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Turkey

A car skids through the gravel at the Colin McRae Forest Stages Rally

Saturday
A bit of a high-octane day for me as MC, announcer, professional chicane builder, occasional press officer and member of the organising team behind the Colin McRae Forest Stages Rally which this year attracts not one but two Olympic champions.

Amy Williams

Amy Williams

Riding shotgun as the celebrity ‘bag of tatties’ (sorry, I mean co-driver) alongside five-times British champion Jimmy McRae on course opening car was Britain’s greatest Olympian, six-time gold medallist Sir Chris Hoy, who apparently (according to one publication) is also Scotland’s greatest Olympian. I’d never have guessed. Meanwhile competing alongside Tony Jardine in her build-up to running in the Wales Rally GB was none other skeleton racer Amy Williams, the gold medal winner from Vancouver in 2010.

A good day, and event, was had by all, especially David Bogie who clinched the Scottish Championship for an unprecedented fifth successive year.

What made it even more special for the residents of Aberfeldy was that Chris and Amy gave so much of their time around already busy schedules to meet and greet the locals, especially the kids, pose for pictures, conduct press, radio and TV interviews and take part in a mini-marathon autograph and signing session on the Friday evening. Then again, Hoy and Williams have nothing better to do with their time, unlike those non-descript, unrecognisable bit-part SPFL Premiership footballers who are so busy after games that they have to run away from the nine-year-olds wanting their autographs.

Oh such famous …

Sunday

Adnan Januzaj (Pic: from Twitter)

Adnan Januzaj
(Pic: from Twitter)

Two goals against Sunderland and suddenly everyone wants to lay claim to Manchester United striker Adnan Januzaj. The 18-year-old is eligible for Belgium, where he was born, Albania, through his Kosovan-Albanian parents, Serbia, as Kosovo’s independence has not been recognised by the United Nations, and Turkey, through his grandparents. However, England manager Roy Hodgson causes a bit of a stooshie when he says England may consider selecting Januzaj once he passes FIFA’s five-year residency requirements.

Really Roy? Maybe you’d first like to ask the Welsh, Scottish, Irish FA’s about the understanding they have about residency rules with your very own FA. The good news is however, that Januzaj can probably play for the England cricket team immediately …

Monday
Euromillions winners Colin and Chris Weir donate £750,000 to allow SPFL Premiership club Partick Thistle to create a new youth academy. The Thistle Weir Youth Academy will be run by the Jags head of youth development Gerry Britton. The couple from Largs in Ayrshire won £161m two years ago in the prize draw and made the commitment as “longstanding fans of Partick Thistle.”

I hope their venture is a successful one, as will many Old Firm fans, especially if it churns up another Mo Johnston …

Tuesday

Ricky Burns (Creative Commons)

Ricky Burns
(Creative Commons)

WBO lightweight champion Ricky Burns says he is planning to be fighting again in February following his broken jaw with a rematch against Raymundo Beltran, the man who broke his jaw last month. To be honest, Burns can’t really do anything else but fight Beltran again. Not if he still wants to have a morsel of respectability having held on to his title after one of the most blatant ‘home-town’ verdicts ever. Promoter Eddie Hearn agreed, saying he thought Beltran had done enough to win the last contest in “a close fight.”

Pity that on the night, two of the judges weren’t quite as close to the fight, reality, or the truth …

Wednesday
Stephen Lee launches his appeal against the 12-year ban imposed by the World Professional Billiards and Snooker Association for match-fixing. There is, amongst snooker aficionados, much bemusement at exactly what Lee might appeal with given how porous his original defence was. Apart from levelling an allegation that snooker chief Barry Hearn used one of his pals as the judge in this case, there seems little Lee can challenge the original verdict on – unless the former world No.5 knows something we don’t know. Which is what landed him in trouble in the first instance.

Stephen Lee Launches an appeal after being convicted of cheating (pic: creative commons)

Stephen Lee
Launches an appeal after being convicted of cheating
(pic: creative commons)

Lee appears on talkSPORT to plead his case with Andy Goldstein, no stranger in snooker circles. Maybe if Lee had embarked on a more positive PR campaign to clear his name, someone, somewhere, would have appeared with a ‘get-out-of-jail’ card to clear his name. See that? Another flying pig.

Lee would no doubt, have appeared many more times in the press had it not been for the fact that he was trying to sell his story for five grand a pop, the salesman making the pitch on his behalf being none other than a discredited former World Snooker spin doctor who amazingly a dozen years ago, ran a smear campaign against the very players he was supposed to be representing and who ultimately paid his wages.

Only in snooker …

Thursday
So failed former Scotland national team coach Berti Vogts says he offered the-then 16-year- Wayne Rooney the chance to play for Scotland. I am tempted to use the word allegedly throughout that sentence because I’m sure that wasn’t the original story once relayed by the German. Vogts revealed Rooney was eligible for Scotland because his grandmother was Scottish. I’m sure he meant his biological granny, just to clear up any misunderstanding …

Friday

The 2014 Baton

The 2014 Baton

So the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games baton is away on a 120,000 mile world tour before arriving back in Edinburgh next June, then making its way by relay around Scotland to finally make its way to Glasgow three days before the opening ceremony. Quite a feat.

It’s rather like the trip the Olympic flame made during its torch relay around the globe before visiting every nook of the British Isles. Both remarkable journeys, the baton passed seamlessly over countless miles by relay to eventually reach the finish.

Maybe the organisers should be put in charge of the Team GB 4x100m quartet …

Ibrox Stadium <em>Picture: Thomas Nugent</em>

Ibrox Stadium Picture: Thomas Nugent

“Scotland’s shame”, “a stain on football”, “a national disgrace”: sectarianism has been called all these things and more. But what no one seems any clearer about is what should be done to tackle it.

Rangers fans unfurled banners at their home game with Kilmarnock last week which declared: “SNP – weak on criminals, tough on fans.”

Just a couple of days before, Celtic fans had paraded similar banners at Celtic Park bearing the slogans: “Our songs are not illegal. We will not be criminalised. We will not be silenced.”

The fans of Rangers and Celtic who are objecting so vigorously to the proposed new laws believe they are being punished disproportionately to the fans of other clubs. They also believe they are being criminalised and victimised through no fault of their own.

