A very short history

Andy Pollak

Andy Pollak was editor from 1981–85 and then an Irish Times journalist in Belfast and Dublin; he co-authored books on Ian Paisley and Seamus Mallon, and was founding director from 1999 to 2013 of the Centre for Cross Border Studies.

Fortnight, which started publication in September 1970 and closed in January 2012, was remarkable for its longevity: few small, impecunious, left-of-centre magazines have survived as long in the late twentieth–early twenty first century in major European countries, let alone in remote provinces not known for their intellectual sophistication.

It was also notable for the fact that almost every significant political and literary figure in Ireland wrote for it during that time; and for the influence some of its analysis and proposals had on political developments in Northern Ireland.

Tom Hadden, the engagé academic lawyer who founded the magazine, says even in those early days nobody involved in the magazine expected any instant solutions to Northern Ireland’s problems of institutionalised discrimination against Catholics, sectarian division and violence over the two communities’ clashing versions of national self-determination. “There is no future for any of us in a policy of absolutes”, opined one early editorial. “Those of us who stand in the centre on either side have a plain duty to join in fending off the threat from those committed to violent non-solutions.”

The magazine also became a vehicle for Hadden – later joined by his long- time collaborator, Kevin Boyle, former civil rights activist and soon to be a distinguished human rights law professor at the universities of Galway and Essex – to develop serious proposals for the reform of the law, security policy and government in Northern Ireland. For example, after internment in August 1971 he proposed an eight-point ‘Peace Plan’, including the release of all ‘political’ internees; a special tribunal to hear charges against those alleged to be involved in violence; an urgent report on ill-treatment of internees; and nationalist representation in an interim government elected by PR. It was the first of many lengthy and carefully considered policy proposals in the magazine’s columns, indicative of Hadden’s concern to undermine support for the IRA by working to make Northern Ireland a functioning society based on democracy, human rights and equality for all.

It is perhaps notable that until the mid-1990s most editors of Fortnight came from Northern Protestant backgrounds. However they were completely untypical of that community in that they were secular, liberal and social democratic. So while the magazine tended to argue for rational ‘middle way’ solutions between unionism and nationalism – including power-sharing government, strong human rights safeguards and increased north-south links – it also espoused left-wing economic policies such as state-driven planning and investment, and redistribution of income to poorer people. The brilliant cartoons by co-editor Martyn Turner, a left-wing Englishman, were a particular selling point.

Fortnight had its problems in those most violent of years. In 1971 its Lurgan-based printers refused to print the magazine after it came out strongly against internment. In 1973 bombs were left outside the Belfast offices of three middle of the road organisations – Fortnight, the Alliance Party and the New Ulster Movement – on the same day. Hadden asks today, only semi-jokingly: “Was that the IRA or the security forces pretending to be the IRA?” In November 1974 the magazine published a four-page feature urging an end to internment without trial which was also submitted to the British government’s Gardiner Committee examining this hugely controversial policy. During a follow-up oral submission to that committee, Hadden and Kevin Boyle were asked what they thought the IRA would think of their proposals. Hadden responded by suggesting that Lord Gardiner’s group might ask that illegal organisation themselves. When this outlandish proposal was rejected, he decided to follow his own advice. Boyle and Hadden arranged to meet leading republicans Seamus Loughran and Maire Drumm in a south Belfast pub. Hadden made a detailed note of this unlikely meeting and submitted it to Loughran for amendment. This amended note was submitted to the Gardiner Committee and then with Loughran’s consent published in the next edition of the magazine. Not everyone in the IRA was happy with this initiative. Shortly afterwards Loughran was removed from the IRA Army Council and ended up in a low- profile role in the Twinbrook housing estate.

In 1976 the magazine took a temporary detour after Ciaran McKeown, an Irish Press journalist who was prominently involved with the Peace People, became its editor. Hadden made it a condition of McKeown’s employment that the magazine had to be kept entirely separate from that high-profile peace organisation. However the tone of the magazine over the next year was very different, and after a year he asked McKeown to step down. The magazine was then handed to an editorial committee consisting of – at different times – Sarah Nelson, a writer on Ulster loyalism; Michael McKeown, a schoolteacher who also wrote about the casualties of the Northern conflict; the poets Robert Johnstone and Douglas Marshall; and voluntary sector worker and future SDLP chairman Jonathan Stephenson.

