Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Great War at the Guinness Storehouse

During this year, the 100th anniversary of the first full year of WWI, there is a clatter of talks, seminars, plays, re-enactments and the rest taking place throughout the country.

Myles Dungan, known to the public for his weekly history show on RTÉ radio and his book on WWI, brought his Great War Roadshow into partnership the the Guinness Archive for a day to give us an excellent conference on various aspects of the war.

The Archive contributed this fine hall in the Guinness Storehouse, along with an early morning coffee and pastries, and, once inside the building, you could do the tour for free during the lunch break.

Trish Fallon

Trish Fallon, from the Archive, welcomed us all in great style, brought us up to date with the location's housekeeping, and offered us the continuing cooperation of the Archive in our historical and genealogical endeavours.

Myles Dungan

Myles Dungan, effectively MC for the day, kicked off with his own contribution, appropriately titled Lions, Donkeys and Paddies: The Irish Experience of the Great War.

He took us through a wide range of material, including the Gallipoli campaign, and identified some of the donkeys whose names had a familiar ring, Haig and Gough among them. Others I had not heard of but they didn't bring any credit on themselves or their country.

Ciarán Wallace

Ciarán Wallace, of UCD, in a talk entitled Keeping the Home Fires Burning: Civilian Life in Wartime Ireland, gave us a fascinating overview of the home front, a front that tends to be forgotten in the heat of battle. We heard of families trying to cope with rising prices, of the munitions factories which gave some employment, of the resistance to conscription, and of the dreaded telegrams from the front.

Upside down union jack, shell factory, Parkgate St.

I was amused by this detail from his picture of the Shell Factory at Parkgate St. One of the few occasions I have seen the Union Jack portrayed upside down. Those who know me will know that this is my version of bird watching.

Gordon Power

Gordon Power gave us Irish Military Genealogy 1900-1922 - Tracing your WW1 Ancestors.

He showed us the painstaking work involved in teasing out the whole story from genealogical and other records and dazzled us with his analysis of photographic material. Sherlock Holmes was only in the halfpenny place beside this guy.

Deirdre McParland

Deirdre McParland, the Guinness Archive Manager, spoke on Guinness and the War. A huge number of employees joined up with the encouragement of the company. Preference, if you can call it that in hindsight, was given to single men but volunteers came from all ranks and grades within the company right up to board level. Jobs were held open for those lucky enough to survive the conflict and this applied whether or not they were fit for work on return.

Incidentally, a very abbreviated version of the Guinness Archive can now be interrogated online and if you find an employee who is a direct ancestor you can get a copy of their employment records.

So, if you are doing your family tree and are related to, but not descended from, a Guinness employee you'd better buttonhole a surviving direct descendant to accompany you on your trip into the Archive. I was lucky enough to get in before these restrictions applied and I have the records of some of my cousins. They are absolutely fascinating. [Lest I get anyone into trouble, I should say that I have shared these records with my cousin, who is a direct descendant, and he is perfectly happy with me having them.] So, if you're in my position, get hold your Guinness descendants while there are some of them still around and get in there quick.

Brendan McQuaile

Finally, Brendan McQuaile gave us March Away My Brothers in which he acted out the journey of a young lad, Lar Kelly, from Bridgefoot Street in the Liberties. This took us just up to the 1914 Christmas Truce, soon after which Lar was blown to smithereens. Based very loosely on a real person, this was a combination of acting and song, got across with great gusto.

Memo: Four Generations of Coopers in Guinness - my cousins the Flemings.

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Wednesday, April 15, 2015

All Quiet on the Western Front

Cathy Scuffil with 1911 map of her native Dolphin's Barn
Click any image for a larger version

Last night the Southside ventured Northside to educate the natives on that well known boulevard the South Circular Road (SCR). They learned that it wasn't really circular; that it was originally built by the military to join up some of their emplacements (barracks/jail); that houses were only gradually built along it, initially in small terraces, the names of which are almost lost; and that it was never finished. It was conceived along with the North Circular Road to ring the city but the two never joined up and are still separated by the Phoenix Park.

The southsider, was Cathy Scuffil, who had done her masters thesis on the SCR and the northside location was St. John the Baptist Centre in Clontarf, home to the Clontarf Historical Society.

Dolphins Barn postcard 1910

Cathy was born and raised in Dolphin's Barn, so she had a head start in her study. But, as she told us, the area she thought she knew, she didn't know at all, and her thesis was a voyage of discovery.

She wanted to study her own area and her supervisor required her to take a substantial piece of road, so she chose the SCR and focussed on the then newly released digitised 1911 census.

The results were fascinating, not just looking at a freeze frame of those living on the road in 1911 but chasing up their lives, with particular emphasis on a number of families.

For years the road was identified in sections such as SCR Portobello, SCR Dolphin's Barn, and this was reflected in the numbering system. In fact, before those sections were consolidated, habitations along the road consisted of individual isolated terraces, each with its own numbering system. Now it is just numbered from one end to the other and lots of interesting features have gone.

