealt directly with the German government’s representatives and, in particular, the German consul in Los Angeles. They would change or cancel movies according to his wishes. The whole story unravels in a remarkable book, The Collaboration, by Ben Urwand, published by Harvard University Press (Review, 19 October 2013).
Stanley Clingman

• On the same day your editorial points the finger at North Korea for using hack attacks to threaten the US’s freedom of expression you report that South Korea has outlawed the opposition party UPP because of its north-south reunification stance (Report, 20 December). The hack attack assertion emanates from flimsy US evidence. And the crackdown on the South Korean opposition is authenticated by Amnesty International’s statement of serious concern over freedom of expression and association.
Brian Strauss

• We are not allowed to laugh at people for their religious beliefs or for being homosexual and must avoid misplaced humour proving us racist. Even if you do not want to include far eastern dictators in this list, it is just plain foolish to make fun of powerful people whose reactions you cannot predict.
Margaret Kettlewell

•Some years ago (2005) Sony illegally introduced copy protection software into its digital media products without the knowledge of its unsuspecting customers. Karma?
Michael Pravica
New York

• From now on we can assume that many governments can access any information they choose. What this means for business, diplomacy and our security remains to be seen.
Gerald Wells
Congleton, Cheshire

Shaker Aamer protest
A recent protest calling for Shaker Aamer’s release. Photograph: Richard Norton-Taylor for the Guardian

Following the US Senate’s shocking report into the torture of prisoners by US staff, including medical personnel, we have urgently set up an all-party group for the immediate return of Shaker Aamer to his British wife and four children in London. Mr Aamer, an aid worker, was sold to the Americans 13 years ago in Afghanistan, where he was living with his family.

He was cleared for release in 2007 and again in 2009 by the most senior levels of US intelligence and military. Our prime minister has asked for his return to the UK. Successive foreign secretaries have assured his family and lawyers that they are doing everything to get him back. It is absolutely unacceptable that an innocent man who has suffered many of the forms of torture now made public by the Senate can continue to be held in Guantánamo Bay.

Our group has MPs from eight political parties, representing a broad section of UK public opinion, calling for Mr Aamer’s immediate release from a place where his torture continues. The group is committed to active engagement with the US authorities for Mr Aamer’s return home. His continued detention shames our society.
John McDonnell MP chair of the Shaker Aamer parliamentary group, Victoria Brittain, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Peter Bottomley MP, Norman Baker MP, Caroline Lucas MP, Katy Clark MP, Ann Clwyd MP, Elfyn Llwyd MP, Andrew Mitchell MP, Joan Ruddock MP, George Galloway MP, Mark Lazarowicz MP, Andrew Slaughter MP, Sir Bob Russell MP, Naomi Long MP, Joan Walley MP, Martin Caton MP, Nick Harvey MP, John Leech MP, Mark Durkan MP, Alistair Burt MP, Sir John Randall MP, Yasmin Qureshi MP, Gerald Kaufman MP, Diane Abbott MP, Sarah Teather MP, David Ward MP, Hywel Williams MP, John Hemming MP, Mike Wood MP, Roger Godsiff MP, Julian Huppert MP, Michael Connarty MP, Roger Godsiff MP, Andew Dismore London Assembly member, Gavin Shuker MP, Mike Weir MP, Simon Wright MP

A coal-fired power station: since 1992 annual emissions of carbon dioxide have increased by 60%. Pho
A coal-fired power station: since 1992 annual emissions of carbon dioxide have increased by 60%. Photograph: John Giles/PA

It is worth recalling that world leaders all agreed to prevent dangerous anthropogenic climate change as long ago as 1992 at the Earth summit in Rio (Poorer countries demand more from rich on climate change, 13 December). Anything agreed in Paris next year will not be implemented until 2020 at the earliest, and will probably be voluntary. There will be no independent monitoring, so countries can continue to emit carbon while their leaders pay lip service to the need to tackle global warming. Since 1992, annual emissions of carbon dioxide have increased by 60% globally, and the rate is accelerating.
Dr Robin Russell-Jones
Stoke Poges, Buckinghamshire

It will be “nose-peg time again” (Letters, 12 December) here in Yorkshire if Labour forms a government with a weak response to the risks of fracking. Locals suffered the stench of escaping gas before Rathlin closed down its shale-gas exploration well at West Newton recently. We have just found out there was also a fire in the well. Despite strong opposition to fracking from local Labour and Green activists, national Labour policy continues to support regulation rather than an outright ban.
Val and Jon Mager
Beverley, Yorkshire

A propos the Belo Monte project in Brazil (Report, 16 December), it must be noted that none of the indigenous territories in the Belo Monte influence area will be flooded as a result of the project, nor will the indigenous population have to be resettled. The Belo Monte project is a result of a careful and thorough environmental impact assessment, which involved comprehensive open consultations with local communities and indigenous peoples.
Roberto Jaguaribe
Ambassador of Brazil to the UK

Fox, Downing Street
For fox sake, which entrance to Downing Street did the animal use? Photograph: Rex

Richard Dawkins is right that robotic machines have supplanted humanoids on other worlds (Little green aliens? Perhaps – or maybe ice creatures, 20 December). His wife, Lalla Ward, who played Romana opposite Tom Baker’s Doctor in Doctor Who, could have reminded him that the Cybermen and the Daleks annihilated the indigenous human beings on their home planets, to become the supreme beings in the universe. Exterminate and happy Christmas!
Frank Danes

• You note that, when Alan Rusbridger became Guardian editor in 1995, this was supported by a journalists’ poll (Guardian staff to vote in process of choosing next editor-in-chief, 20 December). The world of democratic consultation has moved on since then – witness the way the Labour leader is elected. Surely it is now time to let readers have a say too.
Keith Flett

• What a wonderful photograph of the rhinos enjoying their sprouts at Chessington World of Adventures (Eyewitness, 19 December). If anything shouts that we must save these animals, it was this terrific image. Mind you, I would not want to be in the immediate vicinity of the rhinos once those sprouts started to do their work.
Martin Johnson
Congleton, Cheshire

• Hope that fox used the Downing Street side gate ((Fox on the run, 18 December). Another inquiry might cost the earth.
John Hunter
Fulbourn, Cambridgeshire