The letter sent by the Bishop of Paisley, the Right Reverend Philip Tartaglia, to Alex Salmond today – warning that the SNP could lose the support of Catholics as a result of the proposed new laws – is just the latest escalation in a war of words which has been raging since the election.

Senior politicians in both the Liberal Democrat and Labour parties have admitted publicly that they are virtually powerless inside the parliament chamber.

They no longer have the votes to overturn a Scottish government decision – and, without a revising chamber to amend or reject legislation, the SNP administration can do virtually what it likes.

Instead, the opposition parties know that they need to mobilise opposition outside the parliament if they are to put a dent into SNP plans.

They know that if they get so-called “civic Scotland” involved, this might force SNP ministers to change tack, if only because they will not want to go against perceived public opinion in Scotland.

The Old Firm fans who are objecting to the anti-sectarianism legislation are hardly the traditional embodiment of civic Scotland, but they are as important – if not more important – than any group of academics or judges or business leaders.

This is because Mr Salmond likes to see himself as an ordinary football fan, as does justice secretary Kenny MacAskill and several others senior figures in the administration.

They don’t want to be vilified and caricatured in the stands at Celtic Park or Ibrox – but that is what is happening and that is why the current furore over the sectarianism legislation is causing such concern in government.

They know that football fans are not usually political, and only get involved on rare occasions when it really matters. In fact, one of the last times Scottish football fans were overtly political was when sections of the Hampden crowd jeered Margaret Thatcher when she handed over the Scottish Cup to Celtic captain Roy Aitken in 1988.

So what on earth is going on? Sectarianism burst into public consciousness earlier this year with the letter bombs sent to prominent Celtic supporters, with the attack on Celtic manager Neil Lennon at Tynecastle and with the touch-line bust-up between rival Old Firm managers.

With such an obvious problem in the media spotlight, Mr Salmond decided that something had be done. But – and this is where things started to go wrong – the solution sought was quick, hard and ill-thought-out.

It appeared as if it didn’t really matter what was done, just that something was done and was seen to be done. As a result, the Offensive Behaviour at Football and Threatening Communications Bill was born.

There was confusion at the outset. Rangers fans sometimes sing God Save The Queen. Would singing the National Anthem become a crime? No one seemed to know.

What about other songs? Songs which have deep roots in the respective cultures of Roman Catholic and Protestant Scotland. Would they become criminalised, too? Ministers wavered. It would all depend on the context, they said.

But there was another, more fundamental, question hanging over this legislation, a question that has come storming back now: was it really needed?

Various experts have argued – with some authority – that we already have all the legal equipment we need to confront sectarianism, but it isn’t used properly and with sufficient rigour.

Then there are the football authorities. There is a very strong argument for forcing them to act, just as the Turkish authorities did last month when they banned all men from a game: with great success.

There does seem a straightforward and easy to answer to all this. Hit the clubs where it really hurts.

If the fans of any club sing offensive songs then the club should be punished in league terms – docked a point every time it happens – or the club should be hit in the pocket and made to play the next game behind closed doors.

There is a growing belief among football supporters, among middle-ranking police officers, among opposition MSPs and within the clubs themselves that the solution to the sectarian problem lies with the football authorities: as long as they are strong enough to face up to it.

Odd as it may seem, football fans are a generally self-policing lot. If the club they love is going to lose points or if they are going to have to miss the next home match because of idiocy from one section of the support, they will turn on the wrongdoers and make sure they stop.

Mr Salmond showed his willingness to listen back in June when he delayed the anti-sectarianism bill admitting there were problems with it. His ministers would listen, he argued, and the bill would come back in a better shape.

But the concerns now being expressed by the clubs, the churches and the fans are that not enough has changed.

This is a bill that the SNP administration could carry through the parliament without anything blocking its path. But, if ministers do so, they will lose a section of the country that they want to keep, and they will pass a piece of legislation which may well be flawed and might be unnecessary.

Despite the lack of an effective opposition at Holyrood, the SNP government faces a test on this issue, a test which it needs to pass if it is to make real strides in tackling sectarianism.

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<em>Picture: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos</em>

Picture: Fir0002/Flagstaffotos

By Stewart Weir

Saturday
Manchester, red or blue, had cause for celebration today. A point secured at Blackburn winning United the Premier League title, a goal at Wembley enough to give City their first FA Cup win since 1969. So all happy, then.

Well, not everyone. The last ten minutes at Ewood Park was a bit of a farce, as United settled for the point they needed and relegation-threatened Blackburn for the point they wanted. It was reminiscent of several years ago when Rangers won the title at Easter Road (or, more accurately, Celtic lost it at Fir Park) when Hibs didn’t want to concede another goal or they would have missed out on Europe and Rangers weren’t interested in adding to Nacho Novo’s strike.

City’s win over Stoke City gave them their first pot since the League Cup in 1976. Seems like yesterday!

Of course, if I’d spent £350 million assembling a team, and my goalscorer Yaya Touré was on £220,000 a week (mental arithmetic says that’s £10m a year, which is mental), I’d be expecting to not only win the FA Cup, but the Premier League, the Champions League, the Eurovision Song Contest, Horse of the Year Show, Crufts, a Grammy or two, an Oscar, the US presidential election and the National Lottery at least several times over.

Maybe that shows how easy pleased some people are…

Sunday
It was billed as “Helicopter Sunday”, a day when the ever-changing drama unfolding in Kilmarnock and the Parkhead area of Glasgow deemed air travel as the quickest form of transport.

But the reality was that the SPL could have saved themselves a small fortune in aviation fuel and delivered the silverware to Rugby Park on foot.

Those who had wondered all these years what was actually said in Celtic’s pre-match huddle will be keen to know that, on Sunday, the final words were “Rangers are one-up!”

Not true of course, as the games kicked off simultaneously just to add to the occasion, with the outcome also known simultaneously less than seven minutes later. The title was going back to Ibrox for a 54th time, making it three-in-a-row, and a fitting send-off for Walter Smith.

Kyle Lafferty, much maligned at times, grabbed the match ball with a hat-trick, taking his tally to seven goals in the last six games and maintaining his record of scoring on the last day of the season, just as he did at Tannadice and Easter Road.