Leonard's Corner
looking east to St. Kevin's church c. 1911

The Poddle river, which eventually flows into the Liffey, has been culverted since way back. Cathy showed us pictures of the no man's land laneways under which the river now flows.These pathways once represented parish boundaries and they have not been built on because, in theory at least, nobody owns the river.

We heard of industries such as the White Heather Laundry and its covert purchasing of rat poison; of the tramline which never quite reached Rialto; of the Wicklow widows who had married locals after coming to town for work; and of Monsignor Kennedy whose territory stretched from James's St. to Dolphin's Barn and who came to a sticky end after falling down the front steps of the Parochial House. I have a carte de visite picture of him from my granny's papers.

Leonard's Corner
looking west towards Dolphin's Barn c. 1911

The SCR at Leonard's Corner is intersected by Clanbrassil St. which was a major shopping street for the nearby Jewish community.

Much later, in the 1940s, a granduncle by marriage, and my godmother, lived in a house just out of shot at the left of the above picture. When they moved in it was a Jewish house, but as the Jews died off or emigrated and as the Christian family gradually took up more of the house, it ended up a fully Gentile house, but not before the family became accustomed to performing Shabbos Goy services for their co-tenants on their sabbath.

If you want to take a more systematic look at the SCR in 1911 you should read Cathy's book The South Circular Road, Dublin, on the eve of the First World War.

My own associations with the road are from a more modern era, as you will gather from the above. So I hope Cathy will revisit this area and bring us up to date on its later goings on.

A final remark: Cathy was not the only crosser of the Liffey in the context of the SCR; the road itself ends up on the north bank at Islandbridge.

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Monday, April 13, 2015

If ever you go ...

"Shaming the Custom House" Liberty Hall
Click on any image for a larger version

I have taken my title from a verse of Paddy Kavanagh's
If ever you go to Dublin town
In a hundred years or so
Inquire for me in Baggot Street 

And what I was like to know.
That was the title for last year's "One City, One Book" and John Dorman has taken some of the poems in the book and sketched the locations described in them.

His exhibition is currently in Raheny library till the end of the month (April). It is well worth a visit. The sketches incorporate buildings and maps of their environment, a sense of object and of place.

The one above is quite obviously Liberty Hall and the accompanying poem by Austin Clarke (below) only goes a small bit of the way to expressing how I feel about this monument to 1960s' hubris and pretentiousness. Anyway, give it a read yourself and see.

Poem written during the construction of Liberty Hall

Part of the exhibition in Raheny library

You can see more of Dorman's sketches on his website, both in this series and albums covering a wider range of subjects.

My own comment on Liberty Hall is fully captured in this visual (not in the exhibition !).

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Thursday, April 09, 2015

Cold Revenge

German WWII Defences, La Corbière (MP2) Jersey (CI)
Click on any image for a larger version

Once upon a time, a long time ago (1961) when I was working in Jersey (CI) I became aware of the Nazi occupation of the island covering the period 1940-45. The signs of the occupation were to be seen along part of the coast in the form of the observation towers and gun batteries which were to provide a "ring of steel" around the island.

Although more had been planned, only three towers were constructed before the end of the occupation: No.2 at La Corbière (shown above); No.3 at the north-west most tip of the island; and No.1 at Noirmont Point, overlooking St. Brelade's Bay.

It was this last one I chose for my suggestion that it be turned into a German museum with a certain amount of bells and whistles. I made the suggestion in a letter to the Jersey Evening Post, the island's only newspaper, and one which came through the occupation in grand style.

My letter suggesting a museum,
and the put down by G C H LE COCQ

I was quickly put down by G C H LE COCQ who was very insulted by my suggestion, and there the matter rested.

My recent comment to the Jersey Evening Post
and C Le Verdic's reply

Jumping forward to today, the Post reported recently that an archeological dig at Grouville had turned up a ceramic plate with a swastika on it. I was reminded of my 1961 suggestion and drew the paper's attention to it anew in a comment on their piece (above).

This evoked a reply from C Le Verdic as follows:
What a superbly penned put down from G.C.H. Le Cocq (not De Dotteville, then?) and what superb revenge has been served cold by Noirmont eventually getting your museum and, as far as I know, Le Cocq not getting his cross.

P.S. Well done keeping the cuttings. I would have done the same!
So I checked it out, and sure enough
The bunker has been restored to a very high standard and provides a unique insight into the sheer scale and thoroughness of German military engineering.
I'm sure it lacks some of my suggested bells and whistles but it is a restoration.

It is said that revenge is a dish best served cold and it is none the less sweet for a wait of over half a century.

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Monday, April 06, 2015

Father Browne

Father Frank Browne SJ
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I have never read any of his religious writings or heard any of his sermons. In fact, I have no interest whatsoever in them.

For me, he is simply a dedicated and pioneering photographer.

