All posts by Jonathan McNabb

Closing the Dark Hedges to vehicle traffic – how soon is now?

Calls have been made my numerous campaign groups to ensure the Dark Hedges remains a national treasure in Northern Ireland amid fears of its long-term survival, Jonathan McNabb investigates.

The future use of one of Northern Ireland’s most popular tourist destinations is under immediate threat, the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust has warned.

The Dark Hedges, known for its background setting in the fictional drama, Game of Thrones, is often busy with cars and buses in the outskirts of Armoy, Co. Antrim.

However, constant pressure on the site from traffic and a high number of tourists has caused debate about the long-term future of the trees.

Out of the 150 trees that were planted by the Stuart family in the 1700s as a dramatic approach to their Georgian mansion, only 90 remain, with one being uprooted in February’s Storm Doris.

The site feels the full impact of Storm Doris in February.

The site is visited by hundreds of thousands of tourists every year and is on a list of the 12 best road trips in the UK and Ireland compiled by the website continental road trip.

In 2015, it was estimated that over 10,000 Game of Thrones fans visited the site on tours across the Province.

The natural phenomena is one of the most photographed locations in Northern Ireland for amateurs and professionals, but this increase in popularity means the beech trees are surface rooting and cannot withstand the heavy flow of traffic.

Graham Thompson, CEO of the Dark Hedges Preservation Trust, explains that the ‘experience’ of visiting the iconic site is becoming damaged by cars and other road traffic.

He said: “It is important that cars don’t come down the road so that the whole experience of visiting the site is appreciated more by the people who are coming.

“Cars are just one of the many issues as there are also buses that stop here and disrupt the whole experience for others.

“We are working with the Hedges Hotel and the Gracehill golf complex to try and come up with an integrated management solution.

“This will involve traffic management and reducing the amount of cars and other vehicle gaining access to the site.”

The site is in danger of being destroyed by road traffic, Graham Thompson says.

Mr. Thompson also revealed that the Trust has been in discussions with the Northern Ireland Assembly to resolve the issue.

“Cars will be stopped coming up the road,” he added.

“Measures have been put forward to the Assembly to restrict vehicle movement.

“We don’t know what will happen but it is our aim that people will park off site, the road will be free of traffic and they will have a much better visitor experience.”

Jonathan Hobbs, writer of the blog NI Greenways, is in agreement with Mr. Thompson and believes road traffic around the area can be managed ‘very easily’.

He said: “The Woodland Trust have estimated that the Dark Hedges have about 20 years left if we continue to let traffic along the Bregagh Road at current levels.

“For such a small intervention closing vehicle access at both ends is a small price to pay to protect this important piece of rural heritage and a tourist draw.

“The Council, the Department for Infrastructure and many local politicians and community voices seem to be working towards this very solution.

“There’s very little essential access needed along the road, nothing which can’t be managed very easily. There is a decent car park already in place at the Dark Hedges Hotel just across the road.

The Dark Hedges Hotel and the nearby Gracehill Golf Club offer free car parking near the site.

“You wouldn’t expect to be able to drive right down to the Giant’s Causeway and park up on the famous stones at the side of the road there.

“The Dark Hedges has a big role to play in drawing in tourists from around the world in the future and we need to offer visitors a safe and pleasant experience which is memorable for the right reasons.”

Sam Reynolds, who lives in nearby Stranocum, believes local authorities need to resolve this issue immediately; otherwise the site ‘could be gone for good.’

He said: “I have seen a major deterioration in the area in the last four or five years.

“Trees have fallen and the grass verges are becoming destroyed at an alarming rate.

“Traffic at the site is causing severe damage, despite Gracehill Golf Club and the Hedges Hotel offering free car parking nearby.

“It is vitally important that local authorities come up with a strategy to maintain the long-term survival of the Hedges because if not, the site could be gone for good.

“It’s a shame as it’s one of the most popular destinations on the North Coast and attracts thousands of visitors each year.”

The long-running saga about closing the site to vehicle traffic looks set to continue after the news that the safeguarding of the Hedges could come down to a public inquiry.

Causeway Coast and Glens councillors were told that a public inquiry may be the only logical step to preserve the area after four objections were received to Transport NI’s proposals to ban vehicle movement at the tourist attraction.

Councillor Joan Baird OBE, the Mayor of the Council believes the trees are at a ‘high risk of destruction.’

She said: “The trees at the Dark Hedges are at a high risk of destruction due to people parking on the grass verges and destroying the root structures.

“The Dark Hedges Preservation Trust must take responsibility for the delays in addressing the problem.

“Transport NI plan to restrict usage of the Bregagh Road, but there are objectors, and under law this must go to a public inquiry which does take time.

