Belfast Telegraph

Only one man could silence veteran journalist Jim McDowell... Van Morrison

 

The former Sunday World northern editor defied both republican and loyalist paramilitaries, but the closest he came to dying was in a horrifying helicopter crash, witnessed by his terrified wife Lindy, he tells Ivan Little.

With undisguised hatred etched across their faces, the UVF men in a Belfast courtroom never took their eyes off the journalist sitting opposite them on the Press benches.

The loyalists didn't have to say anything to send out a chillingly threatening message to Jim McDowell as he waited to report on a court appearance by the very men whose activities he'd repeatedly exposed in print. Much to their fury.

Outside in the corridor, a gang of UVF supporters milled around the door and McDowell, a man who says he could have wallpapered a room with the 21 death threats passed on to him in his time by police, was effectively trapped. He knew he was in trouble.

I was at the Laganside court complex to cover the same case and the tension was unmistakeable as the loyalists silently stalked their prey until the PSNI, who'd been alerted to the potential attack, arrived to spirit McDowell to safety through a back door.

The veteran hack, who's renowned for his sharp-tongued banter, didn't exactly take the menace in the air in his stride, but he called it "run of the mill".

On other occasions, police had to go to even greater lengths to smuggle McDowell in and out of courts, particularly in Craigavon, where he was a hate figure for the ruthless LVF.

However, McDowell hasn't always been able to elude the violent clutches of his avowed loyalist and republican enemies, as he has recalled in a new book about his eventful career in Belfast journalism, called The Good Fight.

The digs in the bake, as he would call them in his rarely understated patter, have been plentiful, like the time he was kicked and beaten to within an inch of his life at the Christmas market at the City Hall in Belfast, again by the UVF.

But McDowell, who ironically used to write a column about the goings-on inside the City Hall's 'Dome of Delight', lived to tell the tale of that terror attack and other assaults.

His Sunday World colleague, Martin O'Hagan, who also wrote fearlessly about terrorism, wasn't so lucky. He was shot dead by the LVF in Lurgan in September 2001.

The killing still haunts McDowell, who knows who carried out the murder, but also knows that the terror gang will probably never be convicted.

"We're still fighting for justice," says McDowell. "We've named and shamed Martin's killers in the Sunday World on numerous occasions. They've never sued.

"But we believe they haven't been prosecuted and put in prison - where they belong - because they were touts and they know too much about their handlers."

Even so, McDowell has no regrets for taking on the terrorists - of all hues - during his 45-year career, 25 of them as the northern editor of the Sunday World.

He tells me: "I have absolutely no respect for paramilitaries of any ilk - IRA, UDA, UVF, INLA, whatever.

"I always deemed them as pimps prostituting - through extortion and other rackets - their own, mainly working-class, people.

"To me, the pen is still mightier than the barrel of a gun, or getting the boot stuck into me, like outside Belfast City Hall.

"I've got my own back on any of the bogeymen who have threatened to hammer me, or who have actually done it, by hammering them - in print."

McDowell's lifelong love affair with journalism started in an unusual way in an unusual place: the working-class loyalist area of Donegall Pass in Belfast, which was more of a breeding ground for greyhounds rather than newshounds.

McDowell's father, after whom he was named, was a "doggy man", who brought all the Belfast newspapers into his home for the greyhound results from Dunmore Stadium and Celtic Park.

McDowell Jnr preferred the front pages to the back ones.

He says: "I fell in love with the romance of those papers, poring over the triumphs and tragedies reported and recorded on their pages.

"And, of course, I also fell in love with the very feel of those papers: the scent of the fresh printers' ink, even the black smudge of it on the fingers."

At Annadale Grammar School, McDowell told teachers he wanted to be a reporter and the News Letter's editor, Cowan Watson ("a rumbustious, rollicking, outsize hulk of a man, physically and intellectually"), gave him his first job in a city teeming with newspaper characters like Mervyn Pauley, Bud Bossence and Tom Samways, to name just a few.

The process of bringing a paper from newsroom to newsprint excited the young McDowell.

"As a cub reporter on the News Letter, I loved the rolling thunder of the big Vickers presses down at the back of Belfast's Talbot Street, like a mini-earthquake under your feet... and then the magical motion of the folded newspapers cascading and spiralling down the gangways in the despatch department and being heaved into the back of the waiting delivery vans," he says.

"It was like watching the birth process of a living, pulsating part of life ... which every reporter, photographer and sub-editor had conceived and created."

