'I loved Ian Paisley... but Thatcher and Haughey were the rudest people I've ever interviewed', says Eamonn Mallie
Award-winning journalist Eamonn Mallie (68) starts a new series of his Face to Face interviews on UTV tomorrow night, with his first guest actor Charlie Lawson. He tells Claire McNeilly about the interviewees who have made the best - and worst - impression on him over the years, as well as sharing his thoughts on family, faith and why he's glad he's teetotal.
Q. As you look back over an illustrious career, which person left the biggest impression on you?
A. I loved Ian Paisley. Forget his politics; I admired him as an individual, as a human being, as a man's man. In the middle of interviews he would take out the Bible and read from it. I wanted to be his biographer, and he asked me if I wanted to get him shot - a man from Crossmaglen doing Paisley's biography. Then one day his daughter Rhonda called to say her father would like me to work with him to do his memoirs. I spent about 30 hours with him over six months. It was an extraordinary experience.
Q. You've had a career full of highlights - including that final interview with Ian Paisley and his wife Eileen in 2014 and the one with IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands at the Maze in 1979. Is there one scoop that stands out?
A. Probably the 'back channel' one, when I proved that the government was secretly talking to the IRA - and despite the denials I stood firm and challenged the then Secretary of State Sir Patrick Mayhew week after week, eventually forcing him to tender his resignation.
Q. You've interviewed a raft of famous figures, such as President Clinton, Margaret Thatcher, John Major, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Nelson Mandela. Do you have a favourite interviewee?
A. Belfast poet Michael Longley, such a witty man.
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Q. And your least favourite?
A. Margaret Thatcher and the late Charles Haughey were the two rudest public figures I've ever interviewed. They didn't answer anything, they only said what they wanted to say. They were skilled at it, and yet they were fascinating people.
Q. But aren't all politicians adept at that?
A. The greatest of all when it came to telling you nothing but making you feel good was (former US envoy) George Mitchell, a master performer. It was very frustrating but I had to admire him.
Q. What do you like most about being an inquisitor?
A. I love information, I love polemics. I regret I didn't become a barrister. I like the act of performance. I am huge on accountability.
Q. A new series of Eamonn Mallie: Face to Face with... starts tomorrow. Who will you be interviewing?
A. Charlie Lawson (the first programme), Professor Jim Dornan, Eileen Paisley, Bronagh Waugh, Ian McElhinney and Niamh McGrady.
Q. Who's still on your wish list?
A. I'd love to interview Pope Francis so that I could challenge him about the appalling state of the Catholic Church. I'd love to know why he's not drumming out all the priests who are violating children. I also want to do an in-depth interview with Arlene Foster. She's lost an entire community. There won't be a government because of her.
Q. Is there anyone you haven't clicked with, so much so that you came away thinking you'd got very little from the exchange?
A. Seamus Heaney. I really didn't ever understand it. I am an avid reader of his work. I love his capacity to write, I love his faithfulness to the vernacular, I love everything about his expression. But he and I just didn't click.
Q. What has been the most rewarding job you've had in four decades as a journalist?
AMy favourite story of all time was the birth of sextuplets in the Royal Victoria Hospital. That for me was the most beautiful story: birth, new life and so much life!
Q. Do you believe in God? Do you have a strong faith?
A. I'm constantly wrestling with this. I'm increasingly aware of my mortality. I'm prayerful but sometimes I struggle whether I'm genuinely prayerful or in love with the language of prayer. I was brought up Catholic.
Q. What drives you?
A. I love life. I love people. I've always got another idea on the boil - another idea for perhaps a book or a programme.
Q. What's the worst thing you've ever been through on a personal level?
A. Three men close to me died by suicide aged 64, 34 and 54. There were no signs. When I'm invited to schools to talk to sixth formers I always talk about self-harming to remind children to look out for others. Also the death of my mother at 59. She was the hub; the little lady, five foot nothing, who drove me on.
Q. You're teetotal. Any particular reason?
A. I'm very obsessive about everything I do. I don't drink (alcohol) but if I were a drinker I think I would swim in red wine. I'm one of those people who always likes to be in control of my emotions. That's the one great gift I brought to my marriage; not drinking. I don't ever go home drunk and my family don't ever have to worry.
Q. You're a big fan of social media, aren't you?
A. I love Twitter. If I had any influence over a minister it would be to persuade them to provide every senior citizen with an iPad. Think of the reservoir of life experience those people have...
Q. You're 68 and married to homemaker Detta, a farmer's daughter from Galway. Tell us about her.
A. I've just written a poem about her; it's in my forthcoming collection of poems called On the Tilley Lamp. I read and educated myself under a tilley lamp in south Armagh. We'd no electricity so the lamp wasn't just a source of light... of the tilley lamp I say from where would I have got my light not to talk of my enlightenment? That's the last line in my poem.
