Monday, 31 January 2011

I Spy - Mark Cassidy

Mark Cassidy walked into the Colin Roach Centre in Hackney early in 1995. Within weeks he had thrown himself into virtually every area of the centre’s political life and quickly began writing for our internal bulletin and the quarterly magazine sold to the public. As the owner of a van he could also be relied upon to transport people and equipment to meetings and ensure they got home safely afterwards. Always polite and happy to help out he soon became well liked and respected.

But Cassidy wasn’t what he seemed. With recent revelations of undercover police officers infiltrating the environmental movement and sleeping with the enemy, Cassidy’s story only underlines the lesson that political activists who threaten the established order should guard against spies who want to maintain the status quo.

I was elected co-ordinator of the Colin Roach Centre. Named after a young black man shot dead inside Stoke Newington Police Station in 1983 this brought together the once council-funded Trade Union Support Unit and one of Britain’s best known community organisations at the time – Hackney Community Defence Association.

The latter had uncovered serious corruption, with Panorama and World in Action undercover investigations confirming that some officers at the police station were involved in drug dealing.

Many convictions were overturned as a result and people were released from prison and paid compensation. Some of this helped keep the centre open seven days a week to provide support to Hackney’s cosmopolitan community, including many refugees and asylum seekers. The centre was well used and popular amongst ordinary people but less so with the Association of Chief Police Officers, which tried to block the registration of our Defendants Information Services (DIS), which recorded police officers known to have complaints or convictions against them.

A year after the official opening in 1993 the centre was broken into. No serious damage was done and money and expensive equipment was left untouched. Computers though were smashed up and when the local police were phoned it took hours for them to arrive and only a matter of seconds to depart. If the intention was to put a spoke in DIS this failed as the service was for security reasons run from a different location.

London magazine Time Out was unable to gain comment from either the police or security services after a centre spokesperson suggested either might be behind the break-in.

Other activities were also bound to attract attention. The centre was affiliated to the radical anti-fascist group Anti-Fascist Action (AFA), which had organised large demonstrations through a British National Party stronghold in nearby Bethnal Green. Centre members were involved in physically clearing the BNP from its Sunday morning paper selling point at the top of Brick Lane, an almost exclusively Asian neighbourhood.

It was into this often chaotic world that Cassidy came. From my campaigning experience it was unusual for someone to simply walk in – most people start their involvement after meeting someone or attending an event. He claimed to have seen TV coverage of a demonstration by the families of people killed at the hands of the police, and radical lawyer Gareth Pierce speaking afterwards, and wanted to get involved. He had come down from his hometown of Birkenhead to continue working as a builder and didn’t know many people locally.

Within a year he had found himself a long-term partner Alison (not her real name) who was also active in the centre. He was elected to chair the Brian Higgins Defence Committee. Higgins was a radical building worker who had suggested that workers were not being properly defended by their union, UCATT. A union official responded by suing him for libel. Cassidy had earlier transported pickets to sites where people had been killed in efforts to stop production. Such actions had infuriated building employers as it cut profits.

Yet by now a few of us were starting to get suspicious. He had never shown any interest in the centre’s work with refugee or asylum seekers or helped run the advice for members of the public. But he had been very keen when it was suggested a delegation was organised to Republican West Belfast to see for ourselves the situation in Northern Ireland. He even volunteered to take his van, although it would inevitably ensure his registration was noted and added to a police computer. He disappeared on the second morning of the visit, arriving back to inform us that he, a Catholic, had taken a walk up the Shankhill Road, a Protestant stronghold.

More importantly no one had ever met any of his family and although he professed to be a supporter of Tranmere Rovers when I went to a couple of games with him he didn’t know any of their fans. It was all a bit odd, but unable and unwilling to challenge him directly I shared some of my concerns with those closest to me and began to ensure that his opportunities to gather information on people and organisations were reduced. A second visit to Belfast was cancelled.

By now though Cassidy was already becoming less active in the centre. He had drifted off to play a more active role in AFA and the associated working-class organisation Red Action. He still visited the centre and could be counted on to assist at active times but slowly dropped away. Then so did Alison, just before the centre closed in 1999.

Having moved soon after to Sunderland to help look after my dad with Alzheimer’s I thought little more of it until I was told that Cassidy had disappeared from home on 11 April 2000. After spending the next day in the offices of Red Action he was next heard of when he rang his Alison and told her he was in Germany. Attempts to trace the call had failed.

