Saturday, 21 July 2012

The law is reason, free from passion

Title quote attributed to Aristotle

Last week I wrote about the hate-filled comments people were leaving on Belfast City Council's Facebook page following the destruction of a dog called Lennox. Annoyingly a few of them are still hanging around, wishing tsunamis on the city of Belfast and copying and pasting evocative words like "shame" and "killers" in big, black, block letters.

If it's not enough that they're doing this on the post actually about Lennox, they're also doing it on every other post the Council makes, be it about parks winning awards, Rose Week, staff vacancies or, in particular poor taste, about the City Hall being closed due to a hoax bomb threat, which is just ridiculous really.

Plus everything is a conspiracy theory. Apparently they're advertising vacancies because they're replacing people who were involved in the Lennox thing (yes, I'm sure that a Duty Manager of a leisure centre and an Economic Development Manager are intricately involved in the control of dangerous dogs). Also, did you know that the Council planted that suspicious device itself to garner sympathy from the public? 'Cause it's not like anyone else had a motive, bearing in mind the animals rights nutters and the Twelfth weekend just before, no siree!

The sad thing is that I'm completely fascinated with the whole thing. I find myself checking the Council's Facebook page every night to see what nonsense the crazy people have been spewing since the day before.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for freedom of speech (as long as it doesn't hurt innocent people) and the individual's right to question or support anything they wish, especially if it's the actions of a public authority. However some of these people are offending people by what they say (I must admit I don't take kindly to being told that my city should be nuked) and also most of them don't even live in the UK, let alone Northern Ireland (the main offenders seem to be from the USA and Italy for some reason), so what right do these strangers from around the world have to demand an unnecessary "full explanation" and "investigation" from an authority that I (who do not want these things) would have to pay for?

The thing that annoys me about it most is that these people are almost militant in their campaign, but yet they're basing it on propaganda, half-truths and a complete misunderstanding about how our country is governed. I would give them some leeway if the facts of this case were hard to find or obscured in any way, but they're freely available and have even been published in response to the vile comments on Facebook by some of those who have actually done their research before rushing headlong into the debate.

This is how I see it: it is a sad situation when a beloved pet is removed from its family and put to sleep without actually having attacked anyone. However, when you understand the facts of the case, I don't think what was done was unjust or in any way demands a "full explanation" or an investigation. This is my understanding of the matter, based on my own research.

In 1991, it became illegal in the mainland UK (The Dangerous Dogs Act 1991) and Northern Ireland (Dangerous Dogs (Northern Ireland) Order 1991) to breed, sell or own certain types of dog, one of which was a Pit Bull Terrier type. Note, "type", not "breed" - the legislation made it clear that whether or not a dog was considered one of these "types" was subject to an assessment of its physicial characteristics and a subsequent judgement by a court. This legislation granted the power to seize and destroy any such dogs.

In 1997 the mainland UK amended their legislation (The Dangerous Dogs (Amendment) Act 1997), part of which allowed the court to make certain dogs that had been previously declared illegal an "exemption", if it was satisfied that the dog was not a danger to the public. It took us a while but Northern Ireland implemented similar legislation in 2011 (Dogs (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2011), specifying in Article 5 (2) that "the district judge (magistrates’ court) may order the destruction of the dog and shall do so unless satisfied that the dog will not be a danger to the public.”

In the case of Lennox, the dog's owners had apparently originally disputed that it was a Pit Bull Terrier type but later agreed that it was, so that matter is not up for debate any more. Therefore what happened next was simply the fulfilling of the legislation. The dog was illegal and its destruction was therefore required by law, that is unless a court found that the dog would not pose a threat to the public and granted an exemption.

In April 2011 the Magistrate's Court had ruled that the dog was to be destroyed as it was an illegal type. The dog's owner therefore submitted an appeal to the County Court, seeking an exemption to spare the dog's life.