“The problem with parking at the Hotel is that pedestrians still have to cross the Ballinlea Road to access the trees and this presents road safety issues.

“It is a shame there is no quick fix solution as yet.”

The Dark Hedges Preservation Trust must take responsibility for not addressing the problems faster, Councillor Joan Baird says.

The loss of this iconic site would be a blow to the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council who explain that they are ‘working with landowners and Transport Northern Ireland to create a sustainable solution.’

The sad reality is that this beautiful site might not be here for much longer.

Masters 2017: A fairytale victory for Sergio Garcia

After 73 failed attempts to win a major title the Spaniard held his nerve to clinch the Masters at Augusta National.

“I’m not good enough. I don’t have the thing I need to have. I’ve come to the conclusion that I need to play for second or third place.”

It was five years ago that Sergio García made this statement after a poor third round at Augusta ended any hopes that the Spaniard would win a coveted major.

The 37 year-old seemed destined to be a habitual bridesmaid throughout his career, but on Sunday he clinched his dreams by landing the Green Jacket after a play-off hole with Justin Rose.

A young Garcia with his hero, Seve Ballesteros.

It was a fitting scene. On the weekend of his late hero, Seve Ballesteros’ 60th birthday, the Borriol native conquered his demons by landing the vital blow on the 18th green to win the 81st Masters.

In typical fashion, García made himself and his strong legion of fans go through every emotion as he went toe-to-toe with Olympic champion and one-time major winner, Justin Rose. A bogey at the 10th hole meant the Spaniard trailed his Ryder Cup companion, but a fantastic eagle at 15 levelled the scores after a Rose birdie.

It was gripping television for the viewer right through to the 18th green as both players had birdie opportunities to gain the upper hand. First up was the cool and talented Rose, but as his putt looked destined to find the bottom of the cup, it trickled narrowly wide.

An emotional Garcia after losing to Padraig Harrington in a play-off for the The Open Championship in 2007.

This presented Garcia with the perfect opportunity to seize the moment, but as his putt never looked destined to trouble the hole, it might have conjured memories of the 2007 Open Championship at Carnoustie, where García also had a putt for victory at the 72nd hole, missed it and then lost in a playoff to Padraig Harrington.

The drama was to continue as both players – who are also close friends away from the course – were tasked with a tense tee-shot in the play-off. García was the one whose drive found the fairway while Rose’s ball ricocheted off a tree and came to rest in the pine needles, in front of a pine cone. Rose’s pitch landed short of the green while García stuck his approach to 12 feet.

The Spaniard celebrates after securing his first major title.

Once Rose tapped in for bogey, the spotlight belonged to the popular Spaniard who sunk his birdie putt and fell to his knees after realising the significance of his achievement.

“Obviously, this is something I wanted to do for a long time,” García said,

“But, you know, it never felt like a horror movie. It felt like a little bit of a drama, but obviously with a happy ending.”

A happy ending indeed for one of golf’s fantastic talents.

Harkin: ‘I can’t wait for the cup final’

COLERAINE midfielder Ciaron Harkin speaks to Jonathan McNabb ahead of tomorrow’s Irish Cup final against Linfield…

Ciaron Harkin admits he is looking forward to ‘a great experience’ when he faces Linfield in tomorrow’s Irish Cup final (KO 2:30pm).

The tireless midfielder joined the Bannsiders in January following a spell with Institute and hopes he can bring the trophy back to the Ballycastle Road for the sixth time in the club’s history.

The 20-year-old also revealed he nearly missed out on the run to the final as he could have been cup tied if he played for Institute in the 4th round of the competition.

Listen to the video below:

Online Gambling and Match Fixing: What’s next for the Industry?

Gambling addictions are on the rise according to GamCare statistics.
Gambling addictions are on the rise according to GamCare statistics.

Whether it is picking a horse at the Grand National or backing your local football team to cup glory, gambling can be seen as something to keep the interest going for the occasional punter. But what about those individuals who have a serious gambling addiction? Jonathan McNabb investigates.

According to the GamCare – an online commission to help those addicted to gambling – it is believed that almost 30,000 people in the UK have contacted the organisation for advice in halting the addiction in the past year – a worrying rise of 18%.

See full range of Statistics:

However, it is not traditional high street betting shops that are now solely to blame for this rise as the presence of online gambling applications allows users to gamble money at the touch of a button like never before.

The online gambling industry is worth almost £3 billion in the United Kingdom and this figure is expected to increase as more and more punters are using online betting companies rather than calling into their nearest bookmakers.

