After eight episodes of The Missing, there was no Hollywood ending. Many of you found it something of a let down after a gripping series drawing us deeper and deeper into the hopes and fears of young Olly’s parents, Tony and Emily Hughes.

The final episode bounced around tying up loose ends, except the most important one. In some ways it fell short of the high standards set in earlier episodes. But I believe the final scene closed the series in a way that was clever and close to perfect.

Tony Hughes (James Nesbitt) has spent eight years trying to find out what happened to his son Olly, who disappeared after straying away from his Dad at a bar in northern France. Tony will not let go of his mission.

Olly’s Mum Emily (Frances O’Connor) has spent eight years trying to move on and rebuild her life. Ultimately, her marriage to Tony cannot survive the trauma, and she grows closer to the police liaison officer who handled their case.

The series leads us through a number of red herrings with regard to the investigation. A central theme is paedophilia. The working assumption is that Olly was a victim of this. In the end, we learn he was instead a victim of a drunk-driver. The accident doesn’t kill him, but his fate is sealed as various characters seek to avoid the consequences of their actions.

Within a short time, he is murdered by a fixer.

Or is he?

Tony Hughes searches frantically for years

Tony Hughes searches frantically for years

The final episode centres on the hospital-bed confession of the driver, Alan Deloix, who crashed into Olly eight years earlier. He confirms that Olly was killed.

But there is no body, and it is clear that M. Deloix witnessed neither the killing nor the body. His evidence is sincere, but second-hand.

Having heard the confession, we are only half-way through the episode. The story has half an hour still to run. So we have reason to remain hopeful, especially given the intriguing Moscow vignette that opens the show – and which implies that Olly is still alive.

The wise French detective Julien Baptiste encourages to Tony to “start trying to live your life.”

“The painful truth is what happened to your boy is perhaps the best you could have hoped for. Rather he died than end up in the hands of a man such as [paedophile] Ian Garrett, or that he became one of those poor children kept captive away from sunlight and human contact in someone’s prison of a basement for their whole lives. You wish he were alive. But what kind of life is that?”

As the episode progresses, it is clear that Emily continues to find it easier than Tony to move on. She marries her new partner, with her ex-husband among the guests. She is ‘relieved’ to learn the truth about Olly’s fate.

But with no body, Tony cannot accept the narrative.

In the final scene we are back in Moscow (probably a year on), where a bearded and disheveled Tony at last finds his son(?) in a public housing block. We’re spared the details of what brings Tony here; suffice to say he never stopped looking.

At this point the Russian police arrive to drag him away, literally kicking and screaming, for harassing too many boys. This one gives nothing away. There appears to be no recognition of his ‘father’ – through the beard – but his reaction is suitably ambiguous and leaves open the possibility Tony was right.

We are left without closure, and for that reason many viewers seem frustrated or disappointed.

But this is life – or death – and there are no easy answers. No simple conclusions. That’s how it is for Tony, and that’s how it is for Gerry and Kate McCann, seven years on from the disappearance of their young daughter Madeleine. For Emily it is different. She has a conclusion she can live with, however painful it might be.

The Missing is a challenging tale of humanity in all its breadth and depth. There is weakness to be found in the powerful, power to be found in the weak, a deeply flawed hero and even a struggling paedophile (Vincent Bourg) with whom we can sympathise. Unlike Tony, Vincent finds his own closure in the final minutes of the series.

The quality of storytelling and acting was excellent. All three main characters, and plenty of the others, hit their mark convincingly.

And what about the fate of Olly?

My conclusion is simply this: he is neither alive nor dead. He is, if you like, Schrodinger’s Boy.

There could have been no happy ending to this story. To find Olly alive or dead would have been difficult either way. We must decide if we are an Emily or a Tony. We know what they know, but it took them both to very different conclusions.