• After recent front-page stories about a man using a camera and a couple having a baby (Letters, 22 December), I can’t wait for the spread on an elderly woman going to church later this week.
Bill Dixon

Queues at border control at Heathrow airport. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA
Queues at border control at Heathrow airport. Photograph: Steve Parsons/PA

It is incredible that 300,000 migrant overstayers can go missing in the UK (Report, 18 December) and even more incredible that the records on who has left the country have “significant inaccuracies”. Pursuit of these overstayers and the recording of data has been outsourced to Capita and its contract should be terminated. However, who would take over from Capita? Maybe, G4S. Or maybe not – as G4S is 15% owned by Investco, a US finance company, which also owns 23% of Capita. In fact, about 40% of the shares in the small number of outsourcing companies tendering for these contracts are owned by foreign, mainly US, financial institutions. Perhaps it would be more efficient to go back to having a properly functioning civil service of qualified bureaucrats.
Michael Gold

Snapshot ... Karen Babayan with her mother and grandmother at Christmas in Iran in the mid-1960s.
Snapshot … Karen Babayan with her mother and grandmother at Christmas in Iran in the mid-1960s.

Snapshot: Waiting for Father Christmas in Iran

This is a rather formal picture for a very happy occasion – this was the Christmas party at the Tehran Club, a club for British expats based in a grand old house set in large grounds in central Tehran. My mother Yolande (Lolo) and my grandmother Clara are in their fashionable best, in home-sewn outfits created by my grandmother, who was an amazing seamstress.

Calikmama (my pet name for my grandmother) is in her very on-trend Jackie Kennedy two-piece and, at 52, is only a year older than I am now. In the photo, I am aged around three. Until my fifth birthday, I was stuck like glue to my mother’s skirts, and would not go to anyone, not even long-suffering Calikmama, who subsequently became my greatest ally and best friend.

My dad, Roy Sowerby, who was into amateur theatricals, was always Father Christmas at these parties. His entrance was spectacular. Totally in character, his “ho ho hos” and handbell rang out while he rode a donkey through the gardens to the house, the children crowding around the big picture window, trembling with anticipation.

Until I left Iran with my family at the age of 16, I had led a sheltered life among the Armenian and expat British communities. Despite being the product of a mixed marriage, one of the very first of the Iranian/Armenian community between an aspiring middle-class, educated Armenian girl and a working-class, ex-pro English footballer, I felt well settled and loved by the family I had been born into and relatively unaffected by world politics.

The Armenians, a Christian community, were well respected by their Muslim hosts, having been part of the fabric of the country for more than 400 years. It was something of a shock, therefore, to discover that our world was not as stable as we thought, with the coming of the Ayatollah Khomeini and subsequent Islamic revolution.

After having lived in the vibrant capital city of Tehran for 16 years, I found myself fleeing the impending political tumult and going westward, to England and an estate in the northern suburbs of Leeds, eventually becoming a painter. Our family is now scattered across the globe and this experience of displacement had a profound effect on every aspect of my life and informed every mark and output during my professional career as an artist.

Karen Babayan





The European Court of Justice may believe so, but many of our readers do not agree

Sir, As you state in your leader (“Substantially Wrong”, Dec 19), the labelling of obesity as a disability by the European Court of Justice is contrary to common-sense expectation and is likely to produce the opposite of the desired effect.

Disability is commonly defined as a physical or mental state which limits a person’s normal activities, mobility or senses resulting often from an illness or unnatural event over which one does not have any control. Except in rare instances of certain endocrine dysfunctions, obesity is caused by faulty lifestyle of overeating of the wrong kind of food and lack of exercise. Obesity related to type 2 diabetes is often the cause rather than the effect, the common factors being relative lack of insulin and insensitivity of the body tissues to insulin. In a significant number of cases, obesity-related type 2 diabetes can be reversed when the body mass is reduced to normality by dieting and exercise or surgery. Morbid obesity can debilitate but need not permanently disable a person.

Dr Sam Banik, FRC Path
London N10

Sir, Your report does not say whether, at his weight of 25st, Karsten Kaltoft could physically do his job of “minding” young children regardless of the adjustments made (“Obesity can be a disability, European court decides”, Dec 19) The role implies a need for a degree of agility as well as authority over the young. Young children are usually fit, agile, mischievous and lacking in sympathy for those less agile. They would be able to “run rings” around Mr Kaltoft.

If a person physically cannot do their job however many “adjustments” are made, is an employer required to employ two people to do one person’s job?

Richard Woosnam
Great Edstone, N Yorks

Sir, Obese people will not be employed by small businesses if it means additional expense on facilities. This will not be the reason given for not employing them but it will, nevertheless, be the reason.

Richard Northcote
Berkhamsted, Herts

Sir, I would not want a 25st childminder looking after my grandchildren. Size in itself would significantly reduce the ability to respond to urgent situations and to play outside with children. It would also impair the person’s ability to tie the children’s shoelaces.

Jeremy Preston
Croughton, Northants

Sir, One unintended consequence of classifying obesity as a disability is the resentment that it will cause. In order to qualify, a Body Mass Index (BMI) certificate presumably issued by the NHS will be required. The cost apart, if a BMI of, say, 30 is chosen to define disability, there will be an incentive for those at the margins to put on weight to qualify. The obese ‘disabled’ will also be entitled to disabled parking permits.

Bernard Kingston
Biddenden, Kent

Sir, It is a sad irony that, in the year in which I have read that obesity is now a symptom of poverty in the West, the EU Court of Justice has designated obesity as a disability. I only wonder if obesity was still a symptom reserved purely to the wealthy, as it has always been throughout history, up till now, if the Court of Justice would have made the same judgment.

Johnny Lyell
London W4

Sir, I was ten years old at the start of the Second World War and spent the next six years evacuated with my school in Devon. In that period there was no TV, virtually no cars, and food and sweets were severely rationed. I have kept over the years all the annual photographs of my school forms and, apart from one boy who apparently suffered from a glandular disorder, every one of us looks slim and fit. As our maths master would have said, “QED”.

Leslie Watmore
Beckenham, Kent

Sir, Now that obesity is legally a disability, perhaps the airlines will be obliged to provide decent seating space.

