An ever closer legal union?

An ever closer legal union?  Published today at The Guardian

Something interesting is happening to the legal services market in Scotland.

Firstly, like everywhere else, Scotland is feeling the effects of a double dip recession. This has shrunk the legal sector, dried up a good deal of commercial and domestic property work and left smaller law firms concentrating their billable time on wills, trusts and executries.

For the medium to large firms in the Scottish market, however, the seismic event of the past few years has been the falling away of work from the two most significant clients in the country: The Bank of Scotland and The Royal Bank of Scotland.

To give an idea of just how central this work is, I recall a discussion some years ago with a senior partner in one of Edinburgh’s grandest firms. He pointed out that in 1800 their two largest clients were the banks and that this was still the case over two hundred years later. Indeed, the decline of bank business in Edinburgh – which all the major firms share in — has been compared by some to Glasgow’s loss of heavy industry in the 1950s, or the disturbance of an ecosystem in which surveyors, lawyers, accountants and even sandwich shops have traditionally lived and thrived. Of course both banks are still very much present in the Scottish market, it’s just that the transaction work which they consistently provided may not return on anything like the scale it once was.

Despite these changes, however, there is a great deal for lawyers to be optimistic about: the market has dynamism and Edinburgh is growing again as an eminent financial centre with secure funds under management; it’s attracting headquarters for banks such as Virgin Money, Tesco and Green Investment; the city has over 700 established financial services firms; it’s building a significant reputation for technology start-ups with IPO ambitions; there’s oil and gas work and development; and it’s still one of the top places in the world to live, work and study.

But the thing which is most interesting in the industry at the moment is the rapid trend of mergers between Scots and English firms. The most prominent link up earlier this year was between McGrigors, one of Scotland’s lead firms, and Pinsent Masons. Others have followed: DWF and Biggart Baillie, Shoosmiths and Archibald, Campbell & Harley, DAC Beachcroft and Andersons. A number of other firms have featured in the rumour mill. The trend is a very significant one for a jurisdiction which has always been fiery about its independence: equally, however, its very independence from the rest of the UK legal sector has perhaps led Scots firms and their lawyers to underplay their hand on a wider stage.

Why are these mergers happening, and what are the incentives on both sides?

From the Scottish perspective, a link up with a strong London or regional player gives the strength and support of a larger firm in these tough economic times — for even the biggest in Scotland are small when compared to the likes of the magic circle firms. Many clients will have interests across the border, and it makes sense in those circumstances for the same firm to be able to offer a joined up service. For lawyers in Scottish firms, a link up with a global practice brings the potential to work and travel far beyond the jurisdiction’s traditional boundaries.

From the opposite perspective, merger with a Scots firm is likely to bring in a high quality team of lawyers with an established share in some very lucrative markets including, for example, oil and gas work. As an added bonus, for those working on high value London deals there will suddenly be the availability of a skilled team of commercial lawyers working out of Edinburgh, Glasgow or Aberdeen, who would then be in a position to share the workload at a competitive rate.

Overall, the trend of cross border mergers meets a number of needs on both sides, as well as being a timely reminder that despite obvious differences (such as land law) there is much which is shared across the two jurisdictions. After all, the Act of Union in 1707 gave Scots the commercial freedom to reap the benefits of England’s trade networks, whose doors had until then been closed to them; and it gave England the talent, drive and imagination of some of Scotland’s best people. The combined strength from working together across the border is greater than the sum of the separate parts.

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Through a telescope, darkly

The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth, by Stuart Clark (Polygon, 2011)

In the same way it was once thought the Earth was flat, people (important people) used to think that the sun, moon, planets and stars moved across the sky like props on a medieval stage, perhaps even helped along with jerky twitches on strings, or poked with sticks by an out of sight but kind hearted old puppeteer with a white beard.  The Earth didn’t move of course, said the wise, how could it?  No, it was everything else that revolved around it like so many clockwork toys.