Playing away on the final, title-deciding day of the season in three consecutive years? That might be considered cause for a conspiracy in some places.

Lafferty’s goals were important. But arguably no more vital than those from Kenny Miller who hit 21, a phenomenal contribution when compared to the SPL’s other goal machines, especially given that he only lasted half a term before bailing out of Ibrox for Turkey.

Celtic did pick up a trophy on Sunday evening, when Emilio Izaguirre – who already had the Scottish PFA and Premier League awards on his mantelpiece – was similarly honoured by the Scottish Football Writers’ Association. Better than Allan McGregor over a season?

I don’t think so. Not even by a point…

Monday
Honestly, you wait for one bus to run over a trophy, then two come along in the space of a few weeks.

Copying the example set by Real Madrid’s Sergio Ramos, who managed to get the Copa del Rey lodged under a double-decker, Ajax goalkeeper Marteen Stekelenburg fumbles the Eredivisie plate with similar consequences. Admittedly, it does look like a very ornate wheel trim, but there was no need to do this to it.

Stekelenburg is a target to replace Edwin van der Sar at Old Trafford, which could force his transfer fee up by a few million. Not because he’s worth it, but with the number of trophies United win, insurance cover could be astronomical…

Tuesday
An historic day. Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth, visits Dublin – which, by chance, would also host the Europa League final the next day.

Not the usual thronging crowds around for a royal visit, and what did go on was kept in check by the Garda. Of course, if you look at the bigger picture, their job was made a lot easier, not by a lack of interest, or detailed intelligence, or assistance from their British counterparts, but by PSV Eindhoven.

Elsewhere, there appears to be some consternation emanating out of Rugby Park over the number of Rangers fans who filled the stadium for Sunday’s game.

I assume they were Rangers supporters, based on the attendance being 16,173 against a season’s average of just 6,427 (figures courtesy of the SPL’s own website).

Kilmarnock expressed regret at the number of away fans present in home sections at Rugby Park, putting their unhappiness down to safety, segregation and security issues.

It should be noted this had nothing to do with Kilmarnock being unable to charge Rangers supporters, who had bought empty “Kilmarnock” seats, an extra fiver. Of course it didn’t…

And talking of Old Firm fans, Celtic manager Neil Lennon urged supporters to stop offensive songs, saying: “In recent times, there has been a re-emergence, from a small minority, of some of the singing and chanting which is simply not acceptable.”

These songs have at times been inaudible to the human ear and can usually only be picked up by TV and radio effects microphones around the pitch.

BBC Scotland’s Bigotry, Bombs and Football documentary, scheduled for the following evening, highlighted the measures being taken by Strathclyde Police, and both Rangers and Celtic, to curb sectarian behaviour.

Reporter Reevel Alderson revealed that in three years, across their entire area, Strathclyde Police have arrested 800 people for sectarian behaviour. In the past seven seasons, Rangers have banned 548 supporters for a similar offence, and in the past five seasons, Celtic have banned six season-ticket holders for sectarian or offensive behaviour.

Does this mean that (a) Rangers should police Strathclyde, (b) Neil Lennon has drawn attention to a problem that doesn’t exist, or (c) Mark Twain (or was it Disraeli?) was right about lies, damned lies and statistics?

Wednesday
Talking of Strathclyde’s finest, their long-running investigation into alleged match-fixing allegations against snooker players Stephen Maguire and Jamie Burnett is at an end.

Bookmakers alerted authorities to “irregular betting patterns” around the match, which took place during the UK Championship in Telford in November 2008. They had taken numerous bets on the outcome of the match being 9–3 in Maguire’s favour.

Maguire won by that margin. But suspicion was raised by a black missed by Burnett which would have made it 8–4.

And since then, both players have been subjected to scrutiny, rumour-mongering and innuendo.

But all of that should now be put to bed. A Crown Office spokeswoman said: “Following a full and comprehensive investigation the case was reported for the consideration of Crown Counsel who, after careful consideration of all facts and circumstances, decided there is insufficient evidence to justify a criminal prosecution.”

I spoke to both players ahead of the recent world championship, where it was plainly obvious that neither had anything to say, other than how sick they were, because they had nothing to say in the first instance.

I’m guessing here, but after two-and-a-half years, and regardless of the online accounts across Scotland opened on a particular day, you would have thought something would have come to light – if there was anything to come to light.

I’m sure it’s purely coincidental that this news comes just a week after Taggart was made redundant.

Even so, you have to wonder what the game’s governing body is scheming up when WPBSA chairman Jason Ferguson said; “We are treating this case very seriously. We will now be given access to the evidence connected with the case, and our disciplinary committee will review that evidence thoroughly.”

And who do they have on that committee. Hercule Poirot, Jack Regan, Miss Marple?

Or do World Snooker want to bid against Rangers to police Strathclyde?

Thursday
And it’s congratulations to Gary Anderson for winning his first televised PDC title, landing the Premier League with a 10–4 final win over world champion Adrian Lewis at Wembley.

Given the venue, and given the reception Lewis got in Glasgow a few months back, I’m sure he glanced over his shoulder a few times to see if there were any advanced divisions of the Tartan Army making a pilgrimage back to their old haunts.

Brilliant as Anderson did in winning, and in finishing runner-up to Lewis in the world championship final, it’s sad he maybe isn’t getting the recognition he deserves.

If you asked most punters to name a Scots darts player, how many would answer “Jocky Wilson”? But then again, he did make it big.

Friday
London 2012 organisers reveal that they have received more than one million requests for seat tickets for the Olympic men’s 100 metres final – yet only 8,000 will get to carry the Olympic torch for a mile on its journey around the UK. So further enhancing our reputation of being a nation of armchair sportsmen and women…

Tweet Stewart Weir with thoughts and comments, @sweirz

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B-2 Spirit stealth bomber returning from Libya <em>Picture: USAF/Kenny Holston</em>

B-2 Spirit stealth bomber returning from Libya Picture: USAF/Kenny Holston

By John Knox

I may be in a minority – according to the opinion polls – but I am proud of what the UN and Britain have done in Libya. The allied warplanes have prevented a massacre of the innocent in Benghazi. And we have shown a dictator that he cannot trample over human rights without a reaction from the rest of the world.

