Sunday, March 22, 2015

Is the Madeleine case to be shelved?

The chairman of the Metropolitan Police Federation, John Tully, is concerned about the Operation Grange investigation into the disappearance of Madeleine McCann but, contrary to press reports, he has not called for the investigation to be closed.
What is in question is the scale of the operation in the light of severe budget cuts and other demands on the Met. But there is no indication that the investigation is to be terminated.
The Daily Star sparked confusion and a flurry of speculation with an “exclusive” under the headline: “Police urged to shelve Maddie hunt as cops needed in UK to battle terrorism.”
The headline inferred it, but the story did not quote Tully or anyone else as saying the investigation should be shelved.
Following up on the Star story the next day, the Daily Mail Online reported that Tully had called for the probe to be axed.  
The Leicester Mercury, the regional paper where Kate and Gerry McCann live, did not mince its words either: “A police union boss has called for London officers to give up the search for Madeleine McCann.”
Other papers, both in the UK and Portugal, churned out the latest fabrication in a mystery that has become a deep-rooted international obsession.
Asked by Portugal Newswatch about what he actually said to  the press, the federation chairman was adamant:
“At no time did I suggest that operation Grange should be closed.”
What Tully was getting at when speaking with the Daily Star was the wisdom of devoting a team of detectives exclusively to the investigation of a crime that had nothing to do with London.
He said he made his comments “in the light of the force having to save £1.4 billion from the budget.”
He added: “The pressure of work and expectation placed on officers, including the unacceptable situation where other officers are carrying in excess of 30 live investigations, is also an important consideration in these circumstances.”
The Metropolitan Police press bureau confirmed there are currently 31 officers working on Operation Grange and that “their sole investigation is the disappearance of Madeleine McCann.”
For now at least, the search for any scrap of solid evidence goes on. DCI Nicola Wall, who took over as head of Operation Grange at the end of last year, was reported in the UK and Portugal media as visiting Lisbon last week to “strengthen links” and for “detailed discussions” with Portuguese prosecutors.
The Week magazine described the talks as “crucial” and said they were designed to “work out next steps” in the investigation. The magazine went on to quote a statement from Kate and Jerry McCann: “It’s very apparent that the determination of the Metropolitan Police remains steadfast.”
Originally requested by Home Secretary Theresa May with the backing of Prime Minister David Cameron, the Met investigation has been ongoing for almost four years at the reported cost to British taxpayers of £10 million. 
There are no indications that the Met are any nearer to solving the mystery. It is not at all clear where the operation is at, or where it is going. All the Met’s press office will say is that “we are not prepared to give a running commentary on this investigation.”
Frustration over the lack of progress is palpable.
The Daily Star accurately quoted Tully as saying it was time to re-focus on what was needed to keep London safe. The Met no longer have the resources to conduct specialist inquiries all over the world, which have nothing to do with London.
“The Met has long been seen as the last resort for investigations others have struggled with elsewhere. But we have made £600m of cuts. We have closed 63 police stations across London. Another £800m of cutbacks are anticipated over the next four years.”
Tully went on to say: “It is surprising to see an inquiry like the McCann investigation ring-fenced. I have heard a few rumblings of discontent about it from lots of sources. When the force is facing a spike in murder investigations it is not surprising there is resentment of significant resources diverted to a case that has no apparent connection with London.”
Officers in London are said to be “bemused” about why they are working round-the-clock solving murders and fighting the threat from Islamic State-inspired jihadists while the Operation Grange detectives are barred from helping.
Meanwhile, almost eight years after Madeleine went missing, a great many people in Portugal as well as the UK and elsewhere are bemused about why the mystery remains unresolved. 

Monday, March 16, 2015

Portugal joins St Patrick’s spectacular

The Portuguese and the Irish have more in common than you might think. It’s not just that they inhabit small lands on Europe’s western edge, have a long Catholic history, revel in tradition and have a penchant for getting themselves into terrible debt.
The Portuguese and the English famously claim the world’s oldest alliance. Despite a fracas or two along the way, this diplomatic accord has been in place for hundreds of years.
It turns out, however, that the Portuguese and the Irish have been rather more than just good friends for thousands of years.
Recent scientific research has all but banished the notion that the Irish are descendants of Celtic people who migrated to the Emerald Isle from central Europe during the Iron Age. DNA analyses suggest instead that the inhabitants of Ireland have a distinctive Atlantic heritage shared with the Celtiberians of Portugal and Galicia that dates back to the end of the last Ice Age.
So it is appropriate that this year’s ‘global greening’ celebration to mark Ireland’s national day, March 17, in honour of St Patrick, has been intensified in Portugal.
For this the sixth global greening, the number of iconic Portuguese landmarks flood-lit in Ireland’s national colour has been increased from one to three: the statue of the Duque da Terceira in central Lisbon, the  monument of Christ the King in Almada on the south bank of the Tagus, and the Palace Museum Condes de Castro de Guimarães in Cascais.
The worldwide total of 125 sites bathed in green in 25 countries includes the Coliseum in Rome, the Sacré Coeur in Paris, the Empire State Building in New York, the leaning Tower of Pisa, the London Eye, Niagara Falls, the Grimaldi Palace in Monaco and Christ the Redeemer Statue in Rio de Janeiro. 
The lights came on at sunset on the eve of St Patrick’s Day and will continue in some places, including Cascais, until Saturday.
From long ago, and at times due to severe domestic hardships much worse than Troika-imposed austerity, Ireland became one of the world’s greatest sources of hard-working immigrants.
“More than 70 million people around the world claim links to the island of Ireland and St. Patrick’s Day is a truly unique opportunity to reconnect them with their heritage,” said Anne Webster, the Irish Ambassador to Lisbon, on the eve of this year’s celebration.
 She pointed out that amid all the colour and the craic, there was good reason to raise glasses to Ireland’s prosperity as it overcomes its problems within the eurozone.
“Our economic recovery has gained a strong momentum in the past 12 months, based on solid growth and job creation, We had the fastest growing economy in the European Union in 2014, with GDP growth of almost 5%, and we expect to retain this lead position in 2015. 
“Unemployment continues to fall from a peak of 15.1% to its current level of 10.1%. Export levels are higher than before the crisis. Our public finances are now on a stable and sustainable footing and we have access to normal financial market funding, at record-low interest rates. Consumers, businesses, investors and global markets have renewed confidence in our economic future.”
Cloaking historic shrines in green makes good business sense too. As the newspaper Diário Ecinómico put it: “It’s an Irish trademark which is seducing more and more countries - and tourists.”
 Ambassador Webster spoke of an international wave of media coverage, with images of greened landmarks in print, TV, online publications and social media, having a hugely important economic and tourism impact at a time when many are planning their overseas holidays.
“This is a joyous two-way process, as images of Lisbon’s magnificent monuments are transmitted internationally, at prime time, to a vast, appreciative and engaged audience.”
But the real significance of the greening in Portugal is of even more fundamental importance: “When you see the beautiful monuments of this region light the night skies with their cloaks of sparkling green, I invite you to think of Ireland, and of the strong bonds of history and friendship which unite our two countries,” said Mrs Webster.

Lá Féile Padraig oraibh go leir!

Happy St. Patrick’s day to all!

