Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

Category: Sunday Island

Michael White’s The Venetian Detective


This article appeared in the Sunday Island on May 15 2016





This fragrant isle gets a mention in Michael White’s new book. One of the hero’s friends, Lord Pinelli, has a manservant called Ajith who is from India. Another servant, who generally answers the door, is called Pius, named as an insult to the Pope of that name. Pius was originally from the jungles of Borneo and no-one is quite sure how he came to be in a Venetian noblemen’s house in 1592. There is speculation that he arrived on a Portuguese spice ship from Taprobane. Pius is an orang-utan.



As in Equinox, his first novel, in this new book, The Venetian Detective, Michael White uses the vehicle of the detective novel to explore unexpected connections between the rational development of modern scientific practice and alchemy, occultism, necromancy and religion. Mixed in with that is a gumbo of political intrigue and rivalry, papal dominance versus Venetian republican libertarianism, drug dealing and prostitution. There is also a love story.

Michael White is a British writer based in Australia. Born in 1959, he studied at King’s College London (1977-1982) and was a Chemistry lecturer at d’Overbroeck’s College, Oxford (1984-1991). He used to be a rock star with Colour Me Pop and the Thompson Twins – I saw them live at Hammersmith Palais in the 1980s.  He now lives in Perth, Australia. He is a bestselling author of 39 books, selling over 4 million copies in 40 languages and has appeared on TV and Radio around the world. He has been a science editor of British GQ, and a columnist for the London Sunday Express. He moved to Australia in 2002 and was made an Honorary Research Fellow at Curtin University in 2005.


Michael White’s books include, Stephen Hawking: A Life in ScienceLeonardo: The First ScientistTolkien: A Biography; and C. S. Lewis: The Boy Who Chronicled Narnia and a biography of Isaac Newton The Last Sorcerer. His first novel Equinox – an occult mystery thriller (with far better writing than Dan Brown’s) reached the Top Ten bestseller list in the UK and has been translated into 35 languages. His most recent non-fiction book is Galileo: Antichrist, a biography of the great scientist and religious radical. Novels following Equinox include: The Medici SecretThe Borgia Ring and The Art of Murder. A further novel features Galileo and Elizabeth I. White has also written novels under the pseudonyms Sam Fisher and Tom West and collaborated on a novel with James Patterson. He has been both short-listed and long-listed for the Aventis prize – Rivals short-listed in 2002 and The Fruits of War long-listed in 2006. He was also nominated for the Ned Kelly Prize for First Novel (for Equinox).

The book opens: “Venice. Ten Minutes Past Midnight, 10th of November, 1592” with two masked and black-cloaked figures lurking in the shadows of the alleyways by the canals, “their footfalls dampened by practice”. The taller of the two men, called here Saviour “could smell blood before he saw it”. The other man is here called Sin Eater. They are looking for a beautiful prostitute called Antoinette Perugino at Alfonzo’s bordello. The diabolic duo witness Antoinette being attacked by a tall man with a cane and being rescued by a squat burly man. She escapes from those two only to have her throat cut by Saviour and Sin Eater.

This is the first of a series of ritualistic murders that the eponymous Venetian Detective investigates. Serial killing leads to mass murder and an orgy of violence. The detective is Doctor Francesco Sagredo who has returned to Venice at the insistence of the current Doge, Pasquale Cicogna, after fifteen years of exile. Many tales have come back to Venice of Sagredo’s adventures and accomplishments, enough to make his rival Niccolo Celsi intensely jealous “The girls are calling him the new Marco Polo”.

The Doge’s son, the foul-mouthed and low-living Tomasso Cicogna, was Sagredo’s comrade in arms at the Battle of Lepanto and becomes his assistant in his new career as a detective, Lewis to Sagredo’s Morse. There are knowingly anachronistic nods towards modern detectives. Like Sherlock Holmes and Adrian Monk Sagredo, dismisses any thought that he has special powers, that he is a wizard: “It is simply deductive reasoning, looking at the evidence before your eyes and drawing logical conclusions that fit the observed facts”. Sagredo has a Gil Grissom-like tendency to say things like “The dead may indeed speak” and “Follow the evidence, the evidence does not lie”. His forensic techniques, as well as his medical practices – which deviate from the then standard prescription of leeches, mercury and horse excrement – lead some to fear that he is dabbling in the occult. He has learnt arcane lore from wise men in Nepal and alarms people when they witness him practising yoga and meditation.

Historical figures like Caravaggio, Hans Lippershey, Giordano Bruno and Galileo make guest appearances. There is also a knowing nod towards our 21st Century celebrity culture in the magazine published by Titus Rinilto.

The book has been optioned for a TV dramatization and there are many meaty roles for experienced actors – Maggie Smith would make a good Violetta Celsi – “corroded by her own excoriating vitriol”. Perhaps Hugh Jackman would make a good Sagredo. Trevor Peacock could be Carlo Perugino. Either Alan Rickman or Ian Richardson would have been perfect for Niccolo Celsi but sadly they have both left us. I would nominate Nick Dunning (Thomas Boleyn in The Tudors) for the role of Cardinal Severino. It is easy to imagine it a visual treat with the camera lingering on the Venetian buildings as the Morse dramatizations relished the ancient structures of Oxford. There will be plenty of sinister atmosphere in the canals and narrow passageways, as in Don’t Look Now. There will be a feast of colourful costumes, as in The Borgias and The Tudors.” “The gold leaf and the beggars, the smell of church incense and bilge, the gaudy ladies of high society…the winding lanes and the houses flat-faced and daubed in a beautiful cacophony of colour, the maze-like routes from one point to another, the market stalls and shops stinking of fish or blood-dripping poultry”. There is an orgy scene around page 197 which will go down well on the screen.

This book has inspired me to delve some more into the history of Venice. I read James (Jan) Morris’s book on Venice before my own brief visit to the city a long time ago and  I am now inspired to read it again. The brilliant literary critic Tony Tanner has long been one of my intellectual heroes. His book Venice Desired examines Venice in the light of the influence it has had on diverse writers over the centuries. While researching my own travel piece on Venice, Venice and Death, I found much of interest in the work of ground-breaking historian Ferdinand Braudel.


Michael White’s book The Venetian Detective is a fine achievement, providing much intellectual stimulation and evocative prose alongside the thrills of the historical mystery.






Hugh Thomson at the Galle Literary Festival 2016

The Thwaites Wainwright Award May 8th 2014 at The Royal College of Surgeon's England. Won by author Hugh Thomson for his book 'The Green Road into the Trees'.

It’s not about the quality of the journey; it’s the quality of the writing.

The Galle Literary Festival is back in business. The festival was founded in 2005 by Anglo-Australian hotelier Geoffrey Dobbs and last took place in 2012. Those attending GLF in 2012 included Tom Stoppard, Aminatta Forna, Richard Dawkins, Simon Sebag Montefiore and David Thompson. Tickets for the 2016 event, which takes place from January 13th to 17th, are due to go on sale from the first two weeks in December. The first list of participants was released on November 11 and the full programme will be announced at the end of November.

Among those participating in January 2016 is the multi-talented Hugh Thomson. I would like to introduce him to Sri Lankan readers who are not familiar with his work. Hugh is a veteran of the literary festival circuit and has previously been invited to Hay-on-Wye, Edinburgh, Oxford and Cheltenham. His most recent book, The Green Road into the Trees: A Walk through England, won the inaugural Thwaites Wainwright Prize for Nature and Travel Writing. Dame Fiona Reynolds, the chair of the panel of judges, described the book as “a narrative journey spiced with humour and anecdote, gritty reality and evocation of place and history.” I have just read the book and agree with Dame Fiona. Hugh himself says: “The thing about The Green Road is the idea of treating your own country as a foreign country. A travel journal can be written about anywhere. It’s not about the quality of the journey; it’s the quality of the writing.”

green road

Hugh has certainly led an exciting life. He’s ridden, driven and hiked across Mexico, Peru, Bolivia, the Himalayas and Afghanistan and cruised down the Amazon. I have been to some of the places described in Hugh’s books and, although his explorations have been more adventurous than mine, the books bring back memories for me. When he was just 22, Hugh led his first expedition to the Peruvian Andes looking for a site that had become lost following its initial discovery.  In 2002 he co-led the expedition which discovered the Inca site of Cota Coca and returned to Peru in 2003, making extensive finds at Llactapata, near Machu Picchu. I can vouch that Hugh’s first book, The White Rock: An Exploration of the Inca Heartland, is an enthralling read. It was the result of a twenty-year long quest to explore and understand the Peruvian Andes in the area beyond Machu Picchu.


If you want a quick taste of Hugh’s writing on Peru I can recommend a Kindle Single which was released on October 11 2015 and costs only $4.99. Two Men and a Mule: The Last City of the Incas, is a brief account of an expedition to Peru undertaken by Hugh with fellow explorer Benedict Allen and a sympathetic mule called Washington. The short work gives a brief reprise of some of Hugh’s previous visits to Peru and provides an introduction to a BBC Radio 4 series, for which they travel down from the high Andes towards the Amazon basin and Espíritu Pampa, the pampa of ghosts, the very last city of the Incas, built at the lowest level of the cloud forest, almost in the jungle. It was here that Tupac Amaru and his pregnant wife were captured by the conquistadores and later brutally executed.


