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Eamonn Mallie: ‘Emma Little-Pengelly is much more cross-culturally aware than any DUP people I know’

For decades, Mallie’s distinctive voice documented political events on radio in Northern Ireland and beyond. Now he has written his own story about what he heard and saw

Eamonn Mallie’s first family home in the townland of Carrive in south Armagh in the 1950s had no electricity, no running water, and his parents, Mickey and Eileen, kept a vigilant eye, fearful of the entry of rats.

Like many others, his father spent time away working in Belfast, or England: “I remember him leaving one day and having to borrow the price of his boat from Mickey Garvey, a local businessman.

“Such was the poverty of a Border area like South Armagh in the 1950s and 60s that most men “‘took the boat’ at one time, or another,” writes Mallie in his autobiography, Eyewitness to War and Peace.

Now in his 70s, Mallie still holds dearly his ties to south Armagh, “disgracefully labelled ‘Bandit Country’ by former Northern Ireland secretary of state Merlyn Rees”, as he writes in his book.


The book will have many launches, but the most special will be when he sits down to talk in his home GAA club, Silverbridge, a few miles outside Crossmaglen, with fellow clubman, newly-in-office president of the GAA Jarlath Burns.

Eamonn Mallie is certain of a few things: Republican violence is over and it is never coming back, but, equally, he believes then and now that the Belfast Agreement was ‘a miracle’

For decades, Mallie reported on The Troubles for Belfast’s Downtown Radio, along with books, documentaries, films and newspaper articles, including the scoop that revealed the existence of 1993 talks between London and the IRA.

Sitting this week in his south Belfast home, Mallie is certain of a few things: Republican violence is over and it is never coming back, but, equally, he believes then and now that the Belfast Agreement was “a miracle”.

“The IRA campaign has died off and it will not come back. Two big influences: education and regular income along the Border, particularly where much of the campaign was perpetrated.

“When I was growing up, there wasn’t a single graduate in our townland. Maybe a decade later, when I was 12, 13, my cousin qualified in university. Then, Denis Lavelle, the son of the shopkeeper, qualified as an engineer, though not of our townland.

“So apart from the two doctors, the priest and the local teacher, those were the only people [with a degree]. Poverty was writ large in rural nationalist areas,” says Mallie. Today, however, things are different.

“My brother has five graduates in his family. My sister has two graduates. We have three graduates and postgraduates in our family. So, in clubs like Silverbridge there are doctors, there are vets, engineers.

“Side by side with that, there are so many skilled electricians, plumbers, joiners, nurses who are out of bed every morning at half five heading south, straight to Dublin, earning good wages,” he says.

The economic transformation has changed everything.

“A republican south Armagh man told me, “Do you think young fellas here are going to lay behind a ditch, or a hedge in the lashing rain and the frost in the middle of winter, waiting for a police patrol to come along?

“Young people today, he said, are too well off. That’s over. That’s gone. That’s finished,” he says, underscoring his belief by arguing that there is “no single overarching civil right” denied to Northern nationalists today.

Consequently, there has been “a sea change” in nationalist confidence, driven by an obsession among parents to ensure the best education for their children.

“It’s in the DNA in Catholic nationalist areas. When we were kids, there was nothing in our house, but our mother’s dictum was, ‘Read, read, read, I don’t care what you read, even if it’s only the Beano.’”

Similar change has not taken place in Protestant districts: “Is there a corresponding upwardly mobile society in places like the Shankill, Lower Shankill, Rathcoole, Sandy Row, or Donegall Road?”

By now, Mallie is pacing around his kitchen: “No, there isn’t. The only solution, I think, is a Marshall Plan [designed in 1948 by then US secretary of state George Marshall to rebuild war-torn Europe], an economic Marshall Plan. I am not suggesting that the money fall into the hands of people who will abuse and exploit the situation.”

He blames unionism’s political leaders: “No leadership, no leadership from conventional unionist leaders, apart from during the making of the Good Friday Agreement.

“The Ulster Unionists needed, needed the paramilitary groups then, the likes of David Ervine [Progressive Unionist Party] and Gary McMichael [Ulster Democratic Party] to give them cover to walk into Parliament Buildings. But did they foster those relations thereafter? No, they didn’t,” he says.

Driven, ferociously hardworking and competitive, Mallie broke countless stories, most especially the revelation, in late November 1993, in the Observer that London was in direct contact with the IRA, despite denials.

Even now, he is irked that he had the third of three bylines in print on the Sunday newspaper’s scoop, behind the paper’s political editor, Anthony Bevins, and Ireland correspondent Mary Holland, given that he had given the paper the story.

The story headlined “Major’s secret links with IRA leadership revealed”, caused consternation, especially since then British prime minister John Major had previously told the House of Commons that such talks “would turn my stomach”.

Even now, the source for Mallie’s exclusive excites journalists’ gossip, though he reveals that he went after the story having heard hints in a BBC Radio Ulster interview by the Church of Ireland archbishop Robin Eames in March 1993.

Though he had previously considered Eames “to be narrow in his political thinking”, he believed the churchman was “opening up another front, conceivably foreign even to himself”.

So, he rang the Church of Ireland primate. Surprisingly, Eames invited Mallie to his Armagh home where they spoke for two hours. “He was not forthcoming, but did say, ‘Very few people know about it.’”

More was needed, however. Numerous conversations over months followed with Ulster Unionist leader Jim Molyneaux, Democratic Unionist Party sources and republican quarters. People either did not know or stayed silent.

By now, November had come, Mallie’s republican source was advising that he should speak with Democratic Unionist MP, firebrand Rev William McCrea.

He called the Magherafelt, Co Derry cleric, who quickly confirmed the story, saying he had been told by a British official “with a cultured voice” who called then DUP leader Rev Ian Paisley’s Westminster office one day when McCrea was there to pick up the telephone.

“It was something of a surprise that the anonymous caller opted to impart this message to McCrea, the Mid-Ulster MP at the time, rather than to Paisley,” writes Mallie.

Shortly afterwards, McCrea found written proof, faxing it to Mallie, which laid out London’s desire for contacts and promising “a positive view” if secrecy was maintained, but that the opportunity would be “squandered” if it was not.

Like Hume, Mallie did not believe in the gun, once telling Martin McGuinness that he ‘could not square’ his Catholic upbringing with killing for political reasons

Mallie tried to prompt then Northern secretary Patrick Mayhew into a public confirmation, quoting a few words from the British document, but Mayhew again publicly denied the existence of contacts.

He went to the SDLP’s John Hume, “who fell back in his seat as if he had just been hit with a hammer” when shown the British document. Convinced it was accurate, Hume was astonished that he had been left in the dark despite his contacts with Sinn Féin’s Gerry Adams.

Hume features prominently in Mallie’s book, with Mallie believing that, despite an often-difficult personality, “there has been nobody in the last 100 years who has been as politically imaginative” as the Derry man.

Like Hume, Mallie did not believe in the gun, once telling Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness that he “could not square” his Catholic upbringing with killing for political reasons.

“He stared at me and asked, ‘How do you think I feel?’ It was quite a moment,” he records, adding that he had later asked McGuinness how many people he had killed. “I’ve never told anybody that,” the Sinn Féin man replied.

Like other reporters, Mallie spent years covering the negotiations throughout the 1990s that led up to the Belfast Agreement in 1998, filled with long, difficult days inside and outside Stormont.

Unlike some, Mallie restrains his praise for former US senator George Mitchell, appointed special envoy to Northern Ireland by US president Bill Clinton, who led the two years of talks that ended with the agreement, plus the work going back a year before that.

“I have challenged the deity status for George Mitchell in my book, and I am sure that I will get a bit of stick for that. He was for quitting many times. And he was shuffled aside at the end.”

Nevertheless, Mitchell brought “stature and gravitas” and remains “one of the most skilful communicators I have ever met”, with Mallie accepting that he never landed a punch on him during any of the interviews they had.

Instead, Mallie believes that the Women’s Coalition and some loyalist politicians, such as David Ervine, Gary McMichael – and others, too who never reached the limelight – have been placed too far in the background.

Violence, raw and dark, figures frequently in Mallie’s story. The IRA killing of Ulster Unionist MP Robert Bradford in November 1981 in the Finaghy community centre not far from his home affected him strongly, with the MP’s body “scarcely cold” by the time he arrived.

His first encounter with Troubles violence had come not in Belfast, but in his own parish when loyalists in 1975 shot up and bombed Donnelly’s Bar in Silverbridge, “the hub of our community”. Three died, including 14-year-old “wee Michael Donnelly”.

A month later, Mallie married Detta Costelloe from Tuam, Co Galway, and they lived in a rented apartment in Stranmillis. Three weeks later, it shook when a bomb exploded in a house a few doors down. It was not “a great introduction” to Belfast life for his bride.

Unlike Mallie’s engagements with Hume or Adams, which were bereft of small talk, his relationship with Ian Paisley, despite the lack of obvious common ground, led to something bordering on friendship.

But he is not blind to Paisley’s faults, recounting Fr Brian D’Arcy’s advice to taoiseach Albert Reynolds after the latter sought guidance ahead of the Downing Street Declaration about how to get a meeting with Paisley.

The priest suggested Reynolds call his old Ballymena friend and fellow dance hall owner, Sammy Barr. Barr’s advice subsequently was simple and accurate: “Paisley will only do a deal when he is Number One.”

Nevertheless, Mallie from the off “felt at home” in Paisley’s company, a relationship that even survived Mallie’s disclosure of the British/IRA talks and McCrea’s involvement in the breaking of the story.

Following news of the Observer’s coming publication late on the Saturday, Paisley rang him and asked Mallie to come to his Cypress Avenue home, where he arrived just after midnight – even though Paisley never did interviews on the Sabbath.

“Eamonn, why did I not know about these secret IRA talks when William McCrea knew?” he asked. Explaining the background, Mallie told him that McCrea had “kept his word to me and behaved honourably”. Paisley replied, “Fair enough.” No more was said.

Like Dr Maurice Hayes, the former Northern Ireland Ombudsman, Mallie believes that there were six Paisleys depending “on which one turned up on the day. I believe I met all six over the years that I knew Paisley,” he writes.

One of those faces was anger. Even today, Mallie remains fascinated by Paisley’s downfall as leader of the DUP and head of the Free Presbyterian Church, the congregation he had founded in the 1950s.

During months of filming for a TV series on his life, Paisley and his wife, Eileen, opened up about erstwhile colleagues: “We were not defeated by our enemies, but betrayed by our friends,” she told Mallie.

Turning to whether Stormont can work this time, Mallie is hopeful, pointing to the early signs of a working relationship developing between Sinn Féin First Minister Michelle O’Neill and DUP Deputy First Minister, Emma Little-Pengelly.

Both faced challenges early in life. O’Neill’s father, Brendan Doris, was jailed for IRA offences, and she was publicly prayed over in school when she became pregnant aged 16. “Not easy, that,” says Mallie, sympathetically.

Little-Pengelly’s father, Noel Little, was held on remand for years in a Paris jail in connection with allegations of importing arms for loyalist terrorists, finally receiving a suspended sentence and a fine.

‘By nine o’clock that night she had sent a video recording of her reading one of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems. And she chose it. I would guarantee that there is not another member of the DUP who would know the work of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’

—  Eamonn Mallie on Emma Little-Pengelly

Her teenage years were marked by travel to Paris to visit her father, who had been involved in the Ulster Resistance group during the 1980s, behind bars. “Not easy, that either, for a young girl,” Mallie goes on.

He points to a poetry circle that he started during the years of Covid as offering evidence to back up his belief that Little-Pengelly deserves to be given a chance by nationalists and republicans.

He had invited well-known people to read poems online. The DUP’s Peter Weir read one, but quite a few others in the party declined.

“I rang [her]. By nine o’clock that night she had sent a video recording of her reading one of Trinity College professor Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin’s poems. And she chose it. I would guarantee that there is not another member of the DUP who would know the work of Eiléan Ní Chuilleanáin. She’s much more cross-culturally aware than any DUP people I know,” he says.

Looking to the future and the possibility of constitutional change, Mallie argues that “there is something in the thinking of the thinking unionist who feels that there is something inevitable about where this place is going”.

Notwithstanding his earlier judgment that The Troubles are over, however, he warns: “The great danger in my opinion is forced escalation, or acceleration, which could lead certain elements in loyalism, foolishly, into recommencement.”

Ever punctilious about the accuracy of a quote, he cites Edward Carson’s alleged remark that “the last battle would be between unionism, loyalism and the British”, though he offers the caveat that he has never been able fully to substantiate that the unionist leader said it.

The IRA were targeted by the British army’s Special Air Service (SAS) “and all those guys” in the 1980s and 1990s with success, says the journalist and author, which led many Provisionals to believe from the late 1980s that the conflict had to be ended.

“Loyalism and unionism could feel the wrath of that. If I were counselling unionism and loyalism I would be very, very careful because the world has moved on, and they should understand that,” he said.

In any event, there is little to be gained from rushing any debate: “Look at how long it has taken us to get this point. History moves very, very slowly.”

Eamonn Mallie: Eyewitness to War and Peace is published by Merrion Press

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