Riverfest 2015

* This blog post has been viewed widely, with close on 1000 unique views in the three days since I posted it. There’s been a widespread discussion on social media and I’ve also received a number of emails from people who are exercised by the issue. I’ve yet to read one dissenting comment, but  if anybody disagrees I would like to hear from you so as we can have a full debate. 

There’s a mantra in Limerick often spouted by those who have a shallow understanding of the city that we must focus on the river. This has been going on for 30 years at least. My first memory of it was when the late Jack Higgins, the then city manager, implored the city to turn to face the river. He may have meant well, but reducing development policies to one-liners is a dangerous business. A little more detail and direction is required. Otherwise you end up with developments such as the Arthur’s Quay Shopping Centre, Sarsfield House, Harvey’s Quay (the new Dunnes Stores) and the shockingly poor latter day slum known as Steamboat Quay. All of the above were heralded as great, positive developments and were pushed through under the mantra that the city must reposition itself to face the river. Sadly, the truth is that all were indeed poor developments given the potential of the sites that they were built on and it is clear now that great opportunities to develop the city were lost.

Limerick’s Riverfest was born out of a similar thought process. We need a festival, we’ve got a river, therefore Riverfest. Nice idea, but it’s clear that in recent years the creativity hasn’t gone much further than that. In various years we’ve had contrived events, such as the ‘National Powerboating Championships’, whatever they are … and  … ermm … a corporate barbeque competition. More than once the organisers have commissioned yachts to be sailed up the estuary from Kilrush marina as far as the Shannon Bridge, at which point they could go no further, so they’d do a few tacks and jibes in front of the crowds amassed at the Clarion Hotel, turn about and sail back down to West Clare, and home. River, boat, yachts. That’s the logic. Generally the culmination of the weekend is a fireworks display and a loud tannoy telling us how much we’re enjoying the wonderful festival.

Truth is, Riverfest has a mixed history. Ten years ago, arguably during Limerick’s darkest days, it was actually quite a promising and progressive event. There was a sense that the city was getting its act together and being serious about attracting visitors and that it was beginning to see itself as something more than a regional backwater. Generally the buzz around the city was about music, art, creativity, fun and dance, and some good old fashioned partying. Not so much about hot dogs or powerboats screaming up and down the river, or yachts from Clare or groundhog day fireworks displays. Back then it seemed there was a move towards positioning Limerick as being lively, sophisticated and avant garde. Is that not where we want Limerick to be? By contrast, the current Riverfest reflects a city as sophisticated as a Supermacs outlet on a Saturday night.

As I write, the rain is teeming down and the spin doctors are out in force to convince us that the festival is a roaring success. The glib sentiment that the “bad weather fails to dampen the appetite for Limerick’s Riverfest barbeque” is being pushed through various media channels, all of whom seem to be on message. It’s regrettable that there is such little critical analysis of the Council (who are the organisers of Riverfest) these days. At best, the local press seem only interested in directing attention to the antics and behaviour of the elected representatives. It’s not like they don’t know that councillors are toothless in the Irish local government system. Real power and decision making when it comes to the day to day management of the city (Riverfest being an example) rests with the officials. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but if the Council is to be held to account then the operations side of it is where we should look. Of course, there’s a few reasons why the local media might not take on the Council. It might be hard work, for starters. It’s much easier to parrot some PR, vote-catching effort by a local councillor, or hone in on his general behaviour, than to look at the important decisions being made by officials. It helps that the public can identify the elected representatives and this approach titillates the audience and sells more papers and advertising. By contrast, few people who are not directly engaged with the council are familiar with the officials and executive management, i.e. the people who hold real power, so the local media likely sees nothing to be gained from querying their decisions, however important they might be. The second, arguably more unsettling reason, is that there are cosy relationships between the local newspapers and various elements of the Council and this certainly makes it more difficult for the journalists and editors to stand back and objectively analyse and criticise how the council goes about its business. It’s that kind of uncritical approach that contributes to the debacles such as the City of Culture controversy at the start of 2014, and indeed Riverfest.

Limerick City and County Council contract out the operation of the festival each year, and this year’s operators are Grooveyard, a Galway based company known for their expertise in organising festivals. I apologise. I made that last bit up. Their website suggests that this might be their first foray into festival management (apart from the International Bands Competition held in Limerick six weeks ago). I wish them well, but the fact that a seemingly inexperienced Galway company is organising Limerick’s flagship festival should raise some eyebrows. Can they possibly put together a range of events that reflects Limerick and its people, and where both want to go? On this weekend’s evidence the answer is no. There was nothing impressive or memorable about Riverfest 2015. It was lame and mediocre. From what I can see, there was a fashion show, a busking competition, a relatively unknown singer in the Milk Market, a fireworks display and a public barbeque complete with security heavies bussed in for the day. [Speaking of the barbeque on Denmark Street, is there a worse place to host a public event in Limerick? It must be one of the most aesthetically unappealing vistas in the city, yet this is what we’re showing to our visitors. Thousands were here for the Great Limerick Run and we herded them down this dark, unappealing thoroughfare, a testament to the shoddy, unimaginative, developer-led construction of the early 1990s.  Would Bedford Row / Thomas Street not have been infinitely more suitable, or Howley’s Quay where there is ample space and which is actually located beside the river? Or the old location at George’s Quay? Seriously, Denmark Street??] In fact, small towns with limited resources put together more impressive festivals than Riverfest. Are we so bereft of creativity that this is all we can come up with? We’re better than this. We are, aren’t we?

Limerick City deserves a festival befitting its status and ambition but Riverfest isn’t it. We are living in ‘Post City of Culture Limerick’, and we’re currently vying for the honour of European Capital of Culture in 2020. The city has come a long way in recent years: street art, urban gardening, dance, theatre, political and culinary festivals, but with Riverfest 2015 we’ve taken a step backwards, and that inspiring legacy of our City of Culture year is fading fast. We’ve a long way to go before the organisers of the likes of the Galway Arts Festival, the Kilkenny Cat Laughs or the Cork Jazz Festival, among others, will see anything happening in Limerick as competition. It’s worth noting that these three festivals were founded by credible, dedicated and passionate people who had a clear vision for that they were trying to achieve. They grew organically from humble beginnings into the hugely popular and successful events they are today. Perhaps there are lessons for Limerick in that the top-down, i.e. local authority organised approach is doomed to fail.

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Limerick’s Bridge of Sighs

And so it wasn’t a bad dream …

Michael Noonan announced funding last week for this white elephant project. Details are fairly scant at the moment, but it seems that the bridge will run from Arthur’s Quay Park over to the weir and then towards Merchant’s Quay. Through various articles I’ve read in the last week, it seems that €3 million will be spent almost immediately, so that probably means they are going for detailed design before applying for planning. That’s a lot of money for local consultants. According to Noonan another €3 million will be spent in 2016, and if an article in The Sunday Business Post is accurate the total spend could be in the region of €16 million.

That so much public money could be thrown at a completely unnecessary infrastructural project is indeed a scandal and I hope that local politicians and media will see it as such. This will be of marginal benefit to the city – and that’s being extremely kind to it. Seemingly, it has been dreamed up by a city official rather than recommended by any expert group. Nor is it contained in any City Council plan. That this project should be given up to €16 million ahead of long-awaited, much needed projects which would be of vastly greater benefit to the city is really something that we should be up in arms over.

Limerick City Council is trying to pretend that it is part of Limerick 2030, but it’s clearly not. I wrote the following beneath an article which dealt with this and the demolition of Sarsfield House that appeared in The Limerick Chronicle during the week.

“The ‘footbridge’ was never part of the Limerick 2030 plan, so let’s not pretend that it was. Limerick 2030 was a well researched document put together by experts which set out an ambitious vision for Limerick City. In contrast, the footbridge was dreamt up by city officials and there is no case to be made for it. If anything, the developments proposed under Limerick 2030 completely negate any argument for this footbridge as the demolition of Sarsfield House and the remodelling of Arthur’s Quay will create a linear park along the bank of the Shannon River, and a clear route towards Nicholas Street, King John’s Castle and the medieval part of Limerick City.

The footbridge has not been looked for by anybody in Limerick, it is not included in any plan by Limerick City & County Council, and it is not endorsed by any experts. It would be a travesty if we allow major, multi-million euro (€16 million according to The Sunday Business Post) infrastructural projects that have very marginal benefit, and which more than likely will do significant damage to the city, to proceed on the basis of solo runs by city officials who are not qualified to make these decisions and are answerable to nobody except the city manager.”

The Sunday Business Post article (19th October 2014) has the most detail on the proposal, but the utterances coming from city hall (presumably from Pat Daly, Economic Development and Planning director) and Fáilte Ireland are disingenuous, deceitful and patronising.

Noonan grants €6m for bridge on his own turf

One of Minister for Finance Michael Noonan’s budget surprises was a €6 million grant for a pedestrian bridge for his native Limerick City.

It will stretch over the Shannon for 100 metres, allowing people to walk from Arthur’s Quay to King John’s Castle in the medieval quarter to the city’s commercial core at Arthur’s Quay.

Although the footbridge was not included in Noonan’s budget speech or in the main budget documentation, he made sure to announce it to his local newspaper, the Limerick Leader, afterwards.

The project is backed by Fáilte Ireland, which sees it as a way of increasing the attractiveness of Limerick City to tourists. A Fáilte Ireland spokesman said it would have a “wow factor” and would link up several tourist attractions within walking distance. It is intended to be a way of promoting the city to tourists flying into Shannon Airport to drive on the Wild Atlantic Way.

Limerick Council also pushed the case for the footbridge on the grounds of social regeneration. It will provide a further connection to the St. Mary’s Park estate in King’s Island, which is one of the poorest parts of the city.

According to a business case drawn up by the council, the footbridge will cost between €7.5 million and €16 million, so private donations will be required. However, the council has pledged to make up any shortfall.

A council spokeswoman said it hoped to go to tender by the end of the year for the design process for the footbridge.

It seems that a lot of money will be thrown at this before we get a chance to make our voices known at the planning stage. No doubt Limerick City & County Council will grant permission to itself (under Part 8 of the Planning & Development Act) so it will be necessary to make an appeal to An Bord Pleanála, but unfortunately a lot of money will have been thrown down the drain before then.

This photo was released by Laura Ryan of Limerick City & County Council on Twitter on Tuesday 21st October.


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Limerick City Council – depressingly short on common sense

You’d have to hope that the article that appeared in today’s Limerick Leader was wildly inaccurate. Alas, it bears all the signs of being close enough to the truth. Limerick City (and County) Council is actually considering building a footbridge between Arthur’s Quay Park and King John’s Castle. Why? Well, there’s funding available from Fáilte Ireland and this is the best way of wasting it (just my guess).

But what’s being proposed isn’t simply a huge waste of money. That in itself would be bad enough, and nothing new for the Council. Worse than the loss of a few million euro would be the permanent damage the proposed plan would do to Limerick. The river amenity, and particularly that stretch between King John’s Castle and Sarsfield Bridge is our city’s most valuable natural asset. Tampering with it on the whim of a council official is a terrible idea.

For starters, it’s not needed. Much could be done with the existing route between Arthur’s Quay Park and King John’s Castle. Sarsfield House is due for demolition. When it comes down, and the area is remodelled under the Limerick 2030 plan, there’ll be no restriction as far as the Potato Market. It too is earmarked for some kind of redevelopment, so access through to the courthouse can easily be designed and facilitated. There’s already a boardwalk around the courthouse, and once you’ve walked along that you’re as far as the city hall (it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility that it will be knocked in the next ten years too) and there’s no real restriction from there to the castle.

As well as being not necessary, this development, if it goes ahead, will significantly compromise what is probably the most impressive riverside vista in Ireland (notwithstanding the current eyesores that are Sarsfield House and the civic offices). There’s also the practical considerations. How will the proposed bridge facilitate boating traffic? Unless there’s some kind of high span or opening element, it simply won’t. Furthermore, using the weir as a structural foundation is surely fanciful in the extreme?

It’s possible that the positive spin being put out in the article above will rub off on a lot of people in Limerick (if it’s new and shiny, it must be good, right??), but I’ve no doubt the plan will attract very strong opposition from many quarters. Those who use the river regularly, those who value the heritage of the city, or those who enjoy that impressive vista between King John’s Castle and Sarsfield Bridge are likely to do what they can to stop it going ahead. I would be surprised if they didn’t succeed. Equally, anybody who has concern about how the local authority administers its budget must be aghast at the notion of scarce funds being spent on a feasibility study for such an unnecessary project, let alone on the project itself.

If the council has any sense it should scrap this idea and not spend another cent on it.

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Limerick 2030

There has been much talk of the Limerick 2030 plan which was launched back in June. Limerick 2030In recent months we’ve seen some movement. First there was the setting up of the Limerick Marketing Company. There is scope now to market the city in a clever and professional way, something that really hasn’t been done before. If anything, the attempts to date have been unambitious and somewhat embarrassing for a city with the rich heritage and potential that Limerick has. It’s a tad disconcerting to see that nearly six months after its founding there is precious little to show from the Limerick Marketing Company. At the time of writing the top web listing on Google relates to the press release announcing its launch back in July. That’s not to say that there isn’t much happening behind the scenes. Maybe there is, but it’s not particularly evident. That said, their efforts in wooing some of the world’s top travel writers and bloggers back in September deserve credit. More of the same please.

UL_Capital_Development_PlanThe University of Limerick just today launched its Capital Development Plan following confirmation that it is to receive a €100 million loan from the European Investment bank and one of the main pillars of this is to develop a major faculty in the city centre together with student accommodation. This is an ambition that was initially set out in the 2030 plan and it’s great to see some very definite moves being made towards making it a reality. It’s the kind of development could be the stimulus for fairly radical change in Limerick. It’s worth clicking the image to the left and having a quick read of UL’s take on where Limerick is going and its relationship with the city.

There’s much more to come from the plan and I’ll write about it here as news comes out. In my opinion, at least, it’s important that anybody who has a keen interest in Limerick and the Midwest should read it and contribute to making it become a reality in whatever way possible. It’s as good a blueprint I’ve seen for reforming our city and if those that are tasked with implementing it have the same vision as those who wrote it, then we’ll see some very positive change in Limerick in the next 15 – 20 years.

There were 30 submissions from the public when the plan was launched and hopefully we’ll get to see those at some point. For what it’s worth, I’ve pasted mine below. Comments welcome!

Spatial Plan Transformational Projects

  1. A World Class Waterfront

Given the stated ambition and time frame of the overall Limerick 2030 plan, it is remiss not to consider the demolition of the city hall / civic offices at Merchant’s Quay. Although reasonably new, the buildings are a significant visual blemish on an otherwise impressive waterfront between The Hunt Museum and King John’s Castle. While it might seem unpalatable now in 2013 to demolish a building that is barely over two decades old, the reality is that it is no longer fit for purpose as a headquarters of the combined local authority given its size and poor design and at some stage in the next decade or so there will inevitably be a debate about its removal. The Civic Offices also act as a waterfront barrier between the medieval city and the proposed retail centre at Arthur’s Quay. If we are formulating a plan in 2013 about developing a truly ‘world class waterfront’ over a period of 15 – 17 years, then the removal of this building should certainly be part of the discussion.

It is important that the proposed buildings along the waterfront, particularly in the vicinity of Arthur’s Quay, are of a very high quality design, and an appropriate scale. These should be seen as ‘prestige’ buildings of high architectural merit. Most of the newer buildings in Limerick are very poorly designed both aesthetically and functionally, and have been built in order to maximise usable floor space and minimise cost. This approach should be knocked squarely on the head as it leads to poor quality, visually unappealing developments that date very quickly. Poorly designed buildings contribute greatly to making the city an unattractive place to live, and that being the case, are indirectly at the root of many of the social and economic challenges of the city. When facilitating new developments, the city should be particularly protective of the area around the river, as this is Limerick’s strongest visual asset and it should be borne in mind by the various stakeholders that any new development could have a lifetime of 200 – 300 years, or more, so it is crucially important that the design is of high quality and sympathetic to the city.

While some visually unappealing buildings are proposed to be demolished as part of the Limerick 2030 plan (Sarsfield House, Arthur’s Quay Shopping Centre, among others), it would be timely at this point to develop a plan to improve the poor aesthetics of the buildings along the water front that are likely to remain (Harvey’s Quay, Bridgewater Apartments).

The success of the proposed ‘World Class Waterfront’ could depend on the management of traffic and the associated noise, pollution and congestion. The three lane section of the orbital route that extends from Upper Henry Street through Liddy Street and around Arthur’s Quay Park, through to Rutland Street (Hunt Museum) has acted as a barrier to the use of and enjoyment of the river amenity (including Spokane Walk and Arthur’s Quay Park) over the past few decades. It is important that this situation is adequately addressed in the plan. The ‘rethinking’ of the orbital route, as suggested in the Limerick 2030 plan (Spatial Strategy) is crucial.

  1. Limerick Cultural Centre

There is great scope for this element of the project, and all the suggested uses for the Limerick Cultural Centre contained in the plan are positive (i.e. Museum of the West of Ireland, National Diaspora Centre, City Library, etc.). Further uses could be considered and debated at this stage.

There is no Shannon River Interpretive Centre in Ireland. Given the huge importance of the river to the country from the point of view of heritage, environment, commerce, tourism, etc. this presents a great opportunity for Limerick City. Perhaps such a facility could be considered for the Limerick Cultural Centre.

Unlike most European nations, Ireland has no National Science and Technology Museum, and something like this could also be considered, especially so given Limerick and the Midwest’s industrial heritage. If not a large dedicated ‘national’ science museum such as London’s Imperial Science Museum, there is scope to develop a smaller scale version with fun and interesting interactive experiments for children and adults alike, as exists in many European cities of similar size. This would put Limerick firmly on the map, and be a strong draw for overseas tourists and also families and students from throughout Ireland. It would be very much an educational amenity as it would be a tourist one, and the close involvement of the University of Limerick and Institute of Technology would be important.

  1. Great Streets

In general, it is critical that the large volumes of vehicular traffic going through the city centre are removed if ‘great streets’ are to be realised. Where traffic cannot be removed altogether, the streets should be ‘shared surfaces’ between lower volumes of traffic and pedestrians and cyclists. The one way traffic system should be discarded as soon as possible, as it encourages high volumes of fast through traffic, and this is an impediment to the enjoyment of the city by shoppers and residents, and it ultimately stifles the development and economic well-being of the city. It is internationally acknowledged that one way systems greatly discourage cycling in cities, and given the Smarter Travel ambitions of the plan, it would be necessary to do away with them.

Currently, the streets of the city are visually unappealing, in large part due to the accumulation of poorly thought out road signage, lighting, paving, and street furniture. Even new streetscapes, such as Thomas Street / Bedford Row are cluttered with a proliferation of unnecessary and unsightly signage and street furniture. The design of further pedestrianised streets should aim to address this negative feature of the city’s streets.

  1. A New City Square/Plaza

The city centre square is at the heart of the proposed retail area and it is likely that during the day time, a very large number of people will spend time there and enjoy it. However, if it does not have some kind of evening, and late evening function, then it may become an area attractive for loitering and undesirable activity. There is a strong argument to have the ‘Higher Education Campus’ very nearby and this will encourage residential uptake in the area, which will in turn incentivise late evening business, such as cafes and restaurants, and make the area popular at night time as well as day time.

  1. A City Centre Higher Education Campus

Strong transport links with the University of Limerick and Limerick Institute of Technology should be provided. At present the bus service is not good. The alternative route for travelling between the city and the university (via the Park Canal from Charlotte Quay and river bank to Plassey) should be given consideration and support. It is a shorter distance than the ‘road’ route, it is flat, and it is also very scenic, making it a potentially very attractive transport corridor, particularly for cyclists. If the path (especially along the Park Canal between the city and Richmond RFC) was suitably upgraded, it is likely that a significantly greater number of students, staff and visitors would use it as their proscribed route for travelling between the city and university.

  1. Renewal of Georgian Quarter

The Plan makes reference to the Living Cities initiative (launched by Dept. of Finance. Feb 2013). It is worth discussing whether this will do enough to transform the Georgian Quarter into an owner-occupied residential area, and perhaps other approaches should be investigated.

Much of the housing stock is let, via private landlords, to the Health Service Executive, and this has led to the area becoming saturated with a number difficult tenants. It is an issue that needs attention.

