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Ex-soldier Getty promises he will 'never beg again'

Ex-soldier Alex Getty was in court again this week for vagrancy. Today, he tells how his life spiralled out of control when he left the Army

By Nevin Farrell

Published 17/09/2015

Alex Getty arriving at court in July
Alex Getty arriving at court in July
Alex Getty

A former soldier repeatedly convicted of begging said yesterday: "I'm never begging again."

Alex Getty, who is 61 on Sunday, said he didn't want to go to jail and had now overcome his addiction to buying Lottery scratchcards.

Mr Getty is believed to be the only person here persistently convicted of street begging under a 168-year-old vagrancy law.

He is a former private in the Ulster Defence Regiment, who was intimidated out of his home, spent five years in the job, and eventually left the Army because his "nerves were bad".

He hasn't worked since and in recent years his addiction sent him into a slide and he resorted to begging on the streets of Coleraine.

Although convicted several times, Getty is not a homeless down-and-out, living alone in a modest ground floor flat in a two-storey block in the Glebeside estate in nearby Ballymoney.

For several years - almost like a day job - he travelled the eight miles to Coleraine where he was a regular face on the streets, particularly around the railway/bus station, before returning home in the evening.

And sometimes he ventured into the town's main shopping area, Church Street, to beg.

Although some see him as a relatively harmless figure whose requests for small amounts of cash can easily be dismissed, for others his begging has been a real problem.

A previous court case heard how some children were frightened of him, and in another incident a woman had to be rescued from a cafe after being scared into taking refuge from Getty, claiming he forced her to hand over £10.

His notoriety has made him well-known in the area, and his court appearance this week quickly became the top news story on a local paper's website.

Many people view him as a figure of fun and young people have videoed him and posted it on YouTube, one clip having over 16,000 views, while others have set up fake social media accounts in his name. His immediate neighbours in Ballymoney say he rarely bothers them by asking for money and they had some sympathy for him avoiding jail.

One said: "Alec is his own worst enemy and is basically harmless.

"I hope he has stopped the begging because I don't think anybody would like him to be sent to prison."

Although difficulties with alcohol were mentioned in court before, he said he didn't drink now, but did have a fondness for Coca-Cola, and he also smoked heavily.

Speaking exclusively to the Belfast Telegraph, Getty said: "I'm keeping the best, I'm keeping all right.

"I have taken heed of the court after they said no more begging and I have not been doing it anymore."

Asked why he had resorted to begging in the first place, he said: "I just needed a pound."

And he added: "I do the scratchcards but I am not doing that anymore after the court mentioned for me to try to stop it.

"I don't drink alcohol and when begging I would have only asked people for 10 or 20 pence for a tin of Coke. I drink a lot of Coke."

He explained that his first job was with Glover site investigations in his home village of Balnamore near Ballymoney before joining the Army.

"I was in the UDR and I was threatened and was put out of my home in Balnamore where I grew up," he added. "I was full-time and was based in the First Battalion Ballymena. I was a private and stayed in after the threat for another five years.

"I just wanted to join the Army because of the way things were going in Northern Ireland. When I left I was unemployed, I was bad with my nerves."

He married Ballymoney woman Kathy Dodd, and although separated, she still comes round to help him each day. He has four children - three sons and a daughter - aged in their 20s and 30s.

He said his mission was now to avoid custody.

"I am worried about going to jail, I don't want to go to jail and will not be begging again.

"When I look back at what I did I sort of feel disappointed what I did.

"I am going to do everything I can to make sure I don't go to jail, and I don't want to be in prison over Christmas.

"I did my begging in Coleraine, but although I still go there, I don't beg anymore. I am determined not to go to jail."

Earlier this week Coleraine District Judge Liam McNally - who has dealt with Getty several times - said he would not jail him for begging because of the "inordinate" cost to the public purse, but warned him it was his "last chance".

In July the judge told Getty to get help for the scratchcard addiction.

On Monday Getty came to court with Kathy and heard Judge McNally say the maximum sentence for begging was one month.

The judge said it was too expensive to put him in custody for a month, to be released within two weeks.

He told Getty: "I think I have said to you before I don't want the State to pay an inordinate amount of money to keep you in custody but if you are going to keep on begging I'm going to do it."

Judge McNally said he would defer sentencing for six months and if there was any reoffending Getty would go to jail for two months - one month for the current begging offence and a month for a suspended sentence for a similar matter.

He told Getty: "If you want to spend Christmas and New Year or 2016 in custody then you carry on begging. No ifs and buts this time, this is your last chance."

Getty had pleaded guilty to a charge of placing himself at Coleraine's Railway Place in May this year "to beg or gather alms" contrary to the Vagrancy (Ireland) Act 1847.

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