So what about me then? Am I Emily or Tony? It helps to acknowledge this is a work of fiction. Oliver Hughes is not real. This allows me to be Emily. I can move on. But if this saga was real? If my son Caleb was missing? Then I would be Tony. Lacking total clarity about my son’s fate, I could never let go. And like Tony, it would destroy me.

In a way, that final scene says more about Tony than about Olly.

But if you feel cheated in some way, the ending was perfect. Welcome to Tony’s world.

The Channel 4 ‘sting’ on the Shoreditch Cereal Killer Cafe was somewhat unreasonable. One can easily think of a number of better ways to handle it than the immediate reaction offered by business partner Gary Keery, who was snappily dismissive of the reporter challenging him on local poverty. But I’m not under the beady eye of a camera lens, I’m not the one being challenged, and I have the benefit for two decades’ experience in the communications business. Mr Keery had no such luxuries.

As I watched that clip I felt my own heart sink (at 1.05 in the clip) as it dawns on Mr Keery where the interview seems to be going.

He’s running a business and his first obligations are to meet his expenses and turn a profit before he can start investing in corporate social responsibility. I hope he is able to do this, but whether he chooses to do so is really between him and his conscience. And there is no public interest in Channel 4 pursuing him on the matter – neither on day 1 nor on day 101.

There are thousands of businesses in Tower Hamlets, including the global headquarters of several major banks, some very nice restaurants, many of which I’ve reviewed (under the guise of the Munching Mariner), and the bargain garage I used to get my MOT done when I lived locally.

The Cereal Killer Cafe is offering its quirky meals from all over the world for either £2.50 or £3.20 a bowl. That might be a huge mark-up on the raw material, but it’s fairly-priced in comparison to other breakfasts (mostly cooked) available locally. And it’s all too easy to dismiss the retail price without considering all the costs associated with running a catering business in a prime commercial area, whatever poverty lies around the corner.

I’m not quite sure what Channel 4 was trying to achieve. They’ve probably done the cafe a favour with free marketing, but I doubt that was the objective. There are many organisations in Tower Hamlets working to alleviate poverty and help some of the most disadvantaged people who live there. It’s not the primary objective of any business in the area. Get over it.

After his busy first week, Gary Keery has written this open letter to Channel 4:

Dear channel 4 News and Symeon Brown

I am writing this open letter of complaint to you because I feel what you have tried to do to me was completely unfair. I repeatedly told you I was too busy to do interviews, kept pushing me and pushing me even though I had a cafe full of customers wanting to be served. First of all you tried to blame me for the property prices in London before attacking me with questions about poverty.

I am a small business owner and am gambling everything I have in this business and you try to make a mockery out of me 4 days after ‘small business saturday’ when we are supposed to support small businesses.

I have a million things going on in my head and one of those things was about helping local charities as I am not the selfish **** you have made me out to be, although on my opening day I will admit it was not the most important thing for me. I have already been contacted by charities to provide breakfasts for underprivileged children in the area and I will be doing this come January but I wanted to get my cafe open and running first.

You obviously don’t understand business if you think I don’t have to put a mark-up on what I sell. It may be the poorest borough in London but let’s not forget canary wharf is also in this borough but I am the one to blame eh? I am from one of the most deprived area in Belfast so me and my family know all about poverty but haven’t had to blame the small business owners in the area for it, I have been taught a great work ethic and have made it this far without blaming small business owners trying to better themselves and make a future for themselves.

I still have to pay over the top rent for my premises and pay the 12 staff I have employed so I either have to make profit or I will be out of business. Maybe if I charged over £3 for a coffee and dodged all the taxes in this country like some cafés – the reporters would leave me alone would they?

If you want someone to solve the poverty crises in London I don’t think I’m the man to do that as I am too busy trying to cure Ebola and get Kim Kardashian to keep her clothes on. Also you didn’t even pay me for the cereal which you could so easily afford with your overpriced river island suit so I will send you a bill for the extortionate £3.20.

