Saturday, 18 August 2012

I'd sit in the park, glueys on one side, spliff smokers on the other, and I’d read Jane Austen. 'Weirdo,' they said.

Russell Kane won the Edinburgh Comedy Award in 2010, and is one of the best known stand-ups in Britain. His comedy schtick is very much his tough upbringing in Enfield, his surly father, the bleakness of his surroundings. When I heard, like many comics before him, he had written a novel, I was pretty skeptical.  But when I started reading The Humorist, I was impressed, so I approached him for an interview.  This is what he said about how he discovered books.  

“Part of it was to try to piss my dad off,” he reckons. “Some people did drugs or got involved in crime or slept around.  I wanted to be different.   I thought ‘I’m  going to read everything just to show I  can.’

“I used to sit in the park, glueys on one side, spliff smokers on the other.  I had my own gear, my own spliff, waiting for my friends, and I’d read Jane Austen, just to make people say, ‘What are you doing, weirdo?’    Accidently it fell from rebellion into love.”

At first, it was a torrid affair and grew into something beautiful only because Kane was incorrigible.    He read slowly  and when he could,  kept a dictionary and an encyclopaedia by his side.  “Pride and Prejudice was the first proper book I read,” he recalls. “Every word I encountered that I didn’t know got its own index card with a meaning written on it, then I’d put it in a pack, which I carried around in a bag.   I went through it again and again  until I had expanded my vocabulary.”

He was, he says, 14 when he started creating his portable dictionary, but then corrects himself. “I’m exaggerating, because I’m ashamed.  I was about 17. I’m ashamed  I did it that artificially, that late in life.   But eventually ‘impudent’ became a word I  was comfortable with. That was the first word: impudent. The first word I ever wrote down on a card.”

He collected 3,500 cards over the years.  “I would pick a pack up, and I would go along the street, and I would say, ‘Oxymoron – what does that mean?’   The card was discarded when I felt the word naturally occur to me,  when I could use it without thinking.  I thought, ‘I now own that word, I know what oxymoron means, I’ll never forget it.’ And I never forgot any of them.”

You can read more about Russell at The Times website.  The photograph is by James Glossop

Tuesday, 7 August 2012

Lasseter on Jobs: "I get to work with Dad today"

John Lasseter is the creative genius behind Pixar. He achieved worldwide fame as director of Toy Story, and is now chief creative officer for Disney and Pixar.  He has a long connection to Scotland, first visiting on a Eurorail pass when he was a student. I interviewed him when he returned in June to promote Brave ahead of its US premiere. 

The interview was set up as part of the "junket", the huge publicity splurge around the film, that brought 150 journalists over from the states. Disney had hired a couple of floors of the Balmoral Hotel to service the hacks, and  reaching Lasseter, was like getting into Fort Knox.  I got a military 45 minutes with the Big Fellow, in which time I got to ask about eight questions. This is what  he said about Steve Jobs, who co-founded Pixar, and bankrolled it for ten years before Toy Story was released. 

Jobs  became his sounding board, a confidante, a decision maker,  both a father figure and “like a brother” .  Jobs’ death from pancreatic cancer last October was a desperate loss.  Life must be difficult without him?

“It is,” says Lasseter carefully. “I miss him a lot.  The way I describe Steve,  he’s like I was with my sons, learning to ride a bike.  You run alongside and you hold on to the handlebars,  then   you let go and they wobble and you’re still running beside them. But pretty soon they are riding by themselves and you stand  and watch them.  Steve was like that with us. He had no desire to ride the bike,  but he wanted to be there to help.”

Jobs contribution is built into Pixar’s bricks and mortar. Its headquarters at Emeryville near San Francisco has been dubbed  “Steve’s movie” because Jobs spent  four years designing the perfect Californian office space to house what he called "a community of collaborative filmmakers''. 

And he was a creative influence.  “He wasn’t  there  crafting the stories, but he was my fresh set of eyes that I’d show to all the time,” say Lasseter. “I’d get a note from him and I was  always like: ‘I didn’t even think of that.  Wow!’   Or he’d simply say, ‘I just don’t get this, right here.’  I’d  been too close to something,  but he’s the one who makes me look at it from a distance and say, ‘Man, he’s right.”