He achieved world fame for his photos from the first two legs of the Titanic's maiden voyage. It was only a refusal by his superiors that saved him from the last leg, which would most likely have meant we would have ended up with no photos at all.

Father Browne's room/lab at Emo (1931)

Photography was a passion for him all of his life and the above photo shows his room at the Jesuit house at Emo from 1930 to 1957. He had organised extra power points for his photographic equipment and also special blinds and curtains for his window so that it could be turned into a darkroom within seconds.

"Self under Anaesthetic" (1938)

But the photo above is really the point of my post. The ultimate "selfie". In 1938 he was taken into Vincent's Hospital for an appendectomy. He rigged up his camera in the operating theatre with a time delay on the shutter so that he could take his own photo while being anaesthetised. Now, that takes some beating for its day.

The Father Browne website is here. I have mentioned him before on this blog. And I would like to thank E E O'Donnell SJ and Messenger Publications for the above photos and information. The book is cleverly titled "The Life and Lens of Father Browne" and it is an inspiring read.

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Monday, March 30, 2015

Who dem bones?

W B Yeats by Augustus John
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I thought I had debunked the main potential scandal surrounding the island in Lough Gill in Sligo which is identified with W B Yeats's well known (& worn) poem The Lake Isle of Inisfree.

It was Inisfree before it was Rat Island and as far as the official record is concerned it has always been Innisfree.

But, following this year's Family History Day at DCLA I am reminded of another controversy that is far from solved. Anthony J Jordan reminded us that there is still doubt about whose bones are actually in the grave attributed to Yeats in the Drumcliff graveyard and that one raises this question locally at one's peril.

I'm sure there are many such cases around the world, but that one reminded me of one closer to home. In Yeats's case the bones had been moved from the original grave leading to the possibility of wrong identification when the Irish State finally decided to repatriate them from France in accordance with the poet's wishes.

The case I'm thinking of is not one of wrong identification but of the impossibility of identification following the removal of all the remains from St. Peter's church graveyard in Aungier St. to St. Luke's in the Coombe in 1980 (most) and 2003 (remainder).
The burials from the churchyard of St Peter’s, Aungier St (founded 1685) were exhumed by order of the RCB of the Church of Ireland, prior to private sale of that site. The work was carried out by Fanagans Funeral Directors in 1980, under an exhumation licence. The resulting work has been found to have been crudely carried out, by modern and archaeological standards. ‘Three hundred and six polythene bags of human bones, along with 31 timber crates, total representing c. 1,200 individuals, were taken to the crypts of St Luke’s church, and stored there. In addition, 19 lead coffins were placed here’ (Doyle 2001, 4). A block wall was constructed to safeguard the bones. This wall has since been breached, and the bones scattered over the south west area of the crypts.

The site of St Peter’s graveyard, Aungier St, was re- excavated in 2003. On present evidence, and prior to the strat graphic analysis, the date of the burials which remained in the graveyard of St Peter’s cannot be determined, due to the level of disturbance caused by the mechanical exhumation in 1980. More data may be forthcoming from the Consultant Osteoarchaeologist’s analysis of the remains.

The burials from St Peter’s which were placed in the crypts of St Luke’s are jumbled, and uncontexted, and it would not be possible to assemble the bones to individuals. In addition to the crude removal, and storage in groups in bags, the remains have been subsequently vandalised, and now constitute a vast charnel heap.

St. Luke's Conservation plan (2005) p66

I haven't yet checked out some of the famous people who might have been buried in St. Peter's and whose individual honouring is now moot.

There is one person I know was buried there, General Charles Vallancey. I am aware of him through his confrontations with Major Benjamin Fisher, who built the Martello Towers. Whether the General's bones were jumbled in the general confusion or whether he was in a lead coffin and is possibly still identifiable I don't know.

Coincidentally, I tweeted about him only recently in his capacity as a self promoting but delusional expert in the Irish language, and funnily enough that tweet was retweeted just this morning.

This morning's coincidental retweet

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Sunday, March 29, 2015

Family History Day 2015

Greg Young
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Family History Day in the Dublin City Library and Archive (DCLA) in Pearse Street is always a great occasion.

It gives a number of those who are pursuing their own family history, or that of others, an opportunity to present their results to a receptive audience. I have done three family history presentations on these occasions and they are a wonderful way of getting you to organise your material for getting it across to an audience. They also give you the incentive to quality control your research and to pursue further avenues that suggest themselves in the course of preparation.

DCLA, and Máire Kennedy in particular, are to be commended for providing this wonderful service.

And it is a service, not only to those who have results to present, but to others who are not quite there yet, and to those who have not yet started into this branch of research but who might be inspired to do so by days like these. Even for those who are not involved in research, and who don't intend to be, most of the presentations are sheer entertainment and an education in themselves.

Anyway, nuff pontificating and down to this year's event.

Greg Young, who has been in the family and local history area for a good few years now, kicked off the day with a talk on the Smyth family of Dublin who were parasol and umbrella makers. This had been the subject of his thesis for his Certificate in Local History, a course run by NUI Maynooth in collaboration with DCLA. I have commented on another student's output in an earlier blog post.