The Limerick Royal (old Theatre Royal) proposal for an arthouse cinema and digital media centre is a good fit for this particular part of the city and would do much to lift the area around Cecil Street and Catherine Street and support for this should be given serious consideration

  1. Colbert Station Renewal

Further to the refurbishment plan for the station, there is great potential to transform Parnell Street, Davis Street and Upper Mallow Street to the point that they are attractive routes to the city centre for visitors.

Marketing Plan / Positioning

  1. The Pitch

Given the city’s long and colourful heritage spanning many centuries, it could do much more to promote itself. While it is appreciated that rugby is a huge benefit to the city, it is important to recognise that there is a lot more going on, in the area of arts, culture and of course other sports, and that, if promoted intelligently, would market the city to a far wider audience. Recent years have seen the city narrow its focus in terms of marketing, and this is something that should be reversed if Limerick is to be considered a truly European city of stature rather than simply an Irish regional city.

  1. Culture Night

Culture Night (a national event) has been held over the last number of years in September and has been a great success. It showcases, on a single night, a large range of cultural activities that exist in the city.  Throughout the year, these activities are ongoing, but very much on an infrequent and disjointed basis and unfortunately are barely noticed by tourists or residents of the city. There is scope to institute an organised, fortnightly or monthly ‘Culture Night’ with a similar range and calibre of activities and events. If well organised, and given the appropriate support this would be a huge attraction to visitors, and residents, and would go a long way to successfully branding the city internationally as a ‘city of culture’.

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What’s the story with the lights on Sarsfield Bridge?

Nearly a year ago (April 2012) the old Victorian light standards on Sarsfield Bridge were removed, supposedly for restoration. As a temporary measure some very tacky and ill-fitting lamp standards were installed. No argument there if it’s not going to be for very long and for safety reasons it’s important that the bridge is lit. Unfortunately, these temporary lights remain in position (they are not even turned on lately) and there’s no sign of the old ones. I’ll try and get a comment from the city council and will update when I do.


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The demise of the Limerick Leader?

Just when you thought the Limerick Leader couldn’t get any worse, the following headlines appear on the front page today.

“Girl punched in city fight video on You Tube”

“Prostitutes still stalk city streets despite garda sting”

“Viagra use shouldn’t be mocked, says mayor”

It seems that a once decent newspaper is sliding steadily into the abyss. A friend has suggested that since the Limerick Post upped its game a few years ago, the Leader has settled back into the role of trashy tabloid as it is no longer able to compete on quality. It’s not difficult to believe given the current standard. Perhaps it’s to do with the editorial agenda forced on it by its new Scottish owners, Johnston Press.

Whatever the cause, the stories above are hardly newsworthy. Scuffles break out in every town and village in the country every night and they are hardly deemed worthy of gossip, let alone column inches on the front page of the local newspaper. Prostitutes walking the streets isn’t news. You could write that story at any stage and just publish it whenever you’re too lazy to come up with something half interesting. Prostitiutes are always walking the streets and always have been. They do it elsewhere too. As for the new mayor being quoted on the apparent high level of viagra prescriptions in the region, I suspect that somebody in the Leader office rang him up to get an opinion, and this hardly counts as journalism, does it? It would have taken about two minutes to write that story, and maybe another two minutes to call the mayors office to get a quote, slot it in and think of a headline. He should know better than to comment on issues that he knows little about or has nothing to do with, but the Limerick Leader scraping the bottom of the barrel with this kind of thing.

I would hate to see the Leader slide further, but it strikes me that perhaps there’s only room for one decent newspaper in the city?

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MIssed Opportunity for Limerick City

Readers of this blog will be aware that the old Jesuit Church on O’Connell Street has been on the property market for some time. The asking price for the church itself and the adjoining building was reportedly in the region of €500 – €600,000. There had been talk about the city council purchasing it and using it as the new location for Limerick City library, which is to be relocated from its current premises in the Granary on Michael Street. In any other city, for this price, and for this quality of building, the local authority would have jumped at the chance to purchase it. Alas, Limerick City Council has let the opportunity slip by and the buildings have been snapped up by a private entity. I’ll post more once further details emerge.

Some earlier posts on this subject can be found by clicking the links below.



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