Betting agencies like Bet365, Bet Victor and Coral entice new customers by offering free bets or refunding losing wagers in the hope of gaining new members. In the past year, all major betting applications have introduced a ‘Cash Out’ function which gives the user the option of selling their bet for a certain amount.

As one frequent online gambler told me, “I use online betting applications because it’s easy to place bets. You can do it on your phone, laptop and tablet. They have the latest odds in-play and you can cash out a winning bet with a few minutes to go. It saves you the hassle of travelling 10 or 15 minutes down the road to the bookies.”

You can hear the full interview here:

Online gambling has evolved so much, that punters can even do the lottery and play bingo – which is extremely common amongst women. According to a survey carried out by the BBC, the rise in women playing bingo has dramatically increased so much so that there are now over 350 operated websites to play the famous game.

According to David McCausland, a bingo hall manager from Portrush, he believes that the online versions of bingo have impacted the number of people coming through their doors.

“Unfortunately, over the past year we have noticed a decline in people wanting to play bingo on our premises. I have spoken with a few of our old regulars and they have basically said that playing a few games in the comfort of their homes is more appealing than driving on a cold, miserable evening to Portrush.

“It is something we are conscious and wary off, but unless there are changes to the way bingo is being played online, the future of bingo halls in the UK will be under threat.”


Why has there been a sudden increase in gambling?

Aside from the rise of betting applications, there are many other reasons as to why online gambling has emerged as one of the biggest industries in the UK. In 2005, the Labour Party lifted a ban on radio and TV advertisements related to casinos, online betting and bookmakers. As such, many day time television shows are sponsored by these types of companies such as FoxyBingo.com.

Advertisements like these are popular during sporting events.
Advertisements like these are popular during sporting events.

It is undeniable that punters are attracted to betting offers made during sports events as companies give the latest odds on certain markets to appeal to gamblers at half-time in a football match, or before a big horse race. In 2011, The Guardian revealed that such advertisements had risen 600% since the law was altered.

The high number of sporting events being sponsored by betting companies has also led to more punters placing wagers. It is common that snooker and darts tournaments are sponsored by major betting applications like William Hill, Stan Bet and 888.com. This is coupled by many sports stars wearing the logos of these sites and making reference to them on social media platforms.

The widespread use of ‘in-play’ betting attracts a lot of gamblers to place wagers on sporting events as they happen – for example, punters can place a bet on who will score the next goal during a football match as the odds fluctuate during play.

Machines like these have been labelled as 'the crack cocaine of gambling.'
Machines like these have been labelled as ‘the crack cocaine of gambling.’

The introduction of fix-odds betting terminals, known as FoBT’s, in betting stores across the United Kingdom has come in for criticism due to the extreme nature of money that can be spent by a punter at any given time. These terminals feature casino games such as blackjack and roulette which allows users to bet £100 every 20 seconds.

This phenomenon is known as the ‘crack cocaine of gambling’ as punters chase a winner but with odds stacked against them. In recent times, there have been many pleas to remove FoBT’s from high street bookmakers, as they have led to many users needing financial help and payday loans to halt their addiction.

According to Laura Christie, a former employee of a high street bookmaker, she believes that there should be restrictions on how much a certain individual can bet on a day-to-day basis.

You can hear the full interview here:

Former Labour leader Ed Miliband vowed to give local councils the opportunity to reduce the number of FoBTs in bookmakers as he explained their rise was “spreading like an epidemic.”

However, Labour’s demands were rebuffed when coalition MPs rejected the motion for tighter control on gaming machines. Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed the debate on the issue and revealed there are “problems in the betting and gambling industry.”


Match Fixing: Illegal Gambling within sport is on the rise

You can be forgiven about thinking of something else in the tennis world right now after Maria Sharapova’s shocking self-confession to taking performance enhancing drugs, or the debate surrounding how much female players should be paid. However, only a few weeks previously, the sport was in disrepute over allegations of match fixing.

According to a 10 year investigation carried out by the BBC and BuzzFeed News, it was revealed that 16 former top 50 ranked players had caught the attention of the Tennis Integrity Unit (TIU) on numerous occasions for irregular betting patterns.

The TIU revealed that they have received 48 alerts of suspicious and unusual betting activity on matches for the first quarter of 2016 – an increase of 17 from the same period last year.

Consequently, Grand Slam champions such as Novak Djokovic and Serena Williams admitted to have been offered bribes, but failed to let the authorities know at the time. In addition, two umpires have been fully banned from the sport, with another four under suspicion for playing their part in the throwing of matches.

In worrying developments, the report found that betting syndicates across Europe won hundreds of thousands of pounds over three matches played at Wimbledon. There was also suspicions raised following a match in 2007 between Nikolay Davydenko and Martin Vassallo Arguello, but both players were consequently cleared of any wrong doing.

