A man believed to be the only person repeatedly convicted of street begging in recent years in Northern Ireland under a 168-year-old vagrancy law claims he will not be pestering passers-by for cash any more because he fears going to jail.
Alex (Alec) Getty turns 61 this Sunday and is a former full-time Private in the Ulster Defence Regiment who was intimidated out of his home because of a threat after five years in the job during the Troubles.
And although he continued in the role for another five years he left because his “nerves were bad”.
He hasn’t worked since and in recent years an addiction to buying scratchcards sent him into a spiral and he resorted to begging on the streets of one of our major towns at the heart of the top north coast tourist region - Coleraine.
Although convicted of begging several times, Getty is not a down-and-out and he lives alone in a modest small ground floor flat in a two-storey block at Trinity Drive on the fringes of 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 busy railway/bus station, before returning home in the evening.
And some times he ventured into the prime shopping area of Coleraine - Church Street - to beg for money.
Although some people see him as a relatively harmless figure whose requests for small amounts of cash from passers-by can easily be dismissed, for others his begging has been a real problem.
Previous court cases heard how some children were frightened of him and in another incident a woman had to be rescued from a cafe in Coleraine after being scared into taking refuge from Getty by claiming he forced her to hand over a tenner.
His notoriety has made him one of the best known people in the Ballymoney and Coleraine areas and news of his court appearance this week quickly become the number one news story on a local newspaper’s web site.
Many people view him as a figure of fun and young people have videoed him and posted it on You Tube with one clip having over 16,000 views while others have made 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 says he doesn’t drink alcohol now but does have a liking for coke and he smokes a lot.
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 a scratchcard gambling addiction.
On Monday, Getty came to court with his ex-wife Kathy and was wearing jeans and a suit jacket and heard Judge McNally say the maximum sentence for begging is 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 re-offending Getty will 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.
Getty said: “I’m keeping the best, I’m keeping alright. I have taken heed of the court after they said no more begging and I have not been doing it any more.”
Asked why he had resorted to begging in the first place he said: “I just needed a pound” and added: “I do the scratchcards but I am not doing that any more 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 ten or twenty pence for a tin of coke. I drink a lot of coke.”
He explained how his first job was working in 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. 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 Kathy Dodd from Ballymoney and although separated she still comes round to help him each day. He has four children - three sons and a daughter - now aged in their 20s and 30s.
He says his mission is 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 every thing 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 any more. I am determined not to go to jail.”