Absolutely FAB

 

Profile Aidan Hennigan: A highly regarded journalist, Aidan Hennigan is also known for throwing the best parties in town. Right now he has plenty to celebrate, writes Frank Millar, London Editor.

There will be an extra charge in the glass tonight as Irish friends and colleagues gather in the Millar household to greet the New Year. Aidan Hennigan will be at the table as usual, dispensing the affection and warmth, high good humour and sheer joy of life that guarantee a good night running well into the morning hours. And "the young master", as his late brother Paddy used to call him, will be the toast as we see out the old. Indeed there will likely be several toasts, marking a triple celebration for the doyen of the Irish lobby in London.

Having turned 80 last month, Master Hennigan is embarking on a new phase in his writing career with the publication shortly of a children's tale about Wanda and animals in the forest. To cap all that the foreign and Commonwealth office recently confirmed that Queen Elizabeth has awarded him an honorary OBE in recognition of his services to journalism and Anglo-Irish relations.

That's quite something for the man from Ballina, Co Mayo, born Francis Aidan Bernard (FAB), into a strongly republican family who would later serve for 34 years as London editor of the Irish Press. As Hennigan himself would be the first to observe, it is also a measure of the change in the Anglo-Irish relationship that the forthcoming foreign office award ceremony will be followed by a celebration at the Irish Embassy hosted by Ambassador Daithí O'Ceallaigh.

Still the best of friends, Hennigan and the ambassador have known each other since O'Ceallaigh's time as press attaché, and the ambassador recalls a very different era during the 1970s when many found it difficult to be Irish in London. He also credits Hennigan, Jim Downey and Conor O'Clery, formerly of this parish, with maintaining the position of Irish journalists in the Westminster lobby at that time.

AIDAN HENNIGAN STARTED his life in journalism after leaving St Muredach's College in Ballina, where he found himself covering fairs and markets, the local courts, beauty contests and ploughing matches. Then, from the unhurried reporting for a weekly newspaper to the Irish Press newsroom and the "awesome" presence of news editor Bill Redmond.

"Effort was the criterion by which you were rated," he says, recalling being summoned to the desk one day and told, "There's a musical chap coming into the airport, pop out and see what it's about." Hennigan, a keen jazz fan, was bowled over to discover it was "about" Louis Armstrong. And the formidable Redmond was rewarded with plenty of effort that day after Satchmo gave the young reporter tickets for his concert at the National Stadium.

Many more big-name interviews followed, including one with British prime minister Margaret Thatcher, during an Irish Press career spanning every significant and important development in Anglo-Irish affairs, from the suspension of Stormont via Sunningdale and the Anglo-Irish Agreement to the Good Friday accord. The lawyer in him (after a part-time economics degree, he read law) certainly informed Hennigan's coverage of the Birmingham Six and Guildford Four miscarriages of justice.

Yet this liberal, non-ideological man was always conscious, too, of the outrage of the citizens of his host country at the death and devastation wrought by IRA bombs.

Beyond London, his duties saw him cover Vietnam peace talks in Paris and interview German chancellor Willy Brandt during the formative years of the European Union. In the US he interviewed president Richard Nixon and also reported on the funeral of Bobby Kennedy.

Daily Mail columnist John McEntee, who went to work with him for six months and ended up serving as his deputy from 1975 to 1988, bears eloquent witness to the love and loyalty Hennigan inspires. Their London office was quite a serious affair, with 11 staff in all.

"Aidan had the knack of making us all feel members of a team," he says, "and he was very big - he wasn't possessive about bylines, everybody got a fair crack of the whip. They were the best years of my working life, he was a joy to work for.

"We were in it together, he always made people feel they were his friends rather than that he was the boss."

It is telling that Hennigan enjoys the same friendship with and regard from the man for whom he in turn worked. Former Irish Press editor Tim Pat Coogan tells: "Whether he was dealing with copy boys, colleagues or the technical staff who typed letters and maintained the wire machines, Aidan exuded an air of kindly authority that both made him friends for life and kept the office running smoothly until the Irish Press management closed it."

Nor was this generosity with time and help limited to those who worked for him. Jon Snow, the hugely respected presenter of the Channel 4 News, recalls: "A great man . . . Aidan was incredibly generous to me as a cub reporter, took me under his wing. Wise, intelligent and with an incredible recall for key developments which suddenly informed the present. I feel privileged to have worked with him."

JOHN MCENTEE REMEMBERS great parties at the Chelsea flat Hennigan shared with then girlfriend Kate, which were attended by civil servants and politicians: "It wasn't that it was good for business, Aidan just loved the company. And Kate was a great cook." Dermot Gallagher, former ambassador and now secretary general at the Department of Foreign Affairs, describes these gatherings as "the best political parties" of his time in London. He also confirms that Aidan Hennigan is "a brilliant and deceptively shrewd poker player". Gallagher says his wallet, like those of many others, first discovered this "distressing dimension" during breaks in the Sunningdale Constitutional Conference in 1973. "But it is for his political insights, his range of contacts at the highest levels in Britain and Ireland and his perceptive and clear-sighted reporting on British-Irish relations and Northern Ireland that this proud son of Mayo will best be remembered," says Gallagher.

"There are very many of us who have good reason to look back with the warmest appreciation on Aidan's wisdom and political knowledge, which he generously shared with us and - it goes without saying - on his graciousness and friendship."

Because of his travels over the years, FAB was - and is - always happy to return to the farmhouse in Ballina where his beloved sister-in-law Annie still lives.

Having survived his brothers John, Tom and Patrick and sister Alice, Aidan says: "It was a great anchor for me." And of course it helped that Annie liked to party, too, over the years entertaining visitors such as Dermot Gallagher, Tim Pat Coogan and ex-RTÉ legend Mike Burns.

Hennigan says it was his mother, also Annie, who taught him to drink (his preference is for champagne) and to play poker. But while he hams up the image and laughs at himself, McEntee reminds that the appearance should not mislead: "He was a top-class reporter, who could get any situation down to a few succinct paragraphs; he was always serious about what we had to do."

Taoiseach Bertie Ahern also attests to the professionalism and commitment that have seen Hennigan, now London correspondent of the Irish Examiner, follow every twist and turn of the Northern Ireland peace process.

"Aidan Hennigan is the one face I've seen on the almost 40 occasions that I have come out of meetings with British prime ministers at Downing Street," says the Taoiseach in a warm personal tribute for this article. "A veteran of that great journalistic stable, the Irish Press, he has been a consummate professional throughout his journalistic career. I first met him in London when, as minister for labour, I had regular meetings with the Federation of Irish Societies. His unfailing courtesy always matched his journalistic integrity and throughout his long career in Britain he has remained a true Irishman."

TheHennigan File

Who is he The doyen of the Irish lobby in London

Why is he in the news? Big celebrations because he has just turned 80 and is about to receive an honorary OBE

Most appealing characteristic His generosity of spirit

Least appealing characteristic That same generosity when you want to have a good whinge about someone

Most likely to say 'Do they have champagne?'

Least likely to say 'I think it's time to retire'