His disappearance came after an extended period when he had acted suspiciously, including at times sleeping on the settee in his clothes. Alison had also discovered a credit card in someone else’s name, which he claimed to have bought for £50 in order obtain petrol dishonestly.

Now seriously concerned, Alison then rung his workplace, only to be told that he had left around two or three years previously. Yet he had continued during this time to leave for work at 6.30pm, apparently earning sufficient to be able to go on long holidays to the Middle East and Vietnam. The couple had also visited a counsellor to discuss overcoming his reluctance to have children but had abandoned the visits without him mentioning anything about his family.

When she found out I had expressed reservations about Cassidy two years earlier, Alison contacted me in 2001 to reveal that he had left behind a number of items including a second passport in someone else’s name and a number of photographs. Now happily settled Alison doesn’t want to make them public.

Having been told that Cassidy’s father had been killed in a car accident in Birkenhead in 1975 she checked the deaths register, only to discover the tale was untrue.
Incidents such as when he had ducked down in a frog position with his hands in his ears after a car had backfired suddenly became much more sinister when she realised it was position security officers are trained to adopt if a bomb goes off.

Other centre members began to recall incidents that at the time just appeared a little odd. Taxi driver Jim Kelly recalled that Cassidy had displayed extensive knowledge of events in Ireland during the 1970s even though he wouldn’t have even been a teenager at the time and claimed to be new to political activity. Amanda, an activist, recalled a meeting where threats to attack the centre had been received from the BNP and he had told her he was there as a “shield”.

Since his disappearance over a decade ago nothing has been heard of Cassidy. No one has ever seen him, even at the Tranmere games I have occasionally watched! Attempts by the media to get Alison to go public have failed and I have no wish to involve the authorities by complaining to them.

I feel there’s little point. At the Trade Union Support Unit I worked with Midge a black activist who had left Philadelphia in 1986 after discovering her boyfriend was an FBI agent. So I was always aware such things happened and, as Bernard Porter’s history of the Metropolitan Special Branch, The Origins of the Vigilant State, makes pretty clear the placing of informants inside radical organisations began almost as soon as the organisation was born in 1881.

The trick for those environmental activists, and other in progressive politics, is not to go running to the very people who organise against them but to adopt some simple methods of checking that people really are who they say they are. Sadly that is something I, and others, failed to do with Mark Cassidy.  

Sunday, 23 January 2011

Government cuts in education

The government's claim to be protecting schools from cuts has been strongly criticised by a headteacher from York. Tony Gavin, head of Laurence Jackson Secondary School in Guisborough, North Yorkshire said he will have to make frontline staff cuts to balance his books despite the Chancellor George Osborne's promise in his October budget of an increase in school funding.

Tony Gavin

Gavin, a teacher for three decades and head for eight years, also warns that the government’s highly publicised restoration of some sports partnership funding should not camouflage a cut of over 80% in the overall budget.

Savings were always going to be needed following the scrapping of the Building Schools for the Future [BSF] programme. Gavin had spent a day a week over two years developing plans to improve facilities at the fifty-year-old school. The £25 million project was days away from being concluded when on July 5th 2010 BSF was abandoned.

Gavin’s “devastation” also meant having to re-examine how to spend his £7.5m annual budget. He’d chosen the cheaper repairs option for a leaking roof. In November a surveyors report indicated a requirement to remove asbestos. Whether the funds must come from his own budget or the local authorities is uncertain.

Faced with such disappointment Gavin was therefore “initially delighted” to hear the Chancellor George Osborne, in his October budget, announce that between 2010 and 2014 the schools budget would rise “by 0.1% in real terms, up from £35 to £39 billion.” Children’s education was to be protected.

However when he then discovered part of the Government’s £80 billion cuts package included scrapping the Schools Sports Partnership [SSP] specialist funding stream that provides five hours of sport per pupil per week in schools he was left “extremely angry.”

He remains so even after vigorous campaigning saw some sports funding restored at Christmas. This is because whilst this was highly publicised, as an example of a Government climbdown, just £65 million will remain available over the next three years rather than the original £480 million allocated under the previous government.

LJS is the hub site for the East Cleveland SSP that employs a development manager, two sports coordinators and an administrator. Keeping the posts will mean cutting elsewhere.