History comes alive in the current day experiences of the three intrepid explorers. They meet many interesting characters on the way. At one point, they stayed at the home of Don Juvenal Cobos, who helped American explorer Gene Savoy uncover Espiritu Pampa in 1964.
I have memories of consuming in the Andes what seemed to be dog and dishwater soup out of cracked blue plastic bowls. Benedict has learnt to be tolerant in his eating habits, so the local delicacy of guinea pig is no problem: “I did try camel once. It was tough, Very tough”. Thomson fears for Washington’s state of mind and has a private chat with him: “He was in a little bog that he clearly liked and was looking particularly sweet, ears twitching, happy after a good night of grazing and munching on the lush pasture”. Thomson told the mule that he knew of Allen’s reputation for eating his travelling companions (camel, mule) but he would not let that happen to Washington. “I felt he was telling me that, whatever happened, he wouldn’t let Benedict eat me either”.

tuking in
Thomson tries to explain his own fascination with Peruvian history. Something about the Inca sites made him, even on his first visit at the age of 21, aware of his own mortality. Benedict, who has crossed the Gobi desert and travelled the Arctic with a dog team, finds Peru a new experience. In other places he got the feeling that exploration was coming to an end. “Here you’re in the amazing position where you can still find cities, or at least ruins.”
There are vivid descriptions of the high mountains and of the steaming jungles, “Where fruit such as mango, granadilla or papaya grew, bright yellow mountain tanagers, one of the most frugiverous of Andean birds, gathered in gregarious groups”. One can sense the serpents lurking in the undergrowth and the appalling insects fastening on to one’s blood vessels. There are compensations for the discomforts. “The call of the oropendola bird… a long looping noise best described as being like water being flushed down a pipe”. Hugh is not being ungallant when he says this reminds him of his wife. The sound had enchanted her too.

Tequila Oil: Getting Lost in Mexico, was an account of an early journey through Mexico in a classic Oldsmobile 98.  It was serialised by BBC Radio 4. Another of Thomson’s books, 50 Wonders of the World: The Greatest Man-made Constructions from the Pyramids of Giza to the Golden Gate Bridge, is only 200 pages long but the format is coffee table, bigger than The Times Atlas. Hugh says it “would actually make quite a nice coffee table in itself if you put legs on it.”

Nanda Devi: A Journey to the Last Sanctuary is about the sanctuary on the border between Tibet and India, long closed to all visitors by the Indian government. For his BBC TV series, Indian Journeys, Hugh collaborated with former GLF attendee William Dalrymple to make three ambitious films about India, winning the Grierson Prize for Best Documentary Series.  More recently he collaborated with Jonathan Dimbleby to make another major series for the BBC, this time on Russia.

He was BAFTA-nominated for his ten-hour series Dancing in the Street: A Rock and Roll History, which set out to tell the epic story of the “devil’s own music” from its beginnings in the 1950s to the present day. It took four years to make and went on to win numerous awards for the BBC around the world. His passion for documentaries led him to be a founding member of Doc/Fest; an international documentary festival in Sheffield described as the Cannes of the documentary world. It’s still expanding after 21 years.

I have long been planning to write about cruise ships, so I found Hugh’s Kindle Single, At The Captain’s Table: Life on a Luxury Liner, full of useful information. Hugh provides some great tips on getting the most out of a city in one day. The Captain’s Table shows what it’s like to travel “…round the world the soft way.”


Thomson’s vast array of experience makes him a resource for aspiring writers. He has tutored on a variety of courses for organisations including Arvon and Bristol University. “I enjoy teaching,” he says. “It’s a chance to re-engage.” Hugh is now working on his first novel, which is set in Peru. I asked him what else he had been up to of late and it seems he is pursuing that RL Stevenson Travels with a Donkey theme.  He told me that he had “been in the middle of doing this quixotic trip with a mule across the North of England for my next book”.
With his experience of broadcasting and his knowledge of travel writing as well as his fund of anecdotes about his own travel, Hugh is likely to be a star attraction at GLF 2016. Book early to avoid disappointment.


This article appeared in the Sunday Island on 21 November 2015.


A Review of Su Dharmapala’s Saree


This article was published in the Sunday Island on June 8 2014


Saree is, first of all, an entertainment, and a very entertaining one at that. I can visualise it as an engrossing television miniseries. Most of the characters are memorable and vividly drawn. There are many of them. One could amuse oneself by trying to decide which actors would be best suited to the different roles. There is much opportunity here for thespian employment.

Like one of the great 19th century novels, the plot travels over a number of locations, from rural Sri Lanka in the early 1980s, to contemporary Melbourne. There are a number of coincidences and chance meetings, such as one might find in Dickens or Fielding. The plot is complex and, like the eponymous garment, expertly woven. There are six, almost discrete, stories, linked by the saree of the title, and by a number of the characters, over a number of years. Ms Dharmapala’s technical virtuosity is such that in Saree the portmanteau structuring device does not irritate and one soon forgets about the scaffolding as the lives of the characters speed one from page to page.


Different characters tell us what is special about this particular saree. “It is a bride’s saree. But it is neither gold nor white. The silk is so pure I have never seen anything like it. See those are real sapphires along the hem, and gold thread makes up the peacock’s feathers!” “The valuer counted over three hundred sapphires alone in the peacock..and the rubies used for the eyes are worth five thousand dollars. The thread used to embroider the bottom edge is dipped in gold..there’s about a kilogram of twenty-four carat gold in the saree.” Although it was heavy, the weight was so evenly distributed that it flowed like a silk ribbon in the air.

The garment sometimes seems to have magical powers. A Muslim trader says: “Just before I bought it, there had been terrible trouble between the Hindus and the Muslims here in Lucknow. Lootings. Riots….Ever since I put her saree in my shop window, not a single thug has darkened my doorstep”. Sarojini looked at the saree: “It was fluidity and beauty married into one. And it was delicately finished too. There wasn’t a single thread out of place and every stitch of embroidery was perfect.” She thought of a favourite poem describing how the Ganges brought grace and knowledge to all of humanity through her life-giving force. When Sarojini draped the saree on herself, “She knew she had control over her life. Unlike the many thousands of women who had no control of their sarees or their lives, Sarojini had control”.

Sarojini’s invocation of the great river is apt. The prologue of the novel is named for the river goddess Saraswatee (somewhat similar to Joyce’s Anna Livia Plurabelle in Finnegans Wake). Saraswatee is the patroness of knowledge, arts and science, and culture. “Come now, let us follow just a few of her threads as she weaves her endless saree of life, for we all start at one end and finish at another. We are all connected in this garment, threads on her celestial loom of humanity”.

There are elements of Mills and Boon when characters, whose plainness is strongly depicted, manage to win the hearts of individuals who are more conventionally attractive than they are. Most dismiss Nila “for her dumpy figure, unfashionably dark skin and the odd-shaped eyes that sat on her face at angles to each other”. Her ne-er-do-well brother Manoj says: “No matter how you dress a pig… A pig is still a pig”. Couples, who are determinedly antagonistic, see the error of their ways and fall madly in love. Cynics may carp at these features but tears crept unbidden to my misanthropic old eyes. One could argue that odder matches occur in real life.

I am anxious not to spoil the plot for readers but here is what the official publicity for the book says: “Nila wasn’t born beautiful and is destined to go through life unnoticed until she becomes a saree maker. As she works, Nila weaves into the silk a pattern of love, hope and devotion, which will prove to be invaluable to more lives than her own. From the lush beauty of Sri Lanka, ravaged by bloody civil war, to India and its eventual resting place in Australia, this is the story of a precious saree and the lives it changes forever.”

Some have accused the author of racism. There are, indeed, many derogatory comments about Sri Lankan Tamils in the book. Manoj excuses his own unemployment: “Every time I apply for a job it gets given to some Tamil bugger. Someday someone is going to have to tell the blady bastards that this is our country!” “’Some lads in Negombo doused the Hindu pusari with petrol and set him on fire.’ ‘They should give those lads a medal, Mervan laughed”.

Perceptive readers will notice that it is the characters, not the author, who make these racist remarks. The author puts these remarks into the mouths of characters of whom she clearly disapproves. She has said: “I will not stand back and gloss over inconsistencies or hypocrisies within those communities. That would not be writing authentically or honestly and I would not do that to myself or to the people who read my work.”


The author is not afraid to cover some of the serious issues that have plagued Sri Lanka and continue to contribute to current disharmony. She is aware of the contribution of the Jaffna caste system to the dissatisfactions of Sri Lankan Tamil youth. The Tamil, Vannan, starts off as an opponent of the Tamil Tigers and Tamil separatism: “How are they going to unite the Tamil nation when the various castes aren’t allowed to use each other’s toilets? I can see it now. The great revolution brought to its knees by the fact soldiers can’t crap in the same toilet?” Vannan tells his Sinhalese friend Mahinda: “My parents will never consent to a marriage with a Karawe. The fisherman’s caste! My mother would die!” His girl friend’s father opposes the relationship too: “We don’t grub about with sod-busting Vellalars. Stupid, that is what they are. Dirt for brains”.

Even today, colonisation is an issue.  A Tamil grievance still current is that there is there is allegedly a deliberate plan to alter the country’s demographics by settling Sinhalese in Tamil-dominated areas. “She and her husband had come up to the inhospitable north in the 1960s, answering the call of the socialist government then in power. They had truly believed like many others, that it was only by supporting the drought-stricken north that a unified Ceylon could be built”.

As I said at the outset, this is an entertainment but one with a serious purpose. There is some sense of resolution at the end of this complex narrative, hinting at some optimism about a resolution to the tensions in Sri Lanka itself today. Raju, a Tamil, is the victim of a horrific attack by Sinhalese. Nevertheless, he says: “It was Sinhalese people who saved me…If it had not been for the monks from the Paramananda Vihara, I would have died…Do not hate all Sinhalese. Stupidity and cruelty is characteristic of all humanity and does not belong to any one race alone”.


In an interview, the author has asked: “How was a once cohesive community ripped apart? How did lovers, friends and families deal with the brutal truth of being one or either side of the fence? More importantly in Saree—I tried to explore what healing from brutality could look like…Is there redemption in a person’s intent rather than the outcome of their actions? And even if someone did something so reprehensible—who are we to make judgment when we only know a part of that person?..Even the most hardened soul will have felt some sort of affection or craved touch at some time in their lives. And inherent in love is hope. Hope that that which we love will lead us to a better place. Hope that loneliness and sadness is at an end.”

Saree by Su Dharmapala is published by Simon and Schuster (Australia) and is available from Amazon:



Confronting the Past, Protecting the Future

This article was published in the Sunday Island on November 12, 2011 


Lakshman Wickramasinghe, media coordinator of the LLRC (Lessons Learned and Reconciliation Commission) announced that the final report will be handed over to the President by the second week of November.
President Rajapaksa announced the establishment of the LLRC on May 15 2010 (hearings began in August). The Daily News, described this as “a domestic process in pursuing an agenda of restorative justice, to address the human and emotional repercussions of the decades-long conflict and thereby lay the foundations for continued reconciliation”. However, the terms of reference did not quite say that and the LLRC has been criticised for seeming to pin the blame on the UNP for the CFA as the cause of all the trouble.
The US State Department in the person of former ambassador to Sri Lanka Robert O Blake found Sri Lanka’s chosen method of confronting its past inadequate. What lessons has the USA learnt from its own recent conflicts? Sri Lanka marked the two year anniversary of the end of its conflict in May this year. The USA marked ten years of Operation Enduring Freedom in October and the attack of the World Trade Centre in September.
The retaliatory attack on Afghanistan was originally called “Operation Infinite Justice” but the name was changed to avoid offending Muslims. How many Muslims have been offended by being killed? The US does not publish casualty figures. Some critics claim that the war on terror is truly a war on Islam itself.


Remember the euphoria when Obama was elected? Here was an attractive, articulate charismatic man of mixed race with a middle name of Hussein. Hope and change were in the air. What happened? In his presidential campaign, Barack Obama vigorously attacked the Bush administration’s lawless ways, and promised reform. In May 2009, round about the time Sri Lanka was defeating its terrorists, Obama, delivered a major speech on the importance of fighting terrorism within the rule of law, insisting that “time and again, our values have been our best national security asset.”


The US continues to delude itself about those “values”. Bush thought the rest of the world was jealous of the freedom enjoyed by the USA. Professor David Cole has been a cogent critic of the US record on torture. In a recent article in the New York Review of Books (NYRB) he too seems to have succumbed to the self-delusion that overcomes Americans and leads them to sentimentalise their own system of governance. Whatever the evidence of crimes against humanity going back to its foundation, the nation continues to be marketed as an overall force for good. Cole still seems to see a spectral outline of the Obama we had hoped might change the USA. I am not convinced by his arguments that pressure from the public, the press and the courts – the rule of law- forced the federal government to retreat from its illegal actions.


What was seen then as a clean break with the GW Bush past turned out to be a refusal to acknowledge the crimes committed by that administration. The Convention Against Terrorism requires the US president to conduct a criminal investigation because there are certainly credible allegations that persons within his jurisdiction committed torture. How many times does that word ‘credible’ occur in the Darusman Report?


Bush lawyers John Yoo and Jay Bybee have left enough of a paper trail for the Office of Professional Responsibility to recommend that they be referred to their bar associations for disciplinary action. Obama’s Justice Department vetoed that recommendation.


There have been efforts in Spain to investigate US responsibility for torture of Spanish citizens held at Guantanamo. Obama’s administration has worked hard to stop those efforts. The Obama administration continues to oppose a commission to investigate the USA’s departure from the rule of law and routine use of torture, abductions and disappearances.


Who can forget those images of Obama watching another human being, Osama bin Laden, murdered unarmed in cold blood on his orders? Look at the jubilation at the corpse of Quadaffi.


In spite of its own crimes, the USA continues to suggest that the Sri Lankan government was engaged in disappearances and placing civilians in detention camps. Obama’s weird attempts at bi-partisanship, often rolling over and surrendering to the Tea Party Republicans before he needs to, come across as weakness rather than being above the fray. He certainly cannot claim the moral high ground if he is stonewalling against a legal and moral accounting of the wrongs done in the past.


Donald Rumsfeld famously said ; “there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones. And so people who have the omniscience that they can say with high certainty that something has not happened or is not being tried have capabilities that are [beyond mine].”


Irish Booker-prize laureate John Banville commented on the Irish child abuse scandal: “We knew, and did not know. That is our shame today.” Some western criticism of Sri Lanka and blindness to the crimes of the US and the UK goes beyond hypocrisy into some kind of psychosis.


The ostrich can be vicious beast.


Thanks to the Red Cross we know about abusive interrogations of high level detainees, but we do not know how many people the US has abducted and tortured. Maher Azar, a Canadian citizen was abducted and tortured on the basis of misinformation. He has not received even an apology. There are many others we know about. There must be many others we do not know about. Obama has defended a sweeping interpretation of the laws prohibiting “material support” to designated terrorist groups. Members of the board of the nation’s largest Muslim charity were sentenced to as much as 65 years in prison for providing humanitarian aid to indigent West Bank families.


Cole admits that Obama “has continued to rely on broad claims of secrecy, invoking the ‘state secrets privilege’ to block lawsuits seeking redress for victims of torture and extraordinary rendition. He has dramatically expanded a program of targeted killings using unmanned drones, without setting forth the general procedures or criteria he is employing. Killing the enemy during wartime is not illegal, of course, but assassinating people outside of war is. As long as the contours of the targeted killing program remain secret, we cannot know whether it accords with basic principles of constitutional and international law.”


Mark Danner, also writing in the NYRB says that 9/11 began what he calls a State of Exception:


“To Americans, those terrible moments stand as a brightly lit portal through which we were all compelled to step, together, into a different world. Since that day 10 years ago we have lived in a subtly different country, and though we have grown accustomed to these changes and think little of them now, certain words still appear often enough in the news—Guantánamo, indefinite detention, torture—to remind us that ours remains a strange America. The contours of this strangeness are not unknown in our history. Our country has lived through broadly similar periods, at least half a dozen or so, depending on how you count; but we have no proper name for them. State of siege? Martial law? State of emergency? None of these expressions, familiar as they may be to other peoples, falls naturally from American lips.”


Danner notes that knowledge of American crimes helped Egyptians topple their own dictator. They were forbidden to talk about Egyptian torture, but could freely initiate a discussion of human rights and dignity by condemning American torture. Danner writes: “This raises a question for Americans: Are we still waiting to have that debate in the United States—or is it already over? The story of torture is widely known, voluminously documented. It is part of our present, not our past.” When Obama officials handed Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, the “underwear bomber” over to the FBI Republicans and Democrats demanded that he be tortured.


Despite what Dick Cheney writes in his memoirs it is unlikely that torture gleans any useful information. Cole writes: “The principal reason that we have yet to bring any of the September 11 conspirators to justice, ten years after their abominable crimes, is that we chose to ‘disappear’ and torture them, thereby greatly compromising our ability to try them. And the decision to deny those at Guantánamo any of the most basic rights owed enemy detainees turned the prison there into a symbol of injustice and oppression, exactly the propaganda al-Qaeda needed to foster anti-Americanism and inspire new recruits and affiliates.”


Can we learn lessons for Sri Lanka from the US’s failures? What will happen after the LLRC has reported?


These words appeared in the Banyan blog in the Economist: “It is probably too much to hope the government might adopt a fresh approach to these familiar allegations. There were always at least three ways to tackle them. It could, early on, have argued brazenly that the benefits of ending the war outweighed the cost in human life. The Tigers were as vicious and totalitarian a bunch of thugs as ever adopted terrorism as a national-liberation strategy. Or the government could have insisted that its army’s behaviour was largely honourable, but that some regrettable abuses may have occurred, which would be thoroughly investigated.”


A Peculiar Pudding– the Contest for the Irish Presidency

This article was published in the Sunday Island on October 29, 2011


Brendan Behan’s mother, Kathleen, once worked in a domestic capacity for WB Yeats, poet, Nobel laureate and Irish senator. The great man was somewhat absent-minded. When Kathleen brought some creamed parsnips to the table, he took a mouthful without looking up from his book and intoned sonorously: ” THIS is a verrrrry peculiar pudding”.


The 2011 contest for Áras an Uachtaráin, the Irish presidency, is a very peculiar pudding. Mary MacAleese finishes her stint as Irish president ending a period when it seemed to be a woman’s job. She succeeded Mary Robinson who, through her distinguished international career in human rights, transformed the office from a mainly ceremonial one to one which could subtly change Irish society. When MacAleese won the presidency in 1997, all her rivals but one were women. In 2004 she stood unopposed.


The election for the ninth president is a strange affair.


Contenders have come and gone and come back again. At one time there was speculation that Bob Geldof would put himself forward. In one of his more printable comments the ex-Boomtown Rat spoke of boom and bust. “The overwhelming feeling I have is one of sadness for the country – and of anger for the incompetence beyond measure, the sheer stupidity and the clear venality which has Ireland where it is now”. Saint Bob early decided it was not worth running.


The talk show host Gay Byrne, Ireland’s Oprah Winfrey, was touted as a potential candidate for Fianna Fáil, the party that has dominated political life in Ireland for most of the life of the Republic. However, Byrne declined to be used and Fianna Fáil put forward no candidate. “Fianna Fáil are convinced no matter who they put up will be unelectable, so they’re giving me their support”.


David Norris


A front runner at one point was Senator David Norris, an outspoken campaigner for gay rights. A poll in January 2011 showed that Norris was by far the most popular choice for President with more than double the support of any of the other potential candidates. He also won the support of many politicians. This is a surprising demonstration of tolerance for homosexuality for Ireland. However, Norris withdrew his candidacy on 2 August because of controversy about ill-judged remarks he had made in the past and his support for his former partner, Ezra Nawi, who was then facing criminal charges in Israel for sex with a minor.


Now he’s back in the race after securing the support of Dublin City council for his nomination. His nomination was not without problems. Independent councillor Damien O’Farrell said “I am not prepared to turn a blind eye to matters of child sexual abuse”. Dr Bill Tormey of Fine Gael said the Senator was a “national treasure” but Áras an Uachtaráin was not the place for him because of his views on pederasty and the age of consent.


Michael D Higgins


As I write, the front-runner is the Labour Party candidate, Michael D Higgins, a beaming little leprechaun, a poet who has been minister of culture. He has been endorsed by Martin Sheen (who incidentally was himself urged to run). Sheen, known for pretending to be a president in The West Wing, became friends with Higgins when Sheen was studying English Literature, Philosophy and Oceanography at Galway University.


Gay Mitchell


Please do not think that Ireland is overrun with homosexuals. “Gay” is short for “Gabriel” and Gay Mitchell is the Fine Gael candidate. He has not been coming across well to the voters. What he thinks is toughness comes across as snarkiness. One of his quirkier notions is that Ireland would join the Commonwealth if Britain agreed to a united Ireland. Mr Mitchell has seen a huge drop in support and he would appear to be out of the race unless something strange or wonderful happens. He is only getting 21 per cent of even the Fine Gael vote –most of his own prefer Higgins. If Mr Mitchell only wins nine per cent on polling day it will be a disaster for Fine Gael after this year’s general election triumph.


Mary Davis


At the last reckoning Special Olympics boss Mary Davis, was on 12 per cent, precisely the same level of support as she had in July. Her support is equally spread across the regions but is higher among the older voters than among younger. There has been a lot of focus on all the candidates’ income and everyone is flashing bank statements and tax returns. Davis’s husband, a PR man, angrily denied that his paid work for a charity represented any conflict of interest. Asked to explain why he didn’t believe it was a conflict he said: “Because it isn’t. No is the answer.”


Sean Gallagher


Businessman Seán Gallagher has been in second place in the polls. He denied distancing himself from Fianna Fáil, rejecting accusations that he embraced his Fianna Fail past but denied the Fianna Fail present. On his own website he says: “Seán has been a sporadic member of Fianna Fáil over many years”.


Dana Rosemary Scallon


Ms Scallon is at six per cent nationally. She has twice as much support among women voters than among men. Ms Scallon vowed to be the “people’s president” and to uphold the Irish Constitution if elected. However, a little bit of unconstitutionality has emerged – she is a US citizen and failed to declare this when she ran for president in 1997. She was elected to the European Parliament in 1999 and took a very conservative stance on personal liberty issues, such as abortion.


Rosemary Scallon (born Rosemary Brown in 1951 in Derry) achieved international fame as Dana, when she won the Eurovision Song Contest in 1970 with the song All Kinds of Everything. She settled in Birmingham Alabama and in 1985, with family members, founded a religious music company called Heart Beat LLC. Between 1996 and 2005, the company had a turnover of more than $7.6 million.


There is a lot of family dirt being thrown around. Squabbles over money have escalated into nastier accusations. All kinds of everything indeed! Dana’s brother, John Brown, is a member of her current election team. Dana’s sister, Susan, has over the years accused Brown of sexually molesting her (Susan’s) daughter and is repeating the allegations now.


Martin McGuinness


In many ways the most interesting candidate is Martin McGuinness, who has given up his ministerial post in the Stormont government in Belfast to run in the Republic’s presidential election. He claims that he left the IRA in 1974 but others dispute this. Government Chief Whip Paul Kehoe snarked at McGuinness’s commitment to draw the average industrial wage if elected. “Why would you need your salary when you have the proceeds of the Northern Bank at your disposal,” Mr Kehoe said. The IRA stole £26.5 million (€31.35 million) from the Northern Bank in 2004. The former Conservative minister, Lord Tebbit, who, along with Margaret Thatcher, was almost killed by the Provisional IRA, has said Martin McGuinness should confess his crimes. Tom Clonan, former Irish Army officer and now a commentator on security matters, writes: “All Army officers, myself included, who served in the Defence Forces during the Troubles will be puzzled at McGuinness’s claim that he left the Provisional IRA in the early 1970s. The Defence Forces/Garda Síochána intelligence brief – up to the year 2000 – clearly indicates that this is not the case.”


My friend, the Reverend Harold Good (Good by name and good by nature) is not naive about the horrors of terrorism, but counts McGuinness as a friend following their partnership in the Northern Ireland peace process. Harold told me: “If elected he would be a circumspect, respectful and statesmanlike President. But if elected he would leave a gap in our Stormont administration where he is doing a very good job. The media and his opponents are indeed focussing on his past rather than his present. However, as I understand it … he and Sinn Fein see this as an opportunity to ask the Irish electorate to give a strong endorsement to the road they have taken … as distinct from the ‘dissidents’ . They feel a strong vote, whatever the outcome, will send this message.”


McGuinness made a less than helpful intervention in Sri Lankan affairs when he came here in 2006 and talked with LTTE leaders. He may have meant well but was over-optimistic in seeing parallels with the Irish situation. In Ireland, whatever the apparent intransigence, most parties were exhausted enough to give up conflict. He said: I am convinced that there is the will on both sides to find a resolution but that increasing conflict is making the peace efforts more and more difficult. My core message was that both sides need to act decisively to prevent the downward spiral into all out conflict. The reality is that, just as in Ireland, there can be no military victory and that the only alternative to endless conflict is dialogue, negotiations and accommodation”. He was clearly mistaken.


McGuiness criticized the European Union for banning the Tamil Tigers as a Terrorist Organization. He said that “it was a huge mistake for EU leaders to demonize the LTTE and the political leaders of the Tamil people.” We knew well enough that some were demons.



Outsourcing Sri Lankan Citizens

This article was published in the Sunday Island  on July 9, 2011


In a recent article, I wrote about suicide being linked with family breakdown, alcoholism and sexual abuse. In our village a Muslim girl committed suicide after being gang-raped while working in the Middle East. Another Muslim family we know well seems to be heading for major problems because the mother is always in Dubai. In the seven years we have lived here we have rarely seen her and her daughters have grown up without her. She sends money home, but the husband disappears with the cash and the girls are left to run wild. Her son took poison after an argument with the father at one of his rare encounters with him.

In the June 6 issue of the New Yorker there was a report by Sarah Stillman, in which she described how workers were being recruited under false pretences for attractive jobs away from their homeland. We have often read of unscrupulous people-traffickers linked to mafias in Russia, Albania and Kosovo, traffickers who often take large sums of cash from desperate migrants who end up being forced into slavery and prostitution.