We’ve come so far in this post-post-modernist second decade of the twenty first century, that it’s difficult to imagine just how different the world of ideas once was.  Four hundred years ago mildly eccentric old ladies were burned as witches: but the threat of burning also hung over anyone whose views differed from official church doctrine on any number of issues – doctrine which was anchored in Saint Thomas Aquinas’ brilliant (but by the 1600s looking rather shaky) marriage of Christian theology and Aristotelian philosophy, set out in the numerous volumes of his Summa Theologica.  I mean no harm to Aquinas: on the contrary, his thirteenth century writings are among the first lights flickering from the darkness; but after more than three hundred years his ideas were struggling against the dawning light of reason.

We have all seen the stars with our own eyes, and that is exactly how they were observed – even by the Egyptians – right up until the seventeenth century when a few spectacle makers in Holland suddenly realised (no doubt by accident) that by holding one lens in front of another, next door’s windmill suddenly looked enormous.  Within a few years Galileo in Italy had developed the first telescope and was crashing around, knocking down the medieval stage scenery of the skies.

Then there is the great Austrian mathematician and astronomer Johannes Kepler who, separate from Galileo, applied his mind to the recorded observations of his time and deduced mathematically the motion of the spheres.

Nobody liked this, it seems: or at least not many people whose opinions counted – which meant the church, both Catholic and Protestant.

There is something rather obvious, with hindsight, about the advancement of science – and looking back upon the collision between the immovable objects of faith and tradition and the irresistible force of evidence which refutes it, is like watching a very messy car crash in slow motion.

To the Vatican priests of the sixteen hundreds, the view through a telescope presented the reality that Holy Scripture was not literally true, that the philosophers of antiquity whom they adored had limits to their understanding, and that they could not respond by making new theology on the hoof – for who knew what the men of science might discover next, and where would the church be then?

It is a perplexing but fascinating period of history brought to life by Stuart Clark, an enthusiastic British academic, journalist, author and broadcaster who has devoted himself to bringing the world of astronomy to life.  In The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth he has created a fictional account of the development of stargazing from an eccentric and superstitious hobby through to the greatest scientific revelation of all time.  I enjoyed seeing the Jesuits, the brilliant schoolmasters of my youth, cast in their role as sixteenth century thought police, and the glittering circle in which Cardinal Robert Bellarmine moved.

The book is gripping (I read it over the course of two days) and it brings out very sympathetically the tensions of the time both from the point of view of the geniuses Galileo and Kepler and the established Catholic and Protestant authorities.

The even better news is that The Sky’s Dark Labyrinth is only the first in a trilogy: the second book, The Sensorium of God, was published earlier this year by Polygon and the third, The Day Without Yesterday, is scheduled for publication in 2013.  The Sensorium of God deals with the life and times of Sir Isaac Newton and his contemporaries in the Royal Society (such as Sir Christopher Wren, Robert Hooke and Edmund Halley), while The Day Without Yesterday jumps forward in time to the twentieth century, Albert Einstein and his contemporary Father Georges Lemaitre, a brilliant Belgian astronomer and physicist; and proof that a person can be a visionary scientist and still see the hand of God in the marvels of the Universe.

Also published at Think Scotland

Is this party cool, legally speaking?

Published today in The Scotsman

Everyone seems to have a smart phone or tablet these days and, not unconnected, just about every major legal jurisdiction now seems to have intellectual property disputes arising from their sale and development.

In a dizzying whirl of litigation over the last twelve months, from Germany and Japan to the United States, the Netherlands and England, the major players in the market (including Apple, Samsung, HTC and Motorola) have locked horns in attempts to obtain injunctions against the sale and distribution of rival products.  Success has been mixed.

In some instances, one company has been successful in one jurisdiction, only to obtain an entirely different or at least a conflicting outcome in another. While in essence the disputes have been about the designs and technologies used in mobile devices, the reality is that it is a battle for control or even a foothold in a multi-billion dollar worldwide market.

There are no definitive answers it seems, or at least there are a number of different ways of looking at the laws of patent infringement.

Some argue that the software designs and enhancements built in to each succeeding generation of devices have inevitably built upon those of the past; while others claim that certain features of ‘searchability’ and ‘functionality’ in devices are unique, and represent a recognisable development attracting their own intellectual property rights and legal protection.  Some issues relate purely to the appearance of rival devices but overall a very real concern in the industry is that if each company becomes entrenched in successfully protecting its own patents and designs, future breakthroughs and developments will become all but impossible in the way all the major players have benefited from in the past.

