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Liam Clarke's last big story epitomised him at the height of his brilliance

By Gail Walker

Published 29/12/2015

Liam Clarke at home last year
Liam Clarke at home last year

Just after 11.40am on Sunday I lifted my mobile and saw that I'd missed a call from our Political Editor, Liam Clarke. There are very few Sundays when I don't brighten at the prospect of a call from one of my journalists with the promise of a "Sunday-for-Monday" story. As any hack knows, Sundays can be a hard slog on a newspaper, perhaps none more so than the last Sunday of the year, a short, dark day half-lost somewhere between Boxing Day and the New Year.

And so I quickly tapped my phone, calling up Liam's number and ringing him straight back. His wife answered, which was momentarily jarring, but I figured he'd just stepped out of the room. "Hello ... Kathryn? ... is Liam there? I see I've just missed a call from him." I think I knew in the short space that followed, before any words came. Maybe I caught it in her fractured breath. Perhaps it was just that the silence went on a couple of seconds too long. Something jarred.

And then it became clear that Liam wasn't going to be there any more. There would be no more calls about stories.

Kathryn explained that her husband had died in the early hours of Sunday morning. Though Liam had been ill - he had written in this newspaper very movingly about living with cancer - this was utterly shocking. To those of us who worked with him, Liam seemed to be doing well. He was open about the fact his illness was incurable, but it seemed that his condition wasn't worsening. Occasionally, he'd be unwell for a day or two, but he always made it clear he wanted to continue working and was soon back in harness.

Liam was the pre-eminent political journalist of his generation and certainly on the last big story we worked on together, he was operating at the height of his powers. More than that - and this makes me smile - he was buzzing about the story.

I'd called him to say that I thought we'd be able to get the first big interview with First Minister-in-waiting Arlene Foster and his voice soared with delight. Shortly afterwards, he started sending his trademark emails, all thoughts and angles and questions.

Leaving work that night, I saw I'd missed a call from Liam so rang back and we had a long chat about where we'd go with the story, what we'd do with it and, well, our general good journalistic fortune. Liam was a man with a nailed-on scoop and he was in great form.

The conversation strayed into other areas. We talked about his health; he was feeling good. We talked about the documentary he was making about living with his illness. I was curious about whether he was comfortable with that level of exposure on camera. He said that it was proving a really interesting experience, although he'd held back on allowing access to film a recent meeting with an oncologist. Which makes me wonder now, of course ...

We talked, too, about plans for Christmas. He was really looking forward to spending the day with Kathy, his sons, Adam and Daniel, and daughter, Alice, who would be home from university. Life was good.

The interview was due to take place the following day. By necessity, schedules change and the interview was moved back to later in the day, in Lisburn. I knew Liam didn't like to work too late in the evening and rang to make sure he was okay with this. No problem. Liam was a man with a scoop and nothing would get in the way of it.

Typically, he did a brilliant job. The next day brought forth the trademark cascade of emails ... each one detailing yet more "lines worth pulling out". By the afternoon, he was started to worry about word count ... how much could we take? I told him to let it run, knowing that every word would be well read.

It comforts me now to think of how pleased he was with his copy. I'm glad, too, that we enjoyed working on it together so much. Because - and I'm going to say this as not to do so would be inaccurate reporting and Liam wouldn't tolerate that - not all exchanges with him were quite so good-natured.

Liam and I had the odd fractious run-in, as I'm sure he had with others. But I think that's just part and parcel of dealing with someone as creative, driven and determined to be first with the story as he was. And sometimes I reckon he simply enjoyed a good, um, debate, just to get the sparks flying.

To his credit, the stormy skies always cleared quickly. Sometimes he rang back within minutes, occasionally he admitted because his wife had overheard him and told him to do so.

And if he could be tricky at times, he could also be very charming. He had this technique of leaning back in his chair, rubbing his hand with his chin and asking gently probing questions. It was totally disarming, as many a dissembling politician learned to their cost.

Fundamentally, he was interested in people, the mark of the good journalist. And he loved to write outside of politics, too. Recently, Liam filed a beautifully nuanced article giving his opinion on whether prayer could heal - he didn't believe it could, though liked to hear people were praying for him.

He was a Buddhist and vegetarian who loved his animals. His dog never left his side when he felt poorly on Boxing Day. I really miss the article he would have written about that.

Like Liam, I'm over my word count here and I haven't even begun to record all his great investigative journalism, bringing his sword of truth to bear on Thomas 'Slab' Murphy and many others. Nor have I paid tribute to his skills as a columnist.

But I hope by telling you about his last big story I've given you an another insight into Liam and the job he did. And personally I'm glad that if the full stop has to fall at the end of a sentence, then it fell in that way for us. On one last big story.

Belfast Telegraph

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