Ivan Little is one of Ulster's best-known journalists, with a career that has taken him from the Portadown Times to the Belfast Telegraph, UTV and ITN. Now he's penned a brilliant autobiography. Today, in the first of a two-part series, dad-of-two Ivan (54), from Belfast, reveals his bizarre encounters with LVF leader Billy Wright - and how professional success brought personal heartache
'You can say goodbye to your privacy and your marriage'
I had applied to drama schools in Bristol and London but the cost was completely out of my folks' league. And the thought of spending my life watching cricket as a county scorer in England didn't thrill me either.
I knew I wanted to stay in Northern Ireland, especially as I had started going out with a girl I'd met at Grosvenor High, Belfast, by the name of Joan Beattie. She was in the form below me but we were the same age. We met at a school formal on April 1, 1969 - that's right, April Fool's Day. We were together for the next 15 years, first as a courting couple, then as an engaged couple and finally as a married couple (with a beautiful daughter, Emma, coming along in 1978), until yours truly - or not so truly - started to stray.
The private words of welcome to Ulster Television from Belfast journalism's wisest and wiliest old fox had been simple, straightforward and unexpected. Ivan McMichael prowled the courts in the mornings looking for stories and spent the afternoons in the UTV newsroom writing scripts.
He said to me: "Well, big man, you can say goodbye to your privacy and to your marriage." I nearly choked on my pint as the wee man delivered his greeting in Maxies, the pub next door to Havelock House, on my first Friday night outing after work. Television was apparently a nail in the coffin of marriage for reporters and presenters. He also predicted I would miss the anonymity of papers and radio.
I respected Ivan a lot but I treated his warnings with scorn. However, with the benefit of hindsight, I can now say the wee bugger was right on both sides.
In the mid-80s there was talk of me getting a job with ITN in London, but it wasn't coming from me. It wasn't that I didn't have the ambition for such a post. It was just that complications in my personal life meant I didn't want to leave Northern Ireland and, in particular, Emma.
Ivan McMichael's predictions about my marriage had come true; it was over. I had only been with UTV a couple of years when I began seeing someone other than Joan.
That relationship developed out of my participation in amateur drama, but it wasn't the catalyst for me leaving my wife. That came later, in 1985, after I became involved with my UTV colleague, Kate Smith, and we set up home together.
Telling Emma I was leaving was the most difficult thing I have ever had to do, especially since I hadn't a bad word to say about her mum, for whom I still had strong feelings. Informing UTV about the new relationship and trying to keep it out of the tabloids became a major priority.
Thankfully in 1985 there was plenty to occupy the newspapers other than my private life. The Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed in November, sparking a major storm among loyalists and winning me an international award.
The 1990s were to prove a crucial decade for Northern Ireland in the search for peace; and also for me, in my search for peace of mind. My relationship with Kate Smith crumbled after four years, a situation made more awkward by the fact that we sat right next to each other in the newsroom.
However, it's fair to say that, in 1989, I wasn't exactly living the lonely life of a recluse. I didn't have far to travel from my newly acquired apartment to one of my favourite drinking destinations in south Belfast, the Wellington Park Hotel. Friday nights were party nights and the place had become legendary.
The visiting ITN crews, with whom I worked at weekends, refused to stay anywhere else. Furthermore, one English soccer team used to come to Belfast for pre-season tours simply because their manager loved to sample the Friday night pleasures of the 'Welly,' where even the worst striker in the land could score.
I used to get stick from my mates that the only reason I liked going there was because my ugly face was regularly on television. Honestly though: a balding, overweight one-legged midget with bad breath and a hunched back could have pulled in the Welly - and that was on a bad night.
One of the women I met there proved to be more than a one-night stand. Michelle Savage was a successful solicitor who became pregnant by me and gave birth to a baby girl, Claire, in July 1990.
In the midst of my messed-up world at the time, I knew the relationship with Michelle was unlikely to survive the madness. I found it difficult to face up to my new responsibilities.
Fortunately, with time, I was able to grow up and to be there for Claire, who is now a bright, feisty, drama-loving teenager.
But back in 1990, I knew I had to get my life straightened out. If I didn't slow down, the Friday night frolics, along with ongoing excesses on the merry-go-round of amateur drama, would catch up with me one way or another. So I decided to get out of Belfast altogether and rented a small house in Holywood, Co Down with the intention of settling down and wising up.
But fate is an ironic bugger. On my very first night in Holywood, I resolved to have a quiet night in, alone, all by myself. That was my honest intention; but then a friend from UTV, Stephen McCoubrey, called to say hello - and we went up the town for a jar, just the one. You can imagine my supreme horror at ending up, finally, in the Welly. I'm still not sure whose fault that was, but I'm certain it wasn't mine!
However, within minutes of arriving, I spied a girl called Siofra O'Reilly. She had been a set designer with one of my old amateur drama groups, the Circle, and quickly became aware of my designs on her. Fifteen years later, we are still together.
What makes the whole thing even more ironic is that Siofra and I had virtually been neighbours in Belfast: just a few hundred yards separated our homes. Yet, it wasn't until that night, after my moving eight miles away from Belfast, that we bumped into each other for the first time.
TOMORROW: Skinny Little - my dramatic weight loss, meeting the stars, and that word ... phenomenon
Little by Little by Ivan Little (Brehon, £8.99) is on sale now at Easons and all good bookshops
The odd couple: Billy and me
"Billy Wright needs to see you - and he needs to see you now," said the man on the other end of the telephone.
"Well, that could be a wee bit difficult," I replied. "I'm in Enniskillen, waiting to go on stage in a play."
"Right, I'll get back to you," said the caller, one of my main contacts in the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), the ruthless loyalist terrorist group responsible for hundreds of murders in Northern Ireland. Within minutes, he was back on the blower.
"Billy Wright will drive to Enniskillen to meet you. He says he really has to talk to you. Now."
I tried to explain the situation again, insisting that I was in Fermanagh to act in a play in the local drama festival at the Ardhowen Theatre. I couldn't simply ask the audience to hang on for a minute while I nipped outside to meet one of Ulster's most feared assassins.
"What about meeting him during the interval?" countered the go-between.
"Yes, that might work," I said. "But he'll have to be quick. The interval only lasts 15 minutes."
As I pondered what Wright wanted to tell me that couldn't wait, the practicalities of the meeting were sorted out. Within 90 minutes, one of the strangest encounters in my journalistic career - and there have been quite a few of them - was taking place in the car park of the Ardhowen theatre on March 19, 1993. There was me, a senior reporter of many years' standing with Ulster Television (UTV), sitting in the back of Billy Wright's car in make-up and costume, listening to this cold-blooded terrorist calmly outlining his grievances to me about how he believed the security forces were harassing him. He claimed soldiers were being offered £50 bonuses to stop him at roadblocks and to report back on his movements. He said it was happening day and night, even as he travelled around Northern Ireland to watch his favourite soccer team, Portadown FC.
Just what Wright, who police were convinced was orchestrating a loyalist campaign in mid-Ulster, wanted me to do about his problems took a wee while longer to emerge. As I tried to hurry him up, he said he wanted to record an interview with me for UTV as soon as possible. I told him that I would be in touch, but I now had to get back on stage for the second half of my play which, irony of ironies - given my companion and the nature of our meeting - was Neil Simon's classic American comedy, The Odd Couple.
After leaving Wright and two of his henchmen, including his Loyalist Volunteer Force (LVF) second-in-command, Mark 'Swinger' Fulton, I dashed back across the car park and into the theatre again past somewhat bemused-looking patrons enjoying their interval drinks. I knew that none of them would have believed for a second the drama which had just been staged outside the Ardhowen. It was certainly more intriguing that what was going on inside the theatre. This episode illustrates perfectly just how odd a coupling my own twin-track career of journalism and drama has been - with a notebook in one hand and a play script in the other.
Back in 1986 Ivan had another encounter with Billy Wright ...
I drew the short straw of going to Portadown to cover the Eleventh Night bonfires. Sure enough, vicious fighting erupted between hundreds of loyalists in the Edgarstown area and dozens of nationalists on the other side of the so-called peace lines in Obins Street. The security forces moved in and took up positions in the nationalist enclave and started firing plastic bullets at the loyalist rioters. For over an hour we stood among the Protestants, dodging the baton rounds and filming the rioters, who were dropping like flies. At one point, a prominent loyalist sidled up to me and calmly asked: "Do you want us to get the shooters out?" F**k this, I thought. No way was I having anything to do with any of this. I reckoned they were only going to get the shooters out for the cameras. I told my crew to gather up their gear and we cleared off back to our hotel, The Seagoe in Portadown. I knew we could be back within minutes if the trouble did escalate.
I headed off to my bed, but my night's sleep didn't last long. At around four in the morning, reception rang to say Billy Wright wanted to see me. Bleary-eyed, I went down to meet him. He wanted me to go with him to Craigavon hospital to see the people injured by plastic bullets. I felt like Mother Teresa as I toured the Accident and Emergency department, meeting the wounded who eagerly showed me their bruises. On the return to the hotel car park, Wright talked to me for over an hour about himself and about his ideals. He portrayed himself as a loyalist of conscience, a man who didn't want to see anyone dying in the armed struggle.
Wright prophesied his own death during that and subsequent conversations. In one interview he said: "I have only one life and I want to keep it. I am not worried by the IRA. They are common murderers. But I know that it is only a matter of time before I am the victim of a political assassination."
He also hinted that the authorities might have a hand in his death. "They are not to be trusted," he said. "I believe there is a conspiracy to kill me, to appease the Dublin government and the republican community." Wright was proved correct inasmuch as he was murdered, though not by the IRA. It was the INLA who shot him dead while he sat in a prison van inside the Maze prison, waiting to go on a visit. His father David is convinced that the authorities colluded in his son's killing to ensure a smoother passage for the peace process.
After Billy Wright's murder, his words outside the Seagoe Hotel replayed in my mind. I dug out the tape of the conversation to be certain that Wright had, indeed, foretold his own fate. It must be remembered though that, on that occasion, Wright also said the security forces and the intelligence authorities were blaming him for things he claimed to be innocent of. He insisted to me that they were spreading disinformation about him, alleging he was running his own death squad and suchlike. I knew he was guilty as sin but I wasn't going to argue with him as he sat beside me in the car, a few miles from where his fellow loyalists had been bragging about their readiness to produce guns. It was ironic, too, that, for the next few years, the majority of the statements the UVF passed to me about their actions were admissions about murders that Billy Wright had ordered and orchestrated as he and his cohorts carried out a campaign of vicious killings in the mid-Ulster.
For some inexplicable reason, one funeral out of all the hundreds I have attended still plays in my mind as if it were yesterday. Robin Shields, who had been in the police reserve, was shot dead by the IRA in September 1980. He died at his desk in the ambulance depot of the Royal Victoria Hospital. The grief as his coffin was brought from his home in the Woodvale area of Belfast was so overpowering, so intense, that I had to walk away. To cap it all, a series of IRA bomb scares held up the funeral, causing some mourners to miss the burial at Roselawn cemetery.