This month’s decision of Judge Birss QC, in the English High Court case of Samsung Electronics (UK) Ltd v Apple Inc. [2012] EWHC 1882 Pat, is a good example.  Samsung raised an action seeking a declaration that three of its Galaxy tablet models did not infringe a European Community Registered Design registered by and belonging to Apple.  Following an exhaustive consideration of many of the design features of both Apple and Samsung products, Judge Birss noted as follows:

“The extreme simplicity of the Apple design is striking. Overall it has undecorated flat surfaces with a plate of glass on the front all the way out to a very thin rim and a blank back. There is a crisp edge around the rim and a combination of curves, both at the corners and the sides. The design looks like an object the informed user would want to pick up and hold. It is an understated, smooth and simple product. It is a cool design.”

Then, turning to the Samsung products he opined:

“The informed user’s overall impression of each of the Samsung Galaxy Tablets is the following. From the front they belong to the family which includes the Apple design; but the Samsung products are very thin, almost insubstantial members of that family with unusual details on the back. They do not have the same understated and extreme simplicity which is possessed by the Apple design. They are not as cool. The overall impression produced is different.”

And so by way of this rather back-handed compliment and affirmation of judicial good taste, Judge Birss concluded that Samsung had not infringed Apple’s registered design.

The judge’s remarks have been a gift to satirists, or at least who those who hang around the Royal Courts of Justice. “Surely, that’s the last thing you want,” they chortled on BBC Radio’s Now Show, “judges basing their verdict on how cool they think the parties are. Older people just aren’t behaving the way we expect.” The thought led seamlessly on to the 50th anniversary of the Rolling Stones first gig.  If ‘gig’ is still cool.

The makers of the Galaxy products welcomed the decision, stating that it ‘affirmed our position that Galaxy Tab products do not infringe Apple’s registered design right.  As the ruling proves, the origins of Apple’s registered design features can be found in numerous examples of prior art.” And “Should Apple continue to make excessive claims in other countries based on such generic designs, innovation in the industry could be harmed and consumer choice unduly limited.”

Apple of course sees the position very differently, and the litigations pending in jurisdictions across the globe will continue to play out, with one highly significant showdown, again with Samsung, moving slowly toward a U.S. Federal Court hearing.  Apple has won the vital preliminary skirmish in securing an injunction against the sale of Galaxy products, a decision which Samsung is appealing in advance of the full hearing.  The stakes for both companies could not be higher.

Scotland’s War

 A Time of Tyrants: Scotland and the Second World War, by Trevor Royle (published by Birlinn, 2011) – this article published today at Think Scotland

If you have never seen the view into the valley of the Clyde from the hills above Greenock, then that is something wonderful you have yet to experience in life.  With the sun shining and a gentle breeze tugging at the yellow whins, you can see the blue river snaking down from Glasgow, past Dumbarton Rock, and Ben Lomond looming like an iceberg on the horizon; you can see it as it flows toward you growing wider, the channel of its navigable waters neatly pegged out like a putting green, red to port, green to starboard, all the delicate way between yawning sandbanks; and over your left shoulder now there’s the Tail o’ the Bank, where the water turns salty, then lazily moves south round the headland of Gourock and opens out into the mouth of the Firth, with Largs, Troon, Turnberry and the Ailsa Craig, and all the promises of fish teas and ice cream which those sunlit pavilions have to offer.

Across the water from you now are the Holy Loch, Loch Long and Gare Loch, where you could hide seventeen Royal Navy Frigates like so many kilted Jacobites in moorland heather: because you can see clearly now from where you’re standing, plain as the nose on your face, that these are some of the best natural harbours anywhere in the world, bar nowhere.  This is a home for giants: where ships were incubated then born onto the river like calving glaciers; and spread out before you it is a natural amphitheatre as glorious in its way as the view over Edinburgh from the North Bridge.

The mighty channel is usually empty these days apart from the occasional dredger heading up to Glasgow, or the quaint sight of the Waverley ploughing the waters like a mechanical swan.  Indeed on a day like this, with the sun in the sky, the waters and shores look natural and clean: fish swim far upriver and razorbills and oystercatchers perch along the banks; but sprawling supermarket complexes and burger joints now fill the void of what was once the vast grimy, noisy, relentless, unceasing, ceased to exist glory – the clanging heart – that was shipbuilding on the lower Clyde.

