When I saw the Christmas festivities photo posted by the journalist Liam Clarke on Facebook he looked quite happy. The thought crossed my mind that the cancer he suffered from would have its work cut out to put him down. He was dead the following day.
I was also taken by the chilling effect of knowing that because he would dip in and out of TPQ he may have noticed the first of the year’s end obituaries and now he features in the same run. How quickly death comes upon us.
When he revealed to me a couple of years back that he had the illness he was quite upbeat. He knew it would catch him but he was determined to make it work hard for its victory. He would strive to stay ahead of it for as long as possible and write as much as he could. A most accomplished writer he easily shifted lanes and switched pens as an investigative journalist, newspaper columnist and author.
He had a keen interest in the Provisional Republican Movement, embracing both the IRA and Sinn Fein. In addition to writing about the veteran South Armagh republican leader, Thomas Slab Murphy which led to a much publicized legal battle, he along with his wife Kathryn wrote a biography of former Provisional IRA chief of staff Martin McGuinness, From Guns To Government. His 1987 Broadening The Battlefield was the first serious attempt to explain the post-hunger strike rise of Sinn Fein.
His intellectual interests were not confined to the Irish politics he made his name covering. I surmise that his relationship with Zennism was grounded in the desire to find an alternative to a materialism which was not laced with dogma and piety. In 2006 he composed an erudite piece, published in The Blanket, setting out his understanding of the belief system. It was his contribution to a call for greater tolerance in the wake of the theocratic violence and intimidation against freedom of expression in Denmark.
Many years ago when I first became familiar with his writing I resiled from it, thinking Sunday Times, Brit establishment and all that. It was not that I was one of Hoffer’s True Believers, unthinkingly conforming to the prevalent groupthink: just that immersion in a militaristic culture equips adherents with the requisite amount of intolerance towards other perspectives.
Back in the day he was considered toxic by the Provisional Movement. Political Islam issues fatwas whereas Provisional republicanism issues smearwas. Our critics in the press were to have their character decapitated: they were labelled in whatever pejorative fashion was considered advantageous. Whisper weasels were dispensed to smear Liam Clarke and any other journalist who would not buy into the bull of the day and who were loathe to rely on the privileged briefing or press statement.
The irony is not lost. The most dishonest people in the course of the conflict were of course not the journalists. It would be a close call between Thiepval’s Lisburn Lie Machine And Sinn Fein’s Leadership Lie Machine. On occasion some of those worked for both machines at the same time, smearing all and sundry.
Liam Clarke was not sans critics in the media. Some queried his methods of obtaining information for his stories. I remained unpersuaded of their charges. I tended to judge him by the methods I would consider using if it was necessary to extract sensitive detail from say a British official about how the 1981 hunger strike was managed or a cop with the inside track on torture. In the heel of the hunt we are nudged back to Arlene Foster’s observation that "as a journalist Liam had an ability to cut through all the padding and get right to the core of a story." Enough in the political culture of the North to create more enemies than you could shake a stick at.
He was not beyond reproach and made mistakes. On one occasion the Sunday Times had to make a big pay out after Liam wrongly cited West Belfast community activist Tommy Holland as having served a life sentence for carrying out an IRA assassination. A bit more digging and less assuming would have saved him a lot of bother. The thought that immediately jumped to mind as I read the story was Liam is banjaxed and Tommy is due a big pay day.
Gail Walker at the Belfast Telegraph got the measure of him in her comment “Liam and I had the odd fractious run-in, as I'm sure he had with others.”
I was one of the others. The first time he ever rang me I told him I would not be speaking to him. Equipped with the mindset of the revolutionary, intolerance, rather than hope, is often the last thing to die. Years later I would relent. Much of his earlier writing would have to be revisited and perused in the light of what had come to pass. Inter alia, it was not he who was denying the existence of Stakeknife. We continued to have our disagreements. Nothing wrong with it, the inevitable outcome of genuinely seeing things very differently.
While capable of great charm, he was not a journalist for buddy-buddying with those he spoke to about stories. He maintained a professional distance, an aloofness, that delineated the separators. Liam Clarke did not want a quote he could stick on some story he had already written. He wanted insight so that he could craft the story and tell it as accurately as he felt able to.
An endearing characteristic was his ability to take criticism without getting precious about himself. He also had a philosophical, even generous way of dealing with his critics.
A sure sign of waning British media interest in the North came when the Sunday Times let Liam go after twenty years as its Northern editor. The same political bores, the Alpha and Omega of the conflict years, spouting the same bollix had done a better job than the Boston Strangler at suffocating interest. Fortunately, the Belfast Telegraph realised that there were still snake oil salesmen to be pissed off and employed him as its political editor to fulfil that task.
The story of the political North will continue. It will be somewhat poorer without the input of a great story teller.