Belfast Telegraph

Roy Lilley: the editor who kept a cool head in the days of violence

By Anna Maguire

He steered Northern Ireland’s leading daily newspaper as it reported the litany of terror in the province’s darkest days.

And on Friday the remarkable achievements of Roy Lilley, the former editor of the Belfast Telegraph, were publicly recognised as he was presented with the Lifetime Achievement Award at the Chartered Institute of Public Relations Northern Ireland Media Awards.

There was resounding applause as the 73-year-old respected newspaperman stepped up to the stage to receive the prestigious accolade in Belfast’s Europa Hotel.

Assembled journalists, photographers and veterans of the industry heard how he had steered the newspaper through the height of the Troubles.

Ed Curran, Mr Lilley’s deputy for many years and then successor, described the Larne man as a “giant of the Northern Ireland newspaper industry”.

Mr Lilley started his career in 1957, reporting for the Larne Times when it was owned by the Belfast Telegraph.

In 1959 he was appointed as a reporter for the Belfast Telegraph. Within just three years he had become the newspaper’s leader writer and political correspondent.

In 1965 Mr Lilley’s career brought him to London where he would work as Westminster lobby correspondent for Thomson Regional Newspaper for three years.

He returned to Belfast, where he worked as political correspondent for the Belfast Telegraph before being appointed assistant deputy editor of the newspaper in 1970.

In 1974 he became editor, a job he held for 19 years.

He presided over the newspaper as Stormont was suspended and civil unrest intensified across Northern Ireland.

Under his editorship, the Tele reflected events as they happened in Northern Ireland’s cities and towns — making it staple reading for local and international audiences.

Mr Curran said that Mr Lilley withstood pressure from every side to lead with a cool head as political and civil unrest gripped the province.

He added: “During that time, with political and civil unrest at its peak, his newspaper was at the centre of events here and in the eye of a political hurricane which swept the island. The editorial column of the Belfast Telegraph was essential reading for anyone in London or Dublin grappling with the complexities of Northern Ireland’s politics.”

He said that the Larne man had the rare mix of attributes needed to stay at the industry’s helm during the region’s most turbulent years.

During nearly two decades as Belfast Telegraph editor, courageous reporting remained the hallmark of Mr Lilley’s work, Mr Curran added.

He said: “It was a time for cool heads and ultra sound judgment, which Roy Lilley certainly had.

“He had withstood every pressure that was thrown at him from every side, even when his newspaper was severely damaged by a bomb in 1976.

“In relation to his editorship, we are talking about courageous journalism of the very highest order.”

In 1977 Mr Lilley became the first and only journalist from Ireland or the UK to receive the World Association of Newspaper's (WAN) Golden Pen of Freedom award — which was presented to him in Japan.

In later years he received an honorary degree from the Open University and, upon his retirement in December 1998, he received an OBE from the Queen.

Mr Lilley was editorial director of the Belfast Telegraph for six years — between 1992 and 1998.

He told this paper: “I was honoured to receive the accolade. I think an accolade from your peers is something that you treasure particularly.

“I had thought I was long past the stage that I would ever be attending a newspaper awards ceremony, much less be a recipient at one.”

Mr Lilley added: “I met many people who I had not seen in years. One of the greatest pleasures of the night was meeting people I recruited as trainees.”

Mr Curran concluded by describing the veteran of the newspaper industry as an “editor of great distinction”.

He added: “He is a man of enormous integrity and brilliant judgment.”

Belfast Telegraph