Yours sincerely
Gary keery (the worst person in the world)

There is plenty that can be said – both good and bad – of the late Lord Bannside, aka the Rev Dr Ian Paisley. For me, he was the political colossus (in Northern Ireland) of my lifetime. That’s despite the fact for all my years living in NI, he led merely the third biggest party, after the UUP and the SDLP.

Unhappy with his church, he founded his own – the Free Presbyterian Church – in 1951. Unhappy with established unionist politics, he founded his own party, the Protestant Unionist Party (in 1966) and later the Democratic Unionist Party (in 1971), which succeeded to primacy at Stormont in 2003. It was four more years before he could be persuaded to take the helm of Northern Ireland’s devolved government, alongside Sinn Féin.

I was never a fan of the ‘Big Man’. His political style was tribal and abrasive. That appeals to many, but never to me.

He was extremely divisive, not just as a unionist arguing against Irish nationalism or as a Protestant denouncing Catholicism, he even divided opinion amongst the voters who might be expected to support him. An old friend of mine, a loyalist, found him obnoxious and refused to shake his hand during a Paisley visit to his workplace.

Paisley had a theological opposition to Roman Catholicism. His opposition to an all-Ireland state was born of his Protestant outlook. He feared his fellow Protestants would be subsumed into a theocratic Catholic Ireland. It was, in a sense, a civil rights issue. Ironic then, that he and his supporters would sabotage the (mainly Catholic) civil rights demonstrations of the late 1960s. Paisley was wary of a theocratic Ireland; the Catholics in the North were already suffering the drawbacks of “a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant State” (as it was described by Northern Ireland’s PM, James Craig in 1934). Those drawbacks included lesser access to housing and open discrimination in the jobs market. Voting rights were restricted to householders, indirectly favouring Protestants, and voting areas were gerrymandered, compounding the challenge.

Paisley’s attitude was often excessive. In 1969, at the height of community tension, he told a loyalist rally that Catholics “breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin”. In 1988, he heckled a visiting Pope (John Paul II) in the European Parliament and accused him of being the Anti-Christ. His most fervent religious supporters loved it, but such grandstanding would only serve to reinforce his marginal credentials.

He was never a supporter of violence, but some of the thugs who counted themselves amongst his supporters stirred up riots at the civil rights demonstrations. Just a few weeks after the first Moon landing, in the summer of 1969, the Army were deployed to help restore peace. Instead they attracted further violence by the IRA, and tit-for-tat retaliation by loyalist paramilitaries. Legitimate targets were very loosely defined.

It took three decades to restore peace. This period was known as The Troubles, and circa 3500 people were killed.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement - rejected by Ian Paisley

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement – rejected by Ian Paisley

By the 1990s, while other parties were working towards a deal, the DUP were rejectionist. They campaigned against the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) in 1998, which was approved in a referendum by 73% of Northern Ireland’s voters. Despite such a clear mandate, independent polling suggested just a narrow majority of Protestants (51%) were in favour of the deal.

Paisley drew strength from this reticence. From the fringes he could pressure the moderate UUP for signing up to an increasingly unpopular peace deal. It was certainly a flawed document – how could it not be? As time drew on, elements of it began to unravel, particularly those which relied on an assumption that Sinn Féin (which signed the document) and the IRA (which didn’t) were one and the same. The IRA took years to decommission its weapons, and Sinn Féin took longer still to recognise and accept the new police service established to replace the RUC.

It was fully nine years from the signing of the GFA to the formation of the Paisley/McGuinness government in 2007. In my view, that is how long it took for the GFA to settle – for the turbulence to be laid to rest. In the four years from 2003-2007, the DUP and Sinn Féin were the leading parties from either side of the tribal divide, but they would not govern together, so Direct Rule from Westminster was the prescribed punishment.

