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Liam Clarke: A fearless and formidable journalist who always kept ahead of the pack

Henry McDonald

Published 28/12/2015

Liam Clarke interviewing Arlene Foster earlier this month
Liam Clarke interviewing Arlene Foster earlier this month
Liam Clarke with his wife Kathryn

When thinking and writing about Liam Clarke, two words come to mind: fearless and formidable.

Liam faced his illness, a rare form of cancer, with the same bravery that marked his journalism. His ability to hold on for so long after the terminal diagnosis also demonstrated his formidable personal strength.

Even a week ago, just before his death at home at the weekend, Liam was still scooping the rest of us when it came to political stories. He got ahead of the pack for the Belfast Telegraph with the first interview with First Minister-in-waiting Arlene Foster, shortly after she was elected unopposed to lead the Democratic Unionists. This was yet another example (we didn't know it would be his last) of Liam getting his story out first.

It is also supremely ironic that the man at the centre of one of Liam's greatest ever scoops - Thomas 'Slab' Murphy - is currently awaiting his fate after being found guilty just before Christmas of tax evasion in the Irish Republic.

In Dublin's Central Criminal Court, Murphy was found guilty of failing to pay his taxes in the south. Back in 1988, no one could ever have imagined 'Slab' and his power being challenged through the courts of the land.

In that time, he held sway over the IRA's South Armagh Brigade and helped through his organisational resources to smuggle tonnes of Colonel Gaddafi's weapons into Ireland. And in the mini 'Republic of Fear' along the border, there was a vow of murderous silence that ensured the likes of Murphy would never be exposed... until Liam Clarke and the Sunday Times investigation team decided to probe the vast wealth of the south Armagh farmer and the allegations that he had been IRA chief of staff.

Murphy sued for libel in 1988, but the paper and Liam held firm, eventually winning the case after several years and exposing 'Slab's' role in the Provisionals' war. Liam became for a time a marked man and his journalist colleagues know of at least one IRA plot to kill him in the late '80s.

Yet Liam's compassion for people regardless of their politics stretched all the way from the fringes of Ulster loyalism to Sinn Fein and IRA members. I know for a fact that Liam found out about a plot to kill a senior Belfast Sinn Fein member by loyalists in the early 1990s. Liam immediately warned him, advising him to change his routine and beef up his security. The warning was heeded and mercifully the attack never took place.

His willingness to help a member of a movement that included others willing to kill Liam at one time was a measure of the man. It was also part of his political philosophy. He saw armed struggle and political violence as not only immoral but futile and counter productive.

This is probably why the young, radical, left-wing student from a Protestant background in the north west joined the post-ceasefire Official Sinn Fein/Republican Clubs, later to become The Workers Party (WP) in the 70s.

By 1980 Liam was co-editor of the WP paper The Northern People and worked alongside future Fortnight editor Robin Wilson. The formidable duo turned the paper from a dull, ideological leftist tract into an often interesting, left-leaning weekly tabloid that even broke some news stories, including, for instance, a scoop about a new plastic baton round the RUC was about to deploy.

However, Liam had ambitions to get into mainstream journalism. While he continued to sympathise with the WP line on Northern Ireland, Liam realised that journalism and political activism shouldn't really mix. So he struck out in the local media first and quite successfully with The Sunday News, the local News Letter-owned paper that I also worked on as Dublin Correspondent in the early 1990s.

He joined The Sunday Times in 1984 and became a highly regarded member of staff. Its pioneering editor in the '80s, Andrew Neil, in particular, was highly supportive and admiring of Liam's work.

While arguably Liam's greatest scoop was the exposure of Slab Murphy, there were other huge stories that he worked on. He was among the first journalists to suggest there was a super-spy at the heart of the IRA's counter-intelligence/informer-hunter unit known as Stakeknife.

He could be amusing too with his anecdotes, especially the one he told about being chased by Sean Mac Stiofain, the ex-Provo chief of staff, with a wheel brace after he turned up on his doorstep with a list of questions.

His prose was seamless, particularly in his columns and books. He penned one of the best books about the 1981 hunger strike and its role in the rise of Sinn Fein. His Broadening The Battlefield remains one of the most important works from the 80s for anyone studying the Provisional movement from armed struggle into democratic politics.

When I worked with him on the Sunday Times between 1996 and 1997, he broke a number of important stories about the Drumcree crisis and IRA ceasefires. He encouraged me to sniff out a few scoops of my own, including an LVF plan to foment sectarian strife in east Belfast by burning a Protestant church and then claiming Catholics from the Short Strand were behind it.

Liam was generous with his contacts and advice, often given out over a sensational bottle of red wine in Nick's Warehouse or upstairs in the Morning Star. And when I had to have surgery to have a tumour excised from my inner thigh in that year, Liam was incredibly supportive.

As a fearless reporter, he saw no difference between standing up to tell the truth about Slab Murphy and challenging the power of the British state. He and his equally formidable wife Kathryn were arrested after they published MI5 and police covert transcripts of conversations between Dr Mo Mowlam and Martin McGuinness.

In 2003, police officers raided the Clarke family home and arrested both Liam and Kathryn over an alleged breach of the Official Secrets Act. They were questioned at Castlereagh Holding Centre for almost a day.

John Witherow, Sunday Times editor at the time, defended them, saying that "the account of phone taps in Northern Ireland poses no threat to national security. It merely embarrasses ministers".

The material Liam and Kathryn obtained (another classic Liam scoop) exposed a chumminess between Dr Mowlam and Martin McGuinness. The transcripts were later used in the second edition of the couple's biography on Martin McGuinness, From Guns to Government.

And, typical of both formidable characters, Liam and Kathryn sued the PSNI for wrongful arrest and won, which was just as well as this writer was later arrested over material from the same source as the Clarkes for a ghosted autobiography of a former RUC Special Branch operative. By taking their action, Liam and Kathryn bolstered the cause of free journalism unfettered by political constraints or state control.

When he retired after his long stint as Ireland editor of The Sunday Times, Liam went back to local journalism and became the Belfast Telegraph's political editor. He seemed to be enjoying a late boost of energy and refreshed interest in local politics. Liam was there for all the big set-piece events that have led to the current power sharing at Stormont. I recall walking with him along a beach at St Andrew's in 2006 as our conversation oscillated between talk of our respective families and his predictions, ahead of the deal, that Ian Paisley would soon sit down in government with Martin McGuinness. Through his network of contacts, Liam was certain of this positive assessment of where the talks were going, even while the press and media were locked out of the negotiations.

He remained a man of the broad, sensible left and a trade unionist to the end. Our union, the National Union of Journalists, summed up his career in a brief but highly apposite statement about his death on Sunday.

Irish NUJ secretary Seamus Dooley put it thus: "On behalf of the NUJ, I would like to extend sympathy to the family, colleagues and friends of Liam Clarke, political editor of The Belfast Telegraph and a former officer of Belfast and District branch of the NUJ, who has died.

"Liam was a fearless journalist. He was never afraid to challenge authority and was always prepared to stand up for the principle of media freedom.

"In The Sunday Times and, more recently, in the Belfast Telegraph, he covered some of the most significant events in the history of Northern Ireland.

"As a columnist he was insightful, authoritative and, at times provocative. He commanded respect across the political divide and his death is a loss to journalism in Northern Ireland. "

There is that word again - 'fearless' - which, combined with a formidable intelligence, knowledge and writing style, best sums up the life and career of Liam Clarke.

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