Gavin hopes to maintain improvements at a school with children from a wide background mix. Last summer over 65% of GCSE pupils left with five A to C grades, including English and Mathematics. It’s going to have to be done, especially as local Government funding for classroom assistants is being cut, with less staff. Gavin has told employees  “LJS could be a £250,000 in debt by April and £2 million by 2013. “

From amongst 95 teachers and 70 support staff he estimates needing to annually lose three of the former and six of the latter for the next four years. His “teaching staff are already expressing concerns about increased class sizes, with significantly fewer support staff to assist with the challenging children.  George Osborne’s statement was misleading, by suggesting education is being protected. “

A Department for Education spokesperson disputed this saying “the 0.1% rise protects cash levels for every single pupil whilst striking a balance between cutting out unnecessary waste at the same time as protecting high-quality frontline services.”

The spokesperson also defended SSP cuts saying “having enjoyed some £2.4 billion of public funds since 2003 every school should have embedded good practice in order to maintain the current sports provision. We have restored some funding to assist schools raise participation levels and encourage competitive sport. “
Gavin remains unconvinced saying, “schools are not being protected from cuts and in sport I know schools are already cutting staff numbers. I want to retain the sports partnership activities we organise but faced with such a huge cut it will be very difficult.” 

Blackpool 1 Sunderland 2

Blackpool 1

Adam [pen] 86

Sunderland 2

Richardson 15, 36.

Sunderland showed there’s life after Darren Bent as they moved within touching distance of a Champions League spot after two Kieran Richardson goals overcame a spirited Blackpool side.

There was a touch of fortune about the first. Not in the finish, a fine sliding shot past Richard Kingston after a defence splitting Asamoah Gyan pass but in the fact that the home side were down to ten men as Neil Eardley received treatment following an earlier accidental boot in the face from the goalscorer.

The away side were then grateful to their keeper Craig Gordon who faced down Luke Varney before pushing over a Charlie Adam drive. Steed Malbranque made Blackpool pay for some hesitation at the back, using his head to neatly keep the ball in before sliding a controlled pass that Richardson did just enough with to squeeze inside Kingston’s near post. Gordon then maintained Sunderland’s two-goal half time advantage with a fine save from an Adam free kick.

Pushing forward in the second Blackpool had sufficient half chances to always be in with a shout, but the goal they got was the result of a dubious refereeing decision, Lee Mason deciding David Vaughan’s tumble over Nedum Onuoha was a foul. Adam stroked home the resulting penalty, which with Liverpool seeking his signature may prove to be his last act as a Tangerine. For Sunderland, Steve Bruce now has around ten days to obtain a quality striker to play alongside Gyan before the Wearsiders face fourth place Chelsea. Victory that night and who knows what might be achieved at the end of the season?

Sunday, 16 January 2011

Sunderland 1 Newcastle 1

Sunderland 1

Gyan 90+ 4

Newcastle 1

Nolan 52

A fortuitous last minute Asamoah Gyan equaliser yesterday denied Newcastle United all three points in the northeast derby. And whilst the away side should certainly have won the game, their determination to unnecessarily waste time by exploiting the slightest challenge to go to ground and seek the trainers attention ultimately cost them when the officials added five minutes at the end of the game.

Keeper Steve Harper should also have done better with Phil Bardsley’s shot, pushing it back into the goalmouth area where an onrushing Gyan’s desire to get the ball was rewarded when it cannoned of his knee and somehow bounced into the net for his seventh league goal of the season.

Ecstatic as the Sunderland fans might have been there was however no excuse when Harper was then assaulted by a pitch invader, although thankfully the Newcastle number 1 was unhurt. Sunderland though can rightly expect action to be taken against them, especially as one minute later when the final whistle blew there were ugly scenes as both sets of supporters ripped up seats and threw them at each other.

Having been thrashed 5-1 at St James’ Park Sunderland needed to start well, but should have been a goal down on just three minutes when Joey Barton’s long ball flew high over Anton Ferdinand and Titus Bramble only for Shola Ameobi to flash his shot from 15 yards just past Craig Gordon’s pass. After such a poor miss Steve Bruce’s side should have taken the lead when fastening onto Steed Malbranque’s pass Darren Bent cut inside, and beat for the only time in the game, Farbricio Colocinni to fire his shot straight at Harper.

Sunderland were then grateful to Kieran Richardson when, standing on the line, he prevented Colocinni’s shot from giving the away side the lead. Soon after though the unmarked Ameobi should have given Gordon no chance when rising high he powered his header from eight yards just over the bar, thus ensuring the half-time whistle sounded at 0-0.

It took the away side just seven minutes after the restart to open the scoring. Bent had missed a decent half chance and his side suffered for it when from a Barton corner Ameobi battered Ferdinand out of the way, and Kevin Nolan touched his downward header into the net for his fourth goal against Sunderland this season. Queue ecstatic celebrations amongst the travelling 3,00o army.