Simon F Fegen
Biddestone, Wilts

Sadly, Rosalind Franklin has to bear a share of the blame for her neglect

Sir, Roslyn Pine protests that James Watson is neither a genius nor a titan of 20th-century science, and charges him with ruthlessness in “harnessing” the work of others (letter, Dec 19). That is unfair. King’s was an old-fashioned place at that time, and female staff were not even allowed in the senior common room.

Nevertheless, Rosalind Franklin’s colleagues and also the group at the Cavendish did their best to engage her interest. Working in her self-imposed isolation, she recognised the helical form of DNA, but not the critical fact that the double chain was dependent upon the complementary nature of A with T and G with C. Crick and Watson’s model-building showed how DNA formed the hereditary material, and how every living thing on earth is related. It laid the foundations for molecular biology.

I did a doctorate at the zoology department of King’s shortly after Franklin left, and was married to one of the lecturers for more than 50 years. She told me of Rosalind’s defensive mien, different from the other workers in Randall’s lively department. Sadly, Franklin has to bear a share of the blame for her neglect.

Charles O’Neill

London SE19

There is a solution to the dilemma of ‘too easy’ practice papers: one national exam board only

Sir, Rival examination boards offering practice papers for maths that are too easy (report, Dec 22)? There is a solution: one exam board only. The case for multiple exam boards is really commercial rather than educational. It would also make the analysis of results between Carlisle and Chichester more meaningful.

Derek Axe

As the spouse of a knight the proper form of address for Mr David Furnish should be Lady John . . .

Sir, The news (Dec 22) that Sir Elton John and David Furnish have married is heartwarming, but it raises questions for the honours system. Conventional etiquette suggests that as the spouse of a knight the proper form of address for Mr Furnish should now be Lady John. Anything less might be seen as manifestly unequal and discriminatory.

Julian Peel Yates

Andover, Hants

Pooh was not the bearer of the burst balloon; his sad gift was the empty jar of honey

Sir, Oh dear, oh dear! Pooh was not the bearer of the burst balloon; his sad gift was the empty jar of honey (letter, Dec 20). Piglet was the unfortunate balloon person. But the two friends together did provide the perfect birthday present for Eeyore: a useful pot for putting things in, and a burst balloon to put in it.

Barrie Page

Piltdown, E Sussex

I enjoy shaking my head at grammatical errors in print. Please, Oliver Kamm, don’t spoil my fun…

Sir, If the Pedant (Dec 20) has his way, many spellings and sentence-constructions formerly recognised as inaccurate will become acceptable. This is an unhappy prospect for me, as at the moment I still find a quiet satisfaction in being able to shake my head at the numerous grammatical errors in, for example, our community newsletter. Oliver, why spoil my fun?

The Rev Claire Wilson

London NW3


British female troops share a joke as they wait for the 904 Expeditionary Air Wing's sunset flag lowering and end of mission ceremony at Kandahar airfield, Afghanistan

British female troops share a joke as they wait for the 904 Expeditionary Air Wing’s sunset flag lowering at Kandahar airfield, Afghanistan Photo: Matt Cardy/Getty Images

SIR – Women have been fighting in the Royal Artillery, the Royal Engineers and the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers corps for years. These units are as embroiled in the front line as the infantry and armoured regiments, and the women have had to pass physical tests to prove their capability of doing the job.

The current debate is about prejudice and historical perception. As full integration is inevitably implemented, the comments of some senior officers that only a handful of women applying for infantry and armour roles will make the grade are demeaning to the initiative from the outset.

Lt Col Charles Holden (retd)
Lymington, Hampshire

SIR – In the period 1999-2003 there were at least two female officers who assumed command of Royal Irish Home Service infantry platoons. These officers attended the necessary infantry command courses in Warminster and Brecon alongside their male peers, carrying the same weight and commanding platoons in public order situations and in the prevention of and aftermath of terrorist attacks.

The ability of an officer to command and control soldiers serving beneath them rests wholly upon their skill and professionalism, not their gender.

J D Brunton
Trim, Co Meath, Ireland

SIR – While I have no intrinsic objection to women serving in front-line combat roles, at a time when the British military is so strapped for cash it is worth questioning whether spending considerable sums on making this change, so that an estimated 34 women a year can qualify, is justifiable.

Peter D Harvey
Walton Highway, Norfolk

SIR – I am a nursing sister working for the Ministry of Defence in an army training regiment. Both young men and women are trained at this establishment and in the medical centre we see them all at their initial medicals and throughout their training, dealing with any illnesses or injuries.

The young women are as committed, gritty and feisty as their male counterparts and all are determined to do their very best. It is blindingly obvious, however, that no matter how fit and determined the girls are, they have nothing like the muscle strength and bulk of the lads. Many struggle to carry heavy packs and weights without risk of injury. I fail to see how they would cope in infantry or armoured regiments where sheer physical strength is the key to effectiveness and, ultimately, survival.

Karen McCleery
Kings Worthy, Hampshire

SIR – Mixing within the infantry could have some positive impact on a culture of chauvinism that can make it difficult for ex-soldiers to reintegrate in modern civilian social and family life.

It is interesting to consider what would happen if Britain found itself facing conscription again in the future. Would this new option for the few then become an obligation for the many?

John Riseley
Harrogate, North Yorkshire

SIR – Men and women do not compete against each other in professional sport. Is this an example of inequality or just an acceptance of physical differences?

Infantry combat is the ultimate challenge of muscular endurance and cardiovascular strength, and putting women in that position simply isn’t practical or fair.

Emilie Lamplough
Trowbridge, Wiltshire

SIR – Our infantry is not the place for social experimentation in gender equality. There is only one question to be asked: “Will the change improve our chances of winning in combat?”

The answer in this case is: “Probably not.”

P Richards
Lytchett Matravers, Dorset

Ailing border control

(Mark Salter/Alamy)

SIR – Keith Vaz, who chairs the Home Affairs Committee, describes the immigration service as being “in intensive care”. It would be more accurate to say it has been completely forgotten about and left on a trolley in a corridor.

Airlines are capable of tracking baggage that flies overseas and back. If it is possible to do this with inanimate objects, what excuse can the Home Office have for failing to track human beings with passports?

Jeremy M J Havard
London SW3

SIR – I am currently on holiday in Thailand. When I entered the country, I was photographed at border control and my passport was scanned and stamped. When I leave, my passport will be scanned again. If I were to overstay my visa, I would face a hefty fine at the very least.

