John Irvine: A war reporter's job demands courage from his family too
Belfast-born and award-winning ITN foreign correspondent John Irvine talks to Alison Fleming about how an IS bomber almost killed him and how his wife and family have adapted to life in some of the world’s worst trouble spots
Standing on the stage of the Waterfront Hall among the Ulster University graduates collecting their degrees was a moment John Irvine would be forgiven for thinking he’d never experience.
The Belfast-born reporter, whose job has taken him around the world working on some of the biggest news stories of the past three decades, received an honorary degree of Doctor of Letters (DLitt) in recognition of his outstanding contribution to journalism.
By his own admission, delivered with honesty and in the award-winning style he’s become synonymous with, he revealed to the audience at the event that it was the first time he’d ever graduated.
“It’s exactly what you hope it would feel like!” he laughs. “I did reveal in my speech that my academic record bore no scrutiny whatsoever and that an honorary degree was the only way I was ever going to get there.”
Born and raised in Malone with his sister Juliet, he was son of the late Dr Ken and Jackie Irvine.
A former Campbell College pupil, John failed his A-levels twice and fell into journalism.
It’s a career he says wasn’t planned, but one that has taken him to the top of his profession, winning Baftas and Royal Television Society Awards along the way.
“I was very immature at school, I don’t think anything much was on my radar. Unfortunately having a good time was pinging more actively on my radar than doing any serious academic work.
“I was very lucky, I decided to apply to the NCTJ (journalism) course at the College of Business studies, but I got a refusal.
“I went to see Deric Henderson, who was then at PA News, who advised me to go and learn shorthand and typing. He said there are loads of local newspapers across Northern Ireland where if you had those skills, and could speak and listen, you could get a job as a reporter at a weekly paper.
“So, I signed on for a secretarial course at the College of Business studies, and there was to be 39 girls and me!
“A week before the start of term, I got a second letter from the journalism course saying I’d been accepted. So I arrived and Joan Fitzpatrick, who was in charge of the course, said that they had made a mistake.
“There should only be a dozen people on the course and there were four clerical errors, but they had to allow the four clerical errors — of which I knew I was one — to stay.”
Following the year-long course, John became a cub reporter at the Tyrone Constitution in 1983, where he worked until he joined the UTV News team three years later.
“It was a very busy newsroom,” he recalls “and I think one of the only ones in the UK that didn’t have a planning desk because it didn’t need one. It was hectic at that time.
“Colm McWilliams was a fantastic news editor, and I also worked with Michael Beattie who was great.
“Maria McCann, who was one of the reporters then, was also very good to me. She not only helped me at work, but also introduced me to my future wife, her sister Libby.”
The couple have just celebrated 25 years of marriage, and have two children, Elizabeth (22) who graduated earlier this month from Edinburgh University with a degree in international relations, and Peter (17) who is studying for his A-levels in Dubai College where the family are based.
John (54) has credited Libby as being part of his success, travelling with him and the children to live in trouble spots around the globe as part of the nomadic lifestyle that comes with being a correspondent. He has acknowledged that it can be a difficult life, but one that they treat as an adventure.
For the Irvine clan, family always came first and any major moves were discussed with his wife.
Libby, who gave up her career in events management in the BBC after the birth of the couple’s second child, wrote about her experiences of life in Jerusalem for the Belfast Telegraph in 2002.
She outlined daily life in the war-torn city — running the gauntlet of suicide bombers on the school run, and how her toddler son liked to pretend the spoonfuls of food he was being fed were an incoming Cobra helicopter.
“Libby was brilliant at it, and she has been a fantastic partner to have travelling round the world. Coming from Belfast has helped her through quite a few situations.”
And it was John’s experience in his home city as a UTV reporter that shaped his professional future, recalling the relentless nature of the Troubles, and the trauma that came with them.
“Someone recently sent me a tape with lots of library footage on it, and it’s like a horror movie.
“It’s a parade of white tape and descriptions of how people were killed.
“We were knocking on doors every day and going to funerals, listening to priests and ministers calling for this to never happen again, but yet it just kept going.”
During his years with the local broadcaster, John often worked weekends with ITN and became Ireland producer to replace now News at Ten presenter Tom Bradby, who left soon after “and I was bumped up to Ireland correspondent.”
Almost 20 years on, John says his stand-out moment was covering the Good Friday Agreement for ITN, heralding the start of a long-awaited political breakthrough and the hope that the terrorism which had blighted Northern Ireland would be consigned to the past.
His insight into the process reveals the pride he felt for Northern Ireland when the deal was done.
“It was a waiting game,” he recalls “but you were so used to covering political failure here. When you actually spoke to the big players you realised they were all so invested in it, and they’d tell you that privately.
“Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern were pretty good stewards for that process, plus we had the nod of approval from the White House, along with the President Clinton visit which really helped.
“Politicians who were unsure of what they were doing because they were so inured with saying no, were feeling their way in the dark. The White House approval, along with nods of encouragement, were just what they needed, and of course this all blossomed
with the late-night agreement on Good Friday.
“When the news came through that a deal had been done, everyone was euphoric. I didn’t really care about too much about the detail of it. I just remember being really thrilled that they had done it.
“They were all thrilled with themselves and there was a real sense of achievement, although it was difficult after that because they all had to go back and sell it to constituencies.”
The joy of the political progress turned to tragedy when the Omagh bomb ripped through the heart of the town where John learned his craft, and where he had felt at home as a young reporter.
“Even though at times during the Troubles Tyrone and Fermanagh were fractious and relations were difficult, that wasn’t true in Omagh. It was very harmonious, it was a fantastic place to live and I loved it, and to see this done to it was just ghastly.
“I was sorry that I was there to report it, but I didn’t want anyone else to report it because I knew the town.
“It was a kick in the teeth for everyone, but to an extent galvanised the politicians to get back at it and made them realise what they were leading us all away from.
“I don’t want to say that something good came out of it, because it absolutely isn’t right. Nothing good can come out of something like that, but it concentrated minds.”
“After Omagh, for the next 18 months, Northern Ireland went down the running order as an international story. The minutiae of implementing the Good Friday Agreement wasn’t of interest to a national audience and so my bosses in London decided they would send me off to Jerusalem, as I knew a bit about territorial conflict.”
For John, covering the conflict in Jerusalem was an extension of the work he’d done at UTV.
“I used to call it same story, better weather.”
With his young family settling into an apartment in the city, it wasn’t long before he was at the heart of the action when the second intifada happened just two days into the job.
With his experience of political conflict, gleaned from reporting during the Troubles, it was easy to apply the Northern Ireland template to the story.
“I knew who the players were. Ariel Sharon, the then-Israeli Prime Minister, had walked on the Temple Mount.
“At that stage, to me, he was Ian Paisley, and him going to the Temple Mount as Prime Minister was like Paisley going through the Bogside with a Union Jack — technically it’s right, but it’s not a great idea.
“The Israel-Palestinian story was similar to Northern Ireland in that it was all quite condensed. Israel isn’t a big country and the Palestinian territories aren’t that big geographically, so it was almost like war in the morning and a BBQ in the evening.
“I was also covering Baghdad for ITN at that period, as most news organisations kept a bureau in Baghdad after the first Gulf War because they knew Saddam Hussein was unfinished business.”
Describing it as an amazing period, John was broadcasting nightly reports for ITV News from Baghdad during the intense aerial bombardment, winning a Royal Television Society Journalist of the Year award in 2003 for his coverage of the invasion.
He was famously the first journalist to greet the Americans arriving, with a scoop that was confirmation for the world that coalition forces had arrived in the city.
“I had a very good cameraman called Phil Bye who had been out during the first Gulf War,” he said.
“He came to me and said he’d just spoken to someone who thought he had seen the Americans, and they asked if we wanted to go out and have a look.
“A couple of journalists had been killed in our hotel by an American tank shell or missile the day before so everyone was a bit jumpy. But we decided we’d give it a go and met them and got the piece on before anyone else.”
His fearless reporting skills were no doubt honed by his years covering the conflict in Northern Ireland and he says that his upbringing here helped, with everything he’s reported on subsequently being a derivative of those experiences.
“A lot of people were very worried about personal safety and when the drumbeat for war was less than a week away quite a few left, including all the American networks. Once the president said all westerners should leave Baghdad, the Americans did.
“There weren’t that many of us who stayed on. My feeling was that the Iraqis had been incredibly decent to us and we’d been dropping bombs on no-fly zones since 1991 during the first Gulf War.
“We were of the mind that any American bombardment wouldn’t obliterate but liberate. It was very targeted with smart weapons so I decided to stay.
“Towards the end, when the Hussein regime was fleecing us for money and disappearing fast, there were a lot of dodgy guys emerging and we thought they might be problematic. Luckily the Americans got into the city centre quite quickly.
“I remember when the Americans came into Baghdad there was actually a great mood of optimism and they were warmly welcomed. Unfortunately, Washington’s plan for Iraq was so inept and non-existent that they made a complete hash of what was a promising situation. Of course that has led on to the abomination that is the Islamic State, which in the summer of 2014 controlled more than a third of Iraq.”
That emergence of IS in the region brought John and his team close to death last year when they were charged by a car packed with explosives during the Iraqi army campaign to re-capture the northern city of Mosul.
In an experience he has described as one of the most terrifying of his career, the suicide bomber’s car was hit by a shell just as he was about to smash his deadly cargo into the vehicle John was travelling in with his team, dispatching both him and the explosives he was carrying.
“They are the nadir of mankind,” he says of the terrorist organisation.
“Their behaviour really shocked the world that didn’t think it could be shocked anymore because they’d been through Al-Qaeda and beheadings in Baghdad.
“But here were fundamentalist monsters in a country in which women were enslaved, in which anyone who didn’t fit in was crucified or thrown off the top of a building. You name it, these guys were stooping lower than anyone had done before.”
But even away from the cameras and war zones, danger came calling on Boxing Day 2004 when the Irvine family were enjoying a Christmas holiday in the Thai resort of Koh Yao Noi when the tsunami hit.
They miraculously escaped unharmed from the devastating tsunami which hit the region.
As Asia correspondent at the time, John was one of the first to report on the disaster which claimed the lives of hundreds of thousands of people.
He said afterwards that because he knew his family were safe and uninjured, it was right and proper to have reported on the story.
John was the first journalist into the decimated city of Banda Ace in Indonesia.
“I think ITN would’ve been disappointed if I hadn’t done my job at the time — I was Asia correspondent and it was the biggest story to hit the news headlines in years.”
Stints in Washington followed, before the family settled in Dubai, where John set up the ITV News Dubai bureau in 2010 covering stories across the Indian sub-continent, Africa and the Gulf region.
With Korea and Middle East tensions simmering, his work as an international correspondent continues apace, but while he’s based with Libby and the children in Dubai, his home is very much where his heart is.
He says that he looks forward to the day when he can return to live in Northern Ireland, where he has watched the transformation with pride.
“I’ll definitely come back and settle in Northern Ireland. It is quite incredible, I see tourists and feel like tapping them on the shoulder and asking if they’re lost!
“We’ve got all these things happening, and it almost seems like we needed Game of Thrones location scouts to let us know we live in a beautiful place.
“Every time we came back to Northern Ireland we saw the giant strides that had been made, and that this was an optimistic place and that the world liked us.
“Around 10,000 people getting off cruise ships every week here means we must be an interesting and welcoming people.
“The only serious point in my graduation speech was just how different Northern Ireland is for the generation who graduated this year.
“I covered South Africa after Mandela died, and I heard a lovely expression while I was there.
“They have a name for young people born after the end of apartheid, they’re called the born-frees.
“The graduates at the ceremony where I received my honorary degree were either born after the ceasefires of the mid-1990s, or were too young to remember anything about the conflict here, so they are the trouble-frees.”
Belfast Telegraph Digital