Inside scoop – Paddy Murray on unionist Roy Bradford and a united Ireland

An Irishman’s Diary

It seems that the Border will always be a topic of conversation on this island.

In recent years, because of Brexit, we’ve talked about hard borders and soft borders.

These days, it's the protocol and how it does, or doesn't, impose a border between the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, in the Irish Sea.

In a way, it was always thus. We have always found a way of talking about the Border.

There was a Border campaign of the late 1950s and early 1960s. There were, over the years, attacks on Border posts.

The Border even came into play in the row over the legalisation of contraception when the Irish Women's Liberation Movement led by, among others, Nell McCafferty, brandished condoms at Amiens Street Station, as it was, on their return from a trip to the North.

I listened in amazement as Mr Bradford told the audience of southern Catholics that he thought a united Ireland was inevitable

But there is one man who had a lot to say about the Border, who had surprising things to say about it, whose words were never recorded in print or on any kind of recording device.

And that’s my fault.

Roy Bradford was a unionist politician and at one time a minister in the North. Way, way back in the 1970s, he made a speech in Dublin.

He made it in, of all places, the Knights of Columbanus headquarters in Ely Place. Yes, indeed. A unionist made a speech in the headquarters of a very Catholic organisation.

It was supposed to be a private affair. Indeed, it’s doubtful any but a handful knew it was taking place.

But for some reason, I was despatched from the Independent offices on Middle Abbey Street where I worked as a newspaper journalist to Ely Place for the occasion.

It helped that I knew a man who worked there and so I managed to sneak in and sit at the back. And I listened in amazement as Mr Bradford told the audience of southern Catholics that he thought a united Ireland was inevitable.

And not only did he think it was inevitable, he said he didn’t think it would be entirely a bad thing if it was to come about. In fact, he thought unionists might eventually embrace the idea.

Lord God, I thought. I have a scoop. So I went back to the office – no mobiles back then – and I wrote the story, full sure that I was about to make the big impression I had hoped to make from my arrival in the Independent a few short years earlier.

There was a degree of amazement because this kid, me (I was barely out of my teens), had this extraordinary story.

The newsdesk decided to run it past Conor O’Brien, the editor, to see just how big we’d go on it.

Even 50 years or more ago, when the North was ablaze, things weren't quite as carved in stone as we thought they were

I waited. And after a short time O’Brien called me into his office. I presumed it was to congratulate me. After all, this was Conor “News” O’Brien, the man who had the courage to run Joe McAnthony’s expose of the Irish Sweepstakes just a few years earlier.

But there was no congratulations.

“We can’t run the story,” he said.

I didn’t understand. I asked why.

So he explained.

“I had lunch with Roy Bradford today,” he said, “and I promised him we wouldn’t report on his speech. I gave my word,” he said. “That’s the only reason he felt he could say what he said.”

I was crestfallen.

I was also too young and naive to realise that, given its importance, I should have given the story to another newspaper or to RTÉ, even if it meant being disloyal to my employer. But I didn't.

It does go to show though, that even 50 years or more ago, when the North was ablaze, things weren’t quite as carved in stone as we thought they were.

Bradford died in 1998, five months after the signing of the Belfast Agreement.

Tributes were paid to him by political leaders on both sides of the Northern divide, including John Taylor and the late John Hume.

Paddy Murray’s memoir, And Finally - A Journalist’s Life in 250 Stories, has been published by the Liffey Press

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