Why did UTV’s Fearghal McKinney turn his back on television for politics?
The former journalist tells Ivan Little why he didn’t even vote in past elections, but now wants people to back him for a Westminster seat
For a man who’s hoping to persuade thousands of people to go to the polls to vote him into Westminster, Fearghal McKinney has made what, on the face of it, seems to be a strange confession.
Because the former Impartial Reporter, Downtown Radio and UTV journalist has admitted that he isn’t a voter himself.
“I think I may have voted a couple of times when I was a lot younger. But definitely not in recent times,” he said.
This fanatical follower of all things political insists, however, it was his desire to maintain his stance as an impartial reporter which kept him out of the polling booths. Londonderry-born, Enniskillen-raised and east Belfast-based McKinney says: “I tried to stick to a solid middle-ground and I didn’t associate with any side. From a journalistic perspective I took the luxury of not voting.”
It’s nearly a week since McKinney, who until a year ago was a UTV political correspondent, announced that he was seeking the SDLP’s nomination for the Fermanagh/South Tyrone constituency
He went public sooner than he had planned because a twitter message from his ex-Downtown colleague Eamonn Mallie threw McKinney’s hat among the political pigeons by naming him as a possible SDLP runner. McKinney had earlier denied to a number of newspapers that he was a candidate. And while he insists “that was true at the time because a final, final, final decision had not been made”, it’s clear he could have handled the situation better.
And embarrassingly for a journalist with 26 years’ experience he had to start last week’s press conference with an apology to reporters.
“I can understand why they were miffed and annoyed because they thought they had a story but they might not have had a story because nothing had been finalised.”
McKinney had another major imperative this week — to join the SDLP.
“I had never belonged to any party. When I was growing up in Enniskillen, I knew what was going on.
“We would get stones thrown at us on our way home from school because Fermanagh was polarised against the backdrop of a Bobby Sands and Owen Carron election. That was one of the reasons which I think led me to become a journalist.”
He says he was first approached to stand for the SDLP seven months ago after returning from a family holiday.Which he says proves that he was not following in the footsteps of his former UTV colleague Mike Nesbitt who is running for the Ulster Unionists in Strangford.
“I think you will find I was considering the move several months before Mike,” he says.
“I have always liked the idea of politics and I liked observing it and challenging it and I think I did it well. My raison d’etre was intelligent challenge,” he says.
McKinney says that when he first got the call to align himself to the SDLP “it kind of opened a door and I could see into a room and I began to fill the space in my own head with what I could do in that room.
“Every decision you make in your life is big — getting married and having children for example. But taking a new direction like this is probably the most enormous decision of my life.
“But I decided to take it because I am seeing things in Northern Ireland now which mean that all of the voices won't get heard. And I think it is important that that middle ground voice is heard. It is a reasonable voice, it’s not strident. It’s a good counter balance to the two other big political blocs.
“Mark Durkan and the other leaders were saying that the SDLP were up for change and wanted to get new people in and the words re-energise, rejuvenate and renewal appealed to me.”
McKinney and Mike Nesbitt may once have been close colleagues in UTV but they haven’t spoken to each other about their new political paths. “It’s not a negative thing,” says McKinney.
“It just hasn’t happened yet.”
The 47-year-old father-of-three says he genuinely believes he can win the seat. But his predecessor Tommy Gallagher said exactly the same thing in 2005 yet finished fourth in the count, more than 10,000 votes behind Sinn Fein’s Michelle Gildernew.
“In terms of numbers, people are saying the gap can’t be closed but voters want someone who will go to Westminster to fight for jobs, homes, communication, education. They are the things which unite people and if it is a hung parliament, Northern Ireland politicians will have a big voice.”
He dismisses the contention that with more power in Stormont now, the Sinn Fein policy of staying away from Westminster is no longer as important an issue in the minds of the electorate.
Michelle Gildernew’s work as agriculture minister in the Stormont executive has raised her profile considerably and unionists are still talking up the possibility of an agreed candidate — but McKinney remains upbeat about his chances.
Political bloggers on the internet — who will have a bigger influence on this election than ever before — have claimed the SDLP know they can’t win but are paving the way for McKinney to take a seat in the next Stormont assembly.
“Tommy Gallagher hasn’t indicated that he isn’t standing, for starters,” he says.
“At the back end of the election, if you have won you are starting off a career in politics; if you have achieved hugely well in terms of votes you start to make decisions around that but there are no decisions yet”.
On the same blogs, unionists have rounded on McKinney for using the term “the north” instead of Northern Ireland.
“But I never said it. It was used in a press release which I didn’t write.
“I don’t speak in those terms.
“It is in my DNA to work with people. I will not shove a nationalist agenda down anyone’s throat. I like the way the SDLP are saying around an all-Ireland — let’s put it into a separate forum and debate it in a positive way. And then we can discuss the other issues which affect people.”
McKinney hasn’t been idle since leaving UTV.
He helped established a digital news service, Fermanagh TV, and though he has withdrawn from his editorial role there because of the election, he is still working on several projects including initiatives for tourism.
His parents still live in Enniskillen and he will stay with them for large parts of the election campaign.
He says his wife Maire is fully supportive of his plans and he says his three daughters Kate (12) Anna (10) and four year old Martha are excited.
“It’s a big commitment for them too.”
McKinney’s role as a journalist at Stormont has put him in an unusual position as a born-again politician. For some of his now supposed political “enemies” are also among his best friends. Even as we talked in an east Belfast restaurant, one well-known and outspoken unionist came over to wish McKinney well and he has received similar messages from right across the political divide.
He knows, however, the same politicians will do him no favours in the election campaign. McKinney who covered many of the major terrorist atrocities throughout the troubles, including the Enniskillen bomb, won several awards as a reporter.
However, he acknowledges that one of his biggest scoops was down to good fortune rather than hard-nosed investigation.
He had gone to London in February 1996 to cover an IRA bomb blast on board a bus in the centre of the city.
“I hailed one of the thousands of taxis in London and after chatting to the driver, it turned out his cab had been right behind the bus. His story was all over the Evening Standard and he agreed to do an interview for me. Mind you he kept his meter running throughout the chat!”
As well as his family and politics, McKinney has another passion in life — music. He used to play in jazz bands and has just bought himself a new clarinet.
Like another silver-haired politician Bill Clinton, he also plays the saxophone.
The similarities end there, says McKinney who used to work as a barman in Lavery’s bar in Belfast’s Bradbury Place while training as a journalist in the early 1980s.
And while it’s nearly 30 years ago, he says many people in the Sandy Row area remember him more from seeing him behind the bar than on the television.
“Any time I’m walking about the area, I still meet lots of folk who used to drink in the bar where I used to serve — the likes of Terri Hooley and Alex Higgins. It was a real melting pot. A place apart”. Just like Westminster, in fact.