It was during this era – when Paisley was essentially First Minister-in-waiting – when I met him at his church in Belfast. I was visiting my parents in County Antrim with an English friend. He wanted to hear Paisley preach, so off we went. He is as thunderous a preacher as you might expect, and sound in his Gospel teaching. A real experience, but not a church I could ever feel comfortable in. Perhaps that’s the point.

Afterwards, somehow we stumbled into his office by accident (it’s a long story). His thunder was no more and we were heartily encouraged to “come on in lads”. Less the demagogue and more the gentle giant, he engaged us in a few minutes of small talk before praying for us and bidding us a good evening.

Our face-to-face experience is shared by many. Journalists and politicians in NI and Westminster and Brussels were well accustomed to encountering the different faces of Paisley. He was a man of sincerity and kindness, who for many years was so personally close to his political rival John Hume they would share Christmas (soft) drinks and fly together to their MEP engagements in Brussels and Strasbourg.

I have little doubt that, once upon a time, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness (reportedly a former IRA chief of staff) would have happily put a bullet in Paisley’s head – if it was strategically helpful. But after they had served together in the Stormont Executive, they soon became known as the Chuckle Brothers, such was their evident comfort with each other.

The tweeted reaction to Rev Paisley's death by Martin McGuinness MLA

The tweeted reaction to Rev Paisley’s death by Martin McGuinness MLA

None of this is to excuse Paisley for his very real, and negative impact on Northern Ireland’s community relations, particularly at the outset of The Troubles, but also in later years. During the research for my university dissertation (which compared the GF Belfast Agreement with an earlier abortive deal at Sunningdale), I became convinced that the course of history could have been very different were it not for Paisley’s stirring in the 1960s. But there is no counter-factual history. We will never know how things might have been without Paisley.

I do not believe he was evil, nor necessarily wrong in his political outlook (though this is not to side with him). The unfolding of history is a complex process, and the greatest blame must be attributed to the terrorists on both sides.

After years as the ultimate rejectionist, parochially known as ‘Dr No’, he eventually agreed to share power with Sinn Féin in 2007. Paisley was First Minister for just over a year before he had to stand down on health grounds. In my view, his major achievement was the very act of sharing power at all. Symbolically, it was enormous.

But it was widely seen – at least amongst unionists – as a sell-out. I am sure he compromised (apparently out of character), but I don’t believe he betrayed his core beliefs or supporters. By 2007 Sinn Féin had finally accepted the policing institutions, and the major sticking points of the GFA were at last resolved.

Speaking after his death, the BBC’s former Ireland Correspondent Denis Murray said he believed Paisley was “intellectually convinced” of his decision to share power. But it took courage to do it, and he naturally lost support, both politically and subsequently within his church, from which he was later unceremoniously sacked after six decades of service. He threw a strop and never again darkened its doors.

About a decade ago, Paisley was rumoured to be gravely ill. I later – in 2005 – heard him give an address in London, in the St Mary Undercroft cellar chapel of the Palace of Westminster, on the 400th anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot. At the beginning, he reflected on his illness and confirmed the rumours. But he was now fighting fit:

“Let me share with you a little secret,” he said quietly, before booming, “I will be around for some considerable time to come.”

“Really!” I thought, “you know this?”

It was classic Paisley bravado, and it turns out he was right.

But now, at 88 years of age, he has been called home.

According to Twitter sources, he’s already struck up a power-sharing deal with his maker…

Ashya King (5) has been found with his parents in southern Spain. He’s safe, but unwell, with a brain tumour that was previously treated at Southampton General Hospital. His parents took him out of hospital on Thursday, apparently against medical advice.

He was not taken ‘without consent’ as was claimed by Hampshire Constabulary and widely reported by mainstream print and broadcast media. Without a court order, hospitals have no legal authority to give or deny consent to parents or legal guardians taking a child away.

Ashya King

Ashya King (Handout from Hampshire Police)

Ashya is seriously ill. He needs pain relief, ongoing feeding by a special machine, and urgent treatment for his tumour. It is understandable – and welcome – that our authorities should take an interest in his welfare. But the people with primary responsibility for his care are his parents, not the State. The intervention of the State is only required if there is evidence that Ashya’s parents are not meeting his needs.

My understanding is that Ashya was not formally discharged from hospital by his parents. They would not have signed forms to absolve the hospital of further responsibility for his care. So the hospital authorities were in an awkward limbo where their paperwork suggested they remained responsible for Ashya’s care, but did not have him in on their premises.

Given this scenario (or similar), they called on the police to get him back. When it was established the family had left the UK, a European Arrest Warrant was issued and the family was eventually found in Velez Malaga on Saturday evening when hotel staff recognised the parents from media reports.

Earlier, Ashya’s father Brett posted this video on YouTube, in which he called on the police to “call off this ridiculous chase.”

In the video Mr King explains that Ashya’s needs (outlined above) were being met, and further explains why he withdrew his son from hospital. His explanation suggests it was Hobson’s Choice, ie no choice at all. Listening only to his side of the story, it is difficult to disagree. Unfortunately, due to issues of patient confidentiality, we are unlikely to hear – in detail – the hospital’s side of the story, and so Mr King’s accusations against the hospital must be treated with caution.

Given the apparent facts of the case, it seems to me doctors were right to be concerned for Ashya’s welfare, the police were right to seek to find him, and Ashya’s parents made a reasonable judgement call in trekking him across France and Spain for further/better treatment. Strictly speaking, I understand they needed to release money from their business interests in Spain before buying treatment elsewhere.

At the time of writing, Ashya’s parents remain under arrest in Spain, while Ashya himself is being treated at a hospital in Malaga. I hope this is a (brief) temporary arrangement until it can be established that the events of the past few days were not ‘maltreatment’ (as per the arrest warrant). The King video cannot answer this. Hopefully the police will be able to establish the facts very quickly, so the family can reunite.

I got into a little trouble once…

My son Caleb was a day old, and a few hours. His mum was weak and tired and needed peace to sleep in her maternity bed. I needed coffee. And – as a dad perceives it – Caleb needed to see the world.

So I took him out of the maternity unit to a Costa café in the same hospital building. A jolly hour we shared together: Caleb mostly sleeping whilst being admired by fellow patrons, and me mostly drinking coffee and staring at my boy.

Soon we returned to the maternity unit, waiting to be buzzed in through the security door.

Then we were confronted by anxious officialdom. I shouldn’t have taken him out of the unit, apparently. I shouldn’t have taken him without consent, and certainly not before he had been discharged. I had broken hospital procedures.

I apologised.

I shouldn’t have apologised. No-one had previously instructed me not to take my own son out of the maternity unit. If there are procedures, they are there for the hospital to uphold. It’s not for me, the father, to follow hospital procedures, unless I’ve already shown that I understand and accept these.

I do have a responsibility not to remove someone else’s child from the maternity unit. Clearly that would be abduction, and the hospital procedures are in place, at least partly, to ensure that does not happen. But if that is perceived as a threat, then security is the responsibility of the hospital, not of an abductor, or in this case the father.

With hindsight, when challenged, I should not have apologised to the unhappy midwife. I should have been openly concerned. Why were the procedures not upheld? Why were they not more robust? Why was a dodgy-looking man (me) allowed to remove a newborn infant from a ‘secure’ maternity unit?

I was accused of taking Caleb away without consent. He’s my son – no consent needed.

Back to Ashya…

It is heartbreaking to see what this family is going through; so much suffering for a little boy, just five-years-old. While there is much public support for the family’s behaviour, there is also a great deal of criticism. We should avoid judgement until we’ve walked a mile in their shoes.

Sunday’s police statement, from Hampshire Constabulary – click here

Sunday’s hospital statement, from University Hospital Southampton:

Our priority has always been Ashya’s welfare and we are delighted that he has been found. We are now working closely with colleagues in Malaga to ensure he receives the essential medical support he needs.