Here was an example of leadership from David Cameron and Nicolas Sarkozy. Liberal interventionism is back on the world’s agenda after its setbacks in Iraq, Afghanistan and Kosovo. The United Nations and the International Criminal Court are showing a welcome determination to implement the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Gaddafi and his regime will, hopefully, be brought to justice for their attacks on civilian populations.

Of course many people are reluctant to release the dogs of war because it’s never clear where they will lead us. Thus public opinion is lagging behind our political leaders, particularly when we are still involved in Afghanistan and still suffering from the disillusionment of Iraq.

But MPs have overwhelmingly approved of the Libyan air raids. Only 15 voted against, not because they disapproved of the raids themselves but on the grounds that we are not taking action against other unpleasant dictators. This is rather like arguing that the police should not arrest one criminal until they can arrest them all.

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Some other countries, such as Russia and China, are sitting on the fence, fearful perhaps that questions about human rights may be asked of their own regimes. Still others, such as Germany and Turkey, are cautious, because they feel they may have a mediating role to play in post-Gaddafi Libya.

But the point about human rights is that they are absolute. They need defending, no matter what the political or economic consequences and no matter in which country they happen to be under attack. The Declaration says that “life, liberty and security of person” … should be guaranteed to every individual and that … “no distinction shall be made on the basis of the political, jurisdictional or international status of the country or territory to which a person belongs.”

I, for one, am glad that this universal law exists. It was forged in the aftermath of two terrible world wars and it sets us on a new road to happiness. It makes it clear that there is no longer any divine right of kings or princes or dictators or tribal leaders or military commanders to abuse their citizens or to rob them of their liberty or their property or their right to peacefully assemble.

Since 2002, we have had a permanent International Court of Justice, based in The Hague, which has slowly been bringing military commanders to justice from trouble-spots such as the former Yugoslavia, the Congo, Rwanda and Sudan. Let’s hope Gaddafi ends up in the dock there. In Scotland, we have known what he is capable of since that dreadful December night at Lockerbie in 1988.

But in our rage against this man, it’s worth remembering what the air-strikes against his planes and tanks are not about. They are not designed to help one fighting faction against another in Libya. They are not to bring about western-style democracy – though that would be a great step forward for the Libyan people, at least I like to think so.

They are not to secure oil supplies. They are not to further British interests. They are not to punish Gaddafi for being a left-wing revolutionary and gadfly of the west. They are only to protect civilians from military attack and secure their basic human rights.

We need to go carefully into this quagmire. We need to set limits to our intervention. And we need to plan a way out. Having intervened, we have a duty to leave things better than we found them and to support the transition to a new constitution. We made many mistakes in post-invasion Iraq and things are proving difficult in Afghanistan, but we should not be put off defending ordinary innocent populations.

To arm the rebel forces is, in my view, too dangerous a tactic. We don’t quite know who they are. One American intelligence report says they may contain “flickers” of al-Qaeda. We certainly know they are not a well trained and disciplined army, and who is to say they may not turn their rockets on civilians in Tripoli in their desperation to get Gaddafi?

The UN mission now is to keep on eye on things from the air, destroy tanks and rocket positions which are firing on, or threatening, civilian populations, and await developments. The rebels may take Tripoli, there may be further defections from the Gaddafi camp, the country may split in two. These political upheavals are a matter for the Libyan people. The UN is there simply to protect basic human rights and to provide humanitarian help to refugees and those who have lost their homes in the fighting.

The Libyan crisis remind us of the need to keep our armed forces up to scratch. Britain should be prepared to play its part in supporting UN operations and making the world a safer place. To continue doing this we will need the two aircraft carriers being assembled at Rosyth and the RAF bases at Leuchars and Lossiemouth and the aircraft that go with them.

Libya also reminds us of Edmund Burke’s old saying – “all that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.”

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Bashar al-Assad <em>Picture: Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr</em>

Bashar al-Assad Picture: Roosewelt Pinheiro/ABr

Syria’s embattled dictator, Bashar al-Assad, looks set for a continued confrontation with anti-government protesters after he reneged on a pledge to lift a state of emergency that was put in place in 1963. Instead, he appealed this week to Syrians for national unity in the face of violence which he says is instigated by “foreign” parties carrying out an Israeli agenda.

That appeal seems likely to fall on deaf ears. Assad, 45 – who has ruled Syria since the death of his father, Hafez al-Assad, in 2000 – accepted his cabinet’s resignation on Tuesday after two weeks of unrest in which at least 60 people were killed. However, the inner workings of a cabinet where power is concentrated in Assad’s hands are meaningless to most Syrians, and pro-democracy activists have called for the “free people of Syria” to stage sit-ins across the country on Friday.

For now, Assad, a British-trained ophthalmologist, may not be that worried. Tens of thousands took to the streets in his support this week, though the demonstrations looked staged. World leaders meeting in London diverged slightly from the text (and legality) of UN Resolution 1973 to pledge to continue to bomb Muammar al-Gaddafi’s forces in the Libyan civil war, but let Assad off the hook, at least for the time being.

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Assad will have drawn encouragement from statements by the US State Department spokesman, Mark Toner, acknowledging that the Syrian leader had “claimed the mantle of reform” (he was referring to financial reforms, though the US was still waiting for him to deliver on the political front), and from Nick Clegg, who on a visit to Mexico said “it is not now the role of the international community to try and intervene directly in every country”.

Perhaps not, but that doesn’t mean that whatever happens in Syria can’t have a profound effect on the entire region.

At the root of the protests, which were fanned by the revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia and which began in the southern city of Deraa, is the Sunni Muslim majority’s aim to put an end to 50 years of minority Shia Alawite rule. Though granted some concessions by Assad in recent years, the Sunni opposition is intent on settling old scores with the regime, which had thousands killed in the 1980s when Assad’s father Hafez was in power. However, the armed forces, too, are under Alawite control.

The Syrian security machine is well-oiled and could preserve the status quo for months or even years, but Bashar Assad has always been a more conciliatory leader than his father – hence the West’s patience so far. The concern in Western capitals is that should the Alawite regime fall, it could plunge the Middle East into sectarian fighting on a scale not seen since the Lebanese civil war of the 1980s.