During prolonged investigations into the match between Davydenko and Arguello, it was found that latter had exchanged almost 80 texts with the suspected head of a high profile Italian syndicate with a high proportion of bets coming from Moscow.

Former tennis player Daniel Koellerer was banned for life after being found guilty to breaching betting rules.
Former tennis player Daniel Koellerer was banned for life after being found guilty of breaching betting rules.

However, despite both players being found not guilty, the sport introduced the TIU to crack down on players throwing matches for vast sums of money. In 2011, tennis player Daniel Koellerer made headlines for being the first male tennis player to be banned for life in light of match fixing.

Two-time Grand Slam champion and world number two Andy Murray when asked by The Guardian if he would be surprised if fellow players fixed matches, he replied ‘no, not really.’

“I do think it’s important that from a younger age, players are better educated and made more aware of what they should do in those situations and how decisions like that can affect your career and affect your whole sport. Across all sports I don’t think that’s done particularly well.”

With the rumoured crisis of match fixing reaching a global audience, local tennis coach Paul Logan voiced his opinion about how these revelations have affected the sport at an amateur level.

“You are now seeing players throw matches for a six figure sum and this allows them to pay for travel expenses at different tournaments for a whole season,” he said.

“From my point of view, match fixing has been going on for quite a while but has only been highlighted since top 10 ranked woman players are getting caught.

“With social media reporting this news at a high level, children are seeing that tennis players have been cheating and will try to do the same with line calls and foot faults, so it is slowly creeping into the game.”


Tennis not the only sport involved

Unfortunately, tennis is not the only sport that has seen allegations of match fixing. In 2008, a football match between Accrington Stanley and Bury received irregular patterns that resulted in five players being banned by the Football Association.

Manchester City defender Martin Demichelis was issued with a hefty fine after betting on football activity.
Manchester City defender Martin Demichelis was issued with a hefty fine after betting on football activity.

In recent weeks, Manchester City defender Martin Demichelis made headlines after being charged with betting on matches throughout Europe. In 2014, the FA made a new rule that no players in England were allowed to bet on any football activity – meaning the Argentinean was fined. Luckily for the player and club, the allegations against the 35 year-old did not concern match fixing, but rather placing wagers on football activity that was not permitted under new FA protocols.

The 2016 World Championship Snooker tournament starts this month and more scrutiny will be on matches like never before in light of recent match fixing scandals within the sport. In 2013, Stephen Lee was banned from playing snooker for 12 years after being found guilty for fixing the outcome of seven matches between 2007 and 2008.

Snooker player Stephen Lee was banned from the sport for 12 years after being found guilty of match fixing in 2013.
Snooker player Stephen Lee was banned from the sport for 12 years after being found guilty of match fixing in 2013.

In an interview with the BBC, World Snooker chairman Barry Hearn insisted he has ‘no sympathy’ for Lee and would have liked to have seen his ban being extended because snooker’s ‘integrity is paramount.’

“The 12-year ban fitted the crime – I would have gone for a life ban, you have to send a message to the broadcasters and sponsors. Integrity is paramount.

“There is no sympathy when you are dealing with the future of the sport. It’s a sad situation for the individual, no-one wants to see anyone suffer, but he brought about it himself, therefore he has to pay the price.”

Match fixing has been pretty much a common theme in snooker since the game became professional. In 2011, BBC commentator Willy Thorne explained that “match fixing has always been a part of snooker and I don’t know how you can stamp it out.”


Match fixing in Northern Ireland

Carrick Rangers defender Gareth McKeown has been banned until the end of the season for breaching the IFA's rules on gambling.
Carrick Rangers defender Gareth McKeown has been banned until the end of the season for breaching the IFA’s rules on gambling.

Locally, Carrick Rangers defender Gareth McKeown was banned until the end of the 2015/16 Danske Bank Premiership campaign after being caught sharing information on local reserve team fixtures.

The Irish Football Association noted that while McKeown did not play in the matches, he shared information with family members that were in breach of betting rules when he was at his former club Glenavon.

According to Irish League striker Darren Henderson, players have to be extremely careful about how they gamble and can have no excuses if they are caught.

“The IFA have a strict opinion on gambling and they have sent out letters to all clubs in the league outlining that players aren’t allowed to bet on any games within the Irish League. They have a strict policy and any players caught will be dealt with severely.

“I don’t have any sympathy for Gareth as he should know the rules. However, betting companies like Bet365 shouldn’t give odds on reserve team football as it might entice a few players who know a certain team will win.”

You can hear full interview here: