Alliance Party Conference 2010: Guest Speaker (Liam Clarke)

[Following is full text of speech by journalist, Liam Clarke, delivered at the Alliance Party Conference, Dunadry Hotel, Templepatrick, Northern Ireland. Above video is introduction. Transcript to be verified by author.]

Well, thank you Gerry for that introduction. It was so good that I can hardly wait to hear what I’m going to say. I just hope I live up to it.

There are few things better than a good dinner in good company, and this has been one of those nights. However, life isn’t all pleasure. So it is particularly fitting and appropriate that this wonderful evening should be all capped off with a speech from a journalist.

And as if that wasn’t enough, we are in the middle of a political crisis. Scary of what?

The signals being sent out by Sinn Fein remind me a little of British government assessments of the danger of terrorist attacks in the UK.

Currently, the threat level of the executive collapsing has been raised to “severe” though it is not judged “imminent”.

Perhaps Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley should resume their prayer meetings.

Barring divine intervention, the next option will probably involve calling in the two governments for a bout of concessions and bargaining.

Prime Ministers and Taoiseach are fast learning the main difference between an Ulster crisis and a circus. When you go to the circus the clowns don’t gather round you to whinge and beg.

Over the years the two big parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, have learned to turn their dysfunctional relationship into leverage.

Back in the 90s, a DUP source once told me that the best thing to bear in mind when dealing the the British government was that “the crying child is soonest lifted”.

On another occasion I observed that he was under pressure to compromise.

He replied, “When people want you to move they have to give you something. A time of pressure is a time to get what you want.”

The government reacts to problems. It is constantly putting out fires and when things are running smoothly it leaves well alone.

Nobody pays much attention to the plane that lands safely and smoothly, but the emergency services rush out when one crashes or looks like it might.

One of Alliance’s problems as a party is that it isn’t a problem.

Moderation, accommodation and common sense don’t call for a response any more than the plane that makes a perfect touchdown.

Of course, Alliance does have a value to the government and to society. It is the party that is often called in when a fix is needed for a problem caused by the tribal parties.

Whether they like admitting to it or not, everybody trusts Alliance to be fair.

That is why it is being talked about for the Justice Ministry:

  • Nobody expects David Ford to lose the run of himself
  • Nobody expects him to line his own pockets
  • Nobody expects him to start discriminating against people of another faith

It is the same reputation for integrity an impartiality that led to Paul Maguire being trusted to scrutinise Peter Robinson’s behaviour in the Irisgate affair.

It is the reason Bob Cooper was trusted to head the Fair Employment Agency.

It’s the reason that every time there is a really hot potato, people tend to look to Alliance.

You in Alliance are the sort of political presence who, if you didn’t already exist, would have to be invented.

But this is all by way of a preamble to the subject which Gerry asked me to speak on: “Two decades in Northern Ireland journalism and what it means for the future”.

My first job on a mainstream newspaper was with the old Sunday News, which was the biggest Sunday paper in Northern Ireland. It appointed me political correspondent in 1981.

Colleagues who I remember from those days, who are still active in journalism or PR, include:

  • Mary Kelly, who now produces Hearts and Minds
  • Maxine Mawhinney, the BBC newsreader
  • Gary Hunniford, formerly of Sky
  • Maurice Neill, the director of journalism training at Belfast Metropolitan College, and
  • Stephen Grimason, head of information at the Northern Ireland Executive

It was Jim McDowell, now editor of the Sunday World, who interviewed me. He was a little surprised on my first day in work to find me typing with two fingers.

Well, that’s not quite true — it was one finger to start with.

I had to practice at night on an old Amstrad computer with a copy of Mavis Beacom’s typing tutor until I got the hang of it. I never did shorthand.

Jim and Pat Carville, the editor, had been picking up stories I had written for community papers for some time, but probably didn’t realise I had no formal training as a journalist.

Either that or they were too polite to ask me about it at the interview.

That is one of the big changes over the years. Nowadays, you can’t move from being a keen amateur to work on a news desk and learn on the job.

A generation earlier, most senior journalists seemed to have started off as copy boys or messengers or something like that.

Now, formal training is the norm, though blogging may be emerging as the new back door through which people like me will get their breaks in the future.

The Sunday News was a good training ground. I remember two early interviews I did were with James Crutchley, then the RUC’s head of border security, and Gerry Adams.

We had an old time newspaper boss in the shape of Captain Bill Henderson, whose brother Brum ran UTV at the time.

The Captain, as he was known, had a more hands on approach than would be accepted in these politically correct days.

I remember writing a feature on Freemasonry, where I revealed a lot of the Brotherhood’s ceremonies and some of its senior members. It was tied into a review of a book on the subject called “The Brotherhood”, which was written by the investigative journalist, Martin Short.

I got a good deal of help from some Masons, who felt it was time some light was shed on the order. The Captain, however, was one Mason who took a distinctly dim view of my endeavours.

I got a call from him saying he had read it and it was an absolute outrage. Did I not realise that the company had an overdraft and the bank manager was a Mason?

It didn’t do to offend people. He said that one particular Masonic password was “like a thing between a man and his wife; you don’t want to go publishing it.”

Martin Short later interviewed the Captain for a subsequent edition of his book. He was quite unrepentant:

“I asked Captain Henderson if Liam Clarke’s recollection on this point [“no need to offend … needlessly”] was correct. The Captain told me:

“How right he is and how right I am … It is a fact that there are something like 70,000 Masons in our circulation area. I’m not going to stick a squib up their tail, am I, and send them up? Am I going to send up my market? … It doesn’t matter whether you’re selling ball-bearings, French letters or margarine or newspapers, you don’t offend your customers. And anybody else who’s dealing with his customers doesn’t do anything to offend them, if he can avoid it, just to satisfy the whims of some little punk journalist.””

Although he later threatened to sack me when I published the same material in Fortnight magazine, the Captain kept me on. As for the Masons, I got a couple of invitations to join after the Fortnight article.

So it’s not something I look back on with bitterness. It wasn’t a particularly important battle for press freedom, more of a sham fight.

The story is only worth telling because:

  • it amuses me when I think of it
  • it shows how much things have moved on, in terms of the ethical walls we have erected between newspaper proprietors, business and journalism

At that point, Northern Ireland was emerging from an era when the press was regarded as part of the establishment which could be relied on to toe the line and behave responsibly.

Wheeling back a few decades, Rex Cathcart, in his history of BBC Northern Ireland, notes that “until 1951 the BBC sought to portray a society without division; the very mention of partition was precluded”.

With hindsight it is obvious that the failure of the press to delve into the inequalities and divisions of society contributed to the crisis.

When the dam burst everything got swept away.

The release of information didn’t come through the local press, who tried to put a brave face on our problems. Pre-Troubles, the local media was in cahoots with the seemingly permanent parties of Government or Opposition at Stormont.

The first light was shone by British papers like Sunday Times and The Observer, who launched major investigations. As a schoolboy, the Sunday Times Insight team’s reports on Northern Ireland inspired me to want to become a journalist one day.

Both BBC nationally and RTE’s coverage of the Duke Street riots in Derry helped to challenge the agreed narrative and alert the world to the fact that something was amiss.

Yet as late as 1971, Lord Aylstone of the Independent Television Authority wrote “as far as I am concerned, Britain is at war with the IRA in Ulster, and the IRA will get no more coverage than the Nazis would have done in the last war.”

In the BBC, the reference upwards system meant that it was difficult and unpopular to make programmes on Northern Ireland. There was a chilling effect in which normal news values were suspended and self censorship became a natural defence mechanism.

Just to be clear, I’m not arguing that giving more IRA interviews would have solved our problems. There was a need for restraint.

But we now know that the promise of greater access to the airways and to political influence was one of the carrots which gradually weaned republicans away from their armed campaign.

We also know that restricting the flow of information, and leaning on the press, helped delay inevitable reforms.

The ability to damp down the bad news and control the flow of information is like taking the battery out of your smoke alarm: you won’t be disturbed every time someone lights a cigarette, but you may well miss a real fire and be burnt in your bed.

It wasn’t just the state, governing bodies and business interests who seek to suppress information.

I learned that after I moved to the Sunday Times in the mid 1980s.

In my time on the staff of the [Sunday Times], more than 2,000 stories appeared under my by-line.

Many were humdrum enough, but the ones which Andrew Neil and John Witherow, the two editors who were there in my time, really valued were the stories that someone, somewhere, wanted concealed; the rest is advertising.

For both men, the most important thing was always the likely impact that a story would have. Other considerations, such as who would be pleased, came in afterwards.

They were both prepared to use News International’s resources to fight the government through the courts, for the right to publish. The only times stories were willingly watered down was when it was necessary to withhold information to save life.

They also stood up to the paramilitaries.

In March 1988, after the murder of two British army corporals at an IRA funeral, Neil ran a double-page spread by the Insight team, which I now worked for.

“Eight faces of hate in the moment the mob smelt blood” ran the headline. The story included close-ups of the mob attacking the corporals’ car. It was a brave move because the IRA had threatened photographers and seized and exposed a number of rolls of film. In his autobiography, Neil describes how he personally drove this story through. Fair enough he was the editor in London, but I took the flak in Belfast.

Now it wasn’t unusual for stories like that, which enraged the leadership, to produce contacts from disillusioned republicans who had material they wanted published.