Greg's presentation was hugely interesting. His pursuit of the Smyth family brought us through the family's highs and lows: a new start up family business; expansion of the business and its extension to many city locations; it's decline and the descent of the family into poverty; the Bishop's religious prejudice which removed the children from their (non-denominational) schooling to be taken into care, an act which further fragmented the family. Make you sad and angry at the same time.

And then there was the product. The umbrella evolved from the parasol, from keeping off the sun to keeping off the rain. They were originally clumsy heavy things but Smyth's steel technology for the ribbed umbrella made them a more viable proposition. They were made on the premises and some of the locations crossed over with my own family's shoemaking traditions, such as at Wood Quay. In those days particular trades grouped in particular streets.

Greg was clearly anxious to give the best presentation possible. This was his first talk of this sort. He needn't have worried. The next step is the book.

Joan Sharkey

He was followed by Joan Sharkey, from Raheny Heritage Society. Joan is an old hand at this and for her contribution on this occasion she told us how she set about filling some apparently intractable gaps in her own family history.

She was chasing up missing Usshers (the family, not the theatrical employees). She took us on a fascinating trail of detective work, squeezing blood out of the stones of boring official records. Many of these were in the USA & Canada where some of the missing family members had ended up. She also relied heavily on the online records (subscription) of the Irish Petty Sessions (or what has now become the District Court). If someone appeared there, never mind what he was up for, she now knew that he existed and where he was at the time. And if, like me, you are still searching for an ordinary decent criminal (ODC) in the family this is clearly the place to go. This sort of stuff is addictive.

Conor Dodd

Conor Dodd, who is now working as a historian with The Glasnevin Trust, brought us up to date on the extensive range of data now available, principally about those buried in Prospect Cemetery in Glasnevin. The service now includes access to a genealogical advisor (part time) and he stressed that, in the normal course, people are only charged for what is found. So the Trust is actually going out of its way to encourage people to draw on its facilities.

He showed us how the various data sources are interrelated and outlined the richness and limits of what is available.

He also reminded us that the Trust is a private venture which is dependent on the income it raises from its activities. This has not stopped it from undertaking, in recent years, a major cleanup/restoration in Glasnevin cemetery in order to bring it back to the state envisaged by its founders. The "Garden Cemetery" concept is coming back in. So if you are contemplating a leisurely stroll of a Sunday afternoon, there's no better place to go. (I have to declare an interest here, I love graveyards - well, most of them).

Anthony J Jordan

Anthony J Jordan gave us the run down on the Yeats family. It was at times hilarious, at others sad, and at yet others outrageous. That WB fella seems to have been an insufferable individual, though Anthony did more or less persuade us that he wrote great poetry.

You will notice the absence of a screen in the above shot. Anthony gave us an old style presentation regaling us with stories for the imagination in which the imagined illustrations went well beyond the capacity of a Powerpoint screen.

He told us it was quite late when he came across the controversy over WB's bones (ie whose bones are in the grave in Drumcliff). He recounted how, when he gave a talk on the subject in Sligo, he was accused of undermining tourism in the county. A bucket collection for a DNA test would seem to me to have been a more appropriate reaction. But there you are. Leave well enough alone and to hell with the begrudgers.

James Curry

The final session was on the Fitzpatrick family and the satirical journal "The Lepracaun" produced over a decade at the beginning of the twentieth century by Thomas Fitzpatrick.

James Curry is co-author of a book on Thomas Fitzpatrick and The Lepracaun which was launched at this very spot just a month ago. Thomas's cartoons were beautifully drawn and took a poke at hypocrisy in high places and the various pecadillos of politicians and other very important people. Thomas's death in 1912 was headline news and the poor, who he always stood up for, were caught up in a combination of grief and pride on that occasion.

James replayed a first class short video about the book which Philip Bromwell made for RTÉ.

Appropriately enough for a family history occasion, James reminded us that Thomas's artistic and cartooning skills have now passed down to a fourth generation.

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Monday, March 23, 2015

EU Flagging

French Embassy Dublin, July 2008
Link to blogpost

I am seriously pissed off with the upside down flying of the EU flag. I have drawn attention to this many times both on this blog and on my website. Just to illustrate the scale of the offence I have pulled all those previous observations together into this post with links to where I raised matters originally.

There is one new one, spotted by Vivion Mulcahy, on the European Parliament's Facebook page today. This is a second strike for the Parliament, as you will see below. And remember, these are only the occasions I (or Vivion) happened to have noticed over the last while. God knows how many more there are out there, both noticed and un-noticed by others. On one occasion I had to convince an EU ambassador that it was actually possible to fly the flag upside down. And believe you me that took a lot of convincing.

The whole thing is a bit ironic given the extent to which the EU Commission insists on very precise signage on all EU-funded projects throughout the Union.