A year after Toy Story was released, Jobs returned to Apple – “I was so proud of him” says Lasseter -  but he never dropped his connection with  Pixar. Six years ago, when  the two  animation giants merged  Jobs became Disney’s biggest individual shareholder, and Lasseter its driving creative force.

The two men remained close.   “I would go down and visit him (at Apple) all the time,” says Lasseter.   “It was like ‘I get to go to work with Dad today’. It was really special.  We used to talk all the time. I miss him.”

Read the 2000-word interview at The Times Review cover story. Picture shows Lasseter with Julie Fowlis, the singer

Monday, 4 June 2012

Disneyfication is not a dirtry word

Here's a little extract from today's Times coverage of Pixar's Brave junket in Scotland. Click Brave Express to read the full story

Welcome aboard the Brave Express,” drones the train announcer. “Please take time to familiarise yourselves with the safety information notices.” 

It’s Saturday morning and the largest press trip ever organised by VisitScotland is chugging out of Edinburgh. About 150 film journalists — Hollywood’s finest — are grinning at each other across lochs of complimentary whisky and mountains of haggis-flavoured crisps. This is what a national tourism agency does when the latest computer-animated Disney Pixar blockbuster is set on its own turf, offering the chance of almost unprecedented publicity. 

Brave is a fairy story set in an ancient Scotland that never quite existed, yet its backdrop is tantalisingly accurate. Pixar put years of research into its Scottish buildings and landscapes; little bits of Edinburgh, Dunnottar and Eilean Donan are to be found in the fictional DunBroch castle. The Callanish Standing Stones, a real and eerie presence on Lewis, are depicted as truly magical in the film. 

Over two days of private screenings and briefings in Edinburgh last week, the Disney vision was revealed to the Hollywood press corps. The Brave Express, as Mike Cantlay, chief executive of VisitScotland, puts it with commendable chutzpah, is “where legends come  to life” and where, hopefully, a modern country gets written into the ensuing coverage.

Saturday, 26 May 2012

Yes, it was really was that bad

This is extracted from my sketch of Friday "Yesscot" campaign for Scottish Independence.  You can read the whole thing on The Times website.  The photograph is by James Glossop

It was all bafflingly bad, not least because the SNP, more marketing organisation that political party, have shown themselves to be the most adept electoral machine in Britain over the last five years. 

They’ve done so, in large part, by carefully following public opinion and tailoring their vision of independence to what the public will accept. 

The monarchy, the pound, the army, the BBC, the DVLA, all of these apparently will be part of an independent Scotland, because that’s what the focus groups say Scottish people like. 

It’s an intriguing vision, this “social union”, as the SNP call it - but how would it work, what would it look like? Yesterday no-one would or could say.

Just when it couldn’t get any worse for those Nationalist strategists who are so wedded to public opinion, Patrick Harvie, the leader of the Scottish Greens, produced the one visionary speech, describing what an Independent Scotland might look like. 

Doubling up with Mr Salmond in the “progressive” political alliance of the Yes Campaign, Mr Harvie’s intervention was a bean-eaters’ charter for a joyless future. He dissed North Sea oil, the mainstay of Scotland’s economy, called for a new economic model, and spoke of “the delusion of everlasting economic growth”. Vote winners all. 

At the end, Mr Salmond was still sitting smiling with one of his new friends, Alan Cumming, posing for photos. One of this odd couple made his name in the movies as Floop, a childish character with a maniacal secret agenda to take over the world. 

The other? The Yes campaign launch left that question unanswered. 

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Sketch: Health of the nation

Ever since the Coalition government set about “reforming” the NHS in England and Wales, Alex Salmond has made healthy progress by presenting himself as the reincarnation of Sir William Beveridge, the founder of the welfare state. None of Andrew Lansley's ham-fisted surgery skills are being deployed on health services in Scotland, so things must be better here, right? 

In fact, no-one knows. No reliable data has been available for comparisons with outcomes in the rest of the UK, meaning the  claims of  Mr Salmond, that the sick of Scotland have thrown away their crutches and can walk again,   have so far gone unchallenged. 