Though it is not clear what kind of regime would replace Assad’s if he fell, his departure would sever Damascus’s close link with Tehran and weaken Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza in their confrontation with Israel. This does not mean, however, that peace would instantly reign in the region.

Iran would be averse to losing an ally which has been useful as a buffer to US and Israeli influence, and might find other means of backing its allies. Turkey, which in recent years has forged close ties with Damascus as it tries to extend its influence in the Arab world, might also take a dim view of any change in Damascus.

Then there is Israel. Assad offered to resume peace talks with Israel, but with the condition that it withdraw from the Golan Heights, which Israel occupied in the 1967 Six Day War. However, Israeli prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu rejected the offer, and he is even less likely to hand the Heights back now, when the perception is that Assad’s regime has been weakened by an internal uprising and could eventually collapse.

In fact, Netanyahu may even be tempted to embark on another adventure, when the world is focused on the Libyan civil war, and attack Lebanon and Gaza yet again to dispose of Hezbollah and Hamas. What would the West, not to mention Iran, do then?

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United Nations building <em>Picture: Stef74</em>

United Nations building Picture: Stef74

Libyan dictator Colonel Muammar al-Gaddafi, whose forces have been closing in on the rebel capital of Benghazi, has been further isolated by the international community after the United Nations Security Council imposed a no-fly zone over the war-torn country on Thursday night.

The move was hailed by Libyan rebels, and there were wild celebrations in Benghazi, but there were also concerns in some quarters that it had come too late to prevent Gaddafi from regaining control of the country.

The resolution, proposed by Britain, France and Lebanon, was approved by ten votes to nil. China and Russia, which had been expected to use their vetoes, abstained, along with Germany, India and Brazil.

Germany’s abstention came as a surprise, while another NATO member, Turkey – although not on the Security Council – was also known to be against the move.

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Crucially, the resolution was backed by the 22 member states of the Arab League.

The resolution – number 1973 (2011) – demands an immediate ceasefire: “the complete end of violence and all attacks against and abuse of civilians”. Surprisingly, it goes further than imposing a no-fly zone – it also appears to authorise the use of air strikes against Gaddafi’s ground forces.

It stops short of authorising a UN occupation – the Libyan rebel leadership has made it clear that it does not want to see the deployment of foreign troops on Libyan soil.

The resolution also tightens the arms embargo by calling on all member states to “inspect in their territory vessels and aircraft bound to or from Libya”, and widens a freeze on Libyan assets.

In Tunisia, the US secretary of state Hillary Clinton described Gaddafi as “a man who has no conscience and will threaten anyone in his way. It’s just in his nature. There are some creatures that are like that.”

The United States had been reticent about taking action against Gaddafi, with the US secretary of defence, Robert Gates, warning against any “loose talk” of a no-fly zone. This was due not only to the difficulties of implementing it, but also because the Obama administration feared it could be dragged into yet another protracted conflict.

Although the US decision was described by some as an “about turn”, Washington was clearly swayed by support from the Arab League, which in most people’s eyes gives military action over Libya the legitimacy the invasion of Iraq lacked.

Arab backing for the resolution was also a major factor in the decision by Russia and China to abstain rather than cast their vetoes, which spared the US the embarrassment of defeat in the Security Council vote.

There were mixed messages from the Libyan regime on what it would do next. Libyan government spokesmen said the UN move would simply serve to split the country.

Gaddafi’s troops are expected to set up a siege around Benghazi over the weekend. Instead of a full-scale bombardment of the town of 147,000 people, however, the regime planned to send in security forces to root out the “traitors” and “fanatics”, while allowing safe passage for those who wish to surrender.

It was not clear how long implementation of the no-fly zone will take, although the US, British and French military have been planning such action for some time. There are fears, however, that the move may have come too late to stop Gaddafi’s forces from taking Benghazi. If the town does fall, it will be impossible for UN forces to launch any attack on Gaddafi’s forces without risking the deaths of civilians.

That, including the possible shooting down of any NATO aircraft, as occurred in the Kosovo war, could lead to calls for ground troops to be sent in. That must be avoided, for however strong the moral case for military action in Libya, the revolutions sweeping North Africa and the Middle East have so far been carried out without foreign intervention.

The resolution also sets a precedent: with Saudi forces in Bahrain, helping the regime snuff out its own uprising, many across the Arab world will be watching to see if any action is taken against those countries.

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By Stewart Weir

Saturday
Few players over the years have galvanised opinion quite like El-Hadji Diouf. In these parts, while visiting as a Liverpool players, he endeared himself to the Celtic support by gobbing on one fan who had playfully patted him on the head. For that he was fined £5,000. And Spit the Diouf (who really should be introduced to Bob Carolgees) was at it again a few years later when he spat at an 11-year-old Middlesbrough fan. Must make you something of a hardman in Senegal.

This weekend though, if it were possible, Diouf stooped even lower after QPR striker Jamie Mackie suffered a broken leg in a challenge with Blackburn defender Gael Givet. Diouf, it is alleged, abused Mackie as he lay on the pitch.

Of course Diouf denies it.

But you have to think that something must have been said to rile the QPR players and management to that extent. QPR defender Bradley Orr and goalkeeper Paddy Kenny posted comments on Twitter, Orr suggesting; “Never come across a more repulsive human being than E-H Diouf!” adding “The things he was saying were disgusting! The lad has just broken his leg! You horrible disgusting man E-H Diouf! Your time will come!” Kenny waded in with: “So gutted for the boy Mackie, football can be horrible sometimes, and that **** Diouf will get it one day, what goes around comes around.”

Mackie’s fingers still worked, enabling him to Tweet; “Proper disappointed that e diouf was in my ear while I’m on the deck with a broken leg.”

QPR youth coach Marc Bircham called him a “scumbag” while their boss, Neil Warnock, called Diouf “a sewer rat.” Even this early in to 2011, El-Hadji Diouf is off a few Christmas card lists …

Sunday
Not so much the king is dead as the King is back. Twenty-four hours after Roy Hodgson departs Anfield, Liverpool re-instate Kenny Dalglish. And all is well in the world with Liverpudlians, Scousers and Kopites – if you ignore their team. Within half-an-hour of being back on the bench, Dalglish finds out just exactly what he’s let himself in for as a penalty in the first minute and a red card for his captain end Liverpool’s FA Cup challenge against Manchester United.