Within a minute Newcastle might have doubled their advantage when Leon Best was only inches away from converting Jose Enrique’s fine cross. Yet with Barton and Nolan dominating Richardson and the disappointing Jordan Henderson in the middle of the park there seemed little chance of the Wearsiders profiting from Newcastle’s failure to rap up the game.

The Tynesiders though are not a great team. And by preferring to try and hold what they had rather than grab a killer second goal they ultimately paid the penalty when Gyan scored and probably ensured that whilst the Geordies have bragging rights in the derby games it will be the Wearsiders who come the seasons end will confirm they are the northeast’s best side by again finishing higher in the Premier League.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

Sunderland 0 Notts County 1

Sunderland 1

Bent [pen] 81

Notts County 2

Mignolet [og] 5, Hughes 75

The thousands of Sunderland fans who gave this game a miss made a wise choice, Notts County deservedly winning a poor game to progress to round four of the FA Cup.  Steve Bruce’s side failed to have a serious effort on goal in open play during the entire ninety minutes and were behind as early as the fifth minute. Asked to collect a Craig Westcarr high ball keeper Simon Mignolet allowed himself to be unsettled by home defender Kieran Richardson and County forward Lee Hughes, dropping the ball over the line.

Mignolet did much better in the second to get down at Hughes’ feet as he sought to plunder the away sides second. But when the Sunderland rearguard failed to clear the striker wonderfully curled the ball into the net from an acute angle to the obvious joy of the 2,500 travelling fans behind the goal.

With just nine minutes left Darren Bent, who earlier should have scored with a header from just six yards out, reduced the arrears from the penalty spot but despite then pushing forward the home side rarely looked like forcing a replay.

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Villa 0 Sunderland 1

Aston Villa 0

Sunderland 1

Bardsley 80

This was a bitter sweet night for Sunderland manager Steve Bruce. Abused by the Villa fans for a previous spell in charge at local rivals Birmingham City he must have enjoyed seeing his side deservedly capture all three points courtesy of a 25 yard pile-driver from full-back Phil Bardsley ten minutes from time.

Much less satisfactory were injuries to on-loan striker Danny Welbeck and considerably more worringly, to young midfielder David Meyler, whose future in the game must be in doubt after he collapsed to the ground with what was later diagnosed as his second cruciate knee damage injury in less than a year. Just back, Meyler seemed set for a big future and it is to be hoped he can make a full recovery.

In the truth the stick Bruce got from the home fans was tame compared to what they heaped on one or two of their own misfiring players and in particular manager Gerard Houllier at the end of a game in which, with Wolves beating Chelsea, saw Villa slump into the relegation zone. Hardly ideal preparation for a match against Birmingham City when Premier League action resumes in ten days time, a game many of those following the Claret and Blue feel should be faced with a new manager, bellowing out “Your getting sacked in the morning.”

Certainly it’s difficult to see where Villa’s next victory might come from, especially when someone as experienced as Emile Heskey can only manage to hit the bar from three yards after Stewart Downing pulled the ball back to the England international standing in front of an open goal. Always impressive outside the box and great at bringing his teammates into play Heskey has always flattered to deceive in front of goal and this was no exception.

However his manhandling of Jordan Henderson’s neck certainly was out of character and, although it took the intervention of the fourth official to confirm what had taken place, it was no surprise when referee Peter Walton produced the red card.

Already struggling to stay in the game, after Sunderland had pushed forward by bringing on substitute Asamoah Gyan to partner Welbeck and Darren Bent up front, the home side were forced to defend even more deeply.  As half chance were made and missed it looked like Villa might even get away with a point before Bardsley, who had never previously scored a Premier League goal, surprised even himself by powering an unstoppable shot that had the Wearsiders in the crowd dancing with joy.

It should have been two soon afterwards but Gyan, clean through with Bent alongside him, somehow managed to drag his shot wide of Brad Friedel’s goal. The home side were then given a lifeline when substitute Bolo Zenden received a second yellow card for an innocuous challenge on Stiliyan Petrov and joined Heskey for an early bath.

Villa pushed forward but in doing so left themselves open at the back and only the inability of Gyan and Bent to stay onside prevented further away goals. Not that it mattered come the final whistle with Sunderland’s three points pushing them to within touching distance of a European Champions League place. Yet with a list of injuries to contend with it seems unlikely the north-east side can maintain a challenge for a spot that two seasons ago seemed within reach of a Villa side that have gone steadily backwards ever since.