Close your eyes; go back over seventy years to 1940 and the scene before you when you open them again is very different.  I have mischievously convinced my four year old daughter that the world before 1980 was entirely black and white, but in this instance it’s not hard to believe that the sky and the sea would have been a little less blue, the grass a little less green, the air thick with grey smoke and coal dust.  In those days the Clyde was a seething mass of shipping, with every conceivable vessel butting its way through the choppy waters, crossing and crisscrossing before you like scars on a riveter’s glove.  Or as Trevor Royle describes the scene in A Time of Tyrants:

“Not only was the Tail of the Bank home to some of the warships of the Free French Navy, together with 1,500 of their sailors at Fort Matilda, but as the assembly point for Atlantic convoys it meant that the waters ‘held the biggest small boat pool in Great Britain with French, Belgian, Dutch, Scandinavian and other vessels.  Greenock was as a consequence highly internationalised then and each of its public houses a veritable Babel.’”

In those days of war the Clyde was alive with ships: so alive, in fact, that the Nazis knew that it had to be addressed through bombing raids; and so first Clydebank and then Greenock received their share of the bombs.  As Royle describes, 35,000 people were made homeless in Clydebank and 528 killed, while in Greenock and Port Glasgow the figure was 320, with hundreds more seriously injured.  There was tragedy and high drama, but I also remember the story of the Tate and Lyle factory on Greenock’s Drumfrochar Road being bombed, and molten sugar running down the cobbled streets: why do I always imagine ragged schoolboys delightedly following its lava-like course?

It’s rather difficult today to bring to mind the Scotland of the Second World War, since so much has changed both here and abroad.  That’s why it takes a past master like Trevor Royle to tell us the story: to lead us through the people, the politics, the honour and the sacrifice of the most important period of the twentieth century, and the immense involvement of Scots and Scotland in that global struggle.  Following on from his successful appraisal of The Great War in The Flowers of the Forest, A Time of Tyrants has been thoroughly researched by Royle in the National Archives of Scotland, the National Archives at Kew, the National Library of Scotland and the University of Edinburgh: providing him with material which he has then knitted into a seamless account of the period in a lucid and engaging style.

There are, of course, many single volume histories of the Second World War (for example those by Anthony Beevor, Andrew Roberts or Sir Max Hastings, all published in the last twelve months) and very good they are too: however A Time of Tyrants looks at the phenomenon of the War both within Scotland at that time and as contributed to by Scots across the globe.  It is, therefore, both a unique and important contribution to our stock of knowledge of the period.

If I had one small criticism, however, it would be this:  it seems to me that the history would have benefited more from real stories from the war: for example where is the dramatic explosion of the Free French destroyer Maille Breze off Greenock?  Where is Bill Millen, piper to Lord Simon Fraser the fifteenth Earl of Lovat, who on D-Day heroically played The Road to the Isles on Sword Beach and survived only because the German snipers assumed he had lost his mind?  But these are mere trifles, interesting whimsies, compared to the hard work of Royle’s impressive and wide ranging achievement.

The book is available from Birlinn publishers here: and if this has whetted your appetite for some stunning photographs of the Clyde, you’ll find many at Gerard Watt’s excellent River Clyde photography website here.

Egypt’s supreme court must become jewel of the Nile’s institutions

Published today in the Scotsman – www.scotsman.com

In a country not known for its robust institutions, Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court served as a powerful symbol of independence for years in the 1970s and 1980s.

Egypt’s leaders – president Mubarak, and Sadat before him – initially allowed the court its place for political purposes. But the court seized that role and in some areas duly held the government to account. Sadly, the great court is today not the power it once was, following a plan to weaken it led by Mubarak from the 1990s onwards.

Perhaps the clearest measure of this was when the present chief justice, Farouk Sultan, was appointed in 2009, causing many eyebrows to be raised.

It was not just that Judge Sultan was appointed from a first-instance court below both the Constitutional Court and the appellate Court of Cassation, it was also the fact that his experience was in military and security courts, and the curiously titled “courts of ethics”.

All in all, the feeling grew that the Constitutional Court’s glory days were behind it, to the point where today it is openly known that a number of its judges are advisers to the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), the junta currently running the country since Mubarak was deposed and, in short order, arrested, tried and convicted.

