James Downey: One of the leading journalists of his generation

Obituary: His first period as London editor of ‘The Irish Times’ was a triumph

Jim Downey: September 20th, 1933-April 21st, 2016. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

Jim Downey: September 20th, 1933-April 21st, 2016. Photograph: Brenda Fitzsimons

 

James Downey, who has died aged 82, was one of the leading journalists of his generation. His elegant prose graced the pages of The Irish Times until 1988. He then wrote penetrating analysis for the Irish Independent until days before he died. His final Independent column – celebrating the “Panama Papers” – appeared last Saturday.

Downey’s was a rare talent. His prose was crisp and succinct. But what really marked him out was the speed at which he could produce it, initially banging away on a manual typewriter. While others sweated over successive drafts, polishing and correcting, Downey got it right first time. That meant he could hold his own, and more, among what was an exceptional generation in Irish journalism.

He was up against colleagues like Maeve Binchy – who famously said that writing was difficult, rewriting easy – Nell McCafferty, Henry Kelly, Conor O’Clery, Brendan Keenan, Bruce Arnold, John Horgan, Geraldine Kennedy and Conor Brady. Sub-editors noted ruefully that he made their efforts redundant, his copy was so “clean” that it could be sent to the printer for typesetting immediately.

Extraordinary insight

His first period as London editor of The Irish Times was a triumph. He showed extraordinary insight into the Westminster power play. This was a time when British politicians fought vainly to avoid responsibility for the tragedy unfolding on the streets of Northern Ireland by hiding behind the fiction that internal matters were for the Stormont parliament to resolve.

Downey was first in the field to reveal that Britain was introducing direct rule in Northern Ireland in 1972. The Westminster tectonic plate had shifted.

Downey wrote incisively about Anglo-Irish relations in his book Them and Us published in 1983.

And it all fitted in with the notion of the new Irish Times being confident and outgoing and bridging gaps between communities and countries. After all, it maintained reporting staff at four parliaments, Dublin, Belfast, London and Brussels, as the chairman and chief executive Major Tom McDowell boasted when the Irish Times Trust was established in 1974. In 1985, Jim Downey by then deputy editor, oversaw the printing of the newspaper by its rival, Independent Newspapers, while a new press was installed in Fleet Street.

The big unsettled question was who would succeed Douglas Gageby as editor of The Irish Times. A previous attempt to resolve this by appointing Fergus Pyle in 1974 had failed, and Gageby had returned from retirement. Now it was time for the question to be settled.

Jim Downey, by now deputy editor, was the favourite. Many senior staff supported him. It was billed as the battle between the Yuppies (who supported the younger Conor Brady) and the Downeys, and the prize was expected to be Downey’s.

Disappointment

Until that fateful day in December 1986 when Gageby stood up on a chair in the newsroom to announce that his successor would be Brady, Downey had believed that the prize was his. He did not hide his disappointment. In 1988 he left The Irish Times and crossed the Liffey to join the Irish Independent to write leading articles. In the meantime his political magazine, the New Nation, had been short-lived.

In retrospect McDowell and Gageby were seen as having been remiss in allowing Downey to believe he could be editor, and The Irish Times lost a first-class journalist to its biggest competitor, the Irish Press being then in its final decade.

James Downey was born in Dromohair, Co Leitrim, where his father was a schoolteacher. His mother Florence McGowan died when he was two. Downey was educated at Newbridge College, Co Kildare.

His journalism career got underway at the Carlow Nationalist under celebrated editor Liam D Bergin, and he worked in local papers in London for a while. He also worked for the Irish Press group.

He described himself in his memoir In My Own Time: Inside Irish Politics and Society (2009) as a foot-in-the-door reporter, but in fact he believed in journalism as a force for good in society. This led him to contest a general election in 1969 for the Labour Party in the Dublin Central constituency, encouraged by his friends David Thornley and Justin Keating. His toll of 895 votes did not encourage him to try again.

On Saturday, April 16th, Downey was admitted to hospital. He had suffered a stroke last year. He died on April 20th, the 53rd anniversary of his marriage to Moira Stevenson. He is survived by her, their daughters Rachel and Vanessa, his sisters Eva, Frances and Maria and his brother Tony.