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‘After a few thumps, they let go of me’: Veteran editor on covering the North from Troubles to today

Noel Doran singles out the murder of Patrick Kielty’s father in 1988 in influencing his outlook as editor of Irish News for 25 years

In a lifetime in journalism, there is little Noel Doran hasn’t seen.

As a reporter he covered some of the worst days of the Troubles. When he stood down this week after 25 years as the editor of the Irish News, he did so as the longest-serving newspaper editor in these islands.

“It was a great time to be involved in newspapers,” says Doran. “Trying to make sense, trying to respect the position of our readers, but also maybe trying to encourage them to go in a number of different directions while always maintaining the constitutional nationalist tone of the paper and having a sense of its history as well.”

As deputy editor from 1993 and editor from 1999, he steered the Irish News – the North’s only nationalist daily newspaper – from ceasefires and peace talks to controversies over decommissioning and policing, the abuse scandal in the Catholic church, Brexit and, most recently, the prospect of a Border poll and a united Ireland.

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It has given voice to the nationalist North, but also been a voice. “Our line has always been, there were always options, every killing was not just wrong but cruel, and capable of causing bitterness and grief.”

That time as a reporter – in weekly newspapers and then with the Belfast Telegraph – “clearly” helped shape his outlook as an editor. Doran singles out the murder of Jack Kielty – the father of the Late Late Show host Patrick Kielty – in Dundrum, Co Down, in 1988.

“The first person I met that night was his [Patrick’s] primary school principal, Jarlath Carey, who was an SDLP councillor and played midfield for the Down team that won the All-Ireland, and was also best man at my parents’ wedding.

“The sense of shock as he explained the circumstances behind the murder of his neighbour was profound, and you have some sort of insight into what it must have been like for Paddy Kielty, who was still at school at the time.

“Watching the whole Paddy Kielty phenomenon, he’s just been grand marshal at the St Patrick’s Day parade, and I keep thinking how life has changed for him over the years ... but the Kieltys still live in the same house, his mother’s still there in the same house on the same street.”

There was also an interview with Gordon and Joan Wilson just after their daughter Marie had been killed in the IRA’s Remembrance Day bombing of Enniskillen in 1987, “remarkable” people who it was a “privilege” to interview, Doran says. “They helped shape reconciliation, forgiveness.”

Doran lists the moments when the Irish News had to make a call: over policing (ahead of Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Catholic church); over decommissioning; over Rule 21.

With hindsight, “you can kind of see it had to happen”. He references the attendance of the North’s First Minister, Sinn Féin vice-president Michelle O’Neill, at a PSNI graduation ceremony earlier this year. “It’s remarkable how things have moved on. Incredible, and all hugely positive.

“Could it have happened a lot sooner? Well, maybe it couldn’t.”

In this, as in so much else, Doran speaks with an authority born of experience. That experience began at an early age growing up in Glasdrumman, outside Kilkeel in Co Down. His father, Arthur, was an independent councillor and “a big reader of newspapers”.

Though sectarianism was “not as in-your-face as it would be in some areas”,” in Kilkeel there was nevertheless “a Protestant side of the street and a Catholic side of the street and that was what people were supposed to do, walk down your side of the street”.

He had what he describes as “an awareness of things going on around you”. Journalism placed him at the heart of it all; in Milltown Cemetery in March 1988, “I got a little too close.”

Covering the funerals of three IRA members killed by the SAS in Gibraltar, he witnessed the attack by the loyalist Michael Stone. Desperate to get to a phone to file his copy, he was spotted by IRA stewards, one of whom “grabbed me, and somebody else saw him grab me and started throwing punches and the next thing, it went bananas.

“The guy who had me by the throat, we’d met before ... it looked a little bit hairy for a while but then he realised ... he kind of backed off and after a few thumps they let go of me.”

Things could have ended a lot worse. “I think they thought I might have been an associate of Michael Stone.”

Over the years he got to know all the key figures, from Ian Paisley, David Trimble and Peter Robinson to John Hume, Martin McGuinness and Gerry Adams.

Always, there was a line: “You know them, but there are boundaries.” Their coverage was scrutinised. “You would get a quare touch sometimes: ‘all you’re doing is covering Hume’; ‘all you’re doing is covering McGuinness and Adams’.”

With Hume and McGuinness, “the personal contact there was crucial”. In Derry during the 1980s, “the scale of Hume, as an international figure, was astonishing”. That said, it was “pretty clear” he stayed on too long in politics once his health started to fail. “He left his party in a very difficult position.”

His first meeting McGuinness was during a riot in Derry. “He was basically in the middle of it, but he still came over to talk.”

On another occasion he was sent to knock on his front door early one morning after the entire Sinn Féin leadership had been arrested and then released. “The front window opened in the bedroom and McGuinness’s head sticks out, ‘all right’, and he brought me in and gave me tea and toast.”

This meant that “when you did see each other in different circumstances many years later, you kind of understood each other a little bit more.”

He has a photograph of himself and McGuinness at an awards ceremony, all in black tie; with them is the former chairman of the Irish News, the late Jim Fitzpatrick, who died in 2022 aged 92. “Two people who were different ways were central to my career with the Irish News,” says Doran.

On occasion after occasion, he describes Fitzpatrick’s support as crucial, not least with the remarkable libel case between the Irish News and an Italian restaurant in west Belfast, Goodfellas, in 2000, which could have bankrupted the newspaper and effectively ended restaurant reviewing.

The restaurant owner sued them for defamation after a negative review and initially won £25,000 plus costs.

However, the ruling was subsequently overturned. “We had to pay our costs, they had to pay their costs, so it was an expensive experience, but if it had been upheld, how could you ever do a review ever again?”

Doran looks back on the loss of colleagues, including the award-winning photographer and Olympic boxer Hugh Russell and Éamon Phoenix, the historian who covered the release of state papers for several media outlets including The Irish Times and was particularly associated with the “On This Day” column in the Irish News.

Work is under way on an Éamon Phoenix foundation. Doran misses him not just for his ability to understand the past, but to analyse the present. “He could tell you what was going to happen all the time, and he was nearly always right.”

Doran’s own analysis is that a Border poll is on its way – “2030, maybe a bit beyond that, but it must surely be coming”.

“There’s just a complete logic to it,” he says.

Unionists “clearly are going to do everything they can to delay that, but they kind of know they can’t veto it indefinitely, that over a period of time things will change and that the referendum is coming, and the debate hasn’t even started yet.”

However it plays out, he will still have a role, as will the paper. Doran will advise the Irish News on legal and regulatory matters as a consultant, while the paper recently backed the idea of a people’s assembly “as a way of shaking things up and moving things on a bit ... the paper’s been maybe a little bit more direct in terms of the whole unity debate, but that’s because events have changed.”

As political times have changed, so too has the newspaper industry. Though the Irish News is “edging things forward to digital first”, Doran is in no doubt there will always be a print copy of the paper “in my lifetime”, just as there will always be a place for quality journalism.

“Technology will move on, things will change ... it’s the material which is of some consequence which endures.”