The County Court heard the appeal in September, when it took all previous evidence into consideration and also heard two expert witnesses itself. I won't go into the ins and outs of who said what but the written judgement is available on the Belfast City Council website anyway. It is actually quite an interesting read and it's clear that the court carefully considered all aspects before it made its ruling.

I would concur with the written judgement that, given the reports of the dog's potentially violent behaviour (in one case even from an expert witness who had acted on behalf of the dog's owner), there was no way to be sure that the dog would not be a danger to the public and therefore it had no option but to order the dog's destruction. As above, the legislation says that, "the district judge (magistrates’ court) may order the destruction of the dog and shall do so unless satisfied that the dog will not be a danger to the public.” In legislation the word "shall" means "must", i.e. there is no wiggle room.

There was then a bit of legal toing and froing about how the County Court's judge may not have taken into consideration the fact that the Dogs (Amendment) Act (Northern Ireland) 2011 allows the Council to set up an "exemption scheme". The Northern Ireland Court of Appeal therefore considered the case in light of this on 12 June 2012. However its verdict was essentially that the dog had been considered too dangerous for an exemption scheme to apply and so it overturned the appeal; the decision to destroy the dog would stand. The Court of Appeal's written judgment is available on the NI Courts website for those who may want to read it in full.

Seemingly there was then a one month deadline for further appeal, which passed without anything being lodged by the dog's owner. Therefore on Wednesday 11 July, the dog was destroyed in line with the legal decision(s) that had been made. The Council, as the body responsible for enforcing the law and the legal decision arising from it, was just doing what it legally had to do.

What I actually find outrageous is that Peter Robinson, our First Minister, saw fit to take to Twitter and condemn the death of the dog, when in reality it was his Assembly that passed the legislation in the first place! Perhaps not the 1991 Order, because devolution hadn't happened at that stage, but they certainly passed the 2011 Amendment without, so far as I can see, any kind of uproar about the law as it stood in relation to this kind of matter.

Granted MLAs have to consider and pass so many laws they probably don't get to sit down and really research them in any great detail, but that's really their preogative. If a point of law resulting from legislation your Assembly has passed makes you unhappy, you should address the matter through the relevant Minister in the fora already set up for such things (Assembly Questions and the like), rather than taking to the public stage to undermine the law, the process and all those involved just to gain a few brownie points with the animal lovers in your constituency.

On Twitter he said he has asked the DARD Minister to review the law, but, firstly what does that really mean? Preumably it was reviewed plenty over the last few years when the Amendment was being drafted and passed. New legislation tends to be subject to review by legal experts, the relevant Assembly Committee and at least one public consultation before the Assembly can pass it. In fact as First Minister, an MLA and the leader of his party he would probably have received notification of the public consultation at least three times. If he didn't comment then, that's kind of his problem; plenty of other people did and their responses are available on the DARD website (search for "response from" to get to them on the list). But to come out now and whine that it's just not faaaaiiiiirrrrr is just downright inappropriate for someone in that position. If the public see that you don't have confidence in the laws your Assembly is passing, First Minister, how are we supposed to trust them? Or you for that matter?

Anyway, I've heard so many opinions on this whole case that it makes my head spin. I wrote a quick three sentence post on Facebook about how ironic it was that people who were up in arms about the death of a dog would be so quick to wish death and destruction on a whole city, and it attracted quite the debate, let me tell you. And I don't even have that many friends to begin with! There were comments from those who have witnessed what happens when a young child is mauled by a dangerous dog and therefore support the law, but also from those who have said that the council staff, by not refusing to disobey the law to destroy the dog, somehow makes them like the citizens of Germany allowing the holocaust to happen during WWII.

Frankly, I'm tired of the whole thing now. Personally I prefer to deal only with the facts of the case and with logic and common sense, which is why I did the research I referred to above, about the judicial rulings made and the legislation behind them.

The animal rights campaigners on the Belfast City Council Facebook page keep harping on about wanting Belfast City Council to answer for what they've done (obey the law so far as I can see) and how they demand a full investigation. Well, investigate it yourselves, people. The information is all out there. But to help you out, here's a clue: if you're taking your facts from a page where someone has photoshopped a picture of the dog to make him look like an angel, or a picture of the Council logo to look like it's running with blood, you may wish to consider that they have a certain bias in the case at hand.

In the meantime I'll probably keep checking the Council's Facebook page every now and then (to simultaneously amuse and frustrate myself) to see what the crazy people are saying now, until they inevitably crawl back under their rock, just like people do with every other cause for outrage in the world. Such is life. And for those who are "boycotting" Belfast because of this? Please do!

P.S. I wrote this post yesterday. This morning I read this article from the Belfast Telegraph about how a dog rehoming charity has been the target of this hate mail campaign because some lazy journalist somewhere in the USA misreported that Lennox had been held there for some time whilst the legal battles were ongoing. Even if he had, how would dog lovers taking care of a dog be any reason to target them rather than thank them?! These people sicken me.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

A dog's tale: irony at its finest

I'm sure you'll be aware of the big news story of yesterday around Lennox the dog? Unless of course you're reading this in a couple of years time when everyone will have forgotten about the utter furor despite claims that they will "never forget". We shall see.

The upshot of the story is that pitbull and pitbull type dogs are illegal in the UK, so this pitbull type dog was seized, removing it from its family home. Quite why the family thought it was a good idea to have a breed of dog known to be so dangerous near their vulnerable children in the first place is a different matter altogether. Anyway, after a long legal battle where two courts had ruled in favour of destroying the animal, the deadline for an appeal passed this week and the dog was humanely destroyed. Thanks to the social media age in which we now live, the story went viral and Belfast is now the subject of an international hate campaign, specifically Belfast City Council's Facebook page.

I'll freely admit, I'm not an animal lover in general. However I can see how attached other people in my life get to their pets and how upset they are when something happens to them. So I get why this ruling is upsetting. I also understand that ordering the destruction of an animal whose family have never seem him be anything other than docile and a loving family pet, purely based on his breed, seems outrageous. However those who have handled and dealt with the dog since it was seized have reported that it has shown signs of dangerous behaviour, which is why the Judge ruled that he could not be sure the dog would not cause harm to anyone else.

When I was a teenager, a German Shepherd dog which lived next door to my grandmother cleared a 3 foot wall to jump at me. It apparently had cancer and had gone a bit mad, but knowing that still wouldn't have stopped it mauling me if I hadn't managed to get indoors before it reached me. If I had been smaller and younger I might not have made it on time.

Therefore I am a supporter of dangerous dogs legislation. Have we got it quite right basing our decision on what dogs are legal/illegal based on breed rather than their behaviour, the conditions where they are to be kept, etc? I don't know. But it's not enough to just say that any dog should have freedom to roam the streets and be in proximity to vulnerable members of society until they do something wrong. Because for those animals who really are dangerous, by then it could be far too late.

Anyway, this blog is not about whether or not "the right thing" was done here this week. It is instead about the idiocy of some of those who have taken to commenting on the Belfast City Council Facebook page. I've put a link there but to be honest the page has been removed at least once in the last day, so there's no guarantee it'll still work.

Campaigners have taken to making comments on the various posts the Council has made but some of them are completely over the top. The general themes are that all of the countries in the world hate Belfast, that everyone should boycott the city and all of it products, and that Belfast City Council are murderers. However there are those who have gone too far, threatening the council members and their families and calling for all of the citizens of Belfast to be killed. As one of the latter I take exception to this suggestion.

There are currently over 30,000 comments on the top few posts, with reports that previous comments had been deleted. Here are some highlights (names removed):

"Looking forward for news about BCC members or their families being knifed down!"

"I pee on you"

"you moronic desgusting waste of space power ridden hillbillys FACT,shall be starting conversations with over 500thousand brits and americans to get all your internet accessabilty taken away as i dont think the world really needs to know anything you have to say anymore as you prove you dont listen and have no idea when it comesto a living life ROT IN HELL"

"You are not humans, you are monsters!!! Belfast is the new synonym for injustice"

"We hope your world ends in the same undignified way. Scumbags"

"I wish the gentlemen down the anus to the devil"

"I seriously wish that YOUR children are kidnapped and murdered."

(To someone who had dared to defend Belfast) "enjoy your aids blondie"

"I confirm you that I'd like put to sleep you BOYCOT NORTH IRELAND AND HIS OWNER GREAT BRITAIN AND ALL THEIR PRODUCTS"

"Rain FOREVER in Belfast ..... PLEASE!!!!"

"a drop away of a nuclear bomb! so long bcc!"

"Burn belfast" (well, it was the 11th July last night, so we gave that one a go ourselves)

"iRELAND: EXPLODE !!!!!!"

"That's my family holiday cancelled. You know where you can stick your Giant's Causeway." (should we tell them that Causeway is in a different council district?)

"Belfast is now a black spot on the map of humanity!"

"B nice if ur offices were to..get burned down wen ya in there : )" (the smiley is a nice touch)

"Belfast city has been put to sleep by me. Retarded!" (pardon?)

"MOTHER FUCKERS! Irish people sucks!"

"You guys are going to die a much more horrific death ...."

"JUDGES Drunks, OLD IGNORANT arrogants" (all of them?)

"I will wait for your family to come in Crete island and I will Humanly welcome them........fcktards"

"Unionist=murderers" (from an Italian guy - where did that one come from?!)

"YOUR MOTHER WAS ILLEGAL! IMPUDENT SWINE!!! Heed our words, this shall not go without punishment!!!" (is that a... yo mama joke?)

"Everybody hates you!!!! Belfast is now knows as a horrible city."

"i hope belfast crumbles"


Thanks all. Such a shame you won't be visiting - bet you'd all be great craic!

So it's ok to condemn a whole city and threaten the lives of the whole council (who actually have nothing to do with making the laws or the court orders), but to humanely put down one potentially dangerous dog is tantamount to, and I quote, "concentration camps"? Some might argue there are gaps in your logic.

Anyway I'm off to peek out the curtains and watch for the plagues of frogs and seas of blood that are apparently on their way here. Wishing you all a safe and pleasant holiday weekend... and best wishes to the poor council workers who will no doubt have the most awful time of it next week.

Sunday, 8 July 2012

A week of dining out in the wee city

This week the Yorkshireman had a few visitors from the US - timely given that it was Independence Day on Wednesday. I didn't know them at all before they arrived but we soon became well acquainted and spent time together as a foursome (not in that way) every day since Monday. They left this afternoon to see if the grass really is greener on the other side (of the border) so it's nice to think back about what we all got up to this week.

The Yorkshireman and I do enjoy dining out but unfortunately we have a stronger preference for going on holiday and, y'know, paying our rent, so we don't do it that often. Similarly we've discovered that it's cheaper to grab a half price bottle of merlot from Tesco to enjoy on the sofa than hit the bars in town after work, so it was really nice to have our visitors as a valid excuse to spend the time and money frequenting some of our favourite haunts in the city and also trying some new ones.

On Monday evening we met in Northern Whig for dinner.

Northern Whig
Photo source: Belfast Restaurants

The Yorkshireman and I have had some great meals here in the past, and always reasonably priced. Plus I love the d├ęcor in there - I'm a sucker for a chandelier! We got to know each other over their 'two courses for £10' offer, with our visitors opting for starters and mains, whilst the Yorkshireman and I went for mains and dessert. The statesiders thought it was odd that we had a dessert each without sharing, which is apparently the done thing in the US. Dream on - my dessert is alllllll mine!

Our guests then expressed their desire to go somewhere "more traditional". As we were nearby anyway, we took them off to White's Tavern.

White's Tavern
Photo source: Discover Belfast

For those unfamiliar, White's has been around since 1630 and still looks like it on the inside, with its dark beams and (in winter) roaring fire. Alas at 9pm on a Monday night there were only a few patrons around and they'd decided to close up early. Oh well, back out onto the streets of Belfast we went.

