The Journalist as Hero

Book Reviews by Frank O’Shea

Martin Dillon: Crossing the Line: My Life on the Edge, Merrion Press, 4 Sept 2017
RRP: €18.99. 251 pp
ISBN: 9781785371301.img002.jpg

The title of Martin Dillon’s book gives a good indication of what to expect. Born in the Lower Falls area in the heart of nationalist Belfast, his final chapter has him mulling over the Orange sash that he was given by two of his journalist friends. He stresses that the tradition it represents is also an important part of what it means to be Irish. The best indicator of which ‘side’ he is on is the fact that he has been on death lists of both sides.

Dillon began his working life as a journalist with the (nationalist) Irish News and then went on to work with the Belfast Telegraph and although each paper reported news, readers were aware that each masthead leaned towards a different side of the sectarian division. The fact that he was young meant that he did not seem to appreciate the danger he was in when he ventured on to the streets in search of stories and set out to meet the people who were making the news.

He joined BBC Northern Ireland and describes some of the problems he had in that organisation before going on to work with Channel 4 and private film producers. He is probably best known for a trilogy of books about the Troubles, with a central theme running through them: the way that MI5 and the different security elements of the police and the army were involved in the murder campaigns of the UDA and the UVF, but also of the IRA. He devotes a chapter on the police informers operating within each of these organisations, particularly the IRA.

The book has elements of autobiography, like his brief time in a junior seminary in England. We learn that he is thrice-married, though there is no account of the reasons for the breakup of his first two marriages. Similarly, we learn that his family has splintered, he with two of his sisters against the remaining seven siblings; he was not informed of his father’s final illness and did not attend the funeral.

A number of chapters are devoted to the painter Gerard Dillon, his great-uncle to whom he was close and there are references to the Irish art scene. Through his work and through his association with the artist, he met a number of prominent writers and artists, people like Denis Johnston, Sean O Faolain, Ben Kiely and the painter George Campbell.

Among those he met either socially or as part of his work was the writer J P Donleavy, ‘I sensed that he wanted us to leave his fine surroundings as quickly as possible.’ He found Ted Heath ‘arrogant and obnoxious … a most unpleasant man.’ He describes Michael Stone, the man who shot mourners at a funeral as ‘a narcissist … dangerous, manipulative and unpredictable.’ There are little gems that might come from MAD Magazine as in his account of a time of peak killings in Ulster when ‘… a National Health centre, which treated aggressive psychopaths, closed for lack of patients.’

There are also telling opinions of some of the organisations. ‘The UDA nurtured a reflex desire for vengeance, and racketeers crammed its higher ranks … encouraged extreme violence, vengeance and organised crime.’ My favourite was his account of the early days of the Hume-Adams meetings when he told a senior person from John Major’s office who had asked his opinion, ‘I believe Adams is the most likely member of the IRA’s Army Council to propose negotiating a deal with the British government. But Martin McGuinness will have to keep Adams alive before and after negotiations become a reality.’

Less an autobiography than an account of significant people and events in his life, the book provides fascinating insights into a conflict about which most Australians or Irish people living here had little more than headline understanding. Repetitive and meandering in places, the reader can believe that what is written here is closer to the truth than what we were told by the official parties involved.


Jim McDowell: THE GOOD FIGHT. From Bullets to Bylines – 45 Years Face-to-Face with Terror,  Gill Books 22 Sept 2017
RRP: €16.99 353 pp
ISBN: 978 07171 7572 7

Jim McDowell is a former editor of the Northern Ireland edition of the Sunday World newspaper. It is a set of loosely connected real-life stories about earning a living in what was, during his working life, one of the most dangerous workplaces on the planet.

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It helps to know that the Sunday World is a paper which from its inception, challenged the prim and proper broadsheets. It was a tabloid with a reputation for sensational and lurid content, in the style of the English Sun or News of the World. In the South, you might pick it up on your way from Mass, but would probably hide it in the larger Sunday Independent or Sunday Press.


But the World quickly earned a reputation for digging into the murky world of dodgy dealings and political chicanery. In the north it daringly took on the paramilitaries, first when the killing was about ancient tribalism and later when the organisations involved enriched themselves through the drug trade.

It appears that the organised groups on the Unionist side of the Troubles – UDA, UVF, UFF, LVF, Red Hand – took to the drug business more quickly and more enthusiastically than those on the nationalist side. In fact, the IRA were fiercely against drugs and indeed, if the book has a soiled hero it is DAAD, Direct Action Against Drugs, a cover name for the ‘social work’ of the Provisionals.

A number of leading figures in the drug business run from one of the loyalist organisations met their bloody end at the hands of either their own colleagues or of DAAD. These were often named in the World, at considerable peril to those working there and in the case of 51-year old journalist Martin O’Hagan, at the cost of his life. One of the chapters deals with the murder of O’Hagan and explains that no one has ever been charged with that crime

[There must be families in Dublin today wishing that an organisation like DAAD, malign and destructive as it might be, existed in their city to deal with the Kinahan and Hutch gangsters and their imitators.]

The Sunday World put the names of two of his killers, members of the LVF, on their front page. Although convicted of other criminal charges as well, they were never imprisoned. McDowell believes that it was because they were touts, part of a large number of paramilitaries, particularly from the UVF, who were passing information to some one of the intelligence organisations. That they did not face the courts was not because of gratitude on the part of RUC or MI5 or their ilk, but because they knew too much to be put before a public trial.

The authors of both of these books are of one opinion about the role of secretive branches of the security services in murder and extra-judicial killings.

If there is such a thing as Sunday World house style, probably based around dictums like ‘no word with more than eight letters’ or ‘no long sentences’, this could be given as an example. The result is wonderfully refreshing, a reminder of a life writing stories to a deadline. The author sees himself and his colleagues as serving a value to their society. ‘We were part of the community we reported on and were committed to it,’ he writes.

You feel that you are being told only half the story, that in the background is a legal eagle with a busy red pen. And even that half is lightly glossed with verbal shine to keep you from asking too many questions or looking too deeply. But for all that, the result is a perfect read, told with a light touch and much self-deprecation. The writer does not take himself too seriously, but takes his work very seriously indeed.

Frank O’Shea is a member of the Tinteán collective