Saturday, 27 August 2011

Fugitive 'justice' minister run to ground at last

After days of speculation about his precise whereabouts, a prominent member of Scotland’s all-powerful Salmond regime was yesterday tracked down to a tough housing scheme on the southern edge of Edinburgh.

With his enemies closing in, Kenny MacAskill had taken refuge in a school on the Craigmillar estate, and surrounded himself with a human shield of pasty-faced teenagers and their spritely teachers, all primed to express delight at the appearance in their midst of the justice secretary. But while some fed him biscuits and others posed for pictures, no-one seemed at ease.

These days the disquiet around Mr MacAskill is tangible. Fully two years ago, it was his decision to release Abdul Baset Ali al-Megrahi, the Lockerbie bomber, on compassionate grounds, that sparked worldwide protest. The Libyan had been found guilty by three Scottish judges of the worst terrorist atrocity in British history, killing 270 people when his bomb blew up Pan Am flight 103.

In August 2009, Al-Megrahi was said to have three months to live, before he succumbed to prostate cancer. Instead, until recently at least, he has been able to live out his life playing frisbee in a suburb of Tripoli, his sole duty in respect of his Scots law, the requirement to remain in telephone contact with East Renfrewshire Council, whose officials supervise his release.

No surprise then that in rare sightings, Mr MacAskill has cut an increasingly careworn figure. His recent remarks too to suggest a man who is losing control of events. It was no different at Castlebrae Community High. He was asked, had he been in contact with rebel leaders?

“Well obviously the UK government is speaking to them,” he said, embarking on the ramble of a man on the brink. “We are operating on a variety of fronts. From a media perspective, who goes where, who speaks to what, it’s difficult to fathom matters. That’s why we are waiting for the dust of battle to settle and in the interim to find out what is happening and to communicate through all appropriate routes.”

In a more lucid moment, Mr MacAskill did seek to deflect criticism, by turning the spotlight on those who had “glad-handed” the hated Libyan government of Colonel Muammar Gaddafi, a reference to the infamous “deal in the desert” struck by Tony Blair, then Labour Prime Minister.

Unfortunately, Mr MacAskill’s charge of duplicity against his Labour enemies has begun to ring hollow in recent months.

In February, documents published in Westminster showed that senior government ministers and officials, including Jack Straw, the foreign secretary, were utterly convinced that they had been told in 2007 by the justice secretary himself, that the Scottish Government was ready to include Al-Megrahi in a prisoner transfer agreement, in return for concessions over firearms legislation and slopping out in prisons.

“There was then a conversation when he (MacAskill) asked for a deal,” Straw told The Times. “He obviously spoke to Salmond.”

Mr Salmond had gone on television himself to counter the claim of seeking a deal, but had found himself unable to call Mr Straw a liar. Would Mr MacAskill say that Mr Straw was a liar?

“I’m not bandying around matters here,” retorted Mr MacAskill, refusing to call Mr Straw a liar. “We stand on our record, north of the border, of having always been open, above board, the one authority that has acted with fairness and transparency throughout.”

In the fog of war, it all made as much sense as a placing a mass murderer, domiciled in Libya, in the care of a Renfrewshire parole officer.

* Pic James Glossop

Monday, 22 August 2011

"I'm not sure the government have it in them"

On the wall of Karyn McCluskey’s office is a photograph. It shows a man of about 30, his head oozing blood and his body slashed with ugly knife wounds. Almost out of frame, a doctor is trying to help, but above the medic's outstretched hand, a livid tattoo cries out his patient’s defiance: “Only God Can Judge Me”.

A brutal portrayal of gang culture? McCluskey grins. “That image epitomises Glasgow to me,” she says. “I had it framed but people still ask me why I have it the office. I am very unusual."

She is unusual not least because of her sudden notoriety. In the wake of three nights of rioting in English cities, an anti-gang regime pioneered by McCluskey and her colleague John Carnachan, of Strathclyde police, has been singled out by David Cameron as a model of success in combating street violence.

The Community Initiative to Reduce Violence (CIRV, pronounced “serve”), has exposed 400 gang members to psychological shock therapy to jolt them out of lives of gang crime. In three years, the offending rate among participants has dropped by 46% and even among gang members who have resisted, offences have fallen by a quarter.

McCluskey, garrulous and confiding, in defiance of the police stereotype, appears oblivious to prime ministerial praise. On the contrary, she applauds Ian Duncan Smith, who declared this week that the country “cannot arrest its way” out of social breakdown, and she dismissess Cameron’s notion that the riots in England were “criminality pure and simple”.