Ambassador Anne Webster and President  Cavaco Silva

Palace Museum Condes de Castro de Guimarães 

Monument of Christ the King

Statue of the Duque da Terceira 

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

EU on the brink, but the show goes on

As much as we distrust them, politicians are keeping us entertained and often on the edge of our seats. The main criticism is that some of the performances are just so bizarre you couldn’t make them up.
In Portugal, the current prime minister Pedro Passos Coelho and his predecessor José Sócrates have been indulging in a slanging match reminiscent of a Punch and Judy show.
For those who have missed recent episodes, Passos Coelho has been squirming his way out of criticisms that he failed to declare a series of tax debts.
“I’m not a perfect citizen, I have my imperfections,” the prime minister admitted amid cries for his resignation,
But hang on, others have imperfections too!
“I never used my position as prime minister to hide differential treatment from any citizens, or to enrich myself, make pay-offs or to live beyond my means,” Passos Coelho explained with a twinkle in his eye.
 Retaliating from his prison cell where he has been languishing while investigations continue into allegations of corruption, tax fraud and money laundering, Sócrates castigated Passos Coelho for making “a cowardly personal attack.” He accused the prime minister of “moral depravity.”
With men like this in charge, it is little wonder that critics at home and abroad have viewed Portugal’s economic performance in recent years as wonky if not farcical. 
On the bigger stage, European unity appears to be careering towards the abyss once again despite the interim agreement reached during last month’s Greek melodrama in Brussels.
As you will recall, the eurozone stepped back from the brink by reaching a compromise deal in which Greece was given a four-month extension to its bailout package. In return, Greece agreed to specify the economic reforms it will undertake, rather than copping out of austerity altogether as Tsipras had promised his electorate.
It is still open to question whether Tsipras was reneging on his pledge to Greek voters or trying to tactically outsmart the Troika. Perhaps to deftly deflect such questions domestically, he accused the governments of Portugal and Spain of conspiring to topple his radical regime because they feared the rise of anti-austerity parties in their own countries.
From Portugal’s standpoint, this sounded like Greek gobbledegook. Despite widespread public anger and street demonstrations over the severe austerity measures, there does not seem to be any real appetite in this country to go down the Greek route. A recent opinion poll shows that the centre-right Social Democrats and centre-left Socialists are running neck-in-neck, far ahead of all the smaller parties.
The most extraordinary outcome envisaged by the political pundits in Portugal is a hung parliament in the autumn election, resulting in a grand coalition between the big two. Even Passos Coelho is not ruling it out. “I’m not closing any doors, but I’m not going to draw scenarios,” he said.
Such a coalition would match what happened after last year’s election in Germany. Some commentators are forecasting a coalition between the Tories and Labour after May’s election in Britain. It could also happen this year in Spain.
The present Spanish government has more reason to ‘conspire’ because it faces a very real threat from the radical left in the shape of the anti-austerity Podemos party, which is enjoying a massive surge in popularity and currently leading the opinion polls in Spain.
The Spanish prime minister, Mariano Rajoy, has not ruled out a grand coalition between his conservative party and the main opposition socialists, though, as in other coalition-prone countries, eyes are on Germany where serious cracks have started to appear.
As for Tsipras’ conspiracy theory, his insulting remarks sent the European Commission scurrying around in an effort to patch things up.
A Commission spokeswoman told reporters: “We are now in close contact with all actors involved [her words, not mine]... in order to ensure there is unity among EU member states and especially among the EU states of the eurozone.”
A spokesman for the German finance minister sounded very upper crust English when tut-tutting about Tsipras’ accusation. “By European standards, this was very unusual foul play. We don't do that in the eurogroup, that’s not appropriate,” he said.
To his many fans, Greece’s hairlessly handsome Yanis Varoufakis was the star of the first acrimonious instalment of the finance ministers’ melodrama in Brussels. Just before the second instalment got underway this week, a spokesman for Greece’s main opposition party shattered Varoufakis hopes of an Oscar by saying he should be replaced because “he doesn’t know what he is talking about..... every time he opens his mouth he creates problems for the negotiating position of the country.”
The poker-playing Varoufakis smiled and added to the ongoing intrigue by saying his two-month-old government was willing to hold a referendum or even early elections if eurogroup ministers reject Greece’s debt and growth plans.
The Dutch finance minister and current eurogroup chief Jeroen Dijsselbloem said the plans were not good enough and that Greece must stop wasting time and start delivering.
“We have spent the last two weeks discussing who will meet who, where and in what configuration. It’s been a complete waste of time,” said Dijsselbloem following this Monday’s Brussels meeting, which broke up in disarray after little more than an hour.
Greek particpants insisted the meeting had been a success. And as if confirming that wonders never cease,Varoufakis revealed that representatives of the hated Troika would be welcome in Athens for technical discussions, even though his governement previously said it would no longer have anything to do with the Troika.
No harm in hoping all this eventually turns out to be a horror story with a happy ending. On the other hand, if Greece exits the EU, it will be much more than just a Greek tragedy.
Meanwhile, the show goes on.