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June 11th 2003

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Look after the Pennies
and the Pounds will look after themselves!

The currency might have changed, but how clearly we remember from childhood days our mothers and grannies proclaiming the mantra above. Good advice it was - and is - advice that our present government could do worse than heed.
The story in the Sunday Independent of the Pension Boards €30,000 junket to a four star hotel in Co Wicklow, at a time of crisis in that sector, is a case in point. While the sum involved might be only a drop in the ocean compared with total government spending, it is bound to cause annoyance to the many who have seen the value of their pensions decimated by falling equity prices. Responsibility at government level for work pensions lies with Minister Mary Coughlan, and her reaction, as printed in the Sunday paper, that the trip was ‘a useful and worthwhile exercise’ and that the cost was a matter for the Pensions Board, will appear to many as another example of an uncaring government’s profligacy, at a time when cutbacks on departmental spending are making life miserable for many of our people.
In the end, it is the taxpayer who will pick up the bill for the trip of these pension professionals to Tinakilly House, the same professionals who have pumped an inordinate amount of our hard earned cash into equities and shares, the value of which has plummeted with the stock market downturn.
But as stated, €30,000 will be seen as a small amount of money when compared with other shambolic government schemes, Luas, National Stadium, SSIA’s - not to mention the cost of Tribunals which seems to be escalating up at an alarming rate. In a letter to Michael Noonan, then Fine Gael leader, just a week before the last General Election, Minister for Finance Charlie McCreevy stated ‘I can confirm that there are no significant overruns projected and no cutbacks whatsoever being planned secretly or otherwise.’
What about the commitment to 2,000 more gardai, the end of hospital waiting lists. “We will permanently end waiting lists in our hospitals within two years through a combination of bed capacity, primary care, secondary care and targeted reform of initiatives” (Michael Martin at a press conference on 6th May 2002, just ten days before General Election); the promises to construct and upgrade schools; the plan to create a national roads infrastructure - the list goes on and on.
So perhaps it is time to go back to old values and the mottos of our elders - for now is the time that we indeed need to ‘look after the pennies’.

SARS Suspect Robs First Active
British National Remanded to Face Further Charges

John William Blair being led into Ballyshannon District Court

When a gentleman with an English accent calling himself John Gibbons came in to the newsroom of Donegal Times last week to describe his experience when he fell ill with suspected SARS, we were not to know the unexpected twist events would take within minutes of his leaving our office. Dressed unusually, sporting a green fedora, long trench coat, woollen gloves and carrying a brown paper bag, the man cut a strange figure in the centre of Donegal on a warm June morning. Pale and stressed looking, the man was perspiring freely and twice asked for a glass of water while he was recounting his experiences.
Donegal Times girl, Margaret Gallagher, who spoke to John, tells his story.
‘John Gibbons felt unwell while staying in the Central Hotel, suffering difficulty in breathing, a bad cough, eyes and nose watering. He rang reception and asked for a doctor. A local G.P. examined him, told him to pack an overnight bag and called for a taxi to take him to Letterkenny General Hospital. Here he sat in casualty from 10.30p.m. to 3a.m., during which time a lot of patients passed through. He then was admitted to a public surgical ward. Next day doctors came to examine him - one of them asking for his passport. On finding out that he had been in Hanoi, Vietnam, a month previously and passed through Singapore, both of which have suffered SARS outbreaks, he was moved to an isolation ward on the top floor of the hospital. All precautions were taken, masks worn by hospital staff and doors taped and sealed. “I had not thought about SARS up to this. I was like a pin-cushion from all the needles and blood samples that were taken from me. However, thankfully, after ten anxious days, I was released having been diagnosed with a virus resembling Asian Flu”, said John.
John went on to question how ready Donegal is in the event of a SARS outbreak. He pointed to the fact that despite him being a SARS suspect, people he had been close to previous to his hospital stay were not contacted - those included hotel guests and staff, his taxi driver, patients passing through the A & E in Letterkenny and those in the ward in which he was placed, prior to being put into isolation. While complimenting Letterkenny General on the treatment and care he had received, he asked “Is Donegal ready should an epidemic such as SARS break out?”
This conversation with John took place at 11.45a.m. last Tuesday. For what happened next we take the report from the Star newspaper.
‘A man who says he was admitted to hospital 11 days ago amid fears he had contacted the SARS virus has been charged with robbing a building society.
John William Blair (54) of 4A, the Strand Todmorden, Lancashire, England, was charged at Donegal District court yesterday with stealing €180 from the First Active Building Society on Main Street, Donegal Town, last Tuesday.
He was remanded in custody to appear at a special sitting of Ballyshannon District Court on Monday next. Blair yesterday claimed that he was the man who sent panic waves through the people of north Donegal when it emerged a patient was in isolation in Letterkenny hospital last week being treated for suspected SARS.
However, on Friday last, the North Western Health Board released a statement to the effect that the patient in question had not contracted SARS.
It is alleged that last Tuesday at midday, Blair entered the First Active Building Society in Donegal Town wielding an imitation firearm and passed the cashier a note stating his intent to rob the bank.
It is claimed he then left with €180. The female staff member was unhurt and there was nobody in the premises at the time.
Following a surveillance operation, local Gardai arrested Blair a short time later that afternoon in a taxi heading northwards through Barnesmore Gap. When evidence of arrest, charge and caution was read to the court by Detective Garda Dessie Sheridan, Mr Blair replied only, “I am guilty”.
Blair faces a maximum of 14 years’ imprisonment if he is found guilty of robbing the building society.’
A succinct and straightforward account of what happened immediately after the man had left Donegal Times office - but it tells only part of the story. To find out more, Margaret Gallagher went to interview all those who had played a part in this unusual drama. She writes:
‘Immediately after commiting the robbery, the man crossed the street and entered Charlie Martin’s Star Bar where he ordered a double brandy and pint of guinness from tender, Donie McIntyre.
Having imbibed, he took himself down to barber Denis Gorman and asked that his head be shaved, explaining to the Mountcharles man that he was doing this to win a bet.
Next John headed for the Diamond where he approached the taxi of Pearce McGroary who told Donegal Times - “At 2.10pm. this man got into the front seat of the taxi saying he had missed his bus to Derry and could I take him part of the way. I told him the first town was Ballybofey and he said that would do. I found him to be very friendly and he said he liked the Donegal people.
As I approached the Drumlonagher roundabout, I noticed an unmarked Garda car behind me. About 200 yards further on they flashed their lights and blew the horn, so I pulled in. A detective came to my window and asked my passanger for identification to which he replied he hadn’t any. The guard then went round to the other side of the car and asked him to step out. The detective searched his pockets and found a black revolver - a replica, I heard afterwards. Later I was told they also recovered a knife.”
With the gentleman now safely in custody, we return to events earlier in the day when John visited the First Active, obviously to case the place. Emer McMullin remembers, “At 10.20am. a gentleman called into the branch - Andrea and myself were behind the counter and he asked for a rate on the Australian Dollar. On his leaving, I remarked to Andrea that I had seen him the previous night in McGroartys - he stood out by his unusual garb and behaviour.”
At 12.01 the same gentleman came back and this time Andrea was on her own behind the counter - Joyce McMullin was in his office upstairs and Emer had gone to lunch. He put a note on the counter and Andrea thought ‘why a note - I know he can talk English’. Then he said “Give me the money in the till”. The note read something like ‘PIRA’ at the top and then ‘If you don’t give me the money I will shoot through the glass’. I looked up and saw him wave a gun but he did not point it at me. My initial thought was ‘I don’t have much - what will he do to me.’ He told me to hurry up. I gave him one €50 note, a few €10 and the balance in €5 notes to make up €180. He put the money and gun back into the brown paper bag and left quietly. I alerted Joyce, who had been completely unaware of what was happening. He then rang the local barracks - gardai were on the scene within minutes.
A frightening experience for those involved and Joyce commented “I want to commend Andrea on the calm way she dealt with the situation. I would also like to express my appreciation to the Gardai for reacting so quickly”.
Yesterday (Monday) morning, John William Blair appeared at Ballyshannon court where the judge remanded him to appear in Gorey court on 12th June to face further charges. He is due to return to Donegal Town court on 18th June.

The Donegal Times, The Diamond, Donegal Town, Ireland

Tel: +353-73-22860 Fax: +353-73-22937