The announcement last week that Tony O’Reilly had sent the bailiffs into the Sunday Tribune was a bit like hearing of the death of an old ailing friend; you had been expecting it for a long time but even so, the shock is still intense, the sadness real.
The Sunday Tribune was so much part of my life in Irish journalism that it really does feel like a limb has been chopped off (not that you would notice the difference these days!).
The paper was born out of the old Hibernia weekly magazine that had been run for years out of a Dickensian suite of offices near Dublin’s Custom House by John Mulcahy and his wife Nuala in their uniquely paternal but often inspirational way. They gave me my first proper job in journalism – for which I will always be grateful – and since I was there at the death of Hibernia, I can claim, I think, to have played a small part in the conception, if not birth, of the Tribune.
The Mulcahy’s had the good luck to come into ownership of Hibernia at the start of the Northern Troubles and they made the magazine’s name with a consistent record of investigative journalism on that side of the Border, burrowing into places where the mainstream press did not have the nous nor, as government-imposed and media self-censorship began to bite, the courage to delve. To its eternal credit Hibernia earned the wrath of Conor Cruise O’Brien in the flush of his Section 31 days; he took a hissy fit one day and condemned it as a cross between the good wine guide and Republican News. Mulcahy thought it a wonderful compliment.
Sadly it was the North that also brought Hibernia to its knees. An article by the late, great Jack Holland about the involvement of the Royal Ulster Constabulary alongside Loyalist paramilitaries in the intimidation and forced movement of hundreds of Catholic families from the Rathcoole area of north Belfast in 1972 spelled disaster for the magazine. Jack had named a couple of senior RUC officers as being in charge of the local police, and therefore responsible for what happened during those terrible days but unfortunately he got his information from a Constabulary gazette that was out of date. The cops sued, it was an open and shut case and that was the end of Hibernia.
(In a last desperate effort to get some dirt on the policemen, Mulcahy gave me two weeks off in the early part of 1980 to dig into the story for any evidence that they had been somehow involved. They weren’t, but my burrowing took me to the Twinbrook housing estate on the fringe of West Belfast where many of the Rathcoole refugees had been rehoused. One of the families I interviewed was called Sands and they told me that yes, the RUC had stood idly by watching, while they were forced by armed thugs to flee their home and their eldest boy, who was called Bobby, was so angry that afterwards he had joined the IRA and was now languishing in the H Blocks of Long Kesh. We’d soon hear a lot more about him.)
With Hibernia out of business, Mulcahy launched the Sunday Tribune later the same year with Conor Brady (originally editor of the Garda Review and later the Irish Times) as his editor. But then the Midas syndrome, the conviction that some businessmen develop that they can do no wrong or ever fail in commercial matters, intervened. The Tribune was doing well, its journalism was much admired and it was moving towards profitability when one of Mulcahy’s partners, Hugh McLaughlin insisted on launching a new daily paper, the Daily News which was a (deservedly) disastrous flop. When it failed the Sunday Tribune was brought crashing down alongside it.
In stepped Vincent Browne to buy the title and relaunch the paper. Sunday Tribune Mark II, the real Trib, was born.
If there is one man who made me the journalist I later became it was Vincent. By the time I first encountered him, in 1979, he was already a legend. He’d cut his reporting teeth for the Irish Press group and later the Irish Independent covering the North in the very early days of the Troubles. He was the very first to talent spot Gerry Adams, then working his way up through the ranks of the IRA’s Belfast Brigade, and he penetrated the strange world of Northern Loyalism, something very few other southern journalists were able or willing to do.
One story, an interview with a youngish Ian Paisley caused a sensation when the Protestant leader effectively (albeit only temporarily) abandoned his Unionist politics and conceded that if Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitution were scrapped (they laid claim on the territory of Northern Ireland), he’d favour closer relations with the South. Changing the constitution in this way thereafter became a priority, even an obsession for the Department of Foreign Affairs in Dublin. They finally got their way in the wake of the Good Friday Agreement.
By 1968 he had already started one magazine, the monthly Nusight (which propelled that complex being, Kevin Myers into journalism) and then in 1977 he launched Magill magazine which had so many high points over the years (the Arms Trial issues come to mind) that you couldn’t count them.
Two qualities marked Browne out as a truly exceptional editor and journalist: one was a real love for the skill of reportage, that is the ability to firstly identify where the story was and then to get at it and finally write it up in an attractive, readable yet penetrating fashion, and the second was his gift for spotting other journalistic talent. Some of Ireland’s most talented reporters and writers, from Colm Toibin (former Magill editor) to Paddy Agnew to Gene Kerrigan (Magill columnist) amongst many, many others, got their start with Vincent and I believe it is for this that he should be best remembered. He watered the garden of Irish journalism (often with more than the stuff that comes out of taps) and planted many of its seeds. Inasmuch as the garden has blossomed, it is in no small measure down to Vincent.