Thai airports have had this system in place for over 20 years. If they can do it, why can’t Britain?

John Procter
Poole, Dorset

Humane slaughter

SIR – Proposals to require labels on meat informing the customer how the animal was slaughtered are to be welcomed.

Research by the independent scientific research charity the Humane Slaughter Association has consistently shown that stress hormones in meat from animals killed without being stunned are considerably higher than in meat from animals that have been stunned.

The labelling of meat should not be turned into a religious debate but should focus purely on animal welfare and science.

Kate Graeme-Cook
Blandford Forum, Dorset

Nursing experience

SIR – Prof Dame Jessica Corner quotes statistics that purport to demonstrate that an increase in the number of nurses with degrees has resulted in a decline in hospital patient mortality. Two events occurring together do not necessarily have a cause-and-effect relationship.

Britain is experiencing a serious nursing crisis with a major shortfall in the number of British-trained nurses available and an inevitable dependency upon the recruitment of nurses from abroad. Insisting on degree-level qualifications will deny many dedicated young people the opportunity to serve in this wonderful profession.

Completing more traditional training and gaining experience on a hospital ward establishes that the individual is truly committed to becoming a nurse.

Malcolm H Wheeler FRCS

Cornwall invaded

Porthis, or St Ives, in Cornwall (Alamy)

SIR – Porthia (St Ives) has been voted Britain’s most popular town in which to live.

Once upon a time the Cornish community would have agreed. Today the town is blighted by holiday lets and second homes. Its lanes are filled with expensive 4×4 vehicles at weekends, even though Porthia lies in the heart of deprived west Cornwall. House prices have soared, pushing Cornish families out and severely threatening the local community.

Timothy James
Botallack, Cornwall

Giving in to hackers sets a worrying precedent

SIR – Sony’s decision to pull The Interview – a film about the fictional assassination of the leader of North Korea, Kim Jong-un – sends the wrong signal to North Korea, who are suspected by the FBI of orchestrating the Sony hack attack.

Submitting to the hackers’ demand that the comedy not be distributed will lead them mistakenly to assume that they have leverage over the entertainment industry.

Siyoung Choi
Seoul, South Korea

SIR – If Sony were to decide not to take legal action against anyone making pirate copies of The Interview or posting it online, it would take the world by storm.

The hackers would then have scored an own goal.

Harry Leeming
Heysham, Lancashire

SIR – It is striking that Hilary Mantel’s book The Assassination of Margaret Thatcher – a book about the killing of a woman thrice democratically elected – occupies pride of place in many bookshop windows, yet a comedy film that kills off a dictator has elicited a reaction that has even a corporate giant like Sony running scared.

Philip Whittington
Elstree, Hertfordshire

SIR – A film depicting the assassination of a still-living person seems to be in appallingly bad taste.

David Allars
Foxton, Cambridgeshire

SIR – How would America have responded if North Korea had issued a film about the assassination of Barack Obama?

J H Graves
Rugby, Warwickshire

Look closely to see Britain in the driving seat

Shape-shifter: a map of the British Isles from Ptolemy’s Geographia (

SIR – Wingless dragon, bob-tailed dog or a lady throwing a pig; the map of Britain provides ample opportunity for those with vivid imaginations to identify all sorts of images.

I remember that, more than 50 years ago, advertisements for the British School of Motoring used the slogan “Teaches Britain to Drive”. In the accompanying illustration East Anglia filled the car seat, Scotland formed an attentive face, and the arms reaching out to the steering wheel were made up of the north and south peninsulas around Cardigan Bay.

The outstretched legs operating the pedals were represented by Devon and Cornwall.

Mike Siddle
Wragby, Lincolnshire


SIR – I agree with David Spence as regards the use of “Twenty fifteen”.

Nobody refers to the start of the First World War as “Nineteen hundred and fourteen”.

Carol Chadwick
Wilmslow, Cheshire

Pickles in space

SIR – So, Mars is really an ancient landfill site (“Methane and the faintest whiff of life on Mars”).

Perhaps we could send Eric Pickles to investigate?

William T Nuttall
Rossendale, Lancashire

Flea-son’s greetings

SIR – To date my cat hasn’t received any Christmas cards, but last week he received a letter from his vet congratulating him on using a particular flea treatment.

I’m now worried that my charming post lady will think that my real name is Wonky Wilkinson.

Frank Wilkinson
Bolton, Lancashire

Globe and Mail

  (David Parkins for The Globe and Mail)

Zarqa Nawaz. (Mark Taylor for The Globe and Mail)

Zarqa Nawaz

Dear Kim Jong-un: Thanks for stealing the spotlight. Signed, The Muslims

Zarqa Nawaz is the author of Laughing All the Way to the Mosque and the creator of Little Mosque on the Prairie.

Dear Kim Jong-un,

Thanks to you, Christmas came early for Muslims this year. Just when we were starting to lament that all the wack-job megalomaniacs in the world belonged to us, you showed up. All eyes moved away from the Middle East and focused on wherever it is you are. So you get to carry the crazy-terrorist mantle for a few days at least.

And all because Hollywood made The Interview, a satirical film about two incompetent television producers coerced by the CIA into assassinating you. Why are you so upset about this film? I doubt anyone from Good Morning America has suddenly been inspired to book a flight to a heavily guarded military airbase in your country anytime soon.

My sense is this: You think the film makes you look like an idiot. You would have preferred a more dignified aura to surround your character, maybe even one explaining your grievances against the West (and the South, and pretty much the rest of the world). I have one word for you. Well, maybe twelve words. Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan. When Kazakhstan first learned that Sacha Baron Cohen was playing a dim-witted, misogynistic Kazakh who has a weakness for wearing a lime-coloured mankini, they considered having a fit and banning the film. But then cooler heads prevailed and the country decided to embrace the film instead. As result, tourism increased tenfold and brought cultural currency to a country that most people hadn’t heard of before. For sure, it was a troubling portrayal on many levels, but by not over-reacting, the film ended up being a useful tool in diplomacy.

At least you have Seth Rogan and James Franco in your film. Diplomacy aside, this film could have done one critical thing for you – humanized you at a time when you could use it. Your country is crippled by economic sanctions. Even your Axis-of-Evil buddies have seen the light. Iran is sending peaceful overtures to the United States and both it and Iraq are fighting the Islamic State, which you’ve managed to get off the front pages – which is not easy, so congratulations for that.

With Cuba patching up its differences with the States and moving on, the Axis of Evil may be just down to just you. North Korea is a little-known country that many feel is a bit weird and creepy. By hacking Sony and threatening Sept. 11-type violence against innocent theatregoers, you’re not helping change your image. In fact, you may just have given the United States reason to go after you. Iraq was attacked for having Weapons of Mass Destruction that never actually existed. Your WMD actually do exist.

In the immortal words of the late, great film critic Pauline Kael, “movies are so rarely great art, that if we cannot appreciate great trash, we have very little reason to be interested in them.” The Interview is not going to win an Oscar. It’s not even great trash, and would probably have had a quick death in the box office. But now, thanks to you, it’s going down in the history books.

So call off the cyber attacks, roll out the red carpet and invite Seth and James to Pyongyang for a proper North Korean premiere. Dennis Rodman can help soothe over frayed nerves. After all, it’s more important to have the world laugh with you than at you. Or, more importantly, blow you up.


Errol Mendes

How partisan Conservative ads undermine the rule of law

Errol Mendes is a professor of constitutional and international law at the University of Ottawa and editor-in-chief of the National Journal of Constitutional Law.

In what country does a government take tax revenues and use it to pump out continuous government propaganda that tries to brainwash the citizens with its performance, whether truthful or not? Many would suggest China, Russia or even Zimbabwe. Sadly, it is also true in the Canada governed by the Stephen Harper Conservatives.

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The opposition parties have claimed that the Harper government has authorized more than $600-million in disguised partisan ads since coming into office. These include some earlier Economic Action Plan television ads, and the newest ones announcing the yet-to-be implemented family tax benefits package – outrageously partisan.

When these ads announce that it will fill the pockets of taxpayers with thousands of dollars, it’s a less-than-honest exhortation for viewers to vote Conservative in the upcoming 2015 election. There will, no doubt, be far more honest ads paid for by the Conservative Party with the same content once the election campaign starts and its spending will be restricted to far less than the millions that may be spent on it before the campaign actually starts.

Governments are allowed to advertise about services and programs that they are implementing, but when some of them are either untruthful, promote partisan positions or are not even authorised by Parliament, it becomes a vehicle to undermine the foundations of any democracy that values the spirit and letter of the rule of law.

Former Ontario premier Dalton McGuinty realized the democratic immorality of abusing public funds in such a manner and brought in key reforms to stop even his government from betraying the public trust by ensuring taxpayers do not fund disguised partisan ads. The McGuinty government brought in rules that requires all government ads to be reviewed and passed by the auditor-general. The holder of that office has the ability to stop clear partisan ads being funded by the taxpayer. The present national ads for the family benefits tax package would have been stopped dead in their tracks if we had a similar screening process of government ads at the federal level, especially given that they were not even passed by Parliament. Yet, it is reported that the Harper government may spend $100-million for these ads in the hope that it will give them another four years to continue abusing the public purse with similar ads after the 2015 election.

It may not be surprising that Mr. Harper has engaged in this unfair democratic subterfuge. Even back in 2000, while heading up the National Citizens Coalition, he launched court actions against the spending limits of third parties under the Canada Elections Act. With a challenge that seemed to ignore the need for ensuring electoral fairness, his conservative advocacy group used the argument of citizens’ freedom of speech to ask the courts to strike down limits on third-party funding beyond a $150,000 limit during the election campaign. He failed when the Supreme Court lectured him and his group that the law was needed for electoral fairness and a level playing field in order to prevent certain groups or individuals from dominating the media and the electoral process.

Now in government – and outside the electoral period – Mr. Harper has found a way for his government to flood the media with partisan propaganda to the tune of hundreds of millions of our dollars. If such democratic subterfuge has the same effect of unfairness before an election, then the Harper government is clearly undermining the spirit of the rule of law critical to fair elections. He has, in effect, made the government a third party that is allowed to spend potentially millions of dollars, making the actual limits in the election period illusory to some extent. This deserves a profound rebuke by Canadians.


Cuba: A legacy for Obama, or a curveball for Republicans?

If you’ve ever strolled Havana’s broken sidewalks, sucked in fumes from a Lada long overdue for the scrap heap or seen locals getting rations at a neighbourhood libreta store, a part of you probably dies at the thought of it all being overrun by Starbucks and American tourists.

Beyond the island resorts frequented by Canadians, the real Cuba is full of contradictions – a land of deprivation stuck in a time warp, with glimpses of the abundance and 21st century possibilities that a few connected or inventive Cubans already enjoy but almost all aspire to attain. Were it not for the brutality with which the Castros have enforced their dictatorship, the idealistic slogans on sun-faded billboards might seem like romantic notions worth pursuing.

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That the same billboards could one day be advertising iPhones or Internet providers might kill the poet in you. But that’s a small price to pay if it means a better life for average Cubans.

The poets still have plenty of time to indulge themselves. Like all of President Barack Obama’s recent headline-grabbing moves, from his climate pact with China to his executive order on immigration, there is much less than meets the eye in his announcement that the United States will re-establish diplomatic relations with Communist Cuba. That does not mean it wasn’t a bold move, just that its practical implications are for now quite limited, perhaps even short-lived.

Mr. Obama promises to open an embassy in Havana, but Congress is unlikely to provide him with the money to run it or approve an ambassador. Nor can Mr. Obama lift the 51-year-old embargo on U.S. trade with Cuba without congressional approval – and there little possibility of that happening before he leaves office. There will be no rush of Americans to the beaches of Varadero or Cienfuegos or island invasion by U.S. retail chains.

For now, the biggest change is an increase in the amount of cash Cuban-Americans can send to relatives on the island. The cap on remittances will rise to $2,000 (U.S.) every three months, from $500. This will provide a major boost to the Cuban economy – and the Castros.

A Washington Post editorial called Mr. Obama’s move “an undeserved bailout” for the regime of 83-year-old President Raul Castro, who officially took over from the older and frailer Fidel Castro in 2008. It will “provide Havana with a fresh source of desperately needed hard currency and eliminate U.S. leverage for political reforms.”

