Ahead of his appearance at the Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend, Garbhan Downey talks to the master journalist about rejecting the KGB, writing about 9/11 and Queen's in its heyday
I’ve never played the Who Would You Invite to Your Imaginary Dinner Party? game. But if I were to start now, my first picks would be two writers bred at Queen's University in the late 1960s: Eamonn McCann and Conor O’Clery.
Political leaders, movie actors and pop stars? Forget them. If you want the inside track on what’s really going on in the world, chew the fat with a journalist instead. And besides, I’ve been enjoying the company of these two men for most of my adult life – even if I only spoke to O’Clery for the first time last week.
McCann, for the record, is the most eloquent and entertaining speaker I’ve ever seen in action, bar none. And you’d be guaranteed some good debate over brandy, as the same fellow could start a riot at the Blessing of the Graves. Though, to be honest, I’m not sure he would go for something as bourgeois as a dinner party, even if you were able to wrestle him to the floor and strap him into a bowtie.
O’Clery, I’d imagine, would have his own tux. After all, he’s been news editor at the Irish Times and has also interviewed Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev, amongst many other notable names. Pinning him down to a date might be a different matter. This son of Belfast has spent his life jetting around the world as a front-seat eyewitness to modern history and is currently Ireland correspondent with GlobalPost.
So, given that his attendance at the Downey high table is unlikely in the short term at least, a chance to interview him is a pretty decent second prize. Reporter, traveller, author and broadcaster, it’s as the former backbone of the Irish Times foreign desk that O’Clery is best known.
From the Troubles in the north in the 1970s, to the Twin Towers attacks in 2001, he observed and explained the key events of the last 40 years with trademark humour and compassion. His gift for insightful, uncomplicated story-telling led to him being crowned his country’s Journalist of the Year. Twice.
He was right on hand to record the collapse of the Soviet Union, Washington’s championing of the Irish peace process and the rise of China as a world economic force. He has written a small shelfful of books about his experiences, including a memoir, May You Live in Interesting Times, which he’ll be reading from at the Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend in Omagh later this month.
‘I’ll be giving my account of witnessing 9/11 and another extract detailing my brushes with the KGB,’ he reveals. ‘The KGB tried to get to me through my wife Zhanna, who was an Armenian living in the then Soviet Union. They tried to intimidate her into recruiting me. It went on for months. But she turned them down flat. Very brave of her. And in the end, they didn’t follow through with their threats to stop her getting her doctorate.’
O’Clery was in his office just three blocks away from the Twin Towers when they were targeted and won an award for his powerfully poignant coverage of the atrocity. But he has also witnessed acute devastation elsewhere, including the murder of children in South Africa and East Timor. For all that, he would never see himself as an ‘advocating’ or campaigning journalist, and he never had any desire to become a player.
‘I was born one of life’s observers and story-tellers. It came home to me when I was a student at Queen's, and the Peoples Democracy had a sitdown protest in Linenhall Street. Both unionist and nationalist students were there. John Houston, who later became Brian Faulkner’s spokesman took part, as did some of my friends. But, while I felt just as strongly about the issues as they did, if I had sat down I would have been crossing the line from observing to being part of it. So I didn’t.
‘You have your own private feelings, you can’t help it. I cheered on the independence movement in East Timor, for example. But I don’t believe in getting directly involved. When I went to cover the Armenian earthquake, I packed a suitcase full of sweaters and clothes for victims. But advocacy journalism is not what I do – I regard myself as someone who tells stories, someone who tells people things they don’t know but should.
‘In saying that, when you see something that’s wrong and you have the ability to report it, that’s a cause of great satisfaction. You can never be totally objective. Your choice of words and arrangement of facts can and will bring home to people how they should view an event.’
Full and fearless reporting of the facts isn’t always easy, or indeed possible, as O’Clery knows well. If he’d reported the KGB pressure on his wife, it might have had serious consequences for her family.
‘Journalism is called the first draft of history. May You Live in Interesting Times is a second draft – there are details in there I couldn’t report at the time. A journalist must protect his sources. And to protect these sources, sometimes you are asked not to report things you have been told. If that happens, as part of the story gathering process, but you can then get the full story out eventually, that’s a good thing. But if you are colluding to stop information going out, then that should give you pause.
‘When I was working as northern editor of the Irish Times in Belfast, the Official IRA made a threat against our office because of our reporting. But, while we were apprehensive, we continued with what we were doing as we reckoned they were bluffing.’
During this turbulent period O’Clery also risked the wrath of the Northern Ireland Office for refusing to accede to one of the mandarins’ more bizarre requests. ‘It was at the time when there were many sectarian killings, and someone in the NIO got this bright idea that it might ease the tension if newspapers didn’t report the religion of a victim. All the editors were brought out to Stormont and given a lecture on why it was so important. Some journalists bought the idea – but I, and others, fought it, as we felt it was totally against the public interest.
‘How could you not warn people what was going on around them? You were being asked to suppress the details of assassinations. We were effectively being asked to hand over the management of the news to the paramilitaries and allow them to put out their own propaganda. RTE succumbed for a while, but those nearest the conflict realised it was a stupid request.’
O’Clery still visits the north regularly, in his role as chairman of The Gown Trust, which was established to secure the future of the independent student newspaper at Queens. He was deputy editor of the paper during his time at university (he entered as a mature student aged 28 in 1968) and once won a UK award for an article analysing why greater numbers of Catholics were attending QUB than Protestants.
It was an exciting time to be at Queens; O’Clery’s contemporaries included Bernadette Devlin, Eamonn McCann, Michael Farrell, Mary McAleese, Tom McGurk, Derek Davis, Nick Ross (Crimewatch) who was head of the students union, and David Montgomery, who also wrote for Gown.
Four decades on, O’Clery is still writing about revolutions. His new book, a minute by minute account of the very last day of the Soviet Union, will be published in the spring. He still enjoys reading too, particularly essayists and modern historians such as Hubert Butler, Simon Sebag Montefiore, Max Hastings and Antony Beevor. He particularly admires Butler, an Anglo-Irish writer who helped Jews flee after the Anschluss in World War II, and regards him as a model.
Surprisingly for a man with so many stories to tell, O’Clery has never tried his hand at writing fiction, though he doesn’t rule it out. And he is a fan of both William Trevor and John Le Carré. Clearly a decade in Russia leaves its mark.
He is delighted to get the opportunity to commemorate Benedict Kiely by attending the literary weekend; he met the Tyrone man in Dublin a number of times in the 1970s. ‘He was a very courageous writer given the atmosphere of the time. I like his writing very much. I’m thrilled to get the invitation to Omagh – it’s a terrific honour.’
The 9th Benedict Kiely Literary Weekend takes place at the Strule Centre, Omagh, September 9-12. Conor O’Clery is reading on Friday September 10 at 8.30pm.