You can click on most images for a larger version.

Hungarian Embassy Dublin, September 2008
Link to blogpost

EU Commission Office, Dublin, May 2012
Link to blogpost

Sinn Féin video, May 2012
Link to blogpost

TG4 & Phoenix Magazine, January 2013
Link to blogpost

European Parliament, carried in online edition of
Irish Independent, 28 May 2013

Link to blogpost

Sásta Festival, Wexford Town, June 2013
Link to item on my website

Wyatville Road, Ballybrack, July 2013
Photo: Niall O'Donoghue

Link to blogpost

Irish Times online edition 13 August 2013
Link to blogpost

Kylemore Abbey, August 2013
Photo: Vivion Mulcahy

Link to blogpost

European Parliament, Luxembourg Square, Brussels
on Euro Parliament Facebook page, 23 March 2015,
spotted by Vivion Mulcahy

Link to EU Facebook post

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Friday, March 20, 2015


That Sleeve, designed by Gráinne Ghleoite
Click on any image for a larger version

I had occasion recently to search through my remaining few vinyl LPs to see if I had a copy of Téanam Ort, a first recording by a Dublin Irish language folk group called TŶ BACH. The LP was recorded in a studio in the heart of Belfast at the height of the troubles in 1974. I had got a copy because I was involved in the recording as a fiddle playing extra member of the group for the duration.

I had rehearsed with the group in the intimacy of one of their sitting rooms and still vividly remember the shock when we went into studio and were placed miles apart. This, no doubt, suited the recording crew who wanted four virgin tracks for the mix, but it didn't suit me as I couldn't relate to the rest of the group being in the next parish, so to speak. I think that arrangement took somewhat from the gusto and group sound but, nevertheless, it was an LP and as such a fairly status item in its time.

Two of the members of TŶ BACH on the Eisteddfod Field:
Gearóid on guitar and Colm on mandolin

As you might read on the record sleeve, if you had one, the group was formed after the musicians in question, Colm, Gearóid and Ken, had paid a visit to the 1973 Welsh National Eisteddfod in Ruthin in North Wales.

Gearóid & Colm again,
with third member, Ken (in red), in the background

The musicians went down a bomb both on the field and in some of the pubs around the town. The wider group of Irish who went to the Eisteddfod from Craobh Móibhí of Conradh na Gaeilge had also practiced some modern Welsh protest songs, yn Gymraeg and in part harmony, and this also made a great impression as the Welsh normally sang this class of song in unison and most of them would have been very dicey on the words beyond the first verse.

The Tracks

The tracks on the record were a mixture of traditional Irish ballads, some new protest songs and some taken from a store of modern Welsh songs.

Donnchadh Ó Súilleabháin

I can't bring up the 1973 Eisteddfod without mentioning Donnchadh Ó Súilleabháin, who, as General Secretary of Oireachtas na Gaeilge, was responsible for the Oireachtas stand (above) on the Eisteddfod field. He was also responsible for me going to Coláiste Mhuire, a fully Irish medium school, for my primary and secondary education though there was nary a word of Irish in my family.

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Thursday, March 19, 2015

A Question of Trust

REBLOGGED from RetiredAndAngry

‘Independent’ child abuse inquiries: A question of trust?
Posted on August 12, 2014 by retiredandangry

A Guest Blog by Chris Hobbs

The issue in relation to possible, systematic child abuse by establishment figures, has, over the last forty years, been like a bad penny which has appeared time and time again only to be buried on each occasion by a surfeit of loose change before making another unwelcome appearance.

When I was a young Met officer in the 80’s, every policeman and woman in London knew of rumours surrounding Cyril Smith and we all waited for something to happen but it never did. As is becoming apparent, Cyril Smith may well be the very large tip of a very large iceberg. The question is whether enquiries announced by the Government will succeed in their objectives or indeed whether establishment figures in the Government actually want every skeleton to be laid bare given the fact that obtaining the decision to hold any form of meaningful enquiry was very much akin to pulling teeth.

What is becoming apparent is that the keys which may help unlocking the truth of any establishment cover up could well be in possession of retired police officers together with those employed by MI5 and indeed other government employees including customs officers and Home Office civil servants.

Already there are clear signs of cracks appearing in the establishment dam: Lancashire Special Branch officer Tony Robinson stated that in 1977 he was compelled to hand over a file containing allegations against Cyril Smith to MI5 referred to by all Special Branch officers as Box 500.

Paul Foulston, a detective with the Thames Valley force, claims that an attempt was made by Special Branch officers to prevent him from interviewing a young man in relation to a murder enquiry. Foulston and a colleague interviewed him anyway and were told of Smith’s sexual activities with young men.

In the 1980’s Don Hale, described as a young campaigning editor in Bury, was handed a file compiled by MEP and well known Labour party figure, Barbara Castle. It allegedly contained the names of 16 “high profile” politicians who supported the aims of the Paedophile Information Exchange. Hale stated that his office was raided by Special Branch officers who confiscated the file and threatened him with ‘jail’ if he printed anything in relation to Barbara Castle’s dossier. Hale also stated that Cyril Smith visited his office the day before informing him that the allegations were ‘poppycock.’