The announcement yesterday of the outcome of the presidential election and the imminent investiture of Mohamed Morsi as head of state could put the Constitutional Court into the front line of civic life again.

Chief Justice Sultan is also head of the Presidential Elections Committee, at the centre of the delay in declaring the results. And with a mandate from barely a quarter of the electorate, President Morsi is likely to face many legal challenges as he tries to change the face of Egypt.

Everything has been happening in Egypt at the same time: the first free elections in the country’s history; a close-run presidential campaign albeit with a modest turnout; attempts to draft a new constitution; the declaration last week by the Supreme Constitutional Court that last November’s parliamentary elections are null and void and will have to be re-held at some point; the subsequent dissolution of parliament by SCAF; the slow demise of ex-president Mubarak; and now the presidential election results.

Perhaps this is not the easiest time to be a professor of  constitutional law at Cairo  University… probably just as well to dump the last few years’ lecture materials in the recycling bin.

In the midst of all the chaos, however, it is easy to forget how far Egypt has come in less than 18 months and that the country has almost arrived at the point where SCAF needs to honour its promise to hand over control of the government to the newly elected president – an event scheduled for this weekend.

In the parliamentary elections earlier this year, Egyptians voted overwhelmingly in favour of pro-Islamic candidates. Now they have voted for the Muslim Brotherhood candidate, Morsi, over  Mubarak’s ex-prime minister, Ahmed Shafiq.

It should come as no surprise that SCAF is perceived as supporting the more secularly inclined population as opposed to the Muslim Brotherhood – the military and the mosque have been two competing factions in Egypt for decades – with the third “m”, the mob, somewhere in the middle. Of course, the secular population is not a single bloc. It includes those who hanker after the Mubarak certainties as well as the enthusiasts for liberal reform.

When it comes to it, will SCAF freely hand over the country to its rival, Morsi? Somehow that’s difficult to imagine happening.

Shafiq, on the other hand, is cut very much from SCAF cloth, a military man, like Mubarak before him, with a liberal eye to the west.

So far, SCAF appears to be honouring its promise with regard to the transition to democracy and respecting the choice of  the electorate. But what, if anything, can hold SCAF to account, quell the election bickering, ease the passage to democracy and guard the country’s liberal and secular minorities?

What Egypt needs now, more than ever, is its Supreme Constitutional Court restored to operational independence and polished until it sparkles like a diamond amid the noise and confusion of so much change, so many competing voices and with an active legal profession which is confident that arguing a challenging brief will not risk personal safety.

Chief Justice Sultan, aged 70, will stand down on 1 July, probably to his great relief, and is likely to be replaced by Judge Maher El-Beheiry.

However, unless his court can once more stand apart from the junta, then who will guard the guardians of Egypt’s delicate Arab Spring?

Egypt at the brink of a new dawn

Published today in the Caledonian Mercury – www.caledonianmercury.com

  

After months of uncertainty, Egypt stands on the brink of a new dawn: but judging by recent developments, quite what the future will hold for the turbulent nation remains far from clear.

Firstly, there was President Hosni Mubarak’s dramatic resignation in February last year, bringing to an end his thirty years as the country’s leader (which followed the assassination of President Sadat in 1981).  There then followed in August his conviction by an ordinary Egyptian criminal court for failing to prevent the killing of protesters during the popular uprising which brought down his regime.  He was immediately sentenced to life imprisonment, and continues to serve that sentence in an Egyptian prison: however as this goes to press the 84 year old has been transferred to a military hospital in a critical condition.

After his resignation, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (‘SCAF’) became the de facto government; and in a statement issued at that time declared that it would both facilitate a transition to democracy and thereafter respect the will of the people as spoken through free and open elections.  That is something that has never happened since the founding of the Arab Republic of Egypt in 1953.

In recent months Egypt has quickly had to get to grips with elections for both the presidency and also the parliament – which was dissolved at the same time as President Mubarak’s resignation.  There have been many arguments about the right of those associated with Mubarak’s regime to stand in the elections and the country has become more openly divided on religious lines, with violent clashes involving Muslim and Coptic Christian communities.

Between November 2011 and January 2012 elections were held for 498 seats in the parliament’s lower house, the People’s Assembly (an additional 10 seats were filled by SCAF appointed candidates).  The result gave the Democratic Alliance, which is dominated by the Freedom & Justice Party (founded by the Muslim Brotherhood of Egypt) 235 seats.  The second largest party, the Islamist Bloc, gained 121 seats, with a spectrum of liberal parties thereafter gaining less than 100.

Elections to the upper house, the Shura Council, took place in January and February 2012 and the Democratic Alliance and Islamist Bloc took the lion’s share with 150 of the 180 seats, with liberals again making up the remainder.

With the parliamentary elections complete, the focus then turned to the presidential campaign and ultimately last week’s run off between President Mubarak’s ex-Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik (who has a military background similar to ex-Presidents Mubarak, Sadat and even Nasser before him) and Mohamed Morsi, chairman of the Freedom & Justice Party.  Again, as this goes to press, the result of the election is too close to call, with both candidates claiming victory [Mohamed Morsi has, amid dramatic scenes, now been proclaimed President].  Whoever wins, SCAF has vowed to hand control to the newly elected president on 30 June, but whether this will happen is far from clear; and veteran Middle East analyst Charles Holmes has written that it doesn’t really matter who the next president of Egypt is: that both are ghosts of the past, embedded in a clash between ‘military and mosque’.

The most significant development of all, however, was Egypt’s Supreme Constitutional Court decision of 14 June that the elections to the People’s Assembly were unlawful, a step which led SCAF to dissolve Parliament.  This has led to an outcry, mainly by the Muslim Brotherhood, which has the greatest to lose from fresh elections, and accusations that SCAF is engineering a coup d’Etat.  On the other hand, SCAF claims simply to be upholding its duty to govern in accordance with the rule of law.

In short, Egypt’s future remains as unpredictable as at any time since the first shoots of the Arab Spring; and the real issue, its foundering economy, remains adrift in the political storm.

Stephen O’Rourke, June 2012

Stair Society launches new website

The Stair Society, Scotland’s leading legal history society, has just launched an impressive new website: http://www.stairsociety.org/

Founded in 1934, the Society’s aim is to encourage the study and advance the knowledge of the history of Scots Law by the publication of original documents and by the reprinting and editing of works of rarity or importance.

The Society always welcomes new members, and the next annual lecture of the Society will be given in November 2012 by Professor Norma Dawson, President of the Irish Legal History Society & Professor of Law at Queen’s University Belfast.

Bella Italia!

Well, we’re now back in sunny Edinburgh after three glorious weeks in Italy – notwithstanding that at one point the temperature was 12 degrees while it was almost 30 degrees in parts of Scotland!  There were the occasional continental thunderstorms which are wonderful to watch, but mostly the weather was warm and sunny.

The area where we were, on the shores of Lake Bolsena about an hour north of Rome, is steeped in the history of the pre-Roman Etruscans and their relatively mysterious culture.  The Etruscans were largely swallowed up by their ambitious neighbours to the south, as the Romans gradually gained control of all modern Italy at the end of the second century BC; but their mark is there in the tombs, pottery and surviving artwork from their heartlands in the border of Tuscany and Lazio – and even the words Tuscany and Etruria (the wider region) are ultimately derived from their name, so great was their mark on that part of the country – here’s a map which in particular shows the Etruscan city of Velzna which became the Roman Volsinii, and then ultimately over the intervening centuries became the modern town of Bolsena on the northern shore of the lake which shares its name: such is the way that names and pronunciation change imperceptibly over time.

Bolsena is a beautiful and tranquil corner, and the almost perfectly spherical volcanic lake which it looks across is reputed to hold the purest water in Europe, as well as shoals of the local delicacy coregone, a delicate kind of white fish, a little like sea bass, and delicious roasted whole in the restaurants which dot the shores.  The town is the home of the ancient festival of Corpus Christi (or Corpus Domini as it is known in Italy), celebrated this year on 10 June with a wonderful parade through the streets known as the infioriata, for the flower petals used to line the route of the procession.  It looks like this:

The miracle of Corpus Christi in 1263 (next year is the 750th anniversary celebration) led the then Pope Urban IV to dedicate a cathedral in the nearby Umbrian city of Orvieto, which is truly one of the pearls of Europe.  It looks like this:

(out of shot to the left of the cathedral is one of the best ice cream shops in all Italy!)

