An Interview With The Late Liam Clarke

Liam Clarke who died earlier this week was to the fore of cutting edge journalism in the North. He continued in that vein right up until he died, securing the first interview with the British state's First Minister in waiting in the Northern power splitting executive, Arlene Foster in the wake of her election as DUP leader.

Below is an interview he did last month for Radio Free Eireann. Thanks to TPQ transcriber who both brought this to our attention and rendered it ready for publication.

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John McDonagh (JM) interviews Liam Clarke, (LC) the Political Editor of The Belfast Telegraph, via telephone from Belfast about his exclusive this week: the retirement of Peter Robinson, the head of the Democratic Unionist Party.

Radio Free Éireann
WBAI 99.5FM Pacifica Radio
New York City+
21 November 2015
(begins time stamp ~ 13:05)

JM: We're going to talk about a phenomenon that doesn't usually happen in The Six Counties over in Ireland and that is people actually stepping down from political parties. You have Sinn Féin over there where Gerry Adams has been in there for well over thirty years now and it looks like he's not going anywhere. But just in the past couple of weeks we had the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) changing leadership and, more significantly, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) which is headed by Peter Robinson who took over from the Reverend Ian Paisley, and the person who broke that story was Liam Clarke of The Belfast Telegraph. And Liam, how unique is this – I mean the changing of parties? This just doesn't happen in The Six Counties.

LC: Well I mean I suppose if you look at the Ulster Unionists they've changed leaders a few times. In fact until recently they don't seem to be able to keep one for very long! The DUP – well, they've only changed once – that was Ian Paisley – and he waited until he was eighty-four and then afterwards complained that his career had been cut short and that he was pushed out unfairly. But Peter Robinson has gone more gracefully. I don't think he was pushed but possibly he would have been pushed in the end if he hadn't. He'd achieved his career objectives, he was suffering from some ill health. He also told me he felt that two terms in office was enough at the top for most people unless you started off in leadership very young and you know it was at that stage that it was necessary to let new ideas in, new people and so on and he thinks he's handed on the DUP in a better state than he got it from his predecessor, Ian Paisley. And I suppose you'd have to say he did - they've got their highest ever number of MLAs and they did pretty well in the General Election as well. The question for their new leader is: Have they peaked? Is it downhill from here?

JM: And Liam, why did Peter Robinson pick you to make this announcement with The Belfast Telegraph?

LC: Well Peter Robinson – I suppose that it's The Belfast Telegraph is kind of the main paper but also I've done a lot of interviews with Peter Robinson in the past – he has given me interviews at crucial junctures before. I had as it happens asked him Sunday was going to retire this week and he told me: No. And I said well, if he does, I'll say that you denied it and so they gave me the story.

JM: Now, Liam, I was listening to The Stephen Nolan Show during the week and they were taking phone calls and you were the guest on there and one of the phone calls just struck me – he had called up and said that because of the sectarian politics in The Six Counties where the DUP would be representing the Protestants and Sinn Féin representing the Catholics that, he said that Peter Robinson never did anything for Republicans the whole time he was in at Stormont. And then maybe you could give the rebuttal that you had to him: That the Deputy First Minister wouldn't see it like that.

LC: Well I think he wouldn't. The Deputy First Minister has been praising Peter Robinson and said he was probably the best placed person to work with in the DUP so far though he would work with his successor. Now, I suppose you have to take it against that he has done things that have very much annoyed Republicans. I mean the damage in the relationship really started with halting the Maze Peace and Reconciliation Centre which he did, if you remember, with a letter from America when he was on holidays. Now Sinn Féin had expended considerable capital to get that off them and I mean they even agreed to put a lot of DUP men on the board of it and suddenly – not so soon – suddenly it was just snatched away. Now, Robinson explained to me before, not in this interview, that his reasons for that – and other people in the DUP did as well – that basically they felt that The Maze Centre would have probably been okay had it been built but what they feared was it was going to be built during an election and then the other Unionist parties would attack them and say this will be a shrine to terrorism and there would be no way to rebut that because it would be only halfway up. But it did considerable damage. It left Sinn Féin with the position: Can we really trust these people in the deal? And the current deal was done largely behind closed doors between Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness and their advisers.

JM: Liam, you've written the biography – and we're talking about the Deputy First Minister, that's Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin - you and your wife did the biography of Martin McGuinness. Is it his personality that he can get along with anyone? Because even with Ian Paisley, who was fairly well-hated in the Nationalist community, I remember when he was one year dead he tweeted out that I'll be remembering my good friend Ian Paisley one year later and now praising Peter Robinson about the great work that he's done at Stormont. I mean, it is unbelievable!

LC: Well I mean Sinn Féin are now - I think it's coming home to them and I think it's coming home to the DUP - I was just at the conference today - that they really have to hang together or they'll hang separately. I mean at the moment the SDLP, Colum Eastwood, their new leader, this is a perfect opportunity for him to get stuck into Sinn Féin to attack this deal, to maybe think about going into opposition if he doesn't get what he wants in the programme for government. Mike Nesbitt's already gone into opposition though Peter Robinson predicts he'll be knocking us all down to get back into government after the election. So Sinn Féin and the DUP if they don't hang together they won't have a joint government. It's not terribly credible for Sinn Féin to pull out of this at the moment and say: Northern Ireland's ungovernable or a failed state or something like that because having worked it for so long and then that'd look like poor judgment in the first place.

JM: And do you think – I mean there's talk now that it's going to be Arlene Foster from Co. Fermanagh that'll be taking over the Democratic Unionist Party - I guess Martin McGuinness will be able to get along with her, too.

LC: Well I suppose so. I mean he basically has to get on with people if he's Deputy First Minister. I do think actually he did get on with Robinson reasonably well. He may find it more difficult with Arlene Foster. They're probably going to split it now - that's something they've kind of watched Sinn Féin on. I don't know if you realise – but Martin McGuinness is the Deputy First Minister so he's the Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland but the overall leader is Gerry Adams; he's in the Dáil. And that means that during negotiations Sinn Féin will say: We have to go down and ask Gerry Adams. We have to go down to the Ard Chomhairle to get this ratified. And that gives them an advantage. I remember using as a trade unionist myself the same sort of thing: Well, I have to go to talk to the membership – it gives you time to think about it, time to cool off, time to come back and ask for just one little bit more. Now the DUP saw that, they complained bitterly but it turn out they're doing the same thing. It looks like they're going to have Nigel Dodds leading it from the House of Commons, he's the MP for North Belfast, and Arlene in the Assembly, Arlene Foster. Peter Robinson I think said at the DUP dinner last night that the new leader would be appointing all the ministers including the First Minister which suggests that he does envision it being split.

JM: And one final question: What do you think of Martin McGuinness saying that if he gets the overall vote in The Six Counties that he would want to be the joint First Minister – that he wouldn't want to take the complete title that Peter Robinson has as some sort of olive branch to them. I mean it's just unbelievable that he wouldn't take the position even if he overall won it.

LC: It is in a strange way – you'd think if you win something you'd take it - but there is really little difference between the two positions you know - one can't act really on behalf of the Executive without the other being with him. So there is a limited difference. And also what Martin McGuinness will be thinking is that it's one of the DUP's main ways of getting votes at the margin as they say – if you don't vote for us it'll be a Sinn Féin First Minister – so I suppose he's trying to take the foresight of that a little bit. But he has made a number of extraordinary olive branches that you wouldn't have expected him to do earlier in his career - that the young Martin McGuinness would have denounced I'm sure: shaking hands with the Queen, sharing power with Paisley – I mean these are all things that weren't in the script certainly in the '80's or the '70's.

JM: Well Liam, thanks for coming on and I'll be listening to you on The Stephen Nolan Show where you go on every so often.

LC: Well thanks a lot, John. Lovely to speak to you as always. All the best! Bye!

(ends time stamp ~ 22:05)

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