During a newspaper strike, McDowell struck out in another direction, but for one night only.

A relative offered him the chance to work as a minder for Van Morrison (above left) when he returned to Belfast for the first time in years to play a concert at the Whitla Hall.

McDowell says he was paid handsomely to accompany Morrison everywhere he went, but there was one condition - he wasn't to talk to the singer, unless the singer talked to him first.

Morrison didn't say a word. So, his bodyguard responded with silence, prompting friends to say that the former Them frontman was the first and last person to ever shut the loquacious McDowell up.

McDowell and colleagues Joe Oliver and Brian Rowan were to set up their own news agency, before Jim moved into the pressure-cooker world of Sunday newspapers.

And, if you ask him to name the highs and lows of his career, the name Martin O'Hagan features on both counts.

His proudest achievement was getting the Sunday World onto the streets just 24 hours after Martin was gunned down on what McDowell calls "Lurgan's Black Friday".

He says: "It was meant as a tribute to Martin and an unbending message of defiance to the evil perpetrators of his murder. And it certainly was."

But McDowell also says the killing and its aftermath were the worst of times - especially as there were reports that the LVF were planning to attack the funeral cortege, or the burial in a cemetery close to the terror group's lair in the Mourneview estate.

The attack never came, but McDowell says he has never taken the threats from terrorists lightly, adding: "Anyone who says they have never experienced fear is a fool. But I have never spiked a story out of fear for myself, my family, or my colleagues. Even if I had contemplated it, none of them would have let me do it."

There have been times, however, when McDowell has followed security forces' advice and moved his family from their home, even though he says it resembled a police station, with bullet-resistant glass, security cameras, monitors and direct panic buttons.

But McDowell's closest call, in October 1996, had nothing to do with paramilitaries, but all to do with a puffa jacket.

He and a number of other journalists were being ferried around Northern Ireland on helicopters on a Press trip to promote a new brand of Guinness.

But, above Fermanagh, a black Guinness puffa jacket flew out of a baggage locker and got tangled in the tail rotor, which sent the chopper plunging to the ground as McDowell's wife, Belfast Telegraph columnist Lindy, watched horror-struck from another helicopter.

Miraculously, no one was killed and McDowell escaped with a broken back, which ended a rugby career that had seen him representing Ulster at schools and junior level.

He laughs that he has the scars on his face to prove his commitment to the game as a no-holds-barred player.

And, even now, McDowell's enthusiasm for rugby and what some might call his thirst for the social side of the game and life in general are unquenchable.

He says the people who have inspired him most in life include his hard-grafting father, Jimmy, and mother, Cherry, who often held down three jobs to put him and his siblings through school.

His wife, Lindy, is also up there and he says she's 10 times the journalist that he is.

On the flipside, McDowell singles out two notorious killers - Billy Wright of the LVF and Hugh 'Cueball' Torney of the INLA - as the most evil men he ever met during his encounters with terrorists during the Troubles.

"They were both psychopathic killers and I met them eye-to-eyeball across tables and both threatened my life and that of others. Suffice to say, I'm still alive. And they aren't," he says.

McDowell draws no distinction between loyalist and republican paramilitaries, saying: "They're both the same. They killed many innocent people during what is euphemistically labelled 'the Troubles', which was nothing more than a dirty little sectarian war, waged by gangsters for their own self-serving ends."

McDowell says he hopes the terrorists will eventually disappear, but he isn't taking bets, adding: "The deluded so-called 'dissidents' are still getting their guns and explosives from somewhere. And there are still those in loyalist terror gangs who would go back to what they do best - terrorising - at the drop of an undertaker's top hat if they thought they could get away with it again."

But will McDowell ever decommission his weapon, his keypad? The Press release for his book calls him a "retired journalist", but he's still writing for a number of publications - including the Belfast Telegraph.

He says he still loves journalism, adding: "The chopper accident almost ended everything. But I wasn't born to stop. I was born to start."

Turning to the future of newspapers, which are coming under increasing pressure from social media and online competitors, McDowell says: "They're not dying. They never will. It's the same as books and the same as the radio."

And, using a McDowellian catchphrase, he insists: "We're not bate yet."

Jim McDowell's The Good Fight: From Bullets to By-lines: 45 Years Face-to-Face with Terror is published by Gill Books, priced £14.99

Belfast Telegraph

Daily News Headlines Newsletter

Today's news headlines, directly to your inbox.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph