Tuesday columns for Newcastle Journal by George Hepburn

Month: February, 2016

A fortnight following in Jim’s footsteps

I have spent the last two weeks following in the footsteps of Jim Robertson.

He was sitting across the aisle from me at the launch of ‘Still People Like Us’, an exhibition of photographs of asylum seekers living in the North East at the Discovery Museum. Jim asked a pertinent question about why those seeking sanctuary are referred to in such a derogatory way in the media.

The exhibition brought home to me  that asylums seekers have families like us too. They deal with painful separation from the loved ones they have left behind. It is an excellent exhibition which runs until Friday and show a series of proud, dignified if sad people making their way in the world.  Catch it if you can.

The previous evening Jim had been delayed at another meeting and was late for the AGM of Church Action on Poverty North East which was discussing a Christian approach to money. He still made a good point about the right to a basic guaranteed income. I wondered whether we also needed a maximum wage. Church Action on Poverty suggests a 1:10 ratio between the top and bottom earners in a company.

Something is wrong about a society in which we all love a bargain to save money and work harder to earn a bonus to make money. How did money become so important?

The following day Jim was sitting towards the back of the hall for the latest Hexham debate. He asked a question about whether society can afford the rich. The speaker was Chris Howson, Anglican Chaplain to Sunderland University, lifelong political activist and serial protestor at Faslane.  He believes you have to put faith into action and quotes the black theologian Robert Beckford as saying that “if you are not in trouble with the law, you are probably not doing theology”. Whether you can do theology by attending meetings must be even more doubtful.

I am still reflecting on Chris Howson’s interpretation of the parable of the talents. The servant who buries his talent in the ground and is punished by the evil master is, in his view, the hero of the story because he refuses to have anything to do the iniquities of the banks and stock markets. He will eventually get his reward in heaven. Jim and I nodded knowingly at each other as we left the hall.

I don’t know if Jim made it to the opening of Pattinson House on Thursday. I had gone to London to attend more meetings. By all accounts, it was a glorious affair attended by over 150 people crammed into a community centre converted out of empty shops on the Old Fold and Nest estates in Gateshead. The Mayor cut a huge red ribbon; a buffet lunch disappeared within minutes and fresh bread was cooked in the newly installed ovens.  It is a triumph for residents and the hard working staff and all thanks to funding from the Peoples Health Trust, Virgin Money Foundation and Gateshead Housing Company.

Jim will be at Christians on the Left in Durham next Friday when I will be watching Naomi Klein’s film about climate change at Northern Stage. We will meet up at the regional gathering of supporters of the Iona Community on Saturday which will aim to unravel what a Good Society should look like in the North East and doubtless enjoy music and worship in Iona style. I have been looking forward to it for ages.

The Iona event now clashes with a march in London to protest against renewing the Trident nuclear weapons system. The ‘main gate’ decision to commit £100bn (some say £169 bn) of public money will be made by parliament shortly.

I have never discussed Trident with Jim. We pass like dissidents in the night. But he is bound to be opposed. The arguments in favour of Trident make my blood boil. The new system will secure our influence in the world and save valuable jobs in the defence industry. 6,500 people are employed as Faslane alone.

But, er, that’s about it.  Nobody can really tell me who the missiles are pointed at or why countries like Germany or France have slept safely at night without nuclear weapons. As the late defence chief Sir Michael Carver once said ”What the bloody hell is it for?”

Of all the issues I rant about in this column, the abolition of nuclear weapons is the closest to my heart. It is immoral.  It may be my age. I was brought up in the heyday of CND and was genuinely scared about the prospect of being bombed into oblivion. Anyone landing from outer space would find it hard to understand why the United Kingdom should invest so much money in an obsolete system of defence that will never be used. ( The next Hexham Debate on March 12th asks ‘Britain’s nuclear weapons: who should decide’.)

In any event, I will be at the Sunday for Sammy concert on Sunday. Along with everyone else, I will miss Brendan Healey’s contribution. He has always been the funniest of the funny men and a very talented musician as well. There must be some light relief from attending meetings. I hope Jim will be there too.