“We are aware of the comments made online by his father. Throughout Ashya’s admission we have had conversations about the treatment options available to him and we had offered the family access to a second opinion, as well as assistance with organising treatment abroad.

“We understand how distressing this situation is for everyone involved, particularly Ashya’s family. We will continue to do what we can to support them and assist the police in providing any information they require.

If you’re a pope and you’re reading this, why not find another pope and watch tonight’s match together? There has never been a better time to do this, and there probably never will be. It should be obvious who to support. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI is German and Pope Francis is Argentine, though only the latter is understood to care much about the beautiful game.

But most of us are not popes.

What if you’re English? Who then will you support?

After England were ejected from the last World Cup (2010), I blogged on how match stats suggested Fabio Capello was the most successful England manager of all time. The problem then, as I noted, was that England were knocked out by Germany, one of their two footballing nemeses (the other being Argentina).

Tonight, for the third time, Argentina and Germany (or West Germany) face each other in a World Cup final.

  • 1986 – Argentina 3-2 West Germany
  • 1990 – West Germany 1-0 Argentina

If you’re an England fan, it may not be easy to decide who to support, or who you want to lose. Perhaps it’s jingoistic – British forces have shed blood fighting both nations; Argentina’s president remains antagonistic over the Falkland Islands and Germany is the clear hegemonic power in the ever controversial European Union.

Both teams have brought great strife to England in previous international competitions. An excerpt from my 2010 blog:

  • World Cup 1966 – England defeated West Germany at Wembley. An anomoly.
  • World Cup 1970 – West Germany defeated England in the quarter-final in extra time.
  • World Cup 1982 – England drew against West Germany in the second round group stage, costing them a place in the semi-final, which the Germans later won.
  • World Cup 1986 – Argentina defeated England in the quarter-final.
  • World Cup 1990 – West Germany defeated England in the semi-final on penalties.
  • Euro ’96 – Germany defeated England in the semi-final on penalties.
  • World Cup 1998 – Argentina defeated England in the round-of-16 on penalties.
  • World Cup 2010 – Germany 4, England 1 in the round-of-16.

Who will you support this evening?

Choose wisely, but don’t expect it to make a difference…

Which Vladimir Putin are you? Apparently I am Warrior Putin: “You came to power vowing to “wipe [terrorists] out in the shithouse,” and you’ve never looked back since. Islamic insurgents across the Caucasus squeal when they hear your name. And one steely stare from you is all it takes to scare NATO off moving its missile shields a step closer to your borders. Glory to Russia!”

What city should you actually live in? Apparently I should actually live in Portland, Oregon. Having seen a series of Portlandia, I’m not convinced…

Which arbitrary thing are you? Apparently I am a box of hangers (not hangars – that would require a very big box). BuzzFeed says: “You’re a box of hangers! Maybe you’ll come in handy one day. You’re persistent, ever present. You’re always there, lurking. Your purpose in life is clear, though not always necessary.”


In the world of Buzzfeed, I have to be one of a number of Vladimir Putins. It simply won’t do to not be Mr Putin at all. I should, apparently, actually live in Portland rather than just outside London, even though my job is in London, my baby son lives in Epsom, my post arrives there, and my wife would presumably be living in Cape Town, which is where Buzzfeed reckons she should ‘actually live’. And due to my persistent, lurking, purposeful but unnecessary existence, it seems I am a box of hangers.

Thanks to BuzzFeed, I’ve been able to shortcut a lot of self-analysis. No need to navigate these tricky questions, as a quick multi-choice quiz has revealed the startling truth about core aspects of my being.

Except there is no meaningful truth here at all. The quizzes (and many of the interminable lists) are banal, revealing nothing valuable about the state of our world or our selfish being. They are conceived of a light-bulb moment in the BuzzFeed office, born a few hours later, posted on Twitter and Facebook (and God knows where else), shared ad nauseum and then shunted aside nanoseconds later to make way for the next clickbait.

