Belfast Telegraph

Paul Clark: 'We were gutted when we learned our little baby had Down's syndrome - and then terrified that he might not survive'

UTV's anchorman on his 'miracle' child, being evicted from his home by the UDA... and why he resisted returning to the Beeb

By Claire McNeilly

It was one item of news that the normally unflappable Paul Clark simply couldn't handle. A murder victim - a carer for his beloved brother who had Down's syndrome - was being laid to rest. UTV's cameras zoomed in on the brother walking behind the coffin. The youngster was inconsolable.

Cut back to the studio, and there was Clark, ashen-faced and wordless.

"I tried to speak but nothing came out," recalled the veteran anchorman.

"I just cracked because I'd looked at that young man and in my mind's eye it was David, our son, walking behind that coffin.

"I haven't spoken about it before because my job is to do the news, not be the news."

Paul's momentary lapse, which was rapidly addressed by his alert co-presenter Kate Smith, was understandable.

It was the early Nineties and Paul and his wife Carol were still coming to terms with having a young son with Down's.

They had known about his condition in advance and were prepared for it. What they hadn't allowed for was the trauma of him nearly dying shortly after birth.

"David needed surgery immediately because he had what was called a duodenal atresia, meaning the two parts of his small intestine hadn't joined up," explained Paul.

"If he'd been born in 1970 rather than in 1990 he would have been allowed to die; that's what they did in those days.

"He became very jaundiced and had to have a blood exchange. They did that a couple of times and said: 'If that doesn't work this time, we don't think there's any hope'.

"But remarkably, by a miracle, David came through, and every day since then has been a bonus."

Life without 26-year-old David is, of course, unthinkable now, but the 63-year-old conceded that he and Carol were "gutted" when they learned of the unborn child's condition.

"Carol and I didn't know what to do but we leaned very heavily on our faith; we still do," Paul said.

"That's what got us through it. Whenever David was born we were prepared. We've met many parents over the years who did not know in advance, and they felt it wasn't handled as sensitively as it might have been."

Paul said it wasn't more difficult bringing up David than older brother Peter (29), a theology student.

"As a parent you just get on with it," he said.

"You don't think: 'Our son has Down's syndrome'. He's our son and that's it."

David's love of television, however, does lead to occasional moments of confusion.

"He's into Dr Who, and can't understand why he can't travel through space and time," he explained.

"I keep telling him because it's not real, it's TV... but then he says: 'You're on TV and you're real'... so we have great fun with that," added Paul, who conceded that raising David was more difficult for Carol (65) than him, because he was always answering to the demands of television news.

"Carol was absolutely superb," he said.

"I love her to bits, but I probably wasn't as helpful at the time as I could have been.

"She did feel like a failure at times and she most certainly wasn't, but it was very, very hard work.

"Just look at David now; he's very active, he loves drama, he's a thespian and that helps him live out his dreams."

Paul encountered Carol, a former bio-chemist, in the mid-Seventies and was instantly smitten.

"I first met her on a Thursday night. It was in the BBC. I was working for Good Morning Ulster at the time," he recalled.

"She walked into my life because she was friendly with Clive Ferguson, a colleague of mine. And that was it.

"I can remember what she was wearing - jeans, a blue T-shirt and thong sandals.

"I even remember what was on the television that night - The Undersea World Of Jacques Cousteau on the BBC."

That was 1976, but the couple didn't marry until June 22, 1985 -on a cruiser on Lough Erne.

"It was a religious ceremony, neither Catholic nor Presbyterian," he said. "Afterwards we cruised for a couple of days on Lough Erne, then it was off to Australia for a three-week honeymoon."

Paul, the eldest of four children and brought up a Catholic, saw his parents Thompson (89) and Ida, and siblings Susan (now 61), Maureen (60) and Philip (51) forced out of their Dunmurry home by the UDA when he was 19.

"Actually, my dad would say it was the best thing that ever happened because my parents went out and bought their first house after that," he said.

"We weren't targeted specifically. The UDA wanted houses for Protestants and we were a very mixed estate at the time. I bear nobody any ill will for that."

Ida, who is now 86 and still working at a bar in Lambeg, wanted him to be a priest - so it must have been a surprise when he later became a Presbyterian.

But he said: "I don't see myself as a practising Presbyterian. I'm a Christian. It wasn't that I switched religions per se; it was a journey I was on.

"My mother is a very traditional Catholic. But when our two boys became communicant members in Fitzroy Presbyterian Church, both mum and dad came along.

