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Writer Jenny McCartney on growing up as daughter of ex-unionist leader Robert and how much Belfast has changed

As the journalist prepares to publish her debut book set in Northern Ireland at the end of the Troubles, she reveals her remarkable journey

Jenny McCartney
Jenny McCartney
Bob McCartney of the UK Unionst Party heckles Dr Ian Paisley during a visit to Lisburn
Jenny McCartney and Rajeev Syal on their wedding day in Cultra. Pic by Alasdair McBroom
Jenny with husband Rajeev Syal

By Laurence White

Jenny McCartney (47) is a freelance journalist who formerly worked on the Sunday Telegraph for 19 years. It was there that she met her husband Rajeev Syal, also a journalist, and they have two children, a boy aged 13 and a girl of 9. Jenny is the daughter of well-known Northern Ireland lawyer Robert McCartney QC, who at one time led the UK Unionist Party and was a member of the Assembly. Her first novel, Ghost Factory, will be published on March 21.

Q: Your novel is set in Belfast  and begins near the end of the Troubles. Is there still an appetite in other parts of the UK for books set here?

A: Milkman, which was set in Northern Ireland, won the Man Booker Prize, and is a wonderful read. On television Derry Girls is brilliant. But it is true that sometimes you see a gritty drama from Northern Ireland and your heart sinks. It may be very good but it is the revisiting of bad times. It feels a bit personal and you are reluctant to go back into that territory.

Q: What is the theme of Ghost Factory?

A: It was based on wondering how someone recovers from an experience of violence. Does someone who has been a victim turn to revenge or do they move on? That is an interesting question to me and a question for many people in Northern Ireland.

I first reported on the issue of paramilitary attacks within communities in the mid-1990s, going back to Belfast for The Sunday Telegraph, and the stories of the youths - both Protestant and Catholic - who were at the wrong end of those attacks, stuck with me and became a theme of the novel. It's sad that so little has changed in reality today, but the hopeful bit is that there are some courageous people living in Northern Ireland who are working very hard to help end the attacks.

Q: Do people in London, for example, realise that paramilitary attacks and violence against young people is still continuing in Northern Ireland?

A: It is difficult to tell. Recently the Sunday Times commissioned me to write a peace on punishment beatings and shootings. I had not suggested the piece and the paper did not know that it was one of the themes of my book.

The UK Press may not normally be interested in this sort of story, but even the Northern Ireland Press can just report another shooting or beating in a few paragraphs. But there is an enormous story behind the simple incident, the suffering of the victim, their recovery or perhaps non-recovery from the injuries or perhaps the descent into something worse like taking their own lives.

It is an issue I don't think enough people pay enough attention to. If they were to see the human stories and the suffering they might be able to relate to the issue better. At the end of the day the consequences for those beaten or shot are disproportionate to the foolish mistake they may have made or the petty crime they are alleged to have committed. It is barbaric.

Q: How long did it take you to write the novel which covers a fairly lengthy time span?

A: I started writing it in the mid-1990s up until the new millennium but then life took over. I got married and had children and half of the book was stuck in a dilapidated computer stuck under a chest of drawers.

I dug it out in 2014 but it was so old I had to get floppy discs to download what I had written and then I found someone on the internet who could recover the words from the discs. By this stage things had changed in Northern Ireland and I had to reflect that. I hope people will like it but if they don't there is nothing I can do about it.

Jenny McCartney on her wedding day with her father Bob McCartney
Jenny McCartney on her wedding day with her father Bob McCartney

Q: Growing up you lived in a very nice part of Northern Ireland, North Down, went to Methody and later Keble College, Oxford. Were you insulated to an extent from the Troubles which affected so many of your contemporaries?

A: Although I grew up in Cultra, my father was from the Shankill and my grandfather from the Donegall Road, so while growing up there was always talk and stories about those places and their memorable characters. I also had a good schoolfriend from the Village area of Belfast and as teenagers we used to stay over sometimes at each other's houses, so that helped a bit in imagining the fictional geography of the novel, which is some place in Belfast with close-knit terraced streets where it's hard to avoid other people noting what you're doing.

Q: What was life like in your home given your father's prominence in public life here?

A: It was a busy and talkative household. There was mum and dad, us four children and my granny and grandad. When my father went into politics in 1981 we became more attuned to the political atmosphere in Northern Ireland and of course we read all the newspapers and listened constantly to the news. The mindset at home was pro-Union but non-sectarian.

I think my father was always more interested in the freedom to raise political ideas and principles than in preferment through party structures.

I saw him primarily as my father, a very warm and supportive man. He had a very strong dissenting streak and that means one says what they think and that makes it hard for one to toe any party line. That has its advantages and disadvantages as a politician but I think people would agree that he was honest.

Q: Were you glad to escape the city of the late 1980s to go to Oxford?

A: My eldest sister had gone to London and that was a kind of template for me. When I was growing up I read books about different places and I had this notion of going away and living in places where I didn't know anyone and see what happened.

I took a year out after Methody and went to Paris where I worked in a restaurant and then came back to London and worked in another restaurant and then went to Oxford. I was there for three years and then went to live in Prague.

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Jenny McCartney and Rajeev Syal on their wedding day in Cultra. Pic by Alasdair McBroom

For a week I didn't speak to anyone and no one spoke to me. I called up my parents in a very self-pitying way as I really did not know anyone in the city.

I think I would have done these things no matter where I grew up. I didn't see it as a final departure and I didn't feel bad about Northern Ireland.

Q: Did you always want to be a journalist?

A: I was always interested in English, both reading and writing essays. My great love as a child was to be left alone with a book. Growing up somewhere where we were steeped in political discussion and argument both inside and outside the home was a great grounding for someone wanting to be a journalist. I think there were a lot of people in Northern Ireland predisposed to going into journalism for that reason.

I did some proof reading in an English language paper in Prague and later a City University course in journalism in London.

Q: You have had a varied career to date.

A: I began working on The Spectator and then was on the staff of the Sunday Telegraph for 19 years.

I did a bit of reporting, feature writing, opinion columns and was film critic for 14 years.

If anything came along I would always try it.

I find there are just so many things that are interesting, and being a freelance journalist now gives you the choice to do interesting work.

Q: What do you think of the Brexit debate?

A: This idea of competing identities is something that Northern Ireland was used to, but not England. I believe there is a quiet majority hoping for an outbreak of common sense and seeing a consensus emerge.

The political class seems to be in a nervous breakdown. At some point there will be a recovery but there then will need to be an analysis of why it happened.

I do get a sense of the toxicity of politics in Northern Ireland. It is not for me to lecture anyone from over here in London, but it is a pity how things have turned out.

You might have expected 20 years ago that we would be in a different place today and that communities could trust one another and talk to one another,

However it is difficult to change things when you have a combination of this toxicity and the absence of a government for more than two years.

Imagine if Westminster did not function for two years, yet it seems quite easily accepted in Northern Ireland. There does not seem to be the concern you think there should be.

There is also growing toxicity in England. We are now in a position where certain female Labour politicians have panic buttons and get threats from both the right and the left. Ten years ago that would have been unacceptable.

Q: Do you come back to Northern Ireland often?

A: I am back and forward quite a lot to see parents, and my children love to come over. I don't feel disconnected from the place.

When you come back to Belfast city centre it is fantastic in many ways. There is a different atmosphere and a great buzz in all the shops and restaurants, completely different from when I was growing up.

But certain areas have been left behind. There are almost two cities - the one visitors see and enjoy and then the areas where people are very fearful and often that is not talked about.

When you are afraid you don't talk. A lot of people who have experienced violence in areas where they still live won't talk about their experience for obvious reasons.

Overall progress has been patchy and perhaps more could have been done to focus on those disadvantaged areas. Politics have atrophied and it is therefore difficult to take action or devise a scheme to help those places left behind.

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