Maybe I’m late to the party, but I’m pretty sure I hadn’t heard of BuzzFeed six months ago, even though it launched in 2006. In recent months it seems to have gone viral. Sometimes it seems like every other viral link lands on BuzzFeed. There is a danger of saturation. And when the headline oversells the product (very often) there is a danger web-surfers will be disappointed once too often, especially when the destination page is littered with bizarre and irrelevant two-second GIF animations. Make them stop!

In desperation, every BuzzFeed headline seems to cry “14 amazing reasons you should click right here!” Follow the herd into the abyss of internet pointlessness! All too often there is simply nothing to see here.

I’m convinced we are at peak BuzzFeed. Unless there is a change of pace to recognise this, burnout beckons.

Update (9.45pm, 11 Feb 2014): We really are at ‘peak BuzzFeed’. My good friend Adam Swann has alerted me to this: The Definitive Ranking of Poop. It’s a list of 14 (it would be 14, wouldn’t it).

This simply cannot be bettered.

Spicy Fire Poop

According to BuzzFeed, “Spicy fire poop is pretty funny after the fact, but it’s never a fun experience. At least you’ll have something to talk about at work tomorrow.”

Children. In agony, dying or already dead.

These were the most tragic victims of chemical attacks on the outskirts of Damascus on 21st August. They suffered unimaginably. According to the US Secretary of State, John Kerry, 426 children were killed, along with 1,003 adults. That’s 1,429 dead, and many more treated for the effects of poison-gas.

Most of us will feel a natural emotional response to the suffering of children. Perhaps, as a new father, I feel that even more acutely than a year ago. My work involves dealing with breaking news video on the world’s headline stories. I make editorial decisions about what the BBC might broadcast on our TV news outlets. Filtering some of the most horrific images from those we actually broadcast on 21st August was traumatic to say the least.

Syrian flag

I feel angry about what happened. To see the bodies of small children should always stir strong feelings. What happened was unjust and we should not accept injustice. Something must be done.

Something must be done.

Yes, indeed. But what?

Much has been done already, but not external military intervention. There has been much chatter amongst world leaders and admonishment of Syria’s President Assad. Syrian rebels have been given diverse support and our collective distaste for the Assad regime has been expounded ad nauseum in the media.

Well over 100,000 people have been killed so far in the Syrian civil war. And the killing goes on. None of the soft power wielded by Western nations or Syria’s allies (primarily Russia & Iran) seem to have made any difference to Assad’s attitude.

But his regime’s intensive use of chemical weapons crosses a Rubicon for the West. Syria is a full signatory to the Geneva Protocol established in 1925 (Syria signed in 1968). The massacre of innocent civilians is always wrong, but breaking the chemical weapons taboo is deemed to be a special wrong. They were last deployed by a state (by Saddam Hussein’s Iraq) in the 1980s, both internally in Halabja and externally against Iran.

The assumption is that Assad or his generals were responsible for the chemical attacks in question. I have had my doubts. I remember feeling bewildered on 21st August. Knowing the outcry that chemical weapons would provoke, knowing it would constitute a ‘red line’ for President Obama, and having welcomed UN chemical weapons inspectors into his country just days previously, why would Assad deploy chemical weapons at such a time? Militarily, Syrian forces were regaining the upper hand in the conflict. Why threaten that with behaviour likely to provoke fury and resolve amongst powerful Western enemies? My immediate inclination was to assume a false flag operation by enemies of the regime (rebels or third parties).

Countering this, several Western governments (especially the USA, the UK and France) seem convinced of Assad’s guilt. John Kerry reports that “Syrian regime elements were told to prepare for the attack by putting on gas masks and taking precautions associated with chemical weapons.” He also said the host rockets were launched “only from regime-controlled areas and went only to opposition-controlled or contested neighbourhoods.”