The IRA was well aware of this. Later that year an active service unit responsible for most of the killings in Belfast at the time tried to lure me to a meeting on the promise of information about a split in the organisation.

Contacts tipped me off to the plot and left me in no doubt that I would be killed if I attended. I later met a member of the IRA Northern Command with a priest, who bravely agreed to defuse the situation.

The IRA representative told me that there would be no active threat, but that I might not be safe socialising in republican areas. He added that the Sinn Fein press office would be reluctant to deal with me if I continued writing as I did.

At the same time, I got a similar threat from loyalists which a prisoner warned me about. As a result, the paper sought the advice of the police and moved me out of Belfast.

It was relatively easy for someone like me, who had a powerful news organisation behind him and was prepared to move house if necessary, to roll with such punches.

Other people paid a heavier price for ruffling terrorist feathers.

The news of Eamon Collin’s murder was the worst moment of my 20 years working for the Sunday Times. It was January 27, 1999, when he was found dead, battered and stabbed to death, at the side of the road near his home in Newry’s Barcroft Park.

Gerry Adams said there was reason to suspect foul play, but there was little doubt that the father of four had been killed by the IRA. He had given evidence against Thomas “Slab” Murphy, the IRA Chief of Staff, in a libel that Murphy brought against the paper after it accused him of mass murder.

Eamon was a former Provo intelligence officer who became disillusioned. His book, “Killing Rage”, is probably the best and honest IRA memoir that has ever been written.

He had a high degree of self knowledge and was tormented by conscience over his part in the murder of a colleague [Ivor Toomlees?] in the custom service. In court, his detailed account of attending terrorist meetings with Murphy had swung the case.

Tom Murphy had gone into Dublin’s High Court to claim half a million in damages, but he walked out of it owing the paper £600,000 in costs. His name, once virtually unknown, was now public property and his reputation was in tatters.

This was an important moment in penetrating the IRA cloak of secrecy.

Eamon didn’t stop there. He conducted an unremitting publicity campaign against the South Armagh IRA, which Murphy headed. He wrote articles in the Irish News and had appeared on BBC Newsnight to denounce the South Armagh brigade only a few days before his death.

The Sunday Times had offered to move him and give him a new start outside Northern Ireland, but he had instead used the money to renovate an old house near Camlough. Predictably it was burnt down as it neared completion.

Before his death, Eamon was accused of being an informer, but that was never true. It was simply the preferred method of the IRA and other paramilitary groups of explaining away dissent and excusing murder.

All that Eamon had to say had been said in print and on television, not to some Special Branch informer.

Besides, he had been more critical of himself than of anyone else. He was a man torn between his devotion to the republican ideal and his horror of what he had done in pursuit of it.

His death brought home to me the fact that words can kill those who utter them, and the courage it takes to speak out against vested interests.

As my knowledge of the paramilitaries grew, I began to glimpse the degree to which they were infiltrated and manipulated by intelligence agencies.

Here, too, a premium was placed on silence; there was a price to be paid for talking.

One of my most serious run-ins with the government concerned “Martin Ingram”. That was the pseudonym that I gave to a member of the British Army Force Research Unit (FRU) who blew the whistle on a number of security force abuses.

These included the burning of Sir John Stevens’ office by FRU supporters in an effort to disrupt an inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane. Ingram was arrested and I was questioned by police staff, thanks largely to the legal backup provided by Times newspapers. Charges fell through.

Another arrest came when my wife, Kathryn Johnston, and I were hauled into Antrim anti-terrorist holding centre overnight for publishing transcripts of bugged telephone calls from Martin McGuinness’s home number. The transcripts, reproduced in our biography of McGuinness, showed the Sinn Fein leader laughing and joking with senior government figures including Mo Mowlam, the Secretary of State at the time, and Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s Chief of Staff.

There were many expressions of support from unexpected quarters, including one from Mowlam herself who offered to help our legal team if we were prosecuted. I asked her if she had signed the warrant to tap McGuinness’s phone herself.

“Well now, I signed so many, but don’t you want to know if there is one for you?” she replied laughing.

I see some of you shaking your watches to see if they are still going, so perhaps it’s time to wind up.

Throughout this rambling monologue, my theme has been the value of an independent media and the related value of a centre ground, impartial, political block like Alliance.

Both are necessary for the proper working of democracy in our divided society. Unfortunately, both may be threatened by attempts to re-erect the old pre-Troubles political consensus.

That would mean:

  • One big nationalist and one big unionist party carving things up between them
  • A local press bribed and bullied into being “responsible” by the control of information and of government advertising revenue
  • A permanently divided society left to manage itself by London and Dublin

It was a recipe for disaster the last time and it would be a recipe for disaster now.

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