So why reward the Castros, who have denied Cubans basic freedoms, executed countless dissidents and still imprison political opponents on a whim?

The short answer is: Why China and Vietnam and not Cuba? The United States deals with plenty of undemocratic regimes with horrendous human-rights records, so there is no longer a good reason to single out Cuba, beyond sheer obstinacy. It’s not like the embargo has been a success in snuffing out totalitarianism.

With a Republican-controlled Congress preventing him from leaving a further legislative legacy, Mr. Obama also intends to spend the rest of his term making bold-sounding but partial reforms that, if carried to fruition by his successor, will still have his name on them.

Besides, the Castros aren’t immortal, even if they’re doing their best to look that way. Any U.S. president must prepare for a post-Castro Cuba. Mr. Obama has just gotten some of the preliminaries out the way. Better to act now than to allow China and Russia, whose leaders both visited the island this year, to get any cozier with Havana.

Most important, Mr. Obama has also thrown a curveball at Republicans. They are beholden to fiercely anti-Castro older Cuban-Americans in Florida. But younger Cuban-Americans and non-Cuban Hispanics, for whom the Castros are geriatric paper tigers, now account for the majority of Florida’s Latinos.

Former Florida governor and likely 2016 Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush said Mr. Obama’s move will benefit “the heinous Castro brothers, who have oppressed the Cuban people.” But while such talk may still be needed to win a GOP nomination, it is clearly out of touch with public opinion.

Hillary Clinton knew that when, on leaving the State Department in 2012, she conveniently left behind a memo urging Mr. Obama to work to lift the embargo. If 2016 yields a Bush-Clinton matchup, Mr. Obama may just have tipped Florida’s critical scales for his former Democratic rival.


Dec. 22: ‘Jim Prentice’s BFF’ – and other letters to the editor

Irish Times:

Sir, – I fully agree with the idea of opening up walking trails throughout rural Ireland. Both from the point of view of encouraging tourism and also to enable people to get out and enjoy their local area. However, I have worked for the farming community for the last 35 years and I have seen at first hand how farmers have suffered at the hands of sections of the non-farming community.

A large proportion of farmers who have land anywhere close to urban areas suffer from unbelievable amounts of rubbish being dumped on their land. They have to put up with trespassers of every age, from small children upwards, who come in with dogs, quad bikes, motor bikes, stolen cars and alcohol. They disturb and injure livestock, damage crops, tear down fences, leave gates open and can be abusive to the landowners. Even farmers who live away from urban areas are not immune. Some areas are popular haunts for men, who walk through farmland with packs of dogs, usually lurchers or terriers type, causing chaos. So while I would love to see the “keep out” signs disappearing, I fully understand why they are there. – Yours, etc,



Co Waterford.

Sir, – Debate on important issues often (and increasingly) appears better teased out on this page than in Dáil Éireann, and the ongoing debate on walkers, cyclists and tourism bears this out. However, Robert Dowds’s contribution (December 20th) might have been better kept to the floor of the Dáil where it might garner him some kudos from fellow politicians, because it adds little to the real debate here.

As a long-time campaigner for tourism infrastructure, specifically for a linked network of trails that would attract the huge and growing market of Irish and foreign cyclists and long-distance walkers, I have always recognised that forcing this infrastructure through private property is not the answer. While the situation in the UK and elsewhere is very far ahead of here in terms of access and trails, there are differences that are important. Farms here are typically small, residential, and farmed by owners; many such landowners do not want open access and nobody should force it on them. Unwilling participants in any measure designed to boost economic activity in rural areas will create planned failure in any such initiative. It won’t work, because the landowners will ensure that it doesn’t.

The people who oppose such initiatives for reasons of naked greed need to be firmly dealt with, but ramming new access laws down their throats is not the answer. – Yours, etc,



Co Roscommon.

A chara, – Your editorial (December 16th) and related letters presume an absence of trails giving access to the countryside. The true situation is very different. A nationwide network of walking trails has developed over the past 30 years (see, the website of the Irish Sports Council and the National Trails Office).

The site records hundreds of walking and cycling trails, including 44 medium-distance and long-distance walking trails, all marked and signposted, registered and subject to regular inspection. This is the result of the ongoing co-operation of landowners and initially the work of community and rural development bodies, supplemented more recently by local authorities, Fáilte Ireland funding, the work of Comhairle na Tuaithe and State initiatives such as the community employment schemes, rural social schemes, the walks scheme and the network of rural recreation officers, with technical and advisory back-up from the Irish Sports Council and the National Trails Office.

The trail with which I am most familiar is the Kerry Way, which circuits the Iveragh peninsula. The basic circuit is 190km in length, allowing for a good nine days of walking or hiking. Largely based on old highways, Mass paths and butter roads, it has been described as a walk through history.

And that’s only one example of unhindered access. Anyone wishing to know the true situation should refer to the Irish trails website. – Is mise,


Walk Trails Ireland,

Killorglin, Co Kerry.

Sir, – In response to Justin MacCarthy (December 20th), we have to say that he’s partly correct when he says that our “politicians have scant interest in either activity”. I’m aware that some TDs actually find the time to walk and cycle, such as Eric Byrne and Ruairí Quinn (Labour), Minister of State Jimmy Deenihan (Fine Gael) and none other than An Taoiseach.

You also published a letter from Robert Dowds TD, who mentions his Access to the Countryside Bill, which has been languishing in the Oireachtas environment committee for 18 months. Keep Ireland Open supports this Bill and we would ask TDs and Senators to nail their colours to the mast and publicly support this Bill. – Yours, etc,


Keep Ireland Open,

Dublin 14.

Sir, – I was bemused to read (“Finance staff went home to find out what was in budget, banking inquiry told”, December 19th) of Rob Wright’s surprise at the limited number of economists in the Department of Finance and his reported comment that “Part of the problem was that skilled economists moved out to set up the National Treasury Management Agency and without the expertise the department did not have the capacity to seriously question some of the regulatory decisions being made”.

In case this goes by without challenge, I would like to make a few comments, as I was the chief executive of the NTMA from its establishment in December 1990 until December 2009.

A total of 25 people joined the NTMA from the Department of Finance when it began operations in late 1990/early 1991 and a handful of others joined over the years. Most were at that time in relatively junior to middle-ranking grades and, as far as I can recall, none had worked as economists in the department.

That all happened about 15 years before the crash – surely enough time to recover. Countries have recovered from the devastation of a world war more rapidly.

It was not as though the people in the NTMA had disappeared into the ether.

Up to the fundamental changes this week, the NTMA chief executive answered directly to the Minister for Finance and we were always available to give advice to the Minister of the day – indeed often whether wanted or not! – and also to any government or opposition TDs or Senators who wanted to talk to us.

An enormous range of additional functions were transferred to the NTMA over the years and it was not because politicians liked the colour of our eyes!

The problem was not lack of economists. Whatever about their number in the department, there were economists everywhere, in the Central Bank, the ESRI, the universities, the stockbrokers, the banks, etc, as well as the IMF, the OECD, the European Commission, the credit rating agencies, all making a good living from analysing and commenting on the Irish economy. In fact, I never hired an economist into the NTMA as I reckoned I could get any amount of economic advice free. The problem was, at its most basic, a lack of common sense.

Before we joined the single currency, we could deal with our excesses through resetting the clock, ie we devalued the Irish pound.

We then joined the German club, where we continued to play by our own rules. At times, we seemed to think we had discovered a new economic theory that applied to Ireland and allowed us to do things that others could not do.

Sometimes there may be an inevitability about a catastrophe. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 4.

A chara, – In relation to the extraordinary attack on Sinn Féin by Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett (“Ceann Comhairle Sean Barrett claims Sinn Féin used him as pawn”, December 20th), I wish to clarify the situation.

I have been writing to the Ceann Comhairle for a year now in relation to what I believe to be his failure to discharge his duties properly and impartially.

I have been actively seeking a meeting with Mr Barrett to discuss Sinn Féin’s concerns directly with him. He has not facilitated this.

Yet he clearly has no problem facilitating media interviews to attack Sinn Féin. Mr Barrett says he wasn’t occupying the chair for a section of a Dáil debate about which I complained. He deliberately misses the point.

The substance of my most recent communication with Mr Barrett, is for him, in his capacity as Ceann Comhairle, to deal with the serious issues I have raised.

Highly prejudicial comments against Sinn Féin TDs by members of the Government parties have now become a feature of Dáil debates. The Ceann Comhairle has allowed Sinn Féin TDs to be abused in the most disgraceful manner.

Sinn Féin will not accept a situation where our TDs are subjected to second-class treatment in the Dáil or where those who elected us are given second-class treatment.

Sean Barrett’s comments appear to be an attempt by him to salvage his reputation which has now become a political issue.

I urge the Ceann Comhairle to have the courage of his convictions and meet me to discuss and hopefully resolve these serious issues. – Is mise,


Teach Laighean,

Baile Átha Cliath 2.

Sir, – Noel Whelan (“2014: The year of recovery, or the year of the water uprising?”, Opinion & Analysis, December 19th) writes that historians, when they come to examine 2014, will find it “curious that the most intense Irish popular reaction to the recession came just as the recovery began to take hold”.

There is, however, no mystery in this for the historians. On the contrary, it conforms to the classic model of a “revolution of rising expectations”. Thus, Alexis de Tocqueville wrote of the French revolution that “it is not always by going from bad to worse that a society falls into a revolution. It happens most often that a people, which has supported without complaint, as if they were not felt, the most oppressive laws, violently throws them off as soon as their weight is lightened”.

In other words, the experience of things getting better and the demand for further improvements are important factors in provoking revolution.

Likewise, and closer to home, current scholarship (taking a cue from work such as James Donnelly’s magisterial The Land and People of Nineteenth-Century Cork) tends to interpret the Irish land wars of 1879–83 and 1886–90 as a “revolution of rising expectations” resulting from the determination of tenant farmers to preserve their material gains made since the Famine during challenging periods of agricultural crisis. The Civil Rights campaign in Northern Ireland in the late 1960s can also be seen in this light, namely as ignited by the modest reforms of the O’Neill era.

So we should not be surprised by the recent unrest in Ireland about water charges and other austerity measures. As conditions get better, we will increasingly chafe at the limits beyond which the easing of austerity cannot go.

Expectations of relief having been raised, nobody will be satisfied with necessarily limited progress.

History tells us that this is the moment of maximum danger, and it needs to be carefully handled. – Yours, etc,



Dublin 18.

Sir, – I write to you in full support of the need to improve the monitoring of care homes for the elderly and vulnerable people.

However, there is one sector involved in the provision of care that has absolutely no monitoring system in place – the private care agencies that provide care for the elderly and vulnerable in their own homes.

In recent years my family had occasion to use the services of two such agencies, to support me in my role as primary carer to my parents, both in their nineties, both of high dependency, one of whom had Alzheimer’s, one of whom had Parkinson’s.

One of these private care agencies we found extremely satisfactory, with well-trained, efficient carers, and a responsive management system. However, our experience with the other care agency was unsatisfactory in the extreme.

At the time I attempted to lodge a complaint with the Health Information and Quality Authority (Hiqa), to be told that private care agencies providing care in the home do not fall under its remit. I then went to the HSE, and met with the manager of disability services for the area in which my parents lived.

I stressed to this person that though we as a family were extremely distressed by our experiences with this care agency, we were also very concerned for those families who did not have a family member present to monitor the care provided to their loved ones, and that we were also aware that the agency in question was employed by the HSE as a provider of HSE healthcare packages.

The reply I finally got from the HSE was that because we had hired this care agency on a private basis, it was not their concern either.

It is vital that a satisfactory monitoring and supervision system be put in place for vulnerable and elderly people being cared for in their own homes.

My fear is that the experience of my family is not an isolated one. Many families do not have a family member as part of the team of carers, as I was, and are therefore not able to observe and monitor the work of the care agencies on the ground.

It is reckless in the extreme to allow this situation to continue. – Yours, etc,



Co Donegal.

Sir, – While I truly appreciate the sentiments expressed in Gerry Boland’s letter (December 22nd), namely that “the most compassionate choice at Christmas is, clearly, a vegetarian one”, I feel bound to state that it honestly wouldn’t be that compassionate toward me. – Yours, etc,


Bray, Co Wicklow.

Sir, – I suspect Arthur Boland may be somewhat late in his suggestion that TDs be guillotined (December 22nd). Judging by the way so many Dáil members are unwilling to take a principled stand – and therefore race from one disaster to the next – I fear most of the chickens are already headless. – Yours, etc,


Drumree, Co Meath.

Sir, – Further to Mr Boland’s suggestion, might I suggest they also receive a strong lash from the whips? – Yours, etc,


Dublin 7.

Sir, – The Sony imbroglio – cyber attack, weird dictator, vendetta, blackmail, capitulation – has all the makings of a Hollywood movie. Is somebody making it? – Yours, etc,



Irish Independent:

Christmas is not just a Christian festival, but one that is shared by secularists and atheists alike, having its origins in North-European pre-Christian rituals. Ritual and celebration are not the exclusive right of the churches.

The winter solstice celebrations, or Yule, that Christmas displaced, give thanks for the gift of light and for the return of the sun from its long winter sojourn. Echoing these sentiments, Christians speak of Christ as the light of the world.

In many ways we are moving towards a post-religious society where people feel free to express the beliefs they hold not out of obligation but from conviction. Many, including myself, feel more at ease with various forms of agnosticism, where answers to questions about belief are tinged with elements of not knowing.

For the Greek philosophers to know that you do not know was the ultimate wisdom.

Attempts to make sense of the notion of a loving god in the face of the suffering of the innocent, the cry of the poor, the pain of loneliness and the radical inequalities that characterise our world sometimes amount to explaining the unknown by the unintelligible. There is a tendency for many religious believers to make God up as they go along.

My atheist friends often seem to have a more compassionate view of what it is to be human, particularly about what it is to be human to one another. The loving of God sometimes occludes the more obvious need to love and forgive one another.

Christ did not come among us to start an institution, but a revolution in our conception of ourselves as dependent on one another. He set out to abolish religion as the worship of idols and the creation of mutually-antagonistic groups.

Christmas is a time for rekindling faith in one another, reinvigorating our humanity, and hoping for better things to come. Happy Christmas to all.

Philip O’Neill, Oxford, England


Thinking to some purpose

You know it’s Christmas when the ads come on warning you not to eat too much, or drink too much.

I would caution against thinking too much. Man’s thoughts are responsible for most of the world’s problems.

I personally have always taken great pleasure in the comforting sound of the east wind entering my right ear and whistling harmoniously out of my left. My head is an echo chamber.

I prefer to daydream or muse. Thoughts are dangerous concrete things people trip over.

But I do wonder. For instance, regarding all the new allowances and refunds offered by the government in relation to Irish Water, I was trying to figure out if it would be possible to get a rebate for all the tears I have shed on the issue. I now have my own constant supply.

Another source of befuddlement and discombobulation is the Universal Social Charge. Fair play I thought, our leaders have come up with a plan to tax me every time I am sociable.

The people in “the know” say there are only two certainties – death and taxes. Well, if that is the sum total of knowledge ’tis indeed folly to be wise.

When I was a little fella we learned a poem:

“There goes the village idiot,

He’s such a happy man.

I wish I was an idiot.

My God, perhaps

I am.”

Remember good people a thought is not just for Christmas…

TG Gavin, Killiney, Co Dublin


Rugby sportswomen

There is a song about “the boys who beat the Black and Tans”. Is it not time we had an equally rousing number to remember “the girls who tanned the great All Blacks”?

This came to mind when watching the replay on TG4 on solstice Sunday. For sheer determination, skill and fitness the Irish girls are an object lesson in how to play rugby.

Ted O’Keeffe, Ranelagh, Dublin 6


Adaption, not recovery needed

I refer to Mr Tom Molloy’s article “Man plans and then God decides” (December 22). Perhaps so, but it’s hardly surprising since most of man’s planning is of the past and entirely misses realities of the future.

Economics have changed utterly – from shortage to surplus, from growth to sufficiency and from work to automation. We can’t manage an entirely new economic situation with old outdated ideology, it’s like trying to drive an automobile with a whip.

We are obsessed with “recovery”. Why indeed should we need it as we live in the best economic time ever? Simply because we don’t manage our extraordinary success very well. Despite more availability of investment capital than ever before, growth, interest rate and inflation are at historically low levels all over Europe and the rest of the world.

The US “grows” by borrowing an additional $2.5bn (yes, billion) per day; the ECB is a proposing €375bn injection to get the eurozone “working again”, the UK Chancellor – shortly prior to an election – predicts the greatest deficit and service cuts ever. Ireland’s export performance appears to buck the trend but, in our favourable tax regime, how much is actually “made” here and how much is just “invoiced” here?

Despite intense conflict and instability in the Middle East, oil prices are falling. Is there a better indicator of just how stuck and stagnant world economics really are?

And why? Because ‘old’ economics of ‘growth’ and ‘working’ and ‘continually producing more’ are no longer adequate. Instead of “recovery” to the good old days of inability and shortage and toil, we need to adapt to the unprecedented economics of ability, abundance and automation.

John F Kennedy once said “change is the law of life and those who look only to the past and present are likely to miss the future”.

Padraic Neary, Tubbercurry, Co Sligo


Flagging North’s problems

With regard to the North, I am led to think about the problem of flag. It is one of the contentious issues in the negotiations in Belfast left in exasperation by the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach last week. Is there a willingness among the Christian communities of the North to resolve it? And is there a possible compromise acceptable to all parties?

What are the possibilities?

1. The Union flag.

2. The Irish tricolour.

3. The provincial flag of Ulster.

4. The Irish harp, gold (or) on a blue (azure) field.

5. The Irish harp, gold (or) on a green (vert) field.

6. The flag of St Patrick.

Surely somewhere in this list is a way forward for all Irish men and women of goodwill in the season of goodwill.

I send greetings from the sunshine of Tenerife to the much maligned “dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone”.

Perhaps the light of God´s sun will shine on them at Christmas, not to say on the twin steeples of Armagh and Listowel and on many other steeples in the length and breadth of Ireland besides.

Churchill is not the final arbiter on these matters. After all, 4000 Irishmen followed his grand plan to their deaths in Gallipoli in 1915.

It is time for the Christians in Ireland, Roman Catholics, Church of Ireland, Presbyterians, Methodists and Quakers to face up to the reality of their common faith in the love of Christ.

Gerald Morgan, Chaucer Hub, Trinity College Dublin

Irish Independent


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