Apart from relaxing and enjoying the beauty of the surroundings, it was also interesting to follow the twists and turns of Italian public life in their newspapers, mainly La Repubblica (left wing) and La Stampa (right wing).  The main theme was of course the daily unfolding of the Euro crisis, but there was significant coverage of allegations of large scale corruption in Italian football (shocking I know – who would have believed it!), refuse collectors on strike in Rome, a big story about the Pope’s butler having been arrested for leaking Vatican documents to the media and last but not least, two terrible earthquakes which shook the Emilia region just north of my old university city of Bologna, on 20 & 29 May.  The quakes killed 24 people, including one parish priest who had gone back into his church shortly before the second quake to recover a statue from the rubble of the first one.  Many fine buildings were badly damaged or destroyed as you can see.

What was particularly interesting was the national response as Italy’s 66th annual festival of the founding of the Italian Republic on 2 June drew closer.  The Italian President called for a day of reflection and calm in light of the earthquake crisis, and true enough despite being a public holiday there was little of the usual pomp and ceremony, with significant resources being diverted to assist those affected in Emilia.  It was impressive and touching to see that act of solidarity on the part of the Italian people in the face of adversity; and while their country seems at times chaotic and frustrating, it’s still a wonderful and fascinating place to be – not to mention their fabulous ice cream and coffee!

Troubled times in Mexico

200 miles east of Mexico City on the Gulf coast lies Veracruz, the country’s main port.  Each year, millions of tons of cargo pass through its harbours, contributing to an economy which is ranked fourteenth in the world just behind Australia.  The traffic through the port is vast: but equally vast, it seems, is drug trafficking.

According to the CIA’s world fact book (easily found at www.cia.gov), Mexico has the world’s second largest cultivation of the opium poppy, generating a potential annual yield of 50 tons of pure heroin.  The Mexican government estimates the value of this trade at anywhere up to 50 billion dollars per year; and the country’s internal cartels play out a seemingly endless and bitter struggle for their share.

On 1 July 2012 Mexicans will go to the ballot box, electing a new president to replace the outgoing President Felipe Calderon: but sadly, however, the election debates have so far been characterised by personal accusations of corruption among the candidates, rather than any clear vision for the country.  And a vision is badly needed, as amply demonstrated by the tortured bodies of three young journalists, pulled ten days ago (on International Press Freedom Day) from a canal in Veracruz.  Their crime: daring to report on the city’s drugs trade.  There have now been nine journalists killed in the Veracruz area over the past 18 months, prompting UNESCO’s director general Irena Bokova to call for the Mexican authorities to do everything in their power to bring those responsible to justice.

The figures in recent years for attacks on journalists all across Mexico, however, are even more disturbing.  It is estimated that 50 have been killed or have disappeared in the last 5 years alone, the highest figure anywhere in the world: but even more concerning, it is alleged that in many instances those responsible are the very agents who should be combating the drug trade, rather than turning a blind eye, or worse.

But there is some good news.  In March, President Calderon’s government, in a vote unanimously backed by the Mexican Senate, amended the constitution to make attacks against journalists a federal crime; and in the run up to the presidential election, there is much focus on the extent to which the candidates will pledge to track down Mexico’s most wanted drug baron Joaquin ‘Chapo’ Guzman, the man who escaped from a Mexican federal prison in a laundry cart eleven years ago, and who has remained in hiding ever since.  And broadly speaking, while Mexico is today alive with drug related problems, these problems have only been brought to the surface by President Calderon’s commitment five years ago to a long term war on narcotics: a war he seems unfortunately far from winning as his presidency draws to a close.

Overall, the enormous issue of trafficking from Central and indeed Latin America seems to generate more questions than answers in today’s world, and many would point to radical solutions: but for the time being Mexico’s own attempts to face the issue seem paralysed.  In the words of Viridiana Rios, a Mexican PhD student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government: “Mexico is silent and blind and our leaders do not seem to care.  Our justice system is broken, it has no teeth.”

More than ever, Mexico needs a president with the vision and determination to help solve this unfolding human tragedy.