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Fearghal McKinney: 'Nothing prepares you for defeat after the amount of hard work put in prior to the election but I'm resilient'

Ex-UTV anchorman and SDLP deputy leader Fearghal McKinney (54) tells about his idyllic childhood, how he coped with rejection at the polls... and his new life away from the glare of TV and politics

By Claire McNeilly

Q. Tell me about your family. A. I'm married to homemaker Maire (who's in her early 50s). We have three daughters - Kate (19), a law and politics student, A-level pupil Anna (17), and Martha (11), who's in first year at Bloomfield Collegiate.

Q. What about the young Fearghal?

A. I was born in Derry and then for a short time the family moved to Shannon, Co Clare. We moved to Enniskillen when I was four. I had what I can only describe as an idyllic childhood.

I have four brothers and two sisters. I'm the fourth youngest. I went to St Michael's Primary School and St Michael's Grammar.

Life was great. We lived in a house on a hill overlooking the town, with fields. Growing up, there was every conceivable type of watersport from canoeing to sailing to swimming and rowing.

Water-skiing was a regular past-time. While there were the echoes of the Troubles elsewhere, we were protected from that by our parents (Bridie, a homemaker, and manager Dennis, now in their 80s).

Q. Was journalism your main ambition when you were a teenager?

A. Yes, and after doing the NCTJ (National Council for the Training of Journalists) course I worked at The Impartial Reporter for five years.

In the middle of that was the Enniskillen bomb, which really rocked that town, the people in it and the community.

All the national and international media descended and it was seeing at first-hand how they operated that persuaded me to try and step up.

I went into Downtown Radio for five years in 1989, covering the almost daily destruction and violence that was going on at that time. That was a fairly harsh baptism.

Q. How did the opportunity to join UTV arise?

A. I was invited to do a feature for a TV production company and they liked what they saw.

Shortly after that I applied for, and got, a job at UTV.

I was a general news reporter, a business reporter, a political reporter, I presented the evening news, I also fronted the current affairs programme Insight, and then I had my own political discussion programme called The Issue.

It was a great sweep through all of the different elements of television.

Q. You worked alongside Mike Nesbitt for many years. How did you get on with him?

A. We got on well. At that stage Mike was the presenter and I was the reporter, so we didn't interact on a daily level as co-equals but from time to time I'd have to brief him on stories.

Q. Did Mike show any interest in becoming a politician when he was at UTV?

A. Not that he told me - and not that I told him my plans either.

Q. Are you surprised at how far he got in politics?

A. No, because he had come from a Victims Commissioner background and had been demonstrating a social community spirit, and if politics is about anything, it's about that.

Q. Do you think being media friendly, and an experienced broadcaster, is an advantage for would-be politicians?

A. Undoubtedly. Having the ability to stand up in front of people and tell a story... I found that the similarity between politics and journalism is that you repeat a story a lot before it finally begins to get through.

Q. Why did you leave UTV? Had you made up your mind at that stage you wanted to be a politician?

A. I had been a journalist for 26 years and was starting to look around for something different.

The SDLP approached me and that led to conversations with the then leader Mark Durkan.

I spent six months thinking about it and then I threw my hat in the ring for the 2010 Westminster general election.

Q. It must have been a gamble, leaving a secure job like UTV. How did your wife and family deal with that decision?

A I take a softly, softly approach. I planted the seed of the idea... but at the end of the day it's a decision that I took. There's a tendency in life for people to stay relatively safe but I felt that this was the time for change.

When I told them what I intended to do, they accepted that and gave me their blessing.

Q. How did you feel when your first attempt at high level politics - contesting the Fermanagh-South Tyrone Westminster election in 2010 - was unsuccessful?

A. In any situation you're unlikely to achieve 100% of what you aim for on the first go.

It was a very tight constituency and the dynamics are well-known, but I thought we performed well.

It was a reasonably short time between when I announced and when the election was called, and I knew that this was putting me on a path, but it wasn't going to be the end of the journey.

Q. You eventually replaced Conall McDevitt as an MLA after his sudden departure. Did he deserve what happened to him (he resigned from the Assembly in September 2013 over undeclared payments)?

A. Conall took a decision to leave and that was his decision.

The exact circumstances of why he left were within his gift.

It left open an opportunity. I'd spent a number of years after Fermanagh-South Tyrone establishing myself within the SDLP. I wasn't just standing around. I was actually working as a key party builder in terms of funding, policy and membership.

Q. And how did your promotion come about?

A. When Conall left we'd only a week to replace him, so we called a selection meeting and I was delighted to be picked. It was a packed meeting and I won the vote handsomely.

Q. It seemed to be a rapid rise after that... you became the party's health spokesperson shortly afterwards, and within two years you were appointed deputy leader. You must have thought it was onwards and upwards all the way?

A. I had been appointed health spokesperson and I was also on the economic committee. It was a very good, solid ground to stand on.

Q. In the back of your mind, were you wondering what would happen when you faced the electorate because, technically, no one had actually voted for you at that stage?

A. It wasn't to the forefront of my mind but, given the work that I was doing to raise the real issues around health, I had been hopeful that that work was sufficient to ensure that I could get through the next time.

But I was also aware that there was only a short time - two-and-a-half years - between when I was selected and the next Assembly election.

I had to try and run twice as fast to get my profile raised.

Some people still associated me with UTV and that's an important lesson... that the two don't necessarily go hand in hand.

Somebody recognising you from the TV may not be a voter.

Q. You certainly had a high profile and were constantly on television and radio, so why did you think things didn't work out at the 2015 election?

A. It's a difficult question to answer. I think the party has been looking at how it manages its vote. Proportional representation tells you one thing - you need to manage your vote in a PR election and, demonstrably, the SDLP didn't do that at that time.

Q. Tell us about the emotions you go through when something like that happens? In the light of the recent election, you're clearly not alone.

A. Nothing really prepares you for the contrast between the amount of effort that I certainly put in and the end result.

I wasn't upset or shocked.

I was disappointed, of course, but I knew when I went to the count that morning it wasn't going to happen for me.

I just had to accept it. There isn't anything you can do about the definitive nature of an election result.

I put the head down for a couple of months.

I went off to Donegal and my family and I talked about what had happened.

But if I'm anything, I'm resilient.

Q. Did you decide at that point that politics was no longer for you?

A. Yes, I decided to step back from it. At the time there was little prospect of another election - that's why I didn't stand this time.

Q. Colum Eastwood... right man as leader of the SDLP?

A. He's a fresh face at the heart of the party. Politics needs young people coming forward and he has encouraged a lot of them.

I wish him well.

Q What do you think of Mike Nesbitt saying he would transfer to the SDLP - surely a disastrous decision, in the light of the election result?

A. It was the way he did it that caused a bit of a ruffling, but in fact he was only really emphasising what really happens in many constituencies anyway. It was not so much what was said, but how he said it.

Q. Can the SDLP ever recapture its strength from the John Hume days?

A. What John Hume did as leader was shape the argument on the island.

I was helping the party push the logical extension of that: if we're going to make government on this island work, then we've got to make this island work - and the north work first. If the party can take that forward then there is great scope.

Q. What fundamental mistakes do you think it has made over the past 15 years that has seen it overtaken by Sinn Fein?

A The negotiations round the Good Friday Agreement were about bringing in the two extremes and the two governments played a major role in underscoring the benefits of that in terms of power-sharing and in terms of the role of Sinn Fein and the DUP.

I think this phase has taught us that we didn't buy into more sharing, we bought into more stalemate. In some respects, the UUP and the SDLP were sacrificing themselves at that time for the greater good, and if we could get back to that point then we could see the middle ground grow again.

Q. So what happens now for Fearghal McKinney?

A. I'm wedded to the idea that we need to provide for our older people so I reached out to a company - called Dargan Cottage - that provides day care.

They're doing inspirational work for older people in providing them with activity-led daycare. They're based in Newcastle and Dunmurry.

My role is to put them on the radar in terms of government and other agencies that would buy their services. I've been involved with them for six months. I'm enjoying it.

Q. You're also pursuing your own online business?

A. Myself and a colleague (Seamus Murphy) have set up a website called Brexitborder.com to help local businesses cope with the realities of Brexit.

Q. Will you ever return to politics?

A. Probably not.

Q. Is there anyone else in UTV or BBC that you could see as a future politician?

A. No.

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