If that was bad, Wednesday must have been a whole lot worse as Blackpool completed a league double over their coastal rivals. Many questions directed at Dalglish between those matches centred around how he would cope with managerial life a decade after he had last fulfilled that role. He intimated he had mellowed, and their was the jovial quip about Ryan Babel not being capable of mocking up the picture (of referee Howard Webb in a Man U kit) that landed him in hot water with the FA. And oh how the journalists laughed. I wonder if they’ll be so jolly if, or when, Kenny goes in the huff, and they end up having a press conference a city centre pub you wouldn’t frequent other than by accident …

Monday
Rangers beat Kilmarnock 3-0 in the Scottish Cup. Nothing out of the ordinary there. Not so with the attendance in that game. A stinking, if not stupid night for a game, coupled with live TV and a refusal from Kilmarnock to reduce the ticket prices, meant just 13,215 visited Ibrox, the lowest crowd there in 25 years. And if the years have hurried past, that makes it pre-Souness! There is a time and a place for live football. But shifting a match to a Monday just for TV is typical of the way regular fans are being abused. Overkill is killing interest in the game.

Tuesday
FIFA’s Ballon d’Or Puskas Award – the very wordy title for their Goal of the Year – was won by Bayern Munich midfielder Hamit Altintop for his volley while playing for Turkey. It was a great strike and polled more than 40% of the online vote, beating by a distance the likes of Giovanni Van Bronkhorst, Lionel Messi, Samir Nasri and Arjen Robben. But I bet you there’s another one, or two, or several, just like that one over the coming year. I doubt however if you’ll see another quite like the incredible back-heeled volley netted by Glentoran’s Matty Burrows (see below). The only reason I can think he didn’t win was that many would have considered it a freak or fluke goal. But he meant it all right.

Wednesday
Back on the subject of overkill, Manchester United’s FA Cup fourth-round clash with Southampton has been selected for live television coverage by ITV.

No surprise there in what was something of a mediocre draw. And no shock either than Fergie and his lads are again live and exclusive somewhere. Indeed, the shock would have been all the greater had the Old Trafford giants not been alive and kicking in the FA Cup. For believe it or not, Manchester United’s visit to the south coast will see them play their thirtieth – that’s 30 for those who wish confirmation – successive live FA Cup dating back to their 0-0 draw with Exeter in January 2005.

Like Barnum & Bailey coming to town, everyone turns out to see them, so TV executives have less chance of embarrassing gaps in the stands, as there were at Ibrox on Monday. And if they happen to be the hosts, Old Trafford is always full all of the time. And for those reasons, here’s to Sir Alex chalking up yet another record.

Thursday
More bullets in the post for Celtic personnel, with Paddy McCourt the target for a few rounds, just like team-mate Niall McGinn and manager Neil Lennon. It brings in to sharp focus just how many eejits there are still out there who would target individuals just because of where they came from and who they play or work for..

Friday
Browsing on my mobile. I spot a line online somewhere connecting Kris Boyd, the once-prolific former Rangers striker and now out-of-favour with Middlesbrough, with Turkey. I am not sure whether this was in relation to a move there, or how those in England view him …

Biffy Clyro. <em>Picture: Festival Eurockéennes</em>

Biffy Clyro. Picture: Festival Eurockéennes

An interesting 12 months.

The year when James Cameron’s blue monsters conquered the box office but not the Oscars. The year when Take That regained a member but we lost Captain Beefheart, Leslie Nielsen, Tony Curtis, Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous among others. The end of Lost and the birth of movies and books devoured on yet another Apple device.

Particularly with the growing proliferation of old stuff, end-of-year lists are just one path of the maze when it comes to choosing the favourite movie you saw and song you heard all year. Most people’s favourite song of 2009, for instance, seemed to be Journey’s hoary old fist-pumper Don’t Stop Believin’.

For The Caledonian Mercury’s first own end-of-year lists, it seemed worthwhile picking not the biggest seller, or even what this writer considers either the best or his favourite (very often two different things.) The selection process here involves the even more spurious attempt at judging who or what had the most cultural impact this year, with the caveat that you can always have your say underneath this set of selections.

Movie of the Year….picks itself really. If Time Magazine’s Person of the Year is Mark Zuckerberg, then the film of 2010 has to be his biopic, no matter what liberties you think Jesse Eisenberg, Aaron Sorkin and director David Fincher took with they way they portrayed him. The Social Network was that rare thing – a smart, entertaining look at a contemporary topic which topped the US Box Office and is already winning all the pre-Oscars awards. Don’t be surprised to see the Academy pick this as its Movie of Next Year.

Comeback of the year: Ben Affleck directed and starred in a $150m movie (The Town) only seven years after uber-turkey Gigli but his debut feature Gone Baby Gone had already shown promise, so this comeback was partial. Kanye West was critically hailed for his My Dark Twisted Fantasy after the misery of Taylor Swiftgate but it was another partial comeback, as he couldn’t help interrupting the comeback to apologise at length to the country singer on Twitter and then moan about how she never acknowledged his apology.

The biggest comeback was maybe pulled off by Rocky himself, Sylvester Stallone, who persuaded his old Planet Hollywood buds Bruce Willis and the Governator, to join him, Jason Statham, Mickey Rourke, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, Jet Li and others in The Expendables. For a man whose career was once as stone cold as Steve Austin to deliver a film with a box office take pushing $275m is no small feat.

New Song of the Year: Only one contender. Cee Lo Green dealt with a brush-off from a girl by giving us Forget You (that’s the polite translation), the biggest, most infectious three and a half minutes of pop this year. Its only serious competition for ubiquitous hit-dom, Bruno Mars’ Just The Way You Are and B.O.B’s Airplanes were never covered by Gwyneth Paltrow on Glee, or had Stephen Colbert change the chorus to “Fox News.” Now that’s influence.

