Arms decommissioning, religious hatred law and others

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The Independent Online

IRA should try the Zeta-Jones formula for Ulster peace

IRA should try the Zeta-Jones formula for Ulster peace

Sir: It has frequently been said that if a peace deal on Northern Ireland is reached, then any peace deal is possible. Therefore the reaching of an agreement is of the greatest importance for encouraging the peaceful resolution of conflicts elsewhere.

The one remaining stumbling block is allegedly the requirement for photographic evidence of arms decommissioning. The DUP maintains that the people of Northern Ireland, whose lives have been blighted for so many years by arms and explosives, need to feel confident that these weapons have been eliminated. The IRA, on the other hand, would regard the taking of photographs by the authorities as a humiliation and a dishonouring of its long struggle.

Both of these concerns are legitimate, but can be addressed by learning from the wedding of Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones. The solution is for Sinn Fein to sell to the highest media bidder exclusive rights to take pictures of the event.

The destruction of this massive cache of weapons is of historical importance and is a photographic opportunity worth a considerable sum. The money raised could be distributed to charities that support children in Northern Ireland, independent of religious affiliation. The decommissioning thereby becomes, as it should, not a source of humiliation, but of the celebration of a better future.

Harrow on the Hill, Middlesex

Religious hatred law means self-censorship

Sir: In her defence of the Government's proposed religious hatred law Fiona Mactaggart (letter, 13 December) says that the Government does not intend to criminalise religious jokes. No doubt that is true but what the Government is failing to face up to are the unintended consequences of their legislation, in particular its capacity to create self-censorship and threats of prosecution.

Miss Mactaggart also misrepresents what the legislation actually says. There is no reference in the legislation to "knowingly" using "insulting" language as she claims. There is no defence in the legislation that the words used, even if insulting, are nevertheless true, are justified or are used in the course of legitimate fair comment on any religion, its history, beliefs or practices.

The fact that prosecutions would only be brought by the Attorney General does not improve the legislation; it makes it worse because it means that every prosecution is a political decision. Will it become acceptable to criticise some religions but not others? That is a real concern of opponents of this legislation.

Fiona Mactaggart draws attention to the Home Secretary's statement. That statement is legally worthless as a defence to anyone charged under this Act since they are only guidelines to the sort of cases that the present Attorney General considers he might or might not prosecute. A ministerial reshuffle or a change of government can mean a change in the guidelines.

Incitement to violence is already an offence and so far neither Fiona Mactaggart nor anyone else in government has explained what unacceptable words or behaviour this law is designed to deal with that is not already covered by the existing criminal law.


Sir: Howard Jacobson has no cause to worry ("You cannot be serious!", 10 December). The proposed new offence of incitement to religious hatred will not prohibit jokes with a religious content any more than similar existing laws have prevented racist jokes. There have been no prosecutions for racial jokes: this new offence is in similar terms.

The proposed crime requires not only "threatening, abusive or insulting" behaviour but also that it is "likely to stir up religious hatred". The Attorney General has to give his consent having considered "all the circumstances".

This crime is aimed at that small minority of people who actively seek to incite others to hate people because of their beliefs. It is about people, not belief systems. It is needed to protect vulnerable minority faith communities. Belief systems will always be the butt of jokes, but people should not be subjected to the risk of violence because of their beliefs.

Head of the Equality Project
London EC4

Sir: Mark Steel calls sensitively into question the wisdom of a law on religious hatred ("Under this law, even God will end up in prison", 9 December). He jocularly mentions the possibility of people registering an otherwise unknown religion in order to "play the religion card".

I have just been browsing through mythology on the internet and find that there are several sites about the pagan fertility god Ba'al, some of them appearing even devotional.

In Mendelssohn's oratorio Elijah, after the prophet has demonstrated by various means including amateur weather-forecasting and a certain pyrotechnic capability that his god is better than that of the worshippers of Ba'al, he sings: "Take all the prophets of Ba'al and let not one of them escape us; bring all and slay them."

Do you think we could invoke the new law to bring to an end all performances of this overworked and often badly sung oratorio? Then I vote for it.


Sir: Joan Smith, asking rhetorically "Why should I be jailed for attacking religion?" is absolutely right (Opinion, 8 December). Unlike race, religion is an idea you can choose or discard; and existing laws properly enforced are perfectly sufficient to protect everyone.

If religion is to be protected in loosely-phrased and draconian laws, then other ideas should be too - evolution, for example. In fact, let's have a National Register of Approved Ideas, with seven years for anybody daring to criticise them. Likely candidates would be religion, horoscopes, dodgy visa applications, ID cards, the Private Finance Initiative, unprovoked wars of aggression .....

London SE13

Sir: I never knew New Labour ministers could be so amusing. Fiona Mactaggart's stand-up Home Office comedy act brought tears to my eyes. "I must however correct the impression that joking about religion (or indeed about anything else) is something the Government wants to suppress." Such relief! At last, something they don't want to suppress!


How should I die?

Sir: I appreciate the concern of Sir Richard Peto (letter, 26 November), and of the Government about whether we know the facts about smoking - and indeed all of the recent drives to improve our health by getting us eating better and taking more exercise.

However, a few questions keep nagging at me: what would they like me to die of? I could smoke away, and die "early" (although probably still later than the vast majority of people that ever lived) from smoking-related disease, or I could eat too much and die from obesity-related illness. Or I could do neither and die... how? While gradually losing my memory, and/or all my mental faculties, and/or control over my bodily functions - all the time costing either my family or the state increasing amounts to support me in my long decline? Or by falling over in front of a bus when my legs can't carry me any longer? Or by my frail body not being able to cope when the environment causes catastrophic changes to the climate?

I would love to hear a government minister or health adviser tell me how they would prefer I die. But I suspect that, behind all of the noises being made about how to improve our health, there is a fear of death itself, and a refusal by the authorities and most individuals to accept that it will ever happen to us.


Public-sector pensions

Sir: The Government may fear that the proposed cuts in Civil Service pensions "would not be popular" (report, 9 December), but they will be extremely popular among those of us who do not work in the public sector.

After a lifetime of paying into private pension schemes, thanks to the City, Gordon Brown and decades of negligent government regulation, most private-sector workers are looking at an impoverished retirement which they can only hope does not last too long. It is no comfort to know that our local and national taxes are higher than they need be because of supporting public-sector pensioners much more comfortably off than ourselves.

West Horsley, Surrey

Ways to stop MRSA

Sir: I disagree with your editorial of 8 December that "no one disputes that the root cause of MRSA infection is dirty hospital wards". Dirt itself is not necessarily infective.

MRSA infection in hospitals is acquired from other patients carrying the organism. To prevent cross-infection these patients must be identified and isolated. Potential carriers must not be admitted to the general medical and surgical wards and effective isolation facilities must be provided. Isolation in single-bedded side wards is better than nothing, but a risk of cross infection from dust and staff persists. The cost of providing effective isolation facilities must take priority over politically decided performance targets.

Other traditional measures to control infection must not be neglected and new antibiotics must be developed, but their overuse that encourages development of new pathogens, should be discouraged. In the past hospitals had isolation wards for infected patients. Unfortunately with the advent of antibiotics isolation facilities were thought to be unnecessary.

Retired Consultant Surgeon and Control of Infection Officer, Torbay Hospital, Ipplepen, Devon

Sir: One key change might greatly reduce the disgraceful level of hospital-acquired infection, including MRSA. Current practice is that infection control nurses are employed and regulated by the management of the units within which they operate.

Funding and responsibility for infection control staff should be transferred to the Health and Safety Executive. They should be given the same powers as existing Health and Safety inspectors. This would permit them to issue compliance notices ordering changes in practice and improvements in standards; where such orders are not complied with or conditions are deemed to be clearly unsafe they would have the authority to close down a hospital or any specific unit.

The current insane position is that the poachers are in charge of hiring, firing and working conditions of the gamekeepers. This is a significant factor in the inability of the NHS to overcome this problem. When administrators know that the only way to keep their hospitals open is to ensure an acceptable standard of cleanliness throughout, the necessary measures will rapidly be set in place.

Kettering, Northamptonshire

Sir: In your report the agricultural industry is blamed for MRSA and you allege antibiotics are added routinely to animal feed as growth promoters. No antibiotics licensed for use as growth promoters are also licensed for use in human medicine. Only four antibiotics are licensed for use as growth promoters in animal husbandry and these are being banned as of January 2006. The World Health Organisation lays the blame for antibiotic resistance squarely on the easy availability of antibiotics in some countries, and patients for not completing courses.

Head of Communications
Meat and Livestock Commission
Milton Keynes

Professional ethics

Sir: The end of self-regulation for the medical profession looms? Perhaps the Bar Council should be replaced with a government quango - what would Dame Janet Smith, and indeed Tony Blair QC, have to say about that? The new quango could begin with an investigation into the enormous sums of money made by the legal profession when pursuing ill-informed or malicious claims made by members of the public against doctors.

Kingston-upon-Thames, Surrey

'Liberated' Fallujah

Sir: So, when they return to their homes, the liberated citizens of Fallujah will have to wear an identity badge at all times. They will only be able to enter the city through one of five gates, where they will be fingerprinted and made to give DNA samples. Their young men may be subject to forced labour once they are in the camp, whoops, sorry, city. Wouldn't it be easier, and more honest just to tattoo identification numbers on their wrists and sew some sort of symbol on their clothes?

Winterborne Stickland, Dorset

Royal reform

Sir: It does not make sense to ensure we have more female monarchs who are unelected and whose position is an accident of birth ("Bill could see the end of Royal Family's male preference", 9 December). If Parliament has time to debate the monarchy, it should pass a Bill to let us have a referendum on whether to have an elected head of state. Everyone including the Royal Family themselves would benefit from ending the current Ruritanian farce which more and more people regard as an extravagant embarrassment.


School trudge

Sir: How many of your correspondents on the subject of the "school run" are parents of school-age children? They seem to think kids stroll to school empty-handed. Mine are both musical and sporty. We take a full-sized violin and alto sax (with music), sports kit bags, swimming things and briefcases regularly. Occasionally we also take tennis rackets, packed lunches or Wellingtons. Try cycling with that lot, or are they suggesting we walk - with a donkey?

Kemsing, Kent