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UTV's Sharon O'Neill on pain of losing mother at 20 and life on and off the screen

Ahead of her latest expose of drug abuse in Northern Ireland, UTV's Sharon O'Neill talks to Una Brankin about the danger of prescription pills, the death of her mother from cancer and her honeymoon disaster

Her face is one you might recognise on the street, if it weren't half hidden by one of the dozens of big woolly bobble hats she wears regularly. Sharon O'Neill doesn't over-expose herself in print media either, but her youthful pixie features are immediately familiar from her 10 years of reporting for UTV. Petite, she's younger looking in the flesh than she appears on screen, and it's a surprise to hear she turns 48 this year.

The looming half-century doesn't faze her, and she's not one for medical-grade lasers or the latest non-surgical facelifts.

"It's just a number; it doesn't bother me," she says blithely, pointing out that she has never encountered ageism or sexism in an industry criticised for both in London and the US.

"I've older sisters, and if you start thinking about all that sort of thing it's a downward slope.

"I don't drink - well, hardly - and don't smoke. I have started looking after my skin better with good cleansers and creams as I've got older, but I don't like facials. I live on a lot of nervous energy - and coffee - and I keep fit. I go out running when I have the time."

"And she has a great husband," the PR from UTV interjects.

The three of us are sitting around a corporate meeting table to discuss the upcoming current affairs series, UTV Up Close, in Havelock House, the famous salmon-pink headquarters of UTV on Belfast's Ormeau Road.

Sharon spent the early part of her life a few miles away on the Falls Road, but there's very little of the west Belfast twang left in her speaking voice.

In person, it's also devoid of the emphatic delivery of her news reports. But it's plain to see she's a genuine newshound and unafraid of putting political leaders on the spot, even on one occasion using the Jeremy Paxman technique of repeating a question several times when the subject declined to give a response and became quite fractious.

As a journalist with more than two decades' experience, including stints with this newspaper, she would rather be asking the questions than answering them.

Her journalistic skill has won her industry awards and plenty of exclusives, and it looks like the acclaim is to continue with her new UTV venture.

The first series of UTV Up Close kicks off on Wednesday, April 25, with an in-depth look at prescription drug abuse in Northern Ireland, and includes an interview with the family of Aaron Strong, the 18-year-old from west Belfast who died after taking a lethal mix of prescription drugs on his first day on holiday in Spain last April.

Sharon says: "The Strongs are a lovely family, decent people who wanted the best for Aaron, and that's what happened to him. You can look like you're sleeping, but you can slip into a deep coma you won't wake up from, like the man in Derry who was found in a mission hall in the city not so long ago."

Before she became a journalist, Sharon worked as a copy taker for a private cancer consultant and arranged for her mother, Bridie, to see him when she was diagnosed with cancer, in her early 50s.

Bridie's death, within a year, came as a huge blow to Sharon, who was only 19 at the time, the second youngest in a family of five children.

Her father, Dominic, is a retired cargo manager for British Airways.

"Mummy stayed at home to look after us," she recalls, quietly. "Losing her seems such a long time ago now, half a lifetime ago. She hadn't been well for a while. I remember her going to the doctor, but she ended up going private with the consultant I worked for and she was told it was terminal.

"She had secondary cancer in her bowel by that stage. She came home and died about eight or nine months after that."

Her mother's untimely death has not made Sharon fearful for her own health, however. "I never really thought about it, although I know you should be more aware, but sometimes life passes you by and you forget the check-ups," she admits.

"Mum was young to die. We were close but, you know what you're like at that age, and it happened very quickly.

"It was a sudden change, but we stuck together as a family.

"I remember talking to the family of a young girl from Derry who had died from cervical cancer and reporting on their cancer campaign for smear testing. That puts everything in perspective. At least I had my mummy until 20."

"Dad's doing well," she adds, disclosing his age. "But don't write that - he'll be scundered!"

The O'Neill family moved to Antrim in the late '70s. Sharon had left school with the equivalent of two A-levels and worked as a waitress, a bar attendant and a secretary before she got into journalism.

"I remember flashes of the riots and walking through the Divis area, which was a sprawling estate at the time, but we were quite immune from the Troubles in Antrim," she remarks.

"The news would be on in the background all the time, but I only really got the bug later, when I was working in marketing for the Irish News. I used to go in by bus at about 6am - I couldn't drive back then.

"I wasn't very good at typing, my spelling was atrocious and my grammar was not great - it still isn't. But I loved the newsroom and went off to Portsmouth to study journalism, not that I passed everything at the time."

After notching up some work experience, she studied for a degree in journalism in Preston and got work sub-editing on her return to Belfast. She began reporting for newspapers, including the Belfast Telegraph, in 1999, the same year she married Joe Kearney (46), a sub-editor for the Daily Mirror.

"We met over the subs' desk when I came back from uni," she laughs. "We used to go to The Front Page bar in our breaks and we had our first date for our birthdays, which are a day apart, in that French restaurant, Frogities - and that was it.

"We got married in a church in Antrim and paid so much for the big wedding at Galgorm in Ballymena that we had to make do with a three-star hotel with no air conditioning in Lanzarote for our honeymoon. It was awful! Joe has red hair and there we were in 100 degree heat. Probably the worst two weeks of his life!

"He got burned to bits. It's funny when you look back on it but it wasn't at the time."

Sharon goes out running while Joe plays golf — “he thinks he’s Rory McIlroy but he’s not.”

The subject of children is off-limits for her. A panicked glance is exchanged with the PR. “It’s such a personal issue,” she says, reasonably.

“It’s almost as if you don’t have kids at a certain age. It’s, ‘Oh that’s because you because you’re career-driven’, and it’s not. There can be other reasons.”

 She’s happier to talk about the big news stories she has covered for UTV, such as the Kingsmill massacre inquest and the murder of the two best friends from Newry who were killed on holiday in Turkey.

“Alan Black, who survived Kingsmill, told me that our coverage was the programme he always wanted made,” she says. “Eyewitnesses spoke for the first time to us. 

“I still talk to Alan, see how he’s doing. You feel bad if you can’t get the answers for people. You feel responsible. You explain why you can’t.

“You have to build up relationship with people; you don’t just walk into the house and start firing questions.”

She admits she’d like to cover more uplifting stories: “Happy stories! I’d love to do more of those. I did one in a sleigh going down a field on a farm last year. I do like that sort of thing, even though I’m not very good at it. But I do like to think I have a sense of humour deep down.

 “I tend to gravitate towards tragedies and asking questions for people who have no other option but to go public.

“But I’d be doing all these serious stories with boxes and boxes of shoes underneath my desk that I’d bought off the internet. I remember my former colleague, Fearghal McKinney, asking me what on earth was in all those boxes!”

Incidentally, on the day we meet she’s wearing a pair of black fringed ankle boots with a black leather skirt and a cobalt blue top.

And she does admit she likes her fashion. “I have invested in a few of designer Una Rodden’s numbers. They never go out of fashion.” Being in front of the camera requires her to wear smart outfits, but off-duty she tends to be more quirky — “I do like my frills and I prefer boots to shoes.” She also prefers jeggings to jeans and swears that for outerwear “you can’t beat a puffa jacket”.

Given her profession, it is hardly surprising that her reading material is mostly “an awful lot of newspapers” and she admits that she hasn’t read a book for some time.

Today, Sharon lives in a south Belfast townhouse, but certainly doesn’t have any love for gardening — “you must be joking,” she replies when asked if she has green fingers.

She admits to being something of a control freak, finding it hard to compromise, but, surprisingly, claims she lacks confidence. She also confesses to being “a bit too hyper”, but softens her image by saying that underneath it all she is a kind and generous person.

Returning to her upcoming series, Sharon points out that the first programme airs just four days after the first anniversary of the death of superstar Prince — her favourite performer — from an accidental overdose of the opioid painkiller fentanyl, a prescription drug 30 to 50 times more powerful than heroin, and 50 to 100 times as potent as morphine.

President Trump — whose famous fake news claims are regarded by Sharon as a diversionary tactic from contentious issues — has pledged a crackdown on prescription drug abuse in the US, where it’s reported that 91 people a day die from opioid overdoses.

And it’s a growing problem here in Northern Ireland, where an estimated 31 people died from opioids last year.

“It was really quite shocking when we looked into it,” says Sharon. “You can buy tramadol easily for less than 10p on the dark web (through online black markets).

“We met a lot of people off camera, talking about how everybody’s taking them like sweets, and they don’t realise what they’re taking.

“And it’s not just vulnerable people — they’re from all walks of life. One lady was begging for tramadol outside pharmacies, buying prescriptions from people going in.

“It’s important to stress that when a doctor prescribes them for a specific medical problem, it’s perfectly safe. But some people start taking them, become dependent, then want more and go down the illegal route.”

The first of a series of 11 or 12 airing this year and next, the programme stems from Sharon’s special reports, viewed by seven million online across the world last year, on the risks surrounding tramadol, which is taken by thousands here every day.

In one of the reports, the former Northern Ireland state pathologist, Professor Jack Crane, said that tramadol was claiming more lives here than any other drug, including heroin and cocaine.

Among the deaths last year were a 16-year-old girl and a pensioner in his 70s.

The painkiller doesn’t cause harm if taken correctly, but the danger rises when users mix it with other drugs or alcohol.

UTV Up Close identifies fentanyl, which is used mainly for cancer patients, as becoming a “massive issue” here, easily bought in bulk from the dark web, along with oxycodone, a drug for epilepsy known in the US as ‘hillbilly heroin’, and codeine-based medication such as co-codamol.

  • UTV Up Close series begins on April 25

Sharon’s favourite things

TV drama — Line of Duty

Online/Netflix series — Making a Murderer/The People v OJ

Song — Wonderwall by Oasis and The Chain by Fleetwood Mac

World leader — Barack Obama

Celebrity — Graham Norton

Comedian — I don’t do comedy

Actor — Tom Hanks and Cate  Blanchett

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