Old Song of the Year: Thanks to John Lewis (and, respectively, Ellie Goulding and The Guillemots’s Fyfe Dangerfield), Elton John’s Your Song and Billy Joel’s She’s Always a Woman were rarely off the TV or radio. The most unavoidable song of 2010 was a Bob Dylan number, and not even something from classic-era Dylan like Blonde on Blonde or Highway 61. Make You Feel My Love was just one of the tracks on 1997’s Time Out of Mind, and the poorest received at the time by Rolling Stone, which slated its “greetingcard lyrics.” Billy Joel, Garth Brooks and Jeremy Irons (yes, him out of Die Hard 3) soon covered it, but it was Adele’s version which seemed to resonate with reality show moguls. You couldn’t escape versions of the song this year, particularly on the X Factor where runner-up Rebecca Ferguson and Gamu Nhengu performed it. As Gamu is from Scotland, it may have been too much to hope she’d sing another track from Time Out of Mind, My Heart’s in the Highlands, instead. As it’s 16 minutes long, maybe that wasn’t her best strategy to get past boot camp.

Actor of the Year: Leonardo DiCaprio made the most money of any actor at the box office, Colin Firth showed Hugh Grant and everyone else which upper class Englishman had the acting chops on A Single Man and then The King’s Speech. Jeremy Renner followed up The Hurt Locker with The Town and landing a role in the next Mission: Impossible movie. Rory Kinnear was electrifying on stage in Hamlet, playing it with a delicious mix of comedy and menace, and James Franco (127 Hours) and Brit Andrew Garfield (The Social Network, Never Let Me Go) also had great years.

Ultimately, though, if you win the Oscar for Best Actor and close the year heading up two huge movies (the updates on True Grit and Tron: Legacy), you probably deserve to be considered Actor of the Year. 2010 was Jeff Bridges’s year.

Actress of the Year: Why London’s Carey Mulligan? Because she followed up An Education with Never Let Me Go and the sequel to Wall Street? No. Because Anne Hathaway, Sandra Bullock and Natalie Portman never sang on Belle & Sebastian’s album. That’s why.

TV programme of the year Strictly Come Dancing, in terms of warmth of response if not ratings, appeared to have a better year than The X Factor with less of a sour edge to the criticism around it.  ITV’s Downton Abbey enjoyed both a decent critical reaction and monster ratings. Miranda will almost certainly be heading for BBC1 to pick up those Vicar of Dibley viewers and at the other side of the fluffy spectrum, The Scheme proved uncomfortable viewing for many, but a large percentage of those viewers found it compulsive. In terms of viewer share, it was much more of a success than the grossly overhyped The Only Way Is Essex. One TV show of the year landed front page headlines, praise from everyone from Sue Johnstone and TV’s Sherlock Holmes to Steven Gerrard and Freddie Flintoff and celebrated its 50th anniversary. To borrow a phrase from the marketing around its deadly rival: Coronation Street - Everybody’s Talking About It.

Turkey of the Year: I see dead box office receipts for M Night Shyamalan after The Last Airbender tanked. See also: Duffy’s follow-up record, Google TV, Jude Law in Repo Men and Christina Aguilera’s Bionic album, which definitely didn’t turn her into a six million dollar woman.

Music’s mover and shaker of the year: The fact Bruno Mars co-wrote Forget You before you get to his own No 1s, makes his 2010 pretty impressive. In the UK at least, Simon Cowell continues to cast such a shadow over the charts that his competition barely exists.

The most influential person in the worldwide charts was a TV and film director, the man who gave us plastic surgery drama, Nip/Tuck. Ryan Murphy is also in charge at Glee, the cast of which are now – sorry to break this to you – officially bigger than The Beatles.

As with any pop phenomenon, stars are falling over themselves for Murphy’s patronage. In series one, Coldplay’s Chris Martin was unsure whether to licence his band’s songs. By series two, his wife was guesting on the show. Paul McCartney wants to make an appearance, Madonna was raving about her episode on the recommendation of a representative of the show’s target audience (her daughter) and there’s talk of casting Susan Boyle as a dinner lady. Resistance is almost futile, although Damon Albarn and the Kings of Leon are fighting a valiant rearguard action, by refusing permission for their songs to be Gleeified.

Musical artist of the year Florence Welch took America by storm, and Tinie Tempah did the same in the UK, making “British hip hop” not for once feel like some punchline to a bad joke. Janelle Monae was a name to watch with Outkast’s Big Boi, P Diddy and Prince all offering patronage. Probably the most interesting and successful artist of the year was Plan B who “did a Winehouse”. Not in terms of heading for the offie, but after misfiring with his debut album, Ben Drew, like Amy W, found his voice and his stride with his second, The Defamation of Strickland Banks. Elton John and Michael Caine have now worked with the aspiring actor-director-musician, with others to follow.

Film’s mover and shaker of the year: At the beginning of the year, the headlines were all “I’m the king of the world” in relation to James Cameron making every movie 3-D after his own, Avatar, became the biggest-grossing of all time. By year-end, the “to infinity and beyond” headlines were dusted off as Toy Story 3 became Pixar’s highest-grossing film ever. Cowboy hats off to Pixar’s chief creative officer, John Lasseter.

Band of the Year: One of the more predictable aspects of the music press is that the return of an act is heralded with claims that the new work is their masterpiece. This happened with the Kings of Leon and the Arcade Fire but, in truth, the work they delivered in 2010 was not their best. Vampire Weekend had a good year, knocking Susan Boyle off the top of the Billboard Hot 100. Mumford and Sons established themselves as a rip-roaring live act.

But as this is The Caledonian Mercury, let’s honour homegrown talent. Ayrshire’s Biffy Clyro began the year with NME and Kerrang awards, their album going platinum, and ended it supporting Muse in Australia, playing Edinburgh’s Hogmanay celebrations and writing the Christmas No 1. Their success has meant Dave Grohl has asked them to support the Foo Fighters next summer at Wembley Stadium after they played the same venue in 2010 at Matt Bellamy and co’s request. ‘Mon the Biffy!

der Weihnachtsbaum: No' very Scottish.<em>Picture: Claus-Peter Fröhlich</em>

der Weihnachtsbaum: No' very Scottish.Picture: Claus-Peter Fröhlich

As we are a Scottish online newspaper, The Caledonian Mercury would like to share with you the joys of a truly Celtic Christmas.

Let us take you through it.

First up, the tree. Erm, which we all know is a German tradition, along with tinsel, glüwein and markets.