Stillman begins the article with the description of a recruitment drive in Fiji. A number of women, who already had jobs and families, were tempted by the prospect of earning much more in a luxury hotel in Dubai. In fact, they were not bound for Dubai but Iraq and Afghanistan. They had been duped into signing on for what Stillman calls the “Pentagon’s invisible army”. The mafia involved in this human trafficking is the Army and Air Force Exchange Service (AAFES).
Seventy thousand cooks, cleaners, construction workers, fast-food clerks, electricians, and beauticians from the world’s poorest countries are employed to make sure that U.S. bases are comfortable enclaves providing personnel with “tastes of home”. Accountability is hard to establish because contracting chains in Iraq and Afghanistan involve sometimes as many as five or six tiers of subcontracts. These sub-contractors are financed by the American taxpayer but often operate outside the law.

Foreign workers servicing the US military are called TCNs (third-country nationals). Many of them told Stillman that they had wages stolen or withheld, had been injured without compensation, subjected to sexual assault, and held in indentured servitude by their subcontractor bosses.


Living quarters were often unventilated container trucks. There have been riots in Pentagon subcontractor camps, some involving more than a thousand workers. At a KBR (formerly Halliburton) subcontractor camp in Baghdad, Ziad Al Karawi, described how a thousand Indian and Sri Lankan men under his supervision slept on crowded floors: “rats and flies attacked us. . . . We had no beds to sleep at or tables to eat at. . . . No communication, no TV, no soap to wash or bathe, no visits from anyone from the company or KBR.” “We thought the journalists would come,” Imtiyas Sheriff, a thirty-eight-year-old bus driver from Sri Lanka, said. “They call this Operation Iraqi Freedom, but where is our freedom?”

In a question and answer session with Stillman about her article Mark Ratledge remarked that what she described reminded him of British Navy press gangs in the eighteenth century.

Travelling by air to and from Sri Lanka, via Dubai, one often shares the aircraft with armies of Sri Lankan women migrant workers. Sometimes, one notices a disdainful attitude towards them from middleclass Sri Lankan travellers. Nevertheless, the nation glories in the money that these women earn – and remit to their homeland.

It is now the norm for remittances from migrant workers to bear the main burden of containing Sri Lanka’s fiscal deficit. Remittances from migrant workers represent more than nine per cent of GDP. Sri Lanka receives US$ 526 million more in remittances than it does from foreign aid and foreign direct investment combined. These remittances are now a greater source of revenue than tea exports.

Migrant women workers are treated as an export commodity that is marketed to wealthy, oil-producing countries where demand is high and human-rights protection is virtually non-existent. A former Finance Minister, said on the BENCHMARK TV program: “There is no way that we can go on relying on the hard-earned money of three categories of women: the poor women working in the Middle East as well as other countries and remitting their funds, women who work in garment factories and women working on tea estates. The Sri Lankan economy is run by women: they are the money earners for Sri Lanka – the men are just gobbling it up!” The minister has been promoted to a position where he has no influence.

An academic paper (written by a woman) which I had the job of editing, pushed a very positive view of the empowering nature of migration for women. It was a good example of how one can spin statistics to back up an argument. More than one-third of women sampled wanted to work overseas again, which was cited as supporting a positive view of migration. The numbers who suffered ill-treatment were played down; but of those sampled, physical ill-treatment led over 17% to return home, while 6% returned because of excessive workloads and underpayment of wages.
You could say two-thirds (a majority) did not want to work overseas again and almost a quarter suffered ill-treatment or exploitation. The paper did acknowledge the downside of migration – such as higher divorce rates, disruptions to family life, lasting repercussions for children’s personality development (there is evidence of sexual abuse of children who are left without a mother), increased alcoholism and gambling among the men folk.
Where is the female empowerment here?

There is an abundance of evidence provided by organisations such as Caritas’s Mental Health Clinic, Human Rights Watch (HRW) and the Lebanese NGO Forum, that rape and suicide are serious issues among migrant female workers. The Sri Lankan Government reports that 50 migrant domestic workers return to Sri Lanka “in distress” each day and embassies abroad are flooded with workers complaining of unpaid wages, sexual harassment and overwork.

The number of suicides is increasing. Over a four-year period, 45 Filipinas, 50 Sri Lankans and 105 Ethiopians killed themselves. A pathologist says that in many cases, the corpses were covered in bruises, bites or burns.
HRW says that the Government of Sri Lanka “deserves credit for initiating important steps to manage the outflow of migrant workers and to start providing protections”. The Government set up an institutional structure, the Sri Lanka Bureau of Foreign Employment, in 1985, to help workers migrate through legal channels, and to minimise corruption and exploitation by recruitment agencies.

Is this enough? Is it working? Should a nation’s livelihood depend on the sufferings of a group of its citizens? Should a state manage its finances by depending on poor women who are being exploited and their family lives disrupted? If the state is to benefit, it should ensure that its benefactors are well -protected from abuse- and also respected for their contribution.
In the question and answer session with Sarah Stillman, Mark Ratledge commented: “Wars are now commodities, fought and supplied with outsourced labor.” Is Sri Lanka outsourcing its women to pay off its debts?


Seven Years after the Tsunami

This article was published in the Sunday Island on December 17, 2011 

On 26 December 2011 it will be seven years since 36,000 to 50,000 people (the numbers of dead vary depending on the source) died in Sri Lanka in the 2004 tsunami.

On Christmas Day 2004, we had heard news that our local government veterinarian, whom we knew well, was looking forward to going on a trip to Galle with a party of about 20 people. He and 16 others died. His wife and one child survived because they went back to the hotel for a newspaper.

A strange phenomenon was noted in Yala National Park. Few of the animals seemed to have perished because they moved to higher ground before the wave hit. Was this because they sensed the tremors?

A local relief effort that got underway almost immediately is generally agreed to have been a success. Even in the poorest, most remote areas, people flocked to the roadside to hand over money, clothes, bottles of water and bags of rice and lentils.

There are complaints today about militarisation. Seven years ago, 20,000 soldiers were deployed to assist in relief operations and maintain law and order. An effective, spontaneous immediate response was organised locally, followed by the government and international agencies. Temporary shelter for the displaced was provided in schools, other public and religious buildings. Communities and groups cooperated across ethnic and religious differences.

Eye Witness

One month after the tsunami, my wife and I visited Hambantota. We visited again, to take some supplies for the three months dane.

Back in 2005, just outside the town of Hambantota, plastic chairs were stranded on the banks above the stained salt in the lagoons of the Lanka Salt Company. Fishing suffered because of fear that fish were contaminated by corpses. Apparently, there was a greater danger of corpses contaminating the salt.

We saw the first derelict house, then another. A graveyard was littered with broken trees. Whole villages along the shore were obliterated. Young men in masks carried spades; soldiers and police carried boxes of food and water; girls distributed tea and biscuits. Cargill’s supermarket was boarded up on our first visit and gone completely on our second. The sign outside the Jade Green Restaurant dangled and clanged above holes in the walls. A large dead bat hung from telephone wires near a mosque.

Many houses had been illegally built, so records did not exist to account for the missing. Walls of empty houses were tattooed with telephone numbers and photos of the missing were stuck to trees and telegraph poles.

A canal was clogged with orphaned furniture. A child’s dress swayed from the ceiling in the shell of a house. Saris hung like strange fruit high in the trees. Small slippers sat in the middle of the back lanes. Crushed three-wheelers littered the verges.

There was mud everywhere and it seemed as if the earth had halitosis.
There were odd reversals – a bus nose-down in the sea; boats marooned in the main street and stacked against a mosque. A mangled telecoms tower jutted from the sea.

Scrawny dogs patrolled the wreckage. There were scare stories in the press about thousands of desperate dogs roaming the night, biting people and eating human corpses. The government veterinary service courageously resisted panic calls for mass slaughter of stray dogs and carried out a programme of mass anti-rabies vaccination and sterilisation.

Major Gamage, of the Sri Lanka Army, made introductions for us at a temple next to the Grama Niladhari at Samodarama. All the soldiers we met were compassionate and the Major helped us to target our help for the next visit.

Three Months Later

On our next visit, there weren’t as many people at the temple. This did not mean that problems were solved. There was a meeting going on elsewhere. The people who were there insisted that we should hand out the supplies ourselves. Those receiving feel better if they “receive from the hand”, that they have a direct relationship with the giver. The giver can look into the eyes of the receiver.

We distributed rice, lentils, sugar, coconuts, books and pens from the car. The first arrivals were calm and slow; gradually new arrivals became more hurried, breathless, their lateness a sign of having travelled a greater distance than the first-comers. Soon our supplies were gone. The late-comers did have a certain look of panic on their faces. They did show disappointment, but with resignation rather than anger.

We were at a Buddhist temple but it was an ecumenical event. Many were Muslims. Some were Christians. Some were Hindus. People seemed to be united in adversity. Nature had not discriminated.

One man at the temple said his wife, a teacher, had gone to market with their child. They did not return. A woman could not control her tears as she told about losing her husband in the flood. One woman claimed to have lost 30 of her family. All behaved with dignity but said they had lost their dignity. “We were not rich but we were comfortable. We had a good life. Now we have nothing. We are just like beggars.”

The miasmic odor had gone. Some tents belonged to house-owners camping outside their own houses. A neat sign in magic-marker, in an empty plot at the junction, said “Ayub Khan 348 Tissa Road, Hambantota” to stake a claim against squatters. A gathering of orange-robed priests sat under a battered sign: “Baby’s Dream Pre-school”. Some broken houses were festooned with washing and had goats and chickens in the yard.

Hambantota today

When we travelled to Galle via Hambantota, four years after the tsunami, there was a wide new bypass allowing travelers to avoid the town centre. Along the sides of the highway are neat little housing developments reminiscent of suburban homes in the west. However, on the outskirts of Galle there were still many ruined buildings, like post-blitz London in the 1950s.


Hambantota has a natural harbour close to international shipping routes. Construction of the Port of Hambantota (also known as the Magampura Port) by the China Harbour Engineering Company and the Sinohydro Corporation, started in January 2008. The total cost of the first phase of the project was estimated at $360 million. It was officially opened in November 2010. The second phase, which will include a container terminal, is expected to be completed by 2014. The second stage of the port is estimated to cost around $750 million. The third phase will include a dockyard. When finished, the port will be the largest in South Asia, covering 4,000 acres and accommodating 33 vessels at any given time.

“The port in Hambantota will be the catalyst to make Hambantota the new commercial capital of Sri Lanka in the next three years,” said Dr Bandu Wickrama, the chairman of the Sri Lanka Ports Authority. Volkswagen/Audi has already forwarded a proposal to assemble vans for the local market in the port zone. Two companies from Korea and Europe have sought to establish SUV assembling plants. Associated Motorways has expressed interest in setting up a Maruti car assembly plant. The Micro Car Company has tendered to set up a factory.


The Mattala International Airport is currently under construction 15 kilometres north of Hambantota. Chairman of Sri Lanka’s Airport and Aviation Services, Prasanna Wickramasuriya, confirmed that the project was on target to be inaugurated at the end of 2012. The first phase is expected to cost $209 million. China is helping.

The aim is to establish a gateway for investment in Sri Lanka and to stimulate development and infrastructure in the area, raising living standards of the people, not only in Hambantota, but in Moneragala (the poorest town in the poorest district of the poorest province) and Matara.

Convention Hall

Construction on the Hambantota Exhibition and Convention Hall was launched about two years ago on a 17-acre block of land. It has now reached the final stage. The Government’s contribution to the project is 19 billion rupees. Korea is contributing six billion rupees. The main auditorium has a seating capacity of 1,500. There are six auditoriums, a restaurant, car parks and an open air theatre. The complex will most probably be the venue for the Commonwealth Summit in 2013.

Criticism of Hambantota development

Hambantota today is a very different place to the devastated community we saw in early 2005. Prosperity and development in Sri Lanka have long been concentrated on Western province and the financial hub of Colombo. The Hambantota area has long suffered extreme poverty. Today the outlook is promising. Hambantota is the fiefdom of President Rajapaksa. While he and his brothers currently dominate Sri Lankan politics, with son Namal being groomed for future greatness, it should also be noted that Sajith Premadasa, who is challenging for leadership of the UNP, also represents a Hambantota constituency. In Sri Lankan politics requires him to support development projects for Hambantota.

Sports grounds are being handed over to the military. “We are doing this because we are not in a position to afford the maintenance costs,” Brian Thomas, Sri Lanka Cricket’s media manager, said. Mahinda Rajapaksa International Cricket Stadium in Hambantota, which would have been the venue for the 2018 Commonwealth Games if Sri Lanka bid had been successful, is in debt. Sports Minister Mahindananda Aluthgamage has admitted that Sri Lanka still owes more than $18.1 million to the Chinese construction firm that built the stadium.

Although it is claimed that the airport project is environmentally friendly there are still concerns about the fate of Yala and Bundala National Parks. The airport at Mattala will have one of the biggest runways in the world, slightly wider than SingaporeChangi Airport, one of the busiest in the world. Will Mattala airport ever be as busy as Changi?

There is resistance from Colombo enterprises to the development of Hambantota. Plans to import all vehicles through Hambantota has upset Colombo port and some in the motor trade.

As a foreigner, albeit one who lived in countries where the capitals, London and Dublin, dominated the regions, I was shocked to hear anything that was not Colombo described as “outstation”. The Western province exerts far too much dominance over the rest of the country. Some might argue that it produces most of the nation’s wealth. Nonetheless, although some might question the massive investment in an area “devoid of people”, it will be interesting to see if the Hambantota developments spread the creation and enjoyment of wealth.

The Persecution of Lillie and Reed

This article was published in the Sunday Island on February 16, 2013 

There is nothing as bad as this that you can do to people. Because they [paedophiles] are quite rightly figures of public hatred. And suddenly to find yourself a figure of public hatred, unjustifiably, is terrifying.

Lord McAlpine

Dr Camille de San Lazaro OBE
In 1999, Dr Camille de San Lazaro, a Consultant Paediatrician specialising in child abuse at the Lindisfarne Centre, Royal Victoria Infirmary, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was awarded an OBE for “services in the care of sexually abused children”.

Dr Lazaro’s assessments led to the prosecution of two nursery workers who were acquitted in 1994 of charges of child abuse.

Dr Lazaro was the main expert witness at the criminal trial of Dawn Reed and Chris Lillie. It was a very short trial because the judge, Mr Justice Holland, ruled that the evidence was too weak to put before a jury.

In spite of the acquittal, the ordeal of Lillie and Reed was not over and they were forced to become fugitives. The Murdoch “newspaper” The Sun, ran a campaign asking “readers” to help locate these “vile perverts”.

De San Lazaro was suspended in 2002. The GMC gave its verdict on 13 May 2005: “your conduct, although falling short of that expected of a registered medical practitioner, did not reach the threshold of serious professional misconduct. Accordingly, the Panel has found you not guilty of serious professional misconduct.”

The Allegations

In 1993, there were charges of child abuse at the Shieldfield Nursery in Newcastle. Allegations were made against two qualified nursery nurses. Dawn Reed was 22 years old, happily married and hoping to have children. Christopher Lillie was engaged and hoped to marry soon. There was no prior hint of bizarre sexual practices or interest in paedophilia or pornography. The two colleagues did not meet socially outside work and lived far apart.

The case against Lillie began with inconsistent allegations made by one mother, allegations which were not initially corroborated by the child in question. That mother told another mother whose husband beat up Lillie, who had been suspended pending inquiries. Social services fanned the flames by calling a meeting to inform parents. The first mother now made allegations against Reed.

Parents were encouraged to be vigilant about suspicious changes in their children’s behaviour. Joyce Eyeington was the line manager of Lillie and Reed, in overall charge of all nurseries in Newcastle. She suffered collateral damage as her own private life (including her past blameless relationship with charismatic director of social services Brian Roycroft) was probed. She told the Newcastle Evening Chronicle that she did not believe the allegations but had to suspend the pair: “As soon as the inquiry escalated and the police were involved it became very difficult to express disbelief. It was not a popular stance.”


Dr Camille San Lazaro was a key figure in building the case against Lillie and Reed. Mothers who, in their quest for reassurance, had taken their child to be examined by Dr Lazaro, had come away convinced that their child had, after all, been abused at the nursery. When Dr Lazaro’s working methods and records were submitted to close scrutiny, the results were disquieting. For example, genital scarring in young girls is a very rare finding, but it was one that Lazaro recorded with such frequency that it put in doubt her competence to make accurate findings or interpretations.

Under cross-examination, Dr Lazaro agreed that her notes were unreliable. Mr Justice Eady said to her, “You did realise, I suppose, that it was quite possible that somebody was going to get a sentence of life imprisonment for these offences?”

Newcastle City Council Report

When the not-guilty verdicts were announced in 1994, there was a riot in the courtroom, with cries from the parents of “Hang them!”. Tony Flynn, acting leader of Newcastle city council said: “We do believe that abuse has taken place … we have dismissed the employees and rejected their appeals and there is no question of us or anyone else employing these people again.”

The Sun appealed to readers:

Do you know where perverts Lillie and Reed are now? Phone us on  0161 935 5315 or 0171 782 4105. Don’t worry about the cost
– we will call you straight back. ”

The council set up an “Independent Review Team”. The police had told the inquiry team that there were those “still walking around” in Newcastle “who are going to kill these people” i.e. Lillie and Reed. No attempt was made to warn them that the city council was about to publish a report which would put their lives in danger. Two people found not guilty in a British court of law became fugitives, living in fear of the lynch mob.

The members of the inquiry team were: Richard Barker, of the University of Northumbria, independent social worker Judith Jones, psychologist Jacqui Saradjian, and Roy Wardell, former director of social services.

The report claimed that, whatever the findings of the court and the views of Mr Justice Holland, Lillie and Reed “had abused their charges at Shieldfield nursery sexually, physically and emotionally; used them to make pornography; and were part of a paedophile ring.”

When Lillie and Reed sued for libel, Mr Justice Eady said that the four members of the review team were malicious in the promulgation of their report. “They included in their report a number of fundamental claims which they must have known to be untrue and which cannot be explained on the basis of incompetence or mere carelessness”.

A little more about “independent social worker” Judith Jones. As Judith Dawson she was a non-independent social worker in Nottingham where she did much to promote the idea that satanic ritual abuse of children was a serious problem. That myth was further promulgated in a Channel 4 programme by Beatrix Campbell.

Beatrix Campbell’s book Unofficial secrets: Child Sexual Abuse- the Cleveland Case was published in 1988 and became a key text in child protection courses. In the book, she writes: “For the police there is a particular problem; as a praetorian guard of masculinity, sexual abuse faces them with an accusation against their own gender. Police and judicial mastery over evidence has for over a century enabled them to banish the sexual experiences of women and children. Was that mastery threatened in Cleveland?”

In 1998, Beatrix Campbell claimed the Newcastle council inquiry was “stringent” and had found “persuasive evidence of sadistic and sexual abuse of up to 350 children”. Tom Dervin, the director of social services, had written privately to three senior council executives. “In the context of equivalent major enquiry reports, this to me is without exception the worst I have read. I mean the worst in terms of quality of information, consistency, judgement, evaluation, etc.”

One of the four people on the Independent Review Team, was Judith Jones (previously Dawson) had collaborated with Campbell on a number of writing projects. In 1992, Dawson/Jones moved to work in Sunderland. Campbell who has described herself as a “horrible queer Marxist”, lived in nearby Newcastle. In 1997 the two women decided to live together in Byker after discovering line-dancing. Campbell, a visiting professor in women’s studies at Newcastle University,  “dragged my lover along” as she was to write, for line dancing at a local church hall, and at least once to the Powerhouse Club, a Newcastle gay club.

Jones and Campbell co-wrote a book, Stolen Voices, which excoriated people who doubted the extent of satanic child abuse.   One reviewer called it “a sad case of false ideology syndrome”. Jean La Fontaine, emeritus professor of social anthropology at the LSE found “facts which are not true”.  The book she said was ‘long on rhetoric, short on fact’. The publishers.  The Women’s Press, said, “We never distributed the book because of a legal warning. They could still be sitting in a warehouse somewhere.”

Libel Case

As the report hit the headlines, Lillie and Reed fled. They brought a libel case against Newcastle City Council, the four members of the Independent Review Team and the Newcastle Evening Chronicle.

Patrick Cosgrove QC (according to his obituary: “a hugely respected member of the legal profession. He was fearless in court but dealt with everyone from Judges to lay clients with the utmost respect”), who represented Dawn Reed at the criminal trial, wrote about the inquiry team’s report, which he described as “fundamentally flawed”: “in twenty two years of practice at the bar I have never heard a High Court Judge be so emphatic in an expressed view that the evidence pointed to someone’s innocence, as opposed to it being insufficient to prove his or her guilt.”

Having asked whether the authors of the report had read Mr Justice Holland’s judgment, Cosgrove wrote: “If they have not done so, they have been grossly negligent; if they have read it, their conduct is disgraceful..Why have they fed the feeding frenzy of the tabloid press?”

Children Must Be Heard

The allegations against Reed and Lillie were based on fragmentary remarks made by children who had been anxiously questioned by their parents. When the children said something that could be construed as evidence of sexual abuse, they were praised; when they said that nobody had hurt them, or proclaimed the innocence either of Reed or Lillie, they were disbelieved.

Coda: A friend of mine was a social worker in Newcastle. He told me recently: “I knew Dr Lazaro very  well and  feel she was badly treated.   In fact it broke her.  The whole affair was very, very  sad. A nice lady who did more good than bad for this city”.

Militarisation, Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing

This article was published in the Sunday Island on August 31, 2013


An interesting book on militarisation was recently published by Michigan State University Press. Winona LaDuke calls her book The Militarization of Indian Country. That title may be a bit of a stumbling block to PCers who think we should be talking about Americans”. For the sake of consistency, I will follow Ms LaDuke and use the term “Indian”.

Numbers Game

As always with body counts the facts are in dispute.


It is impossible to estimate how many Indians populated the area now covered by the USA before the white man arrived. Some scholars of the subject speak of an inflated” numbers game”; others charge that the size of the aboriginal population has been deliberately minimized in order to make the decline seem less severe than it was. In 1928, the ethnologist James Mooney proposed a total count of 1,152,950 Indians in all tribal areas north of Mexico at the time of the European arrival. By 1987, in American Indian Holocaust and Survival, Russell Thornton was giving a figure of well over five million, while Lenore Stiffarm and Phil Lane Jr suggested a total of 12 million. Anthropologist Henry Dobyns in 1983 had estimated the 1492 aboriginal population of the present territory of the USA at about ten million.

It seems that a mere 250,000 Indians were still alive in the territory at the end of the 19th century. Today there are around half a million Indians in the USA.


According to Ward Churchill, professor of ethnic studies at the University of Colorado, the drastic reduction of the Indian population represents a “vast genocide . . . , the most sustained on record.” David E. Stannard, of the University of Hawaii, wrote that by the end of the 19th Century American Indians had undergone the “worst human holocaust the world had ever witnessed.”

The simple definition of genocide is: “The deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.” The international legal definition of the crime of genocide is found in Articles II and III of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide. Article II describes two elements: 1) the mental element, meaning the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such”, and 2) the physical element which includes five acts. A crime must include both elements to be called “genocide.” Article III described five punishable forms of the crime of genocide: genocide; conspiracy, incitement, attempt and complicity.

Relocation, Land Grabs or Ethnic Cleansing?



The Trail of Tears is a name given to the forced relocation by the US Army of Indians from south-eastern parts of the USA following the Indian Removal Act of 1830. Many died from exposure, disease and starvation on the route. By 1837, 25 million acres had been opened up for predominantly white settlement.

Even before the Indian Removal Act, the fixed boundaries of autonomous tribal nations were subject to continual cession and annexation. There was pressure from squatters and the threat of military force in the newly declared US territories (those federally administered regions whose boundaries supervened upon the Indian treaty claims). As these territories became states, state governments sought to grab the land therein. These pressures were magnified by US population growth and the expansion of slavery.

Relocation continued after the Trail of Tears and continues today. In theory, Indians are free to live anywhere. It is estimated that one-third to one-half now lives in cities. Nowadays, there exist about 300 federal reservations, with a total of 52,017,551 acres held in trust by the federal government, the large majority west of the Mississippi. There are also 21 state reservations, most of these in the East.

Ethnic Cleansing by Assimilation and Abduction

In the 1880s the US government implemented a policy of forced assimilation. Lakota children as young as five were forcibly removed from their homes and taken to boarding schools hundreds of miles away to boarding schools, where the motto was “Kill the Indian, Save the Man.” The policy continues today.

According to a report dated 22 January 2013, (A Report to the US Congress from the Coalition of Sioux Tribes for Children and Families) American Indian children constitute approximately 13.5% of the child population of South Dakota, yet they make up on average 54% of those who enter foster care. The number of Indian children entering South Dakota foster care every year is about 742. As of July 2011, there were 440 American Indian children in family-run foster homes in South Dakota; 87% of them lived in non-Indian family foster-care.

Nearly $100 million in federal funding is being sent to South Dakota to administer foster care each year. These federal funds constitute a significant portion of state expenditures, and, according to the NGO Families USA, they have “a positive and measurable impact on state business activity, available jobs, and overall state income.” All this demonstrates a strong financial incentive for state officials to take high numbers of Indian children into custody. A vigorous campaign is currently being waged by the Lakota People’s Law Project to secure the return of over 2,200 Lakota, Dakota and Nakota children illegally taken from their homes.

Indians and the Military-Genocidal Complex


According to Ms LaDuke, many Indians live in places called Fort Something or Other, in poor and devastated zones. She asserts that the military: “has taken our lands for bombing exercises and military bases, and for the experimentation and storage of the deadliest chemical agents and toxins known to mankind… Uranium mines, depleted uranium testing, and nuclear waste storage have done as much or more damage to Indian Country as nuclear bomb testing.”


If the Great Sioux Nation were in control of its 1851 treaty areas, LaDuke claims, “it would be the third greatest nuclear power on the face of the earth.”


Cannon Fodder


South Dakota has nine reservations, with unemployment ranging from a “low” of 12% on one smaller reservation to 89% on the largest reservation. These figures were last compiled in 2005. South Dakota’s overall unemployment rate is 4.7%, exclusive of reservations. Unemployment, poor health, violence, alcoholism, PTSD all plague the Indian community.


Bottom of Form


In spite of being victims of the US army, Indians have made a disproportionate contribution to the US armed forces. Many Indians recognize in current US wars echoes of wars against the Indian nations. Nevertheless, Indians have the highest military enlistment rate of any ethnic group and the largest number of living veterans (about 22% of Indians aged 18 or over). “How,” LaDuke asks, “did we move from being the target of the US military to being the US military itself?” She opposes militarism but wants veterans to be honoured.


Around 1.7% of US active duty forces are Indian; their proportion of the US population is 0.8%. Sergeant Brandon Bowden, a recruiting officer says: “Many want the college benefits; others are out for some skill set they could use, as the economy is very bad in this small area. Quite a few are looking for jobs, with the unemployment rate so high.” One mother was furious at the US military for the death of her son in Afghanistan. She reminds herself of what her son always used to tell her. “They are the ones who sign my cheque Mom; they are the ones who help me support my family.”


Corruption in Irish Politics

This article was published in the Island on April 9 2008



The Irish Prime Minister, Bertie Ahern has announced that he will resign in May. Mr Ahern, 56, has been Taoiseach (Irish for premier) since June 1997 and has been a member of the Irish Parliament for 31 years.

Patrick Bartholomew Ahern was born on September 12th, 1951 in Drumcondra – the area in the Dublin Central constituency which would later become the centre of his political heartland. He was a member of the Dublin City Council from 1979 to 1991 and served as Lord Mayor of Dublin in 1986.

Mr Ahern was appointed Minister for Labour in Charles Haughey’s Cabinet in 1987, a post he held until he became Minister for Finance in 1991. On June 26th, 1997, at the age of 45, he became the youngest ever Taoiseach.

His greatest achievements were the peace settlement in Northern Ireland and the building of prosperity in a country that had long known poverty and even famine. It is unfortunate that he should leave office under a cloud.

The resignation announcement came a day after Mr Ahern began a court challenge to limit the work of a public inquiry probing planning corruption in the 1990s.

Gerry Adams, leader of SinnFein, said: “What we saw today was a Taoiseach bowing out in a very gracious and graceful way and we should look at the good things that he has done as well as the not so good things that he has done.”

Eamon Gilmore, leader of the Labour Party said, “I came to the conclusion many months ago that Mr. Ahern would find it impossible to continue in office because of the mounting conflicts and contradictions between the statements he originally made about his financial affairs and the evidence uncovered by the Mahon tribunal.”

On September 26 2007, he won a vote of confidence by 81 votes to 76 in the Oireachtas, the Irish parliament, at the same time as he was changing his story- “rambling and incoherent” was how the opposition leader described the testimony- to the Mahon Tribunal on corruption in public life. Ahern’s majority party Fianna Fail, governs in a coalition with the Green Party led by John Gormley. Gormley’s support is not unconditional. He did not like the original wording of the confidence motion because it did not show support for the Mahon tribunal but did extol the “enormous contribution” made by Ahern on Northern Ireland, the economy, social partnership and the State’s infrastructure. Gormley had it changed so that confidence was affirmed in the tribunal’s work and expressed support for the government but not specifically for Ahern.

The opposition Fine Gael leader, Enda Kenny, said, “He has the opportunity to go and clear this up. The truth is always simple.” He added: “I find it quite extraordinary that a person who has been eulogised by the media for his mastery of detail, for some strange reason, cannot remember extraordinary amounts of money – paid in cash – moving through his accounts.” Kenny said there was now a situation whereby a witness before a tribunal, testifying on oath, “is continually changing his story”.

The Green Party, which sets great store by ethical behaviour, has been accused by Labour leader Eamon Gilmore of responsibility for a significant shift in the political culture of the State because of what he termed “an extraordinary abdication of responsibility” on the issue of standards in public office.

Gilmore said Ahern had raised the spectre of Charles Haughey’s premiership of the early 1980s. Ahern was a protégé of Charlie Haughey but generally thought to be more honest. It would be hard to be less honest than Charlie. Charlie did great things for the arts, encouraging, with tax incentives, many prestigious writers and performers from all over the world to make Ireland their home, but he also did great things for his bank balance.

He managed to stretch his relatively modest salary to purchase a historic mansion, an island, racehorses, a yacht, a valuable art collection and to run a helicopter and an opulent and loquacious mistress. It was proved that he had received millions from various benefactors. The supermarket tycoon Ben Dunne of Dunne’s Stores, on a cocaine-fuelled night in Florida, confessed about the bribes to a hooker as he tried to throw himself out of a hotel window. (A t-shirt popular in Ireland at the time bore the slogan: Ben there, Dunne that, bought the Taoiseach). Saudi businessman Mahmoud Fustok paid Haughey £50,000 to support applications for Irish citizenship. Allied Irish Banks wrote off his million pound overdraft. Charlie said he couldn’t remember any of this.

All this was known to the voters who affectionately regarded Charlie as “a cute hoor”, which could be translated as an astute but loveable rogue. Eventually, though, the 50% income tax rate eroded their affection for him and his calls to voters to tighten their belts in troubled times did not go down well. He had a convenient heart attack when he was called before the corruption tribunal and died of prostate cancer before he could be punished.

Bertie is a less cosmopolitan figure than Charlie but he is unusual in Irish politicians in defying the once all-powerful Catholic Church by living openly with a woman not his wife. His daughter, Cecilia is a best-selling novelist, married to a member of the boy-band Westlife, who has just given birth to celebrity twins.

There is no dispute about the fact that when he was minister of finance Ahern took large sums of cash from businessmen on four different occasions. Mr Justice Brian McCracken set out the standard in relation to payments to Haughey: It is, he wrote, “quite unacceptable that . . . any member of the Oireachtas should receive gifts of this nature . . . If such gifts were to be permissible, the potential for bribery and corruption would be enormous. If politicians are to give an effective service to all their constituents, or to all the citizens of the State, they must not be under a financial obligation to some constituents or some citizens only.”

Gilmore said: “The scale may well be different from that of Mr Charles Haughey. But scale does not alter standards. It may well have happened at a time of change for the Taoiseach. But circumstances do not alter standards,” said Mr Kenny. Broadening his attack, he said the public should be concerned about the affair because efforts to have a better, more honest society should always be led by the Taoiseach. “But that is now an impossibility,” he noted.

The “time of change” referred to was the collapse of Mr Ahern’s marriage. He said none of the issues being investigated by the Mahon tribunal would have occurred if he had not separated from his wife, Miriam. “I think you would see that people who are separated have to do different things at different times to survive and to move on and I did the same,” he told journalists. He told the Oireachtas, “I have given my evidence as honestly as I can and to the best of my ability. The human mind makes mistakes of recollections, forgets details and mingles events. That is life.” A similar kind of amnesia seems to have affected him that affected Haughey but Bertie is much younger. The response of the assembled Oireachtas was described as polite but not enthusiastic.

Ahern wrote an article for the Irish Independent justifying his actions: “The fundamental root of each of these lodgments was the conclusion of my marital separation and my efforts to put my life back in order after that separation. I have explained these matters to the Irish people and I think people understand the situation I was in which led to the actions I took.

To many, the way I dealt with these issues seems unorthodox. That is because my lifestyle in that difficult period was unorthodox. Many who have gone through the trauma of marital separation and legal proceedings will understand the position I was in. Mine was not a perfect life, nor a perfect family and matrimonial environment, but as I emerged from that period I was assisted by friends who I later repaid in full with interest. My situation was normalised over a short period after the conclusion of my separation”.

Bertie knows that he is (or has been) the most popular taoiseach ever and has (or had) the self-confidence that goes with his recent general election victory and his contribution to bringing peace and prosperity to the island which is not one nation. “When you’re at my level, there’s always somebody out to trip you up.”

At the national ploughing competition, on his first public outing since the confidence vote, the he adopted a demeanour of martyred vindication. He believed the nation believed him.

Fintan O’Toole described the situation well when he wrote that the substance of Bertie’s explanation was not important to the public:” Its plausibility mattered more than its ultimate veracity. If we were to have the wool pulled over our eyes, we wanted it to be fine merino rather than coarse yarn. If we were going to be regaled with fictions, we’d have liked them to be Jane Austen rather than Jeffrey Archer.”

Polls showed that fewer than 33% believed Bertie’s story, but, nonetheless, also showed a sharp rise in support for the government and a fall in support for the opposition. The Irish Times opined that the polls were “a poor reflection of ourselves”.

As with Charlie, things changed for Bertie. The Irish economic boom is slowing down. Soaring house prices have for years been the main sign of the success of the Celtic Tiger. Now house prices are falling and the construction industry is in trouble, which will increase unemployment. The US sub-prime fiasco has had a knock-on effect on Irish mortgages. Ireland has the highest cost of living in the EU. This was not a good time for the government to decide to increase ministerial salaries. Bertie himself got a rise of €38,000 which has led to widespread indignation. More recent poll results show that support for Fianna Fáil has suffered a massive decline among working-class voters, particularly in Dublin, and there has been a corresponding rise in support for Fine Gael and Labour among these disaffected voters.

Announcing his resignation he said: “While I will be the first to admit that I’ve made mistakes in my life and in my career, one mistake I’ve never made was to enrich myself by misusing the trust of the people. I have never received a corrupt payment and I’ve never done anything to dishonour any office that I’ve ever held.”

Time, and the Mahon Tribunal, will tell.


Padraig Colman

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