Published in Newcastle Journal Tues 23rd February



Unacceptable cost of Deepcut

In this town, I do not need to explain the mind set of a fan except to point out that a fanship is not restricted to football.

I am a fan of Live Theatre. I buy a ticket for every play even though I occasionally come away disappointed and, on one occasion, walked out at half time. I am still booking for their new show in April and looking forward to it.

As a fan of Live Theatre, I went to see a play back in 2006 with the unlikely title ‘Geoff’s Dead: Disco for Sale’ about a father coming to terms with the death of his son at Deepcut Barracks. Another play in the same year focussed on the apparent suicide of another Deepcut soldier, Cheryl James.

It was as if theatre was the only way left to come to terms with unpalatable and unexplained  events at Deepcut.  Four army recruits, in training at Deepcut, were found dead with gunshot wounds in apparently unrelated incidents between 1995 and 2002.  The deaths were shoddily investigated by the Army and the parents claimed there had been a cover up.

Last week, a new inquest into the circumstances of Cheryl James’s death opened in Dorking. There may subsequently be inquests into the other deaths as well. If there is ever a film made about Deepcut, Shami Chakrabarti will have a cameo role  for the way her organisation, Liberty, has not given up representing  the case for the soldiers families.

Cheryl James, aged 18 from Llangollen, was the second of the four fatalities. She had only been at Deepcut for nine days in 1995 when, on overnight guard duty armed with a rifle, she was found with gunshot wounds in her head. The inquest took less than an hour and only seven witnesses were called. The Coroner returned an open verdict but was recorded by the Army as suicide.

In 2002, the four families called for a public inquiry. This was refused but led to an investigation by Surrey Police which concluded that there was no evidence of third party involvement. In 2005, a review by Devon and Cornwall police criticised Surrey for unduly assuming that all the deaths were suicides.

There was an inquiry behind closed doors by Nicholas Buxton QC in 2006 which concluded that the soldiers most likely took their own lives but which was highly critical of the culture at Deepcut at the time of their deaths.

Liberty took up the case on behalf of Cheryl’s parents in 2011 threatening Surrey Police with action under the Human Rights Act if they did not release the evidence concerning Cheryl’s death. The police handed over more than 90 lever-arch files of forensic evidence, photographs, statements and other evidence which has enabled Liberty to make the case for a fresh inquiry.

Last year, a second post mortem was conducted to clarify whether the bullet fragments in Cheryl’s James head were fired from her own rifle. The bullet fragment recovered after her death have been lost and the ammunition in the gun disappeared. At the pre inquest hearing in January, it was revealed that she had been raped shortly before her death.

The Coroner has promised a “full, frank and fearless” examination into the circumstances of Cheryl’s death but that he will not be drawn into whether “there was a culture of sexual abuse at Deepcut barracks, including the sexually inappropriate treatment of female recruits within the chain of command.” This time, the inquest is expected to last for ten days and to call 100 witnesses.

My heart goes out to Cheryl’s father, Des James, who is the same age as me and will be the first witness. He and his wife have lived through twenty years of denial, avoidance and delay and I hope they will feel that the new inquest will resolve the questions in their minds. Of course this is by no means certain until the coroner finally reports sometime after Easter.

After all this time, it is not so much a question of who pulled the trigger but why young people were put under such stress and degradation to be moulded into soldiers. Why were  the military authorities and the police so negligent in establishing what happened.

It is as everybody accepts that the deaths of young recruits are an acceptable cost of the brutalising process of producing a lethal military force The events at Deepcut may not be extraordinary. There have been an average of ten suicides and unexplained deaths in the Army each year for the last twenty years. In 2012 more soldiers and veterans committed suicide than were killed by the Taliban, according to a Panorama investigation. Soldiers are trained to do the jobs we do not want to do ourselves in ways we would prefer not to know about.

published in Newcastle Journal Tues 9th Feb 16