The food then? Well, we’re onto a non-starter there what with Turkey (America), potatoes (South America) and pudding (derived from the European medieval slop, frumenty). Crackers were invented by a Londoner, Thomas J Smith, in 1847 so they’re out too. Then there’s the music, which is probably Perry Como, Frank Sinatra or the Choir of Westminster Abbey.

Carols are said to have been invented by St Francis of Assisi and most of the other great music originates outwith our border. Except, oh yes, Scotland did produce a solitary Christmas number one – and lest you’ve forgotten, that would be X Factor winner Leon Jackson with his 2007 hit “When you Believe”.

It’s a beaut.

There are some – admittedly tenuous – Scottish contributions to the big day. Whilst the invention of Christmas cards are generally attributed to an Englishman John Calcott Horsely, who is said to have designed them for his wealthy businessman friend Sir Henry Cole in 1843, he was actually pipped to the Christmas post by Charles Drummond of Leith, who sent New Year greeting cards to people in 1841. They proved so popular that the notion of sending seasonal cards took off. The concept really blossomed with the invention of the adhesive stamp – another Scottish gift to the world, courtesy of James Chalmers of Dundee.

Even more tenuously, we can claim ownership of one of Christmas Day’s most watched TV moments, the Queen’s speech. Had John Logie Baird not invented the TV, then this particular Christmas tradition would never have been born. As it is the message itself has been broadcast on telly since 1957.

But the truth is that we Scots have always been more inclined towards Hogmanay celebrations than Xmas ones. After the Reformation, the Scottish Kirk banned Christmas. This thoroughly “Papish” festival was outlawed and people who were caught celebrating it were prosecuted. This attitude persisted for centuries; Christmas Day was a normal working day for Scots right up until the 1960s.

Yet despite the evidence suggesting that the most appropriate way to celebrate Christmas à la Caledonia is to ignore it, there does exist a worldwide myth regarding our celebration of this winter festival. One handy website for foreign students explains that we spend the day eating a huge roast dinner “before sitting back with a few glasses of sherry for the evening.” More realistically, they also warn that we have “a very particular way of celebrating the New Year that mainly involves partying and getting very ‘jolly’.”

And finally, a number of American websites seem to be of the opinion we are totally bonkers in Scotland as they tell their credulous readers that: “The Scots believe that on Christmas Eve, a raging fire keeps mischievous elves from coming down the chimney.”

They’re quite wrong there. We believe that playing Leon Jackson very loudly will keep everyone well away.

Christmas truce on the Western Front in 1914

Christmas truce on the Western Front in 1914

By Stuart Crawford

As we battle our way through snow and slush to get ourselves ready for the Christmas break, we may not consider that we are, collectively, having a great time at the moment. But spare a thought for those who may find themselves spending the festive season in far less pleasant circumstances – our servicemen and women serving on operations abroad.

Chances are that many of them are spending the festive season in places which may be uncomfortable at best and downright dangerous at the other end of the spectrum. And, whilst most make considerable efforts to celebrate the event, often going to commendable lengths in attempts to add some festive cheer to often forbidding surroundings, it can never be quite the same as being at home with their families.

Being in the military and away from home at this time of year is certainly different. In Afghanistan, for example, Christmas is not a natural celebration for the bulk of the indigenous population and, of course, many of them will be taking great efforts to spoil it for our troops even if it was. There may have been a Christmas truce in France and Belgium in 1914, but I don’t think we can look forward to one in Afghanistan in 2010.

The climate is different too. Forget what the Aussies say – having Christmas in the summer is quite odd. Turkey and all the trimmings in mid-summer down under is a bit like us having a salad for Christmas dinner up here. On the one occasion I spent Christmas in Australia, our festive meal was prawns and fruit eaten in the 40C heat.

So, all in all, it can be slightly strange if you’re spending this time of year abroad, and lonely too sometimes. Despite all the benefits of modern communications – email, mobile phone etc – you can still feel abandoned, out of sight and out of mind whilst the rest of your family and friends are whooping it up far away at home. And if the locals are having a pop at you at the same time, it can all turn a bit nasty too, which doesn’t help.

How do our service people cope in such circumstances? Well, there are a few things which help. First of all is the comradeship which is an integral part of service life. People who have trained and fought together have a special bond of friendship which is different to friendships forged in civilian life. Looking out for your buddies doesn’t just apply when the bullets are flying. If you’re away from home at Christmas, then you’re not the only one. All of you are in it together.

Another vital ingredient in keeping morale high is contact from home. Only if you have been away on military operations will you truly understand how important mail from home can be. It’s no exaggeration to say it’s often the highlight of the week. At Christmas it takes on a special relevance and poignancy for those who are separated from their loved ones.

And not just mail. Organisations like the Red Cross and Royal British Legion are brilliant at sending stuff out to the troops abroad. I’ve still got the Red Cross box I was sent in the Gulf at Christmas in 1990, plus most of its contents. I think it’s fair to say we were delighted to get them, and by the simple things they contained – toothpaste and brush, shaving foam and razor, pair of sunglasses and even a frisbee!

There is also, almost always, local support from British diplomatic staff, business people, expats, and retirees who are in country. These people always go out of their way to make Christmas time as special as they can for the servicemen and women who are nearby, going to great lengths to ensure that everyone has an invitation, or a present, or just someone to talk to. This is much appreciated.

My Christmas on operations abroad was spent in Riyadh in Saudi Arabia in 1990, during the build up to the Gulf War of 1991. I celebrated it in the diplomatic quarter as a guest of the diplomatic community, who did their very best to make me and my fellows feel at home. We even had individual Christmas presents at a proper Christmas meal, which was very touching. I can still remember clearly being driven back to our quarters by a brother officer who very definitely had drunk just a little more than he should have done. However, we reasoned that, in a country where alcohol was generally banned, there couldn’t possibly be any drink driving law.

So, all I would say is this; as you look forward to spending Christmas with friends and family this coming weekend, remember for a moment the lads and lassies of all three services who are spending Christmas overseas. If you can spare the time, drop them a card, give them a phone, send them and e-mail or even send them a present, no matter how small or simple.

After all, we’re the ones that sent them there, and it will make all the difference to the soldiers in the sangars looking out across the deserts and plains of Afghanistan.

– Stuart Crawdford is a retired Lieutenant Colonel of the Royal Tank Regiment