Recently retired former Detective Chief Inspector Clive Driscoll gained legendary status when he led the enquiry which saw two of Stephen Lawrence’s killers, David Norris and Gary Dobson, imprisoned. DCI Driscoll’s reward for ensuring there was some justice for Stephen and Stephen’s family was to be forcibly retired from the Metropolitan Police. Doubtless those who made this decision, which infuriated Doreen Lawrence, would have poured over his personnel file which may well have contained details of his ‘falling out’ with senior officers in the 1990’s

Clive Driscoll’s investigations into possible child abuse within children’s homes in Lambeth during this time revealed the names of suspects who were politicians. Sharing these allegations with senior officers was enough to get him moved off the case. He had little choice but to hand over the relevant file upon his departure which has contributed to the current speculation that this was yet another cover up to protect establishment figures.

Most recently Barry Strevens, Margaret Thatcher’s Special Branch bodyguard for many years, revealed that he privately warned Mrs Thatcher of rumours concerning Sir Peter Morrison, Mrs Thatcher’s trusted aide, and his predilection for young boys. Those rumours originally emanated from a senior Cheshire police officer.

Theresa May and her advisers will be as aware of the above facts as anyone else and these facts, when added to the missing files in the Home Office, can only pour petrol on the bonfire of cover up allegations.

It seems obvious that many of these allegations would have found their way into the domain of the police. Within the Met, Special Branch was regarded as the safe pair of hands, albeit a reluctant one, for sensitive issues; even those which did not strictly fall within their remit. Files, such as those ‘lost’ by the Home office’ could well have come into the possession of Special Branch either as originals or as copies either directly or via MI5. In addition further reports may well have been placed on Special Branch or other police files in relation to relevant allegations, intelligence or even just rumours.

The reputation the Metropolitan Police Special Branch (MPBB) had for ‘not leaking’ was probably behind Margaret Thatcher’s firm assertion that the MPSB’s ‘A’ Squad, which protected leading politicians and other VIP’s, would not be merged with other police units including royalty protection. Barry Strevens was then a popular, highly regarded senior officer within ‘A’ squad.

It may well be that amongst other former ‘A’ squad officers there could well be held details of the indiscretions of politicians they were protecting. It extremely likely that where such indiscretions bordered on legality or which could have resulted in a public scandal they would have been reported by the officers themselves in which case details would have been placed on secret files.

The question is whether police files belonging to any force and containing potentially damaging allegations can be readily detected if indeed they haven’t been destroyed. Derbyshire’s Chief Constable Mick Creedon was able to secure access to a number of sensitive files in relation to his enquiry in respect of MPSB’s undercover policing operations.

However damaging reports in relation to establishment figures could well have been placed in files which themselves were given innocuous titles that would make them difficult to locate. The Met originally seemed to indicate that they are in possession of some files before such admissions disappeared behind a wall of obfuscation.

If we look at the number of officers who were just involved in the events mentioned above which are now in the public domain, and then add on others ‘with knowledge’ such as supervisors, the senior officers probably up to Commissioner/Chief Constable level and indeed those who actually handled and minuted the relevant documents and files together with police staff (civilians) responsible for indexing and filing then we already have a significant number of individuals who could provide valuable assistance to any enquiry.

Of course there are probably other relevant documents, files, intelligence reports and even crime book entries that have not come into the public domain all of which will have passed through the hands of police officers and possibly police staff at all levels in a variety of police forces.

The statement by such an esteemed former retired officer as Barry Strevens may well put other present and former officer’s minds at rest, at least to some extent. Barry could hardly have gone any higher in the chain of command with his concerns than to the Prime Minister herself.

‘Officers with knowledge’ however would be indulging in a form of whistleblowing and, those officers whether serving or retired, will be only too well aware that whistleblowing in the police service can be most kindly described as a lottery.

They would have seen former colleagues treated appallingly after they had reported wrongdoing or poor operational decision making and been aware of the dubious elements operating within the Professional Standards Departments of many forces. It is those ‘PSD’s who are the police who investigate the police.

Past and present officers would be considering the worst case scenario if they came forward with information. There would be an appointment with investigating officers probably of DC or DS rank who would have been allocated the task as an action. The resultant statement or report would be passed to a middle ranking or senior officer for consideration. In most cases this would be expedited in the usual way, however there is a not insignificant chance that an ambitious officer looking to enhance his or her CV and climb up the police career ladder, could well closely scrutinise the statement/report in order to see whether the officer, by failing to come forward earlier, may have committed an offence.

This could be one of “conspiracy to pervert the course of justice” or, the once rarely used but now extremely popular “misconduct in public office.” The matter may be pursued by the squad itself or passed to the force PSD. There then could be a ‘career enhancing’ early morning raid where laptops, desk tops, tablets, mobile phones, documents and even a moribund ancient Kodak instamatic lying dormant in the attic would be seized.

Further enquiries including the examination of seized articles would go on for months before the file is passed to the ‘independent’ Crown Prosecution Service where again the file would sit for months. Even if it were considered that the case would have not a snowballs chance in hell of surviving an examination by a jury, that individuals life and indeed that of his family, would be in shreds.

Those outside the police service and other public service employees such as the NHS may well find the above scenario implausible but police whistleblowers such as James Patrick, Dave Mckelvey, Brian Casson and Howard Shaw would beg to differ. Those in any doubt can simply Google the above names in conjunction with ‘police.’

Even the arrest of one serving or retired officer would be hugely advantageous to those in the establishment who have no desire to see any form of enquiry. Those in the process of considering whether to come forward would then see any such action as a pointless and dangerous exercise.

This, of course, leads us into the argument as whether there should be some form of amnesty for those officers ‘with knowledge’ of events, documents or any other form of information which could be relevant. Peter Garsden, president of the Association of Child Abuse Lawyers, said, quite rightly that any amnesty would need to be carefully put together. He pointed out that this couldn’t apply to any police officer who was actually part of a paedophile ring and of course he is absolutely correct.

There would have to be a line in the sand drawn and it can be argued that any amnesty consideration should be applied to those who were ‘with knowledge’ of a cover up rather than those who actually instigated or ordered that cover up or were actively involved in abuse activities themselves. It could well be that few, if indeed any, police officers from either Chief Constable/Commissioner rank down to a ‘lowly’ constable would thus be accountable if those who actually instigated the cover up were at the highest levels of government, the civil service or from elsewhere within the establishment.

Any such instructions would have been passed to Chief Officers either directly or perhaps via MI5 and thence down the ladder to those officers, such as those carrying out the raid on the Bury newspaper, as described above. It is surely by working their way back up that ladder that investigators will establish from where these instructions came, whether from the highest levels of government or perhaps from within the police service itself.

Rank and file police officers back in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s had a deep, unconcealed, loathing of paedophiles and any instructions to cover up such activity would have been deeply resented. Those arguing against an amnesty will argue that those officers and other officials should have spoken out or ‘whistleblown’; they will also state that the argument, ‘we were only obeying orders,’ can never be sustainable.

My own analogy would be to liken the plight of the concerned officer to that of a lone, non-swimming’ passenger on the deserted deck of a fast moving ocean liner who suddenly sees another passenger falling overboard.

It would be an utterly pointless exercise for that individual to respond by diving over the side himself in what would be a fruitless attempt to effect a rescue.

Such was the situation faced by police officers in during this period. Any attempt at whistleblowing would possibly have resulted in that individual being prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act and even then there would be no guarantee of the issue in question being exposed. ‘D’ notices could have been employed to thwart any publication or, more likely a discreet phone call to the editor in question. Attempts to raise concerns internally would have been slapped down with dire warnings of disciplinary proceedings and instructions to ‘obey orders.’ That officer’s career would then be permanently tainted or totally ruined.

For those who may well pour scorn on the above, they should be reminded that even in the enlightened era of the 21st century to this very day, police, NHS and civil service whistleblowers have a torrid time if they attempt to raise concerns either internally or externally. Promises in relation to NHS whistleblowers have proved worthless and it would be a foolish officer indeed who places his faith in new whistleblowing protocols laid down by the College Of Policing. Even if official sanctions are not viable every rank and file police officer is familiar with the term, “doing his (or her) legs.”

The next question those ‘with knowledge’ will be asking themselves is in relation to the veracity of the relevant enquiry which has not got off to a great start with the appointment and then resignation of Baroness Butler-Sloss. They will remember the fate of David Kelly, arguably the most famous whistleblower who allegedly committed suicide after his identity was revealed as the individual who articulated concerns about the Government’s Iraq policy to journalist Andrew Gilligan. They will also remember dubious machinations around the subsequent Hutton enquiry.

The fact that the Chilcott Iraq Enquiry Report is still unpublished due, it would seem, to the joint efforts of both major parties, will again hardly boost the confidence of those ‘with knowledge.’ Even when the final report is it revealed, it is likely to contain omissions which, had Sir John Chilcott had his way, would be published in full. With tragic events unfolding in Iraq, most would view the reports publication in its original entirety as desirable, yet it could be that what is now a humanitarian disaster approaching biblical proportions makes this possibility even more remote.

Even the Leveson enquiry was tainted by claims that the Met had claimed a ‘public interest immunity certificate’ which prevented the disclosure of a report which allegedly contained details of improper behaviour by a very senior officer.

We have already seen that recent child abuse disclosures in relation to political figures have damaged all three parties. All parties will realise however that major political damage will be sustained by whoever is perceived to have actually instigated and orchestrated any cover up. Little wonder that efforts will be made to ensure that a few details as possible will emerge before the next general election.

