Guest post: Journalists recall coverage challenges during Northern Ireland Troubles

Daniel Carey is a PhD student at Dublin City University. His thesis examines the working lives of former journalists and editors in Ireland. I’ve had the pleasure of reading his work and hearing Dan present some of his research at Newspaper and Periodical History Forum of Ireland conferences. He is based at University College Dublin, where he works as research project officer for community engagement at CUPHAT. Find him on Twitter @danielmcarey. … Journalists, historians, authors, researchers, and travelers to Ireland are always welcome to offer guest contributionsMH

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On his first night working in Belfast in late 1969, Irish Times reporter Conor Brady met his colleague Henry Kelly, who wrote on the back of Brady’s hand: “S = P; F = C”. That important piece of shorthand stood for “Shankill [Road] equals Protestants, Falls [Road] equals Catholics”. Dublin-based reporters like Brady “hadn’t a clue” about the geographical specifics of Northern Ireland at that time, he acknowledged, and he laughed ruefully when reflecting on the “guidance” he received from Kelly.

Brady, who later became editor of the Irish Times, was one of  30 people I interviewed for my PhD thesis. Many of them covered the Northern Troubles, which proved a formative experience for generations of Irish journalists. Fifty years on from Bloody Sunday in Derry and Bloody Friday in Belfast, the success of Sinn Féin in the May 2022 Assembly elections brought Northern Ireland back into the international headlines. But the days when Belfast hotels such as the Europa were regularly filled with correspondents from The New York Times, Agence-France Presse, and various German newspapers are no more.

Lyra McKee was killed in Derry, this mural is in Belfast, her native city.

The murder in 2019 of Lyra McKee in Derry brought into sharp relief the dangers faced by reporters in Northern Ireland today. Journalists who covered the Troubles faced intimidation and threats to their personal safety. But at least in some cases, journalists may have been safer than ordinary civilians, in an era when many paramilitaries felt harming reporters would be counterproductive.

Michael Foley of the Irish Times remembers travelling in a car during the Troubles when he and a colleague were stopped at a barricade patrolled by individuals armed with Armalite rifles. Foley’s outraged companion yelled: “How dare you stop us! We’re journalists!” and showed his National Union of Journalists membership card. This prompted an apology from one of the armed men, who, Foley remembers, “didn’t want us to tell Danny Morrison, who was the Sinn Féin press officer at the time”.

Emily O’Reilly says she “actually never felt unsafe” while covering Northern Ireland for the Sunday Tribune. She “knew that journalists were generally safe in the North” and felt that women “got an extra layer of protection”. In 1984, a Democratic Unionist Party [DUP] politician named George Seawright told a meeting of the Belfast Education and Library Board that Catholics who objected to the playing of the British national anthem at mixed concerts for school children were “Fenian scum” who should be incinerated, along with their priests.

Showing what she called “the fearlessness of youth”, O’Reilly rang Seawright and asked for an interview. He readily agreed and invited her to his maisonette home on the Forthriver Road in Belfast. She wandered into what she called “a wonderful oasis of domesticity”, where Seawright was “the personification of charm” and “just lovely”. She remembers him seeing her off at the door by joking: “Wouldn’t it be hilarious if you got shot here?”

Emily O’Reilly

She arranged to meet Seawright again the following day, where they were joined by a man named John Bingham, a member of the Ulster Volunteer Force [UVF] who had been sentenced to 20 years in prison on “supergrass” evidence [from an informant in exchange for immunity] before his conviction was overturned. The trio did what she called “a tourist trip” around the Shankill Road area, with Bingham showing what she said was “an incredibly detailed knowledge” of where people had died violently. Both Bingham and Seawright were themselves subsequently shot dead.

Andy Pollak, son of a Czech Jewish father and a Protestant mother from Ballymena, County Antrim, edited Fortnight magazine in Belfast from 1981 to 1985. He “very rarely had any trouble” in Northern Ireland. But one exception came in the mid-1980s, when he was researching a book which he was co-writing with fellow journalist Ed Moloney on DUP leader Ian Paisley.

“We wanted to find a place … away from the mainstream, where Paisley was talking to his own people, with no media,” Pollak explains. “He was doing a series of … rallies around the place, and he was in Pomeroy [in County Tyrone], and I went down. There was no other journalist there, and … he gave his rabble-rousing speech. And there were bandsmen, and one of them asked me … ‘Who are you?’ and I said ‘I’m from the Irish Times’ … which was a mistake. So anyway, they started to kind of duff me up and beat me up, you know, [they called me a] ‘fuckin’ Fenian’ and all this sort of stuff, and I was rescued by the RUC [Royal Ulster Constabulary] … The RUC man said: ‘You’ve got a bit of blood on your collar, you could claim for that’ So I came … away eventually three hundred pounds richer … from that trip!”

Such episodes of intimidation were not confined to Northern Ireland. Husband and wife Michael O’Toole and Maureen Browne covered a lot of kidnapping stories for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, and, Browne recalls, “ran into trouble with the IRA” as a result. A petrol bomb thrown at Browne in the Dublin suburb of Portmarnock only narrowly missed its target. Threats against the couple’s children prompted O’Toole to see “the leaders of the organisation” and “the dogs of war were called off”.

The Troubles constitute a small but important slice of the material collected for the project. The thesis researches journalism as a career choice and investigates the relationship between Irish journalism and politics, religion and technology. Recordings of the 30 broad-ranging interviews will become part of the Media History Collection at Dublin City University, where they will be made available for public access and may form part of future exhibitions.

The Europa Belfast, a regular lodging place for correspondents during the Troubles, was considered “the most bombed hotel” in Europe. Despite 33 blasts, nobody was killed, according to the new book, ‘War Hotels’. 2019 photo by MH.

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