Still going with the traditional theme, we walked over to McHughs instead.

McHughs
Photo source: Wikipedia

McHughs has only(!) been around since 1711, so it's a little younger than White's, but as our statesiders exclaimed, still older than their country. Wow! I guess we take history a bit for granted here. We had a few drinks and continued forging our burgeoning acquaintance for a while. One of our visitors was clearly ready to go all night, but the other was yawning every 3.4 seconds (approximately) so we decided to call it a night. We dropped them back at their hotel and headed home ourselves.

The next night I already had a previous engagement to meet an old friend for dinner at The Point in Ballyhackamore, so the Yorkshireman escorted our statesiders to Gingeroot, a regular hangout for our merry band of amigos.
The Point
Photo source: The Point

Northern Whig
Photo source: In Your Pocket

I actually really loved my meal in The Point (another set meal offer - they seem to be pretty popular in the restaurants of Belfast at the moment - I've declared we shall return for their Sunday roast meal offer sometime soon). Plus they do a mean Long Island Iced Tea (my cocktail of choice). The Yorkshireman and statesiders apparently had a nice meal at Gingeroot too.

After my friend and I went our separate ways, I jumped in a taxi and met the guys at The Spaniard.


Photo source: Hispano-Irish

I love The Spaniard - it's so quirky, the music is good and they sell Brooklyn Lager - what's not to love? However it's only a small space and on Tuesday evening the crowd was literally out the door. With a choice of queuing at the bar for half an hour to get a drink and then standing in the rain with it or moving on to another bar, we (ok, I) opted for the latter.

We relocated to The Cloth Ear, just across the street.


Photo source: Belfast Telegraph

I've been told that The Cloth Ear didn't used to play music (I've only been once before and can't remember whether it did or not) but it certainly had some laid back background music on Tuesday night, which was perfect to allow for conversation and the sampling of something called Jeremiah Weed Root Brew, which tasted like ginger. Odd but nice for a one-off change from Guinness. Then it was back to our respective beds after another late night on the town.

Wednesday was Independence Day in America, but ironically I celebrated it more than our statesiders did this year. My mum and sister always like to have a little Fourth of July family gathering to watch Will Smith and Jeff Goldblum save humanity. Double yum. Combine it with pizza and homemade apple pie and you've got yourself a fun night!

Meanwhile the Yorkshireman had taken the day off work to go gallivanting up the coast to the Giant's Causeway in the statesiders' rental car. They had a long but fun day which culminated in them crashing out back at ours with pizza of their own. Their 24" pizza from Little Wing was a little more interesting than the Dominos I'd had though - the box was bigger than our coffee table! It must have been nice - the statesiders had the whole thing between the two of them (the Yorkshireman went for his own cheeseless pizza... I don't know either!). The guys had also decided to sample every possible ale and stout on sale in Tesco, whereas I was stuck with a few bottles of Coors Light I'd gotten because it reminded me of the happy hours we spent drinking it in The Flying Puck in New York.

The night ended on a strange note with us introducing the statesiders to One Born Every Minute. Being two single males they had declared their curiosity about the childbirth process when we stumbled across the show on the TV listings, but after the full hour we established that it had apparently not been graphic enough for them. Nor me actually - show it like it is, never mind all this blurring malarkey!

There was less gore and bodily fluids involved the next night thankfully. Thursday was such the best night actually! We started with dinner in one of my very favourite restaurants in the city, Made In Belfast Cathedral Quarter.

Made in Belfast Cathedral Quarter
Photo source: Life-in-NI

We'd tried to get reservations for the City Hall one but good luck with that one with short notice on late night shopping night! Besides I like the Cathedral Quarter one just as much. We had great food and good conversation in interesting surroundings, so I had a lovely time. However the evening was only getting started.

In a conversation we'd had a few days before, one of our statesiders said he liked older music, plus they'd both mentioned the traditional Irish thing a few times, so we'd suggested taking them to a traditional Irish music gig. They were entirely agreeable so we headed off to Fibber Magees for Bleana that night.

Fibber Magees
Photo source: The New York Times

The band (two guys playing the guitar, uilleann pipes, tin whistle and singing) didn't start until 10.30pm but we arrived at around 9.30pm and settled in with a drink, quickly afterwards pouncing on a corner table when one became available. Just as well we arrived so early though - by the time the fellas were starting into The Bonnie Banks o' Loch Lomond, the place was packed.

We stayed for their whole set (until well after our carriage had turned back into a pumpkin) and it was such great craic. We drank far too much Guinness for a week night (or indeed any night) but the music was good and it was amazing to watch the couple of people in the crowd who could actually Irish dance compared with the few tourists who were just giving it a good go. By the end of the night the two girls who could dance properly looked like they might be heading for an Irish dance-off but alas the tourists kind of crowded them on the dance floor so the ability to jig about was a little restricted. One thing we did notice is that the ones to watch (i.e. the ones who can actually Irish dance) always go barefoot. Rather them than me in a Belfast pub, but there you have it!

Funnily enough, being a local, going to a traditional Irish folk night never really crosses my mind as something fun to do - another example of taking things for granted I guess - but it was really good fun. Highly recommended for visitors and locals alike.

Somehow we made it out of bed on time for work on Friday morning, but we had one night left to entertain our visitors. We'd asked them what kind of cuisine they were in the mood for and they specified Thai. The Yorkshireman and I have never really gone to any of the Thai restaurants in Belfast, although I'm not sure why not, bearing in mind we love spicy food. Just one of those things I guess, but we were eager to give it a go. I'd heard good things about Thai Village and it was pretty close to their hotel, so we booked a table there for Friday evening.

Thai Village
Photo source: Thai Village

I really enjoyed my meal at Thai Village. I'd been a little hesitant looking at the menu because I don't like peanuts, sweet chilli sauce or shellfish, all of which were heavily featured, but I ordered Seekong Moo Yang (thai ribs) as a starter and Keang Pad (essentially duck thai red curry) with steamed rice as a main. They were all delicious - really tasty and just the right level of spiciness. Yum!

Our statesiders were pretty tired after their long week (as were we!) so we decided to grab one quick drink and then go for a relatively early night. We'd intended to try out the Secret Garden at Filthy McNasty's across the road from Thai Village but unfortunately they wouldn't allow one of our party in because he was wearing sandals, which was a shame but understandable in these days of health and safety paranoia. We decided just to go to the bar at their hotel for a nightcap instead.

One shared bottle of wine in the hotel bar actually soon turned to two, as we got into deep conversations about politics, education and psychological profiling of common acquaintances (to name but a few topics covered) and it was really interesting to discover the differences and similarities between our respective countries. Soon though it was time to say goodnight, with an agreement that the statesiders should call at our house for lunch the next day before they began their road trip to the south.

We figured that we'd covered a lot of different cuisines during their stay, but not really traditional British, so we decided to host an afternoon tea party to send the guys on their way. I dispatched the Yorkshireman to Marks and Spencer this morning for some English themed supplies and set about hunting for my teapot.

The statesiders arrived to a feast of delicate sandwiches, pork pies, cocktail sausages, sausage rolls, salad and a variety of sweet pastries... not to mention tea and coffee (of course they went for the latter). At the beginning they had "wow"ed at the size of the spread, but half an episode of Top Gear later (they love it apparently) it was all gone. I'm glad they seemed to enjoy it!

With our guests fuelled and ready to hit the road, we found some exact change for the tolls they would meet on their journey south and they gave us their last Northern Irish £5 note. And with that, we waved them off on their journey, before slumping on the sofa for the rest of the day. It has been a busy and expensive week but we've eaten really well, drunk a whole lot more than could ever be considered reasonable for any human liver, and gotten to know some very interesting people. To combine the vernacular of our two homelands, I’ve had a feckin' blast!