She says: “You cannot just look at enforcement. For me, this is Cameron’s problem.
“I know he has looked at CIRV but we are just one small part of it. I am proud of what we have done, but I’m proud of our work with the public services. It is all part of the same jigsaw.”
For McCluskey, the roots of gang violence lie insidde chaotic homes in places such as Ruchazie and Easterhouse, vast, ugly housing schemes where Glasgow’s gang culture has been endemic for the 60 years.

Here, she says, young children are cut adrift from opportunity as soon as they are born. “When I speak to kids and they aspire to nothing, I think that is the most crimnal. thing of all. I say, ‘What did you want to be when you were in primary shool?’ They can’t tell me. No astronauts. nothing.

“We need 21st century solutions to a 21st century problem. You need to support young people and kids in families. And give them an aspiration.”

McCluskey, from Falkirk, is a very singular police officer. A lone parent, she has no partner and admits getting pregnant “wasn’t in my career plan.” She is hugely proud of her 11-year-old daughter.

Off duty, she’s training for a half ironman, the most punishing of events, and giggles when she describes the masochistic training regime. She’s been knocked off her bike seven times by white van man and deplores attending the gym because of “all those perfect women looking calm and composed and me sweating like a badger”.

A forensic psychology graduate steeped in US and Scandinavian anti-violence theory, she arrived in Glasgow in 2002, after serving as head of intelligence for the West Mercia force. The difference in environment would have been laughable had it not been so tragic: from the Porsetshire of the Archers to Taggart's Glasgow.

“We’d have three killings in a year in West Mercia,” she says, “in Strathclyde all we got was murder, murder, murder (71 in her first year). I couldn’t grasp the scale of the problem. We’d had 30 years of hard policing, but it hadn’t made a difference”

Over a three-week holiday she wrote a report identifying violence as a disease. “That was a eureka moment,” she recalls. “Once you to talk like that to people, they get it. Violence is like measles: you catch it in the house from your mum and dad, from child abuse, from domestic abuse, and when you go out into the neighbourhood you pass it on. You form a gang, a team, and the violence goes round. You grow older, you get married and the whole cycle starts again.”
These days, with John Carnochan, she is co-director of Strathclyde’s Violence Reduction Unit, formed in 2004 in the wake of her report.

The unit was quickly in the forefront of campaigns against knives and alcohol, but soon afterwards she had a second eureka moment. At a violent crime summit in Boston, she met David Kennedy, the Harvard criminologist who pioneered Operation Ceasefire an initiative that used shock tactics against gang members to combat a soaring murder rate.

McCluskey immediately made the connection between young black Americans in Boston and the people she was dealing with in Glasgow. “Their lack of aspiration, the lives that weren't manageable; they had no communication skills, no empathy. I thought, 'This could work in Scotland.”

CIRV's success is built on a simplest of scenarios, known as a call-in. As many as 200 young men are dragooned into court and lined up to face representatives of communities they have terrorised. Then, under the strict regime of the presiding sheriff, they are harangued by senior police officers, doctors, and convicted murderers before they are finally presented with stark ultimatum. Reform, or your life will be hell.

If they sign a pledge to renounce violence, the men are offered help from social services and community groups.

The call-ins begin with short contribution from the chief constable. As CCTV images of the offenders flash around the court-room wall, he tells the young men that he knows where they live; that he can arrest them any time he likes; that they will all be hunted down if a single one of them commits another offence.

“We catch the feckless and the stupid,” says McCluskey. “You saw it in Manchester and London. We flash up their pictures, we show them their houses. At first they’re all pointing and saying, ‘There’s such and such…’ Then they suddenly realise. I love that look on their faces.”

The witnesses keep coming. A doctor describes the kinds of injuries he has treated, and the condition of the kids who have died. A convicted murderer describes the reality of prison. He asks them, “Who do you think will come to visit you in prison?”. He adds that within ten days of incarceration, a young offender’s best mate will be sleeping with his girl.

A bereaved mother makes the most powerful intervention of all. “It doesn't matter how crap their mums have been to them, they still love their them,” says McCluskey. “The mother says: ‘I lost my son and I'll never get over it. I go into his bedroom every single day. You boys might not care, you think you’ll live for ever - but this is what it like.’

“I thought Scots wouldn’t be able to show their emotions like the black guys in Boston. But it was exactly the same. They are shattered by it. You can see them sobbing.”

How does she react? “I’m sobbing too,” she says. “If you stopped being moved by this, then you need to go. I am zealot about his. It’s a big part of my life. John and I are relentless."
If it sounds like a story of unbounded hope, it is not, and McCluskey acknowledges as much. After seven years of the VRU, still, every six hours in Glasgow, someone receives a grievous knife injury. And, after falling to 41 in 2010, the murder rate had risen to 59 this summer, when the latest annual statistics were issued. In 2009, Strathclyde Police area, containing 43% of the population, had 55% of Scotland’s murders. Glasgow’s old, unwanted title, “the murder capital of Europe” is hard to shake off.

Locally and nationally, politicians will have to be “brave, resilient and aspirational” warns McCluskey. The national prognosis is not good.

“I’m not sure the government have it in them yet,” says McCluskey. “The bravery might be wavering a bit and the resilience is important - you can’t do it overnight. It has to go beyond the political imperative, the four-year government.

“They need some verbs in their sentences, some doing words. You can talk about changing things all you like, but you need to do things and shift your spend to those who need it most, even in a recession. That means some tough choices for them. Transferring money to difficult families is not going to please middle England. But you absolutely have to do it, because it will make middle England safer too.”

Friday, 5 August 2011

Pregnant and still living on the run

The Scotsman, 4 September 2000

There's a gloominess about the haar lingering over the deserted coast road. It's early and certainly too dreich for the great and the good of Carnoustie to be taking the air. But for Liz McColgan, at ease in the foyer to her gym, it's already been a good morning. The damp breeze cooled her on her first five-mile run of the day, which she finished long before we begin to talk at nine o'clock.

Injury may have ruled her out of Olympic Games qualification, but McColgan is sticking by her gruelling marathon training schedule, three full-pace sessions every week, and a daily routine to prepare her for the next two years of running. There are Commonwealth Games to look forward to in 2002, and she feels there are three, maybe five 26-milers inside her before she retires.

It would be a punishing regime for anyone. For a woman who is five-and-half months pregnant with her third child it is almost unbelievable. You say so and almost by way of mitigation she offers: "This is the only pregnancy I've trained through like this. I'm surprised. Normally when you get to four months you feel..." she grips her stomach and makes a sickly sound "... and you can't keep the sessions going. But I'm actually doing hard sessions which I can't believe I'm capable of doing."

It all seems so typical of the McColgan image: the fierce commitment to family, spliced with that single-mindedness which so unsettles some observers.

That competitiveness though is the mark of a major athlete, who despite her talent has had to cope with disappointments which arrive in four-year cycles. Just remember: there she was, smiling with the British team in the opening parade at Atlanta in 1996, all hope and glorious medal expectation. That was before an insect bite prevented her running. Four years earlier she was laid low by anaemia.

This time around, a second operation on a toe injury disrupted her schedule and made it impossible to achieve a qualifying time within the limits set for the British team. Her fate seems especially cruel. After all, as she says herself: "Sydney was going to be the one where it happened. The temperature would be right, the course was perfect - it's quite tough and would have suited me - but it's out of my hands. I can't do anything about it now."

There's no bitterness she says, though her foot feels better and she believes she could compete. But she admits it was the disappointment which prompted her decision with husband Peter to have another child. They already have Eilish, ten, and Martin, ten months.

"We want more children, and we thought we can't sit and dwell on what can or can't be.
"I felt I could give myself six months where I didn't over-stretch myself and just gradually build up my strength. So we thought, 'What the heck', and that's when we decided. By the time I have this child, my foot will have been through a lot of training."

She's laughing at herself now, perhaps knowing that she sounds, even by her standards, a trifle focused. "So when I have had the child I'll be able to get right back in and not worry about any more children for a couple of years!"

At 35, it's improbable even McColgan could win Olympic gold now. With a third child on the way why not simply retire?

"That would be the easy option, to put my feet up. But that's not me. I've got other things to do, not for anyone else but your myself. I don't see the point in throwing in the towel just because your biggest dream has been taken away from you.

"I've trained but I haven't raced for two years and I feel I'm two years short in my career. I still feel mentally strong. If the mind's willing and the body's able, age isn't a problem."

It been a lifetime's work already. The facts of the young Liz Lynch's early career are well known. Brought up on a council estate, she was thrown into athletics by a PE master with a yen for cross-country and a membership at Dundee Harriers. At the club she met her mentor, coach Harry Bennett, who instilled a competitive philosophy which has shaped her life.