Until yesterday, at FMQs. Enter Johann Lamont, the Scottish Labour leader, armed with medical opinion, and a disconcerting bedside manner. Was Mr Salmond aware, she wondered, that the Royal College of Nursing had concluded there are “not enough nurses to provide basic, safe care”? Or that Audit Scotland and the Centre for Public Policy in the Regions said Scotland is lagging behind England in resourcing the NHS? 

Well if he was aware, the First Minister wasn’t letting on. Instead he rambled on like a patient still woozy with anaesthetic. He did come up with a statistic of his own: for every eight nurses in Scotland, there are 5.3 in England (that O.3 of a nurse works in the urinogenitary clinic in Cockfosters, apparently). But aside from this, his random targets appeared to be with the Welsh Labour Party (offered no right of reply) and the Shadow Health Secretary. 

The latter is, of course, Jackie Baillie, such a substantial figure that she played a very large part in proceedings without actually asking a question. It was Ms Baillie who earlier this week had drawn attention to a supposed shortage of bed covers in the Greater Glasgow Health Board, an assertion that drew a blanket condemnation from Mr Salmond.

Gradually it became clear that the FM had a health issue of his own, a kind of weird, intermittent hearing loss in the presence of Conservatives. When Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader asked why Mr Salmond spent £130million on free prescriptions, when most people were prepared to pay for their medicines, he obviously didn’t hear at all, because he didn't answer. 

Then Mr Salmond launched a paean to “the lost leader”,  Murdo Fraser, whom he mistakenly thought had spoken, before hearing just one word in two whole questions from John Lamont. That word was “separation” a term that made the FM's eyes bulge. "Separation? Separation? I look forward to the United States of America celebrating their Separation Day,” frothed Mr Salmond. Nurse, the screens!

Friday, 24 February 2012

Helping the Masai farmers when the pop stars have all gone

It is a little after dawn in the Masai district of Engarenaibor in northwestern Tanzania. Amid a prehistoric landscape of rolling grassland and acacia trees, Paolo Lemorongo, a farmer, is rounding up cows, so that his visitors can see for themselves the tiny yellow tags that have been attached to each animal's ear. The tag signifies an animal inoculated against the deadly Ndigana kali, better known as East Coast fever.

"Before the vaccination became available, most of my animals died," says Mr Lemorongo. "If the cows delivered 80 calves, only five would survive. Of course, when vets first brought the treatment here somepeople were suspicious, but when they saw that so many animals survived, suddenly everyone wanted it."

Mr Lemorongo, whose home is a four-hour drive by Land Rover from Arusha, the nearest city, is understandably delighted to be the beneficiary of a ground-breaking aid project, developed byGalvmed (Global Alliance for Livestock Veterinary Medicines). This Edinburgh-based charity was founded five years ago with the aim of halting East Coast fever and 12 other deadly livestock diseases that lay waste to millions of animals every year across the African continent andthroughout the developing world.

It seems an unfeasibly large ambition. In the Masai communities of Engarenaibor, disease has for generations been a brutal fact of life for farmers such as Mr Lemorongo. In the good times cattle represent the food and currency he needs for his own survival. Cows supply the rich, untreated milk that is the staple diet here; when there is a surplus of healthy animals, some can be sold at market to provide the funds to send his children to school. But should the cattle die, whole communities will be impoverished.

In recent years, the statistics have made grim reading. It is calculated that in East Africa, 1.1 million cattle succumb annually to Ndigana kali — a tick-borne disease that infects the lymph glands and causes high fever— with only three per cent of calves surviving into adulthood. Yet here in Engarenaibor there has been a 95 per cent reduction in deaths from the disease since the vaccine was introduced.

It is just a beginning. Last Thursday in Arusha in the presence of government ministers andofficials from Tan-zania, Uganda, Kenya and Malawi, Galvmed formally launched its new international campaign against East Coast fever, taking the battle across all four countries, with the willing support of all the governments concerned. The charity was able to confirm that "disease action plans" were being drawn up to tackle swine fever and other killers that destroy huge populations of pigs; to combat sheep and goat pox and Rift valley fever, fatal to smaller animals;and to defeat the infections that kill poultry.

