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Malachi O'Doherty: I am not a Provo sleeper, nor am I a British agent...you may not like my opinions, but they're my own

My independent views have given me a living as a freelance journalist for 35 years now, says Malachi O'Doherty

Malachi O'Doherty
Malachi O'Doherty
Malachi O'Doherty

By Malachi O'Doherty

I was accused of being a devious republican this week. This was in a discussion on Radio Ulster's Talkback about last week's column in which I had suggested that with Northern Ireland to be left like a swaddled bairn on the doorstep of the EU, we should insist on representation continuing in the European Parliament.

It wasn't just republicans who supported the idea. Niall O Donghaile phoned in to say that Sinn Fein hoped that two surplus seats going to the Irish Republic might be given to us.

Former Alliance leader David Ford contributed his insights into how associate membership of the European Parliament might work.

So, what was it that made the idea, coming from me, look devious and republican?

By coincidence - and contrast - on another programme, Frank Mitchell's show on U105, it was put to me that I was motivated by anti-republicanism. Frank said that callers often rang in to allege that I was working to some "agenda" to undermine Sinn Fein.

I have heard this before. Indeed, one Sinn Fein councillor briefed an English journalist that I was not to be trusted because I was a British agent.

I told Frank that I thought having an opinion of your own was one of the entitlements of a free citizen in a democracy and that I would be happy to defend that right in public debate with my accusers, but I haven't heard back from them.

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It derives from the fact that I have an Irish name and a working-class Belfast background.

People who don't know the community I grew up in mistakenly think it was uniformly republican.

I did often feel, in the early days of the Troubles, that I was safer keeping my head down and saying nothing, but I never felt that I was in a minority in that respect.

The question of whether I am to be trusted has been with me since the beginning of my career in journalism.

When I was a reporter on the Sunday News my byline was often dropped from my stories, or changed to the more - What? Anodyne? - 'Mal Doherty'.

The excessively Gaelic character of the full name was thought likely to unnerve some readers.

Actually, Malachi is from the Old Testament, though it is allowed as a translation of the Gaelic 'Maolseachlainn'.

Once a photographer on the Sunday News told me that he thought the paper should only employ "hundred percenters".

I didn't ask him to unpack the idea for me, but I took him to mean that, if he had his way, I would not be working alongside him.

Those were hard times and people were entitled to be hurt and angry.

The same man was civil enough on other occasions.

Once, the Radio Times ran a check on me with a call to my producer at the BBC to ask if I was a fit person to be writing a piece for them, or if I might have a devious political motivation.

I think there was a fear that I was an IRA sleeper. And why might they think that?

Others have made the same mistake. I have on numerous occasions had to correct RTE. Once, I heard a presenter on a programme introduce me as a former IRA prisoner and was able to put him right on air.

Last week, when I turned down an invitation to take part in a discussion programme, a producer asked me if I could suggest someone else who shared my perspective.

"Well, what do you see my perspective as being?" I asked.

"Republican," she said.

Well, in a way that's right.

I disdain the monarchy, and Brexit makes me wary of the Union in a way that I was not before.

But if she was expecting my heart to be gladdened by the election of John Finucane she had another think coming.

And I could cite several other occasions when a journalist or producer has taken me for a 'Chuck'.

Peter Taylor, a great reporter, had arranged to interview me alongside an actual former IRA man. He said to me within seconds of going live: "What were your years in Long Kesh, Malachi?"

I have never been in Long Kesh - at least not as a prisoner or internee.

In some cases I think people have confused me with Shane Paul O'Doherty. He was a member of the IRA in Derry in the early 1970s and is now their most eloquent critic.

Some people would say that there is evidence of balance in my being suspected of being both a republican and a Brit. I don't see it like that. I am not balanced; I am opinionated. I try to be fair and rational and to hear every point of view.

I don't think the republican criticism of me is honest. I don't think they really believe that I am an agent. They just want to discourage broadcasters and editors from using me.

As for the routine use of the word "agenda", in my experience an agenda is an outline for action laid down by someone else, usually at the start of a meeting. Political parties have agendas; individuals don't.

I may be stupid or deluded, or even have a long-standing gripe about the city I love being bombed by my neighbours, but I do only speak for myself.

Fortunately, to my knowledge, none of this branding and sectarian stereotyping has impacted greatly on my career as a writer and journalist.

I have sustained myself for 35 years as an independent freelance journalist and writer without having to go back on the dole.

Prejudice may even have got me work, as it would have done last week had I accepted the invitation onto that discussion programme.

And I can recall many occasions when I was paired with a unionist/Protestant in a debate.

The producer probably thought that was meeting the broadcaster requirement for balance. More evidence of sectarian thinking.

I can see how that would annoy people who thought I was not representing the nationalist or republican cause as well as they could have done themselves. Tough.

They can go and get themselves on air the way I did, not by trying to pull others off it with lies and slander.

Anyway, it's Christmas and I shouldn't be bothering your heads with this stuff.

I will sign off by saying that writing for this paper is one of the great pleasures of my life and I know a lot of you only read halfway down and are missing this, but Happy Christmas to all of you.

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