More than that, Bennett cajoled Liz's parents to take their daughter out of a jute mill and send her to America. He funded the journey; he even picked her Mormon college, because he understood his protege would require the support such a restricted environment could provide.

There's a shine in her eyes when McColgan talks about Bennett. Though he died while she was a student, he had already fitted her for the long haul. By the time Eilish was born she was a Commonwealth 10,000m champion. Within another year she had added a world crown, a world record and was ready to step up in distance. The marathon, the greatest of all challenges, is an extraordinary event, requiring a fanatical level of preparation for the most unpredictable results. It is a roller coaster, she admits, and not everyone enjoys the ride. How does she feel on the morning of the race?

"I just wish I wasn't there! It's like D-Day and you really have a feeling of dread.

"The worst thing is you know you're going to hurt, it's going to be tough. So many emotions are going through your mind, it's very hard to deal with. One of the thoughts is 'Why do I do it?' But it's not until you've run the race, good or bad, that you realise why you're there - the enjoyment of it. But the worst side of it is at the start."

As a teenager, Bennett had thrown books at her, to help her attune to the sport. One she enjoyed was The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, though these days she has worked out her own version.

"When you're running, you've got to keep yourself as relaxed as possible so you've got to concentrate on your breathing. I tend to go into myself: I listen to my body and my muscles, and I try to relax myself when I'm running.

"When I'm focused and when I'm right up there, I haven't got time to think of things about me. Normally all I hear is a buzz ... you just run through it. On the track I don't hear anything."
It's not the thought of a gold medal which drives her through the silence, nor the prospect of fame. It's a belief that she can do better.

The closest she came to her perfect race, she reckons, was in Tokyo.

"We had Eilish with us, and she had really bad ear problems. I'd just arrived in Japan and I was up walking the floor with her all night, a three-month old baby. Then I took my period on the morning of the race, so it was all doom and gloom.

"I thought, 'Well I don't care, I'll just go and run flat out'. I honestly thought I'd run badly. But I thought, 'Stuff it, I'm just going to go from start to finish'.

"I remember running 10,000m in about 31 minutes and I thought I'd die a death. But I just kept going. I was surprised. In the end, I took two minutes off my personal best for the half-marathon and a good chunk off the world record."

Results like that are built on a fierce asceticism, and it's not surprising that she deplores drug cheats. There's a bit of history too - after all she was denied Olympic gold in 1988 only by Olga Bondarenko, from a since-discredited Soviet team.

These days, McColgan supports proposals to bring in blood testing and though sympathetic to some of those enmeshed in the current drug-taking scandal, she frowns on what one might charitably call a careless approach to food supplements.

"There's so much stuff on the market now," she tells you. "For me, before I consume anything, I sit down and read the label and I phone up to check. Some blame has to fall on the athletes."
Then there's Linford Christie. He failed a drugs test at the Seoul Olympics, a result later overturned because the sprinter said he had taken ginseng. Last year in Dortmund, he was found to be 100 times over the limit for Nandrolone.

"That's a different story altogether," she says. "He was extremely high. Goodness knows how he was that high. It's not for me to say he's not taking it or he is taking it, but at the end of the day he's been involved twice and you know ... it's a very hard subject to approach.

"There are people who are blatantly doing it, and others who are not. It's very harsh when they get banned, but I'd rather see a stronger stance."

That's for the future, and McColgan is realistic enough to anticipate the days when competitive athletics are behind her. Already, through her health club, she is involved in the rehabilitation of patients discharged from organ transplant and heart operations.

"When I see the progression and enthusiasm they find for their lives again, it gives me as much enjoyment as running London or winning medals. That's where I'll be when I stop running altogether."

Some television work would appeal, she admits, but she was once told by a PR company she would need elocution lessons.

"I just said, 'Yeah, stuff that. I'm happy being a Scot'. If people don't like my accent or don't accept me like I am, too bad. Why hide what you are? So I turned my back on that right away."

She's had the problem before. After Eilish was born she told Woman magazine she hoped eventually for four to six children. The front cover from March 1992 is on display in the health club. There she is, smiling with her darling daughter, the picture embellished with the slogan: "Liz McColgan - my race to have 46 children". In the real world, before even her third child arrives, she will have to sit at home and watch an Olympic marathon. She'll be "very agitated", she admits.

"It would be easy to sit back and say I'd have won it. I wouldn't do that. It's when you see girls you know, who aren't any better than you, that you realise you could be out there competing, that's the annoying thing. At the end of the day, I'm sitting in Carnoustie with my feet on a chair watching it and they're out there doing the work. But there's no comparison."