I am in the fortunate position of not needing to judge President Assad’s guilt or innocence, but it is a critical question for those considering military action against Syria. Few seriously doubt that chemical attacks took place.

Something must be done. But if the trigger is Assad’s use of chemical weapons, we must be sure he was responsible. And if the ‘something’ that is done is to fire rockets into Syria then we need to be confident of a better outcome than if we do nothing, or if we do something else.

On Thursday evening, moments before MPs narrowly rejected a preliminary motion on military action, the BBC broadcast a horrifying report from northern Syria by its correspondent Ian Pannell. There were more images of dying children, this time victims of an incendiary bomb dropped on their school.

Parliamentarians would not have seen that report and Twitter was alive with the wisdom of those who were convinced it would have swayed them. It may well have done, but that would have been wrong-headed.

Anger should spur us to action, but emotions should not distort our judgement. We may be inspired by our hearts, but we should make decisions with a cool head. All the more reason to sleep on important decisions before committing to them.

After Thursday’s vote, the Prime Minister almost immediately ruled out British military action in Syria.

I strongly believe in the need for a tough response to the use of chemical weapons. But I also believe in respecting the will of this House of Commons. It is clear to me that the British Parliament, reflecting the views of the British people, does not want to see British military action. I get that and the Government will act accordingly.
(David Cameron, Thursday 29th August 2013)

Strictly speaking, that wasn’t what parliament called for and while in the moment it seemed magnanimous, with hindsight it seems rash. The body of evidence against Assad has evolved since the vote took place, and the weight of opinion inside parliament would only have to shift by 7 votes to change the outcome. However, the PM’s stance has since been reaffirmed – in even clearer language – by senior ministers including the Foreign Secretary, the Chancellor and the Deputy Prime Minister. Nick Clegg said the Government would not return to Parliament with “the same question on the same issue in response to the same atrocity”.

In a microscopic change of tone, this afternoon, the Defence Secretary Philip Hammond told the House of Commons that “Parliament has spoken clearly on this issue and is unlikely to want to revisit it unless circumstances change very significantly.” The hidden implication is that another vote is indeed possible.

I am not arguing for military action in Syria. Nor against it. I’m simply pointing out that the question seems to have been abandoned by David Cameron on a whim, apparently (perhaps wilfully) misjudging the will of parliament. My perception, from watching the debate, is that while many MPs were unconvinced; few were resolutely opposed to military intervention.

In fairness to the Prime Minister, he recalled Parliament only after consulting the Leader of the Opposition, who apparently pledged his support for the motion before adding caveats later. I cannot see the question being revisited until and unless Ed Miliband takes the initiative to call for it and signal Labour’s support.

Meanwhile what of the other P5 nations, the permanent members of the UN Security Council?

China seems agnostic, likely unwilling to interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state. It is what might be called a self-interested point of principle.

Russia (an ally of Syria) described the chemical attack accusations against Syria as ‘absurd’.

The presidents of the United States and France will both seek legislative approval before committing military resources.

Whatever, if any, military action there is against Syria, it will be a ‘coalition of the willing’, reminiscent of Iraq. This will be no UN-sponsored adventure, despite the UN Secretary-General’s acknowledgement there should be “no impunity” for the wielders of chemical weapons.

But UN-backing is a lesser order issue. More important that the judgement is correct, and in such a complex question, it is no surprise that Presidents Obama and Hollande are also seeking political cover for their decisions.

For the perpetrator of atrocities, there must be ‘no impunity’. Something must be done. On the question of military action, it may be argued that it is a necessary evil. In this case, inaction is also an evil. Neither option is necessary, but the question cannot be ducked.

This is no Hobson’s Choice. Both options are real and both carry difficult consequences.

Which is the lesser evil?

Let us pray that those with the power to act get this judgement right.


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