These programmes — designed to be enacted over a decade—represent a fundamental shift in the provision of aid to the developing world. Instead of the crisis management of famine or flood, with all its pop records and television appeals, Galvmed is creating a permanent continent-wide framework that will preserve livestock, and protect the communities who rely on their animals for their very livelihoods. The audacious scale of the project has been enough to convince the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to contribute £17 million in support. The UK Government's Department for International Development has contributed a further £7 million.

In a statement to coincide with the international launch of the vaccine, Gregg BeVier, senior programme officer of agricultural development, for the Gates Foundation, heaped praise on the charity. "GALVmed and its partners should feel great pride in this important achievement," he said. "We hope this success will drive additional investment and innovation to benefit those who depend on livestock, and help them build better lives."

The week's good news should not be allowed to divert attention from the long struggle to overcome livestock diseases, according to Dr Hameed Nuru, an Edinburgh-trained vet, who worked extensively for the African Union before he became Galvmed's senior director of policy andexternal affairs.

Dr Nuru deplores the fact that although many livestock diseases have long been treatable, a mixture of Byzantine bureaucracy, prohibitive cost and political short-sightedness has stymied progress. The statistics speak for themselves, he says. Agricultural aid represents just five per cent of the total aid budget in Africa, but over 30 years that still amounts to a staggering £1.25 trillion.

So why are there so few signs of a long-term improvement? "I ask myself, what is the food status of Africa, why do children keep going hungry?" he snaps. "There is good leadership in the African Union, we have people who are very switched on—but the logistics do not keep up with changing times, and there is a very bureaucratic set-up. People of talent do not move through quickly enough and by the time they emerge at the top of the ladder, they have lost the initiative. What is the point of putting so much money in if so little changes?"

By contrast, Dr Nuru insists, Galvmed approaches problems on a continental scale. It is not a question of ignoring international boundaries, but of bringing different governments into play to ensure the vaccination campaign does not stop at border checkpoints.

Crucially the charity has successfully lobbied the pharmaceutical industry, expediting the production of expensive drugs and persuading huge multinationals to live with lower returns. At grassroots level that means the creation of pharmaceutical supply chains to ensure vets andpara-vets are supplied with the vaccines they need to tackle diseases, and profit from their work. Mr Lemorongo paid 10,000 shillings (£5) for each vaccine he bought this year, in the knowledge that a healthy calf will yield him 70 times as much at market — and his good fortune bounces back along the economic chain.

Last week, there were real hopes that Ndigana kali will finally be defeated, and that, like so many skittles, the other diseases will tumble. Yet, for all their hard work in fostering animal welfare, there are some problems that remain utterly intractable for Galvmed. In 2009, the rains never came to Engarenaibor and famine devastated the local herds: thousands of cattle died.

The consequence are all too apparent at the village school, where just nine teachers are responsible for 700 local children. In a formal presentation to a Galvmed delegation, Anna Remi Nchira, the headmistress, explains, with great dignity, the problems she faces.

The essence of her speech is this: because the rains never came, no one could make money by selling cattle; as a result there was no money in the community and the school could not build new classrooms or accommodation for additional teachers; and because there was no accommodation, the government would not send more teachers to the village. "Can your organisation help us?" Mrs Remi Nchira asks.

Stuart Brown, a Galvmed official, responds in the best way, by telling the truth. He says: "Our organisation is focused on the vaccine for Ndgina Kali, and other diseases, and we know it will benefit the pastoralists in the future. It is important for us not to make promises we can't keep but to concentrate on what we do best. What I can assure you is that we will pass on your messageand always advocate your cause. "Mrs Remi Nchira nods her appreciation.

"I understand," she says. "Your work has already helped these children and the new generation to come. Thank you very much and God bless you."

The battle to beat Ndigane Kali, the disease wiping out Masai herds 

Beating Ndigane kali— the deadly East Coast fever—has been a long time coming. A vaccine was developed in 1972 but the production process proved complex and costly. Potential manufacturers were reluctant to invest while governments declined to endorse the use of such an expensive remedy. Tanzania was the exception, with the government's livestock service latching on to the heroic efforts of Lieve Lynen and Beppe di Guilio, a husband and wife veterinary practice.

When she moved to Arusha in 1996, Dr Lynen began to import vaccine for the sole manufacturers in Kenya, and soon proved its efficacy among the smallholders whose cattle live right in the heart of Arusha's ramshackle, teeming metropolis.

Over the years, with government support, the couple's reach has expanded beyond any economic bounds. It was Dr Lynen who first inoculated Paolo Lemorongo's cattle in Engarenaibor, though his herd is a four-hour drive from her home.

Then, in 2006, vaccine supplies ran low. This, coupled with the privatisation of the Tanzanian veterinary service, threatened to end the inoculation campaign - until Galvmed stepped in to smooth relations with governments, to reassure the manufacturer, and to guarantee supply.

"It is a simple equation," says Dr Hameed Nuru of Galvmed. "Without us, there would be no more ECF vaccine."

Pastoral care

As well as tackling East Coast fever, Galvmed will shortly launch campaigns to control Rift Valley fever, transmitted by mosquitos, and fatal to humans and animals, as well as Newcastle disease, a deadly killer that can wipe out poultry flocks

In Africa alone 589 million chickens are at risk

The charity is also working to make available the vaccine for porcine cysticerosis, a disease that causes thousands of pigs to be destroyed across Africa, Latin America and Asia. PC can also affect humans, causing cysts on the brain, causing 20-50 per cent of late onset epilepsy cases around the world, and said to be responsible for 50,000 deaths every year in the developing world.

In the longer term Galvmed is developing disease action plans for other diseases affecting cattle, goats, sheep, pigs and poultry

In total, around 700 million people rely on livestock for their livelihoods— but despite the vital links between animal health and human health, livestock and livelihood, less than 5 per cent of international aid is directed at agriculture in developing countries, according to figures released by the World Bank in 2007.

The photos were taken by James Glossop

Monday, 20 February 2012

Football? It's much more important than that

From the back of a McGhee’s bakery van a man emerges with a tray of cakes, for delivery to Rangers Football Club. He’s about to hand them to the chef, who has opened a door under the Main Stand, when he pulls up short.

“Hang on, pal,” the baker chuckles. “My boss says I’ve got to take the money off you first.”

Underneath his big white hat, the chef’s strained smile speaks volumes. It’s been like this all week for Rangers staff, their club in administration, with debts of perhaps £90 million.

That kind of figure spells potential disaster for the community around Ibrox stadium. In this tough neighbourhood, south of the Clyde, thousands of lives are nurtured by the football club, nourished by a river of fans that pours up Paisley Road West every other weekend.

It’s not just the match-day scarf sellers or the Sportsman chippy who make money from football. Even the local hardware shop can cash in on Rangers.

Among the paint ponts and drill-bits that fill up Harjit Singh’s window, are Rangers key rings and fridge magnets. A cardboard mask of the club manager, Ally McCoist, is pressed against a window pane.

“I got them in for the Christmas party season, but demand has slipped a bit recently,” lamented Mr Singh. “It’s been strange round here this week. For the first couple of days after it happened the whole area seemed really depressed, people were genuinely affected.”

At the foot of Ibrox Street, Mary Clark has noticed the change in mood too, and she’s worried because she relies on Rangers for a bit of custom in her hairdressing salon.

Not from the pampered players, she pointed out, but from fans who come along on Saturdays, long before kick-off, stamping up the steps from Cessnock station for a £6.50 trim, before they head off for a pre-game pint.

“Aye, it’s good for trade,” she said, before she addressed the most popular topic of the day. “Rangers got £24 million in advance season tickets sales just before they went broke. Where do you think all that money went?”

Other businesses feed off the club, like tick birds on a rhinoceros. Susan Dawson works in one of five burger stalls, each emblazoned with the Rangers crest, stationed round the stadium.

By 11 o’clock this morning, well before kick-off, she and three friends will be ready to sell thousands of burgers and square sausage rolls to the hordes, or that great football delicacy, chips with cheese and gravy.

Wasn’t she worried that Rangers will go out of business? “Oh no. Definitely not,” she said, shaking her head. “Celtic couldn’t survive without their arch enemies. Scottish fooball needs Rangers.”

Barman John Davis struck a similar note of optimism, from inside the Louden Tavern.

“At first, when we went into administration, there was a lot of anger among the regulars,” he recalled. “Since then it’s changed. People are saying, if this is the road we have to go down, then that’s what it will be. We’re Rangers and that’s it. We’ve got to back them 100 per cent.”

The pub is one of three in a chain, each one profitting from the thirst of Rangers fans. The walls are plastered with mementoes. Jim Baxter and Davie Cooper, club greats, are depicted in two stained glass windows, because here Rangers is religion.

Mr Davis is adamant: “The city knows that there is absolutely no way we can let Rangers go out of business. That’s 140 years of history right here. You can’t just let that die.”

All the excellent photos are by James Glossop.  

Saturday, 11 February 2012

Donald Trump: No, really, I like Mr Salmond

The winds of change have  blown across the “Great Dunes of Scotland”. This morning, Donald Trump and Alex Salmond, two of the most substantial egos in the Northern Hemisphere, are at war with each other over the fate of an as-yet-unfinished Aberdeenshire golf resort.

At issue is an  array of 11 giant off shore turbines that, subject to planning approval, soon could overlook Mr Trump’s golf resort in Aberdeenshire, to the businessman’s horror.   

Last night, one of the protagonists, high in Trump Tower, shouted insults from across an ocean. The world is “laughing at you” bellowed the billionaire.   The  other, the politician, stuck to his  conviction that wind energy would remain forever at the core of the Scottish Government’s energy policy, golf course or not.  

Hostilities opened on Wednesday, when, with a characteristic note of self-satisfaction, Mr Salmond told a conference that Mr Trump would  “get on board” as soon as  Scotland was established as a world leader in renewable energy.

That intervention   brought an  almost apocalyptic response from  Mr Trump’s New York headquarters, in a letter addressed to “Dear First Minister Salmond”. 

Mr Trump wrote:  “You seem hell bent on destroying Scotland’s coastline and therefore, Scotland itself - but I will never be on board’, as you have stated I would be, with this insanity.

“As a matter of fact, I have just authorised my staff to allocate a substantial amount of money to launch an international campaign to fight your plan to surround Scotland’s coast with many thousands of wind turbines —  it will be like looking through the bars of a prison and the Scottish citizens will be the prisoners.”

Last night, in an interview with The Times, Mr Trump  made clear that his anger had deep roots, founded on what he regarded as a breach of faith by  Scottish ministers.  While his first golf course would open in June, he insisted the remainder of the resort — including a luxury hotel and hundreds of houses — would be halted if  the wind farm went ahead. 

“Hey, would you build a hotel that looks directly into a turbine?” said Mr Trump.  “The turbines are right outside the windows practically. I’ve made myself clear. Those turbines will destroy Scotland and destroy the tourism industry. There won’t be any reason to build a hotel.” 

Mr Trump insisted his argument was not about personalities — “just the opposite, I like Alex Salmond” — but was based on a point of principle. 

Seven years ago, when he was considering options in Scotland and Northern Ireland for a  £1 billion golf resort  he was given assurances by the then Scottish Executive that there would be no offshore wind farm near his Menie estate, the businessman said.  

 “The previous government — I assume it is one government and not  just a series of people —   said ‘We want you to build this’,” recalled Mr Trump.  “I’ve spent £100 million in Scotland and I don’t even have a mortgage on it — it’s not a lot of money for me. II was going to spend £1 billion over the whole job, but not any more. 

Mr  Trump added that  Jack McConnell, the former First Minister, had promised the wind turbines would not be built.  He recalled: “I said: ‘Do I have your word?’ They said: ‘You have our word. We are not going to build the windmills.’ I didn’t get it down in writing. I didn’t think I needed to.” 

Ironically, it was the first SNP administration who finally granted Mr Trump approval for his   resort in 2008, even though it is being built on a Site of Special Scientific Interest.  At the time Mr Salmond endorsed the development and said it was “entirely right and proper” that his government should support a scheme that would provide 6,000 jobs. 

Now the same ministers have to decide whether the wind farm  goes ahead.  Supporters of renewable energy say it could create 130,000 jobs in Scotland, and Aberdeen is seen as its natural home. 

Last night, a Scottish Government official stressed its enthusiasm for off shore wind, which could  “enable us to generate enough electricity to power Scotland seven times over” by 2050. 

He added: “Claims made by Mr Trump refer to the position some six years ago, when he was submitting his Menie planning application  – before the current administration took office – and therefore we have no record or knowledge of what was said then.”

Tuesday, 31 January 2012

Ireland owns up to its shameful past

The Irish Government has indicated its willingness to make a complete break from the “moral bankruptcy” of the past and pardon thousands of soldiers who deserted their units to fight with the Allies against the Nazis.

In a landmark speech before Holocaust Memorial Day tomorrow, Alan Shatter, the Justice Minister, linked the “untenable” treatment meted out to Irishmen who in 1939 fought for democracy, with their Government’s decision to deny visas to Jewish refugees fleeing the Nazis.

The Administration of the day, led by Éamon de Valera, had “utterly lost its moral compass”, Mr Shatter said.

The minister’s intervention comes after an intensive campaign to pardon the 4,983 men who left the Irish Defence Force to fight for the British.

At the end of the war those who survived were stripped of their pension and benefits rights and placed on an employment blacklist, condemning them to poverty.

Mr Shatter unambiguously connected the fate of the deserters with the attitude of de Valera’s Government to the Jews. It was an “inconvenient truth” he said, that the Irish State had done nothing to aid Jewish refugees in the 1930s.

After Hitler gained power, Charles Bewley, an anti-Semite who was Ireland’s Ambassador in Berlin, ensured that “the doors of this State were kept firmly closed to German Jewish families trying to flee from persecution and death”, said Mr Shatter, who is Jewish.

“We should no longer be in denial that, in the context of the Holocaust, Irish neutrality was a principle of moral bankruptcy.” The shameful position was compounded, he said, by de Valera’s visit to the German Ambassador in 1945 to express his condolences on the death of Hitler. “At a time when neutrality should have ceased to be an issue, the Government of this State utterly lost its moral compass.” This was a lesson from the past, Mr Shatter said, and it affected perceptions of the present.

“Many who fought in British uniforms during that war returned to Ireland and for too many years their contribution in preserving European and Irish democracy was ignored,” he added. “It is untenable that we commemorate those who died whilst continuing to ignore the manner in which our State treated the living in the period immediately after World War II, who returned to our state having fought for freedom and democracy.”

Only about 100 of the deserters are still alive. Gerald Morgan, a campaigner for the deserters, said that the Irish Government was morally right to pardon the men. “This puts into context the sacrifices these individuals made,” said Dr Morgan, a lecturer in English at Trinity College Dublin. “They went off to fight, but paid a huge price.”

The campaign for a pardon was kick-started little more than a year ago by Spitting on a Soldier’s Grave, by Robert Widders, a former soldier from Liverpool, and taken up powerfully by the Irish Soldiers Pardons Campaign, organised by Peter Mulvany.

Observers believe the Queen’s visit to Ireland was of huge importance, particularly her  gesture of reconciliation when she laid a wreath in Dublin for those who died fighting for Independence.
Last month Mr Shatter referred the case for a pardon to Máire Whelan, the Attorney-General, whose final decision is expected within weeks.

Behind the story

Éamon de Valera became President of Ireland’s Executive Council and later Taoiseach a year before Hitler came to power and left office in 1948, three years after the end of the Second World War (Mike Wade writes). His government retained a position of neutrality despite the persecution of the Jews and Britain’s struggles against the Nazis.

To some, de Valera epitomised the new Ireland. He was slightly exotic (his father was Cuban) but he was a Gaelic speaker and a former leader of the Easter Rising. In a country that had only signed a treaty of independence in 1922 and in which anti-Englishness was rife, he was a national hero.

With the fall of France in 1940, de Valera called for volunteers for an Irish Defence Force to protect against the possibility of invasion. When the Nazi threat receded after the Battle of Britain, thousands of the recruits headed north to Belfast and “deserted” to British units.