"The minster was Rev Ken Newell, assisted by Fr Gerry Reynolds from Clonard.

"I remember my mother saying: 'Paul, if it's good enough for a priest it's good enough for me'. She gets it."

When Paul got married he was still with the BBC. It would be another four years before UTV came calling.

He has now been in the business 43 years - not bad for someone who had no journalistic ambitions growing up.

"I wanted to be a disc jockey," he revealed.

"I lied to the school principal that I wanted to be a teacher."

A former trainee reporter with the Irish News, he spent three years as a DJ with RTE 2FM in Dublin, ultimately discovering that playing the same tracks over and over could get rather tedious.

But he added: "I'm glad I did that, because I got it out of my system. And now, at 63, I've never felt more fulfilled."

There must be some part of him, though, that wishes he had followed the likes of Gloria and Eamonn into national television?

"Yes, part of me... but it didn't work out and I don't feel negative about that," he admitted. "When I was at the BBC I did attachments in London, Manchester and Birmingham. I just felt that it wasn't going to work for me, but I had to go through all that in order to realise I'm where I should be."

The Beeb, incidentally, tried to lure 'Mr UTV' back in the late Nineties.

"I was approached by them, but at the time I was involved in a documentary about a doctor (Bill Woods) from Belfast who was working with leprosy sufferers in Brazil," he explained.

"I'd been trying to get that programme made for a long time and I'd have had to walk away from that to go back to the BBC, so it didn't happen. The moment passed."

Ironically, the documentary's scheduling - Easter 1998 - coincided with the announcement of the Good Friday Agreement, so few people saw the labour of love keeping Paul away from a significant pay rise.

"When I came to UTV, it was for less than I was earning in the BBC," he said.

"For me, it has never been about the money and never will be."

One of his first jobs with the BBC was working alongside Caron Keating (the former Blue Peter presenter who lost her battle with breast cancer in 2004, aged 41) on a music show.

"Caron and I already knew each other because I'd worked with her mum Gloria Hunniford, and Caron was always around," he explained.

"But she was able to fly solo, and did so very quickly. We kept in touch, and on one occasion she gave me a Blue Peter badge. I really wish I knew where it was now."

He may have mislaid that, but the MBE he received from the Queen in 2013 (for his charity work) is unlikely to go missing.

"The Queen asked me how I managed to marry both my job and also my other interests, and I said I have a very understanding wife; she nodded in approval." he said.

He relishes his roles as president of the Northern Ireland Hospice and goodwill ambassador for Unicef.

"I was honoured to get involved with the Hospice," he said.

"Like everybody else, I've been afraid of death. I think we all have difficulty coming to terms with our own mortality and I think it has helped me to come to terms with that.

"Every Christmas morning we as a family go to the Hospice. Christmas wouldn't be Christmas for us if we didn't."

He added: "With Unicef, I've been very privileged to have seen many places where people don't have the same facilities and rights that we have here.

"I'm passionate about education and the things we take for granted - the cleanliness of running water, working sewers - so when I was asked if I would become the Unicef Goodwill Ambassador for Northern Ireland... following in the footsteps of Eamonn Holmes, incidentally, I was happy to accept."

But he won't be following other local TV news anchormen Mike Nesbitt and Fearghal McKinney into politics.

"No, because if ever you nail your colours to any political mast you're going to divide yourself from elements of society," he said.

"Why would I want to do that?"

With no immediate plans to retire - and UTV thankfully free of ageism controversies that have dogged other channels - he is looking forward to continuing his harmonious working relationship with Rose Neill who joined UTV in her mid 50s.

"Our industry isn't a charity," he said.

"If we weren't doing it well then we wouldn't be employed. I'm uncomfortable talking about ageism because I don't look at it like that. I feel very comfortable working with Rose."

Paul actually lives in Rose's old house in Belfast - but at the time he didn't know who he was buying it from.

"We moved there in 1986. It was a sheer fluke," he explained.

"It was open viewing so she wasn't there when we went to see the place."

After over four decades grilling politicians, he isn't easily ruffled - but there is one interviewee who stands head and shoulders above all others when it comes to awkward encounters.

"The most difficult person - the late Ian Paisley," he conceded.

"It didn't matter what you asked him, he always answered the question he wanted to answer. I was in awe of the man.

"One day he caught me mimicking him. I heard Ian Paisley was standing by in the London studio and I said (mimics his voice): 'Let me smell your breath'. At which point this big voice booms out 'Who's that imitating me?'

"I had to apologise, but we both got over it."

Belfast Telegraph

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph