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John Cole: Belfast boy who enjoyed almost unique respect in halls of Westminster

BY DAVID McKITTRICK

John Cole was for many years a towering figure in British political journalism, commanding almost unique respect at Westminster, particularly during the era of Margaret Thatcher.

That respect was obvious among senior politicians and his fellow members of the media, both of whom looked to him as an invaluable means of finding out what was really going on in the corridors of power.

As a member of the Westminster lobby in the 1980s, I saw at first-hand how highly regarded he was: conversations would stop when that unmistakable voice came on radio or TV.

While some mocked his distinctive accent, no-one mocked the quality and accuracy of his reports, which projected confidence and authority.

He will be remembered for his air of calmness, even at times of crisis, such as Thatcher's departure and on the night of the Brighton bombing.

He revealed in his memoirs that he was often called in by ministers, including Northern Ireland Secretaries, who wanted the benefit of his private assessments on politics.

Although he lived in England for many years he always remained deeply interested in Belfast, even writing a Troubles novel while in retirement.

His views on the Troubles sometimes involved him in journalistic controversies. When the disturbances of August 1969 broke out, while he worked at The Guardian, he called for a move away from unionist majority rule to power-sharing, arguing: "Somehow Catholics have to be brought into positions of influence and decision. For 50 years they have been on the outside."

As polarisation deepened and deaths mounted, however, his attitudes hardened to the point that he came to emphasise a security rather than a political approach.

Two years later he supported the introduction of internment without trial.

This caused dissension among some Guardian staff, with senior trade union representative and writer John O'Callaghan resigning in protest against what he regarded as an abandonment of the paper's "tradition of opposition towards every kind of State or institutionalised violence".

Cole records in his memoirs that his approval for internment had led to "the only quarrel of my long friendship with Harold Wilson," who, then in opposition, opposed the policy. Cole said he told Wilson sharply that: "I had not been the only person on the paper to support internment – and did it not occur to him that reasonable men might have examined the facts and come to the conclusion that its introduction was inevitable."

In its own obituary of him, The Guardian wrote: "The most difficult issue was Ireland. On a newspaper where too many assumed that the solutions to problems were simple – reunite the divided island, withdraw, and all would be well – John asserted a greater complexity, insisting that Protestants, too, had rights that a paper with The Guardian's liberal traditions ought to respect."

The paper added that his views on Northern Ireland were sometimes cited as one of the reasons why he did not become its editor in 1975.

John Cole: a journalist who had the genuine affection of viewers 

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