Q. Where did you meet?
A. At a function in Dublin in 1971. We got married on January 3, 1976. I had moved to work with the BBC in autumn of 1975. Two weeks into our living in Stranmillis a bomb went off in a house three or four doors down from us; that's a way my life continued for a quarter of a century.
Q. Was it love at first sight?
A. She was so Latin-looking. I'd been keeping an eye on her all evening and... so when the first couple of songs had been played she was standing there and I took her home and look at her now 46 years later.
Q. You have three children - Ciara (41), Ireland manager for Mintel, Laura-Kate (37), a marketing brand manager, and producer/director Michael (35), who works with you. You also have five grandchildren: Ciara's three - Kate (10), Anna (eight) and Rory (five) - and Laura-Kate's two - Eve (four) and son Rian (12 months), whose name means 'Little King' in Irish. What's it like being the daughter or son of in-your-face journalist Eamonn Mallie?
A. When our children were growing up politics simply were not discussed at the dinner table. Admittedly they were quite well shielded and galvanised living in south Belfast. They knew what I was doing but we didn't make it an issue.
Q. Your mum was Eileen and your dad Michael. You have three brothers - Michael (70), Anthony (in his 60s) and Peadar (in his 60s) and two sisters - Goretti (66) and Carmel (60). What did your parents do?
A. My dad was a farmer, then a labourer in England because there was no work in south Armagh, then he became a bricklayer. My mum reared six children, mostly on her own.
Q. Are you and your siblings close?
A. All my brothers and sisters are alive and we're very close. We've dinner every single year - some time before Christmas, brothers and sisters, husbands and extended family, around the same table. It's the highlight of my year.
Q. You were born in south Armagh. A happy childhood?
A. We were born and reared in the Ring of Gullion in a rather isolated area. I came from Legmoylin, Silverbridge. It was idyllic. I lived most of my childhood days on the river bank fishing for trout and catfish.
Q. You went to Abbey CBS Grammar School and Trinity College Dublin from which you graduated in 1974 in Gaelic and Spanish.
A. I love languages, and I deeply regret the fact that I didn't learn Greek. It closed the door on so many writings and so much education. I'm a consummate European. I was a disciple and pupil of the wonderful erudition of (SDLP founder and politician) John Hume who educated us to think and to understand the whole raison d'etre of the EU, basically to make sure that at no point ever again in the history of Europe would you have countries fighting against each other and that is the fundamental, in my opinion, which was missed out in the whole Brexit debate.
Q. You worked as a researcher in Irish Language for RTE. Then you trained as a radio current affairs producer for the BBC in Belfast. You joined Downtown Radio in 1976 as a reporter and became political correspondent in the 80s. You've worked for: RTE, BBC, Downtown Radio, Cool FM, ITN, Channel 4, AFP, Today FM, IRN, NBC, CBC, BBC Radio Scotland and BBC Radio Wales, NPR, SKY, GMTV. Then, in 1989, you formed your own company Eamonn Mallie News Services. When did you start thinking about going into journalism?
A. Vanity brought me into the media world. We didn't have television when I left home in 1970. We'd no electricity or running water in our house. I used to watch Charles Mitchel reading the news on RTE and I was vain enough to say I could do that. In college I lived with a fellow who was working in RTE as a producer when he graduated and I was vain enough to think that I could be a broadcaster. I got a job as a researcher in the Irish Language for RTE. Then a job came up in Belfast as a trainee producer. Downtown Radio happened in the spring of that year. I got an exclusive interview with Gerry Tuite - an IRA man who was one of the most wanted men in Britain and he escaped from Brixton. It was just unbelievable - he told me every single detail of how he got out. Then the Hunger Strike happened and there was huge international interest in Northern Ireland and I was broadcasting scores of times in a day. I became a freelancer in 1989, formed my own company, and that continued until really eight or nine years ago, then the ceasefires happened and Northern Ireland ceased to be a story…
Q. What advice would you give to someone starting out in journalism today?
A. Start your own podcast, and learn shorthand and typing. I deeply regret that I did not learn shorthand and that I also did not learn to type properly.
Q. So what's next?
A. There are two things I want to do. I'm trying to write a screenplay informed by a song. And I want to write my memoirs.
Q. Tell us something no one knows about you.
A. I was the resident disc jockey in a nightclub called The Squirrel's Nest when I was at Trinity.
Q. What would you like on your epitaph?
A. Ancora Imparo (I'm still learning) and Abba Todah (Thank you God).
Eamonn Mallie: Face to Face, UTV, tomorrow, 11pm