Vincent also gave me a start by commissioning a series of articles on the North in 1979. With those pieces in my portfolio I was able to persuade John Mulcahy to give me employment (landing a job with Hibernia was the equivalent then of waking up in Heaven) and the rest is history. I briefly rejoined Magill a couple of years later before moving to D’Olier Street and when the Irish Times and myself fell out in 1986, I was hired by Vincent as the Sunday Tribune’s Northern editor. I stayed there until 2001, outlasting him incidentally by nearly a decade. He could be extraordinarily kind and generous – he and his delightful wife Jean, once put me up for weeks in Dublin while I house-searched for my new family – and he always paid well if he was getting good work from you.
There was however another side to Vincent, as those who had dealings with him knew only too well. He could never make a friend without falling out with them, often in a tirade of angry insults and abuse. He had high standards to be sure and couldn’t abide it when others failed to meet them, as they often did. There’s nothing wrong with that but Vincent could be so unimaginably cruel to people who otherwise worshipped him that these confrontations often ended with the victim in tears, vowing eternal hatred for the man.
His editorial meetings on a Tuesday morning were such exercises in terror that I always found an excuse to skip them. That was the great advantage of working in Belfast, a hundred miles away; there was always a breaking story to cover or the plea that making the journey there and back would lose me a full working day.
I attended only a handful of them and they were truly awful affairs. The staff would filter into Vincent’s office with about as much enthusiasm as a condemned man facing the gallows. The bravest among them would take seats at the big editorial table while the rest hugged the wall as if praying that they would merge with the paintwork and go unnoticed. There was a good reason for that; Vincent would always descend upon one poor soul and rage about how pitiful their story that weekend had been. Even though the humiliation was heart-rending to witness, the rest of us would breathe a sigh of relief, quickly tempered by a horrifying thought: “Would it be my turn next week?”
Being stationed in Belfast meant that our paths rarely crossed and for that reason I probably stayed friends with Vincent longer than most. But inevitably the day of our falling out arrived. We quarreled about many things but at the root of our dispute was a fundamental difference about where the North, and specifically the IRA, was going.
Like most in the Southern media, Vincent had failed to spot the burgeoning peace process and by the early 1990’s he was openly advocating the re-introduction of internment to deal with the Provos. By contrast I was writing about the potentially huge ideological changes, and likely compromises to come, that were happening within the leadership of Sinn Fein and, therefore, the IRA. But as far as Vincent was concerned I might as well have been filing my copy from Mars, so out of touch with reality, so accommodating to the men of violence was my coverage.
We dueled furiously over ersatz issues and finally a fax arrived one summer afternoon. I was being transferred to work in the Dublin office. How quickly could I report for duty, he demanded? I replied ‘Whenever you wish’ and heard nothing more. He had obviously been hoping that I would object and refuse, and that would be a firing offence. In reality he wanted me nowhere near the Dublin office. And so it went on until deus ex machina-like, everything changed.
For that I have to thanks Vincent’s other failing, the fact that he was a lousy businessman. Like Hugh McLaughlin he was infected with the Midas virus and in the early 1990’s, as the Sunday paper was consolidating itself, he started the Dublin Tribune, a giveaway that was meant to form the beginnings of a new daily paper.
Now anyone who knows anything about the newspaper business can tell you that you produce freesheets with nothing more ambitious than two men and a dog; anything more and it becomes a sure money loser. But Vincent knew better and before too long there were more reporters working for the giveaway Dublin Tribune than were employed in the money-making parent publication. Admittedly the journalism was great and once again Vincent discovered some great writing talent – it was edited by the lovely Michael Hand and Rory Godson and, inter alia, included amongst its stars Ed O’Loughlin, listed for a Booker prize in 2009 for his novel ‘Not Untrue & Not Unkind’ – but it was a commercial disaster and a drain on the Sunday Tribune.
Finally the board moved against Vincent and, in 1994, he was sacked. The Trib then became part of the Independent stable, bought by Tony O’Reilly we were told, to stave off a broader challenge to his titles from Rupert Murdoch’s empire.The Sunday Tribune never made Tony O’Reilly a penny, as far as I know, and it was always a mystery why he kept it going, especially since the rationale for buying it had long since been undermined by the Sunday Times’ success in Ireland. The only surprise in the move to put the paper into receivership is that it took so long to happen.
I cannot say that I have a word of complaint about O’Reilly’s management of the Sunday Tribune. They stood bravely by me when Scotland Yard attempted to destroy my career and always allowed me a complete free hand in my coverage of the North, especially during the controversial years of the peace process when the Irish media were sharply divided into the (larger) ‘helpful to the process, i.e. ask no questions’ camp and the (much smaller) ‘unhelpful, i.e. ask too many awkward questions’ bunch, of which I am proud to say I was a founder member.
But the Sunday Tribune for me will always be Vincent Browne’s newspaper. I will miss it just as I miss our friendship.