Concerns of those ‘with knowledge’ will hardly have been allayed by the treatment of John Vine, the governments ‘Independent Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration’ who may now never obtain his deserved knighthood.

John Vine’s role could be described as a permanent enquiry into the shortcomings of the UK Border Agency and UK Border Force. Let’s remember the word independent here, as with the forthcoming enquiry into child abuse.

John Vine’s reports were frequently both thorough and damning and articulated the concerns of front line officers. There seems little doubt that this irritated the Home Office who began manipulating and then actually redacting sections of reports on spurious national security grounds; John Vine of course, would need no lessons from the Home Office on factors that presented a threat national security.

That John Vine’s independent status was undermined and Sir John Chilcott’s report will not be presented as he would have wanted it, can only lead to the conclusion that the announced and already troubled ‘independent’ enquiries could also be interfered with and manipulated especially when it comes to presenting the final report if that report was found to be damaging to political and establishment interests.

What is clear is that the terms of references of any enquiry need to include some form of guarantees for police officers, police staff, MI5 personnel and civil servants whether serving or retired who ‘have knowledge.’

Those individuals, mistrustful of contacting the police or the enquiry direct should also be able to approach an impartial gateway which will secure their interests before contact with police or the enquiry is made. This, as stated above, will not protect those who have been involved directly in paedophile rings and indeed it is regrettable that the shameful way police forces have treated ‘whistleblowers’ and the discreditable conduct of elements within force PSD’s including the Met’s Department of Professional Standards, makes this necessary.

Those ‘with knowledge’ may regard whistlebowing to the media as the preferred option. The clumsy and failed attempt by the Met to use the Official Secrets Act in 2011 to get the Guardian to reveal sources plus the fallout from the Leveson enquiry may inhibit potential whistleblowers from contacting the mainstream media.

Another option could be the online Exaro investigative news website which has fought a relentless campaign against child abuse cover up with the result that many obstacles placed in its way by officialdom have been overcome. It even managed to secure the support of more than 100 MP’s from all parties which has played no small part in forcing the governments hand in relation to inquiries.

It is clearly prepared to ‘die in a ditch’ over the issue and it is hard to see them ‘giving up’ a bona fide whistleblower in any circumstances.

Even with all suggested safeguards in place however together with the persistent watchfulness of Exaro, there will still be doubts as to the whether the political will exists for such inquiries given the potential damage the results may cause. This in turn will result in there being constant public suspicion that establishment interests will attempt to manipulate both the enquiry and the final report.

Courtesy of Chris Hobbs (retired ex-Met)

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Wednesday, March 18, 2015


I posted a comment on The Story blog some time back relating my own experience operating Freedom of Information legislation in its early days in Ireland.

There have been a lot of developments in this area since then and I have not kept up with them. In general it seems the system has been made more difficult and expensive for those seeking information although there are lots of promises around to reverse this negative trend.

In any event, I thought it might be interesting for people to have an insider's view, however brief, of how this operated in the beginning. So I have reproduced my original comment below.

I dealt with a number of FOI requests pre-2000, including one on a very high profile issue.

I operated the Act as I thought it had been intended: maximum release consistent with things like commercial sensitivity, cabinet confidentiality, privileged legal advice, etc. Fees were nugatory, if charged, which in most cases were not.

As a citizen, but clearly with inside knowledge of the process, I thought it worked well on a number of fronts. For example, it made a lot of information, which could be avoided being given in Parliamentary Questions, available, by right, to the requester. An aspect which was not often touched on was the protection it provided for the individual releasing the information. Without it they would have been in contravention of the Official Secrets Act. It was also of some use to whistleblowers who could prime a requester to seek information which they could then release with impunity.

As a civil servant dealing with requests, it drove me insane. Even with the best will in the world, records were not held then in a form which made finding and providing them easy. Filing systems were on a totally different basis which had not anticipated FOI. Most records were hard copy and a far cry from the push-button compilation imagined by the public. No additional resources were made available to those processing requests and simultaneously juggling the day job. The use made by journalists of material, which took a lot of resources to assemble and often contained very meaty material, was often derisory. I recall one file, which took a lot of compiling, simply resulting in the publication of a photo (not included in the file) of a former Supreme Court judge in a pair of shorts on a pier in Kerry. That said, I did have dealings with what I consider serious journalists and I think, in those cases, we ended up mutually respecting each other.

So, overall, my attitude was one of welcome for the 1998 FOI, particularly from the point of view of the citizen.

I’m penning this just to get one person’s thoughts from both sides of the fence on the record.

I don’t have any significant experience of implementing FOI post 2000, but I can imagine that must have been a period of serious retrenchment. The original act was drawn up by Eithne FitzGerald who knew exactly what she was doing, but many of her colleagues didn’t and many of them and their successors were subsequently appalled at how it operated in practice.

Certainly, for a brief period, at any rate, it looked like it was changing the culture. You have been using it since and would be the better judge of how it has now turned out.

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