This proved not to be a successful combination. In February 1978 the magazine ceased publication. A year later Hadden came back from Vancouver, where he had gone to the University of British Columbia to teach law, and managed to restart the magazine, initially on a bi-monthly basis. In October 1981 the editorship passed to this writer – then a journalist working in the Irish Times Belfast office – and in December 1982 I returned it to monthly publication (it became a fortnightly again two years later).

Like so many daily newspaper journalists who contributed to it, I valued Fortnight for the opportunities it gave to use controversial material that I could not publish in a more risk-averse national broadsheet newspaper. For example the spring 1982 issue contained hitherto unreported information about William McGrath, the housefather at the Kincora boys home in east Belfast, who had been convicted of raping and grossly abusing boys in his care the previous December, who was close to Ian Paisley and other senior political and military figures, and who headed his own small, very strange loyalist paramilitary grouping, Tara.

The magazine I inherited had become rather stale and unimaginative. I introduced more ‘Sidelines’, pointed and sometimes scurrilous short items on politics, paramilitaries, the security forces and other matters which were eagerly read in a gossipy, news-hungry and conflict-ridden small society (and introduced the pseudonymous James McKnight, named after a nineteenth century radical Presbyterian journalist, as their author).

I also re-vamped and smartened up the magazine’s dull lay-out, and tried to introduce some humour into its mix. Belfast’s two best cartoonists, Ian Knox and Brian Moore (the latter with the Provisionals’ Republican News), combined as Kormski to produce the anti-clerical ‘Dog Collars’ cartoon strip, which was both barbed and hilarious, and was a favourite of both republican and loyalist prisoners in the Maze. In 1983 we ran a competition to find the Northern Ireland Assembly’s worst politician to go forward to represent the North in what we called the ‘General Galtieri Perpetual Trophy’ for the world’s worst politician (this was a year after the Falklands War). A cross-section of journalists covering the Assembly surprisingly chose the prominent Ulster Unionist barrister Robert McCartney, whose arrogance and self-regard had probably alienated many of them, for this dubious honour. The improvements in the magazine – as well as its 12 years of sturdy and outspoken survival – were recognised in the award of the 1982 Ewart-Biggs Memorial Prize for promoting greater understanding between the people of Britain and Ireland. The widow of the former British ambassador to Ireland, murdered by the IRA in 1976, Lady Jane Ewart-Biggs, said:

“It was such a relief to be reading about Ulster in Ulster’s language, forthright and tough-minded, if sometimes a little forlorn. What Fortnight does is to provide information and opinions from the centre of events – not filtered through the preconceptions of editorial offices in London or Dublin.”

The range of contributors continued to be wide and their contributions sharp and insightful. To name only a few in the early 1980s: John Hume, Peter Robinson, Gerry Adams, Conor Cruise O’Brien, Ed Moloney, Mary Holland, David Beresford of the Guardian, Irish Times editor Douglas Gageby, BBC Panorama journalist Peter Taylor, Professor Padraig O’Malley, and Bishop (later to become Cardinal) Cahal Daly.

Some prominent politicians and journalists preferred to write for the magazine under pseudonyms. Calvin McNee was an ever-present unionist- minded columnist for most of the magazine’s long life. Sometimes he was a prominent liberal journalist, sometimes he was David Trimble. Tom Hadden, a colleague of Trimble’s in the Queen’s University law school, remembers that he would put a note in his pigeon hole asking for a thousand words, and Trimble would put the article in a brown paper envelope in Hadden’s pigeon hole.

The books and arts pages were as lively as the political pages. The best contemporary Irish poets were all published in Fortnight: Seamus Heaney, Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Tom Paulin, John Montague, Paul Muldoon, John Hewitt and James Simmons (all northerners). In October 1995 poetry editor Medbh McGuckian, a major poet herself, pursued Seamus Heaney on the day his Nobel Prize for Literature was announced, and came away with several unpublished poems.

I left the magazine in November 1985, eventually to move to work for the Irish Times in Dublin. There was a brief interlude during which it was edited by a Canadian radio producer, Leslie Van Slyke, who was there when the handsome if ramshackle Lower Crescent building in the university area which Tom Hadden had shrewdly purchased to house its offices was burned down by a homeless man sleeping in its porch. The following autumn Robin Wilson, a Belfast News Letter sub-editor, took over. Wilson remembers being interviewed for the job by Hadden and printer Noel Murphy in a burnt-out shell of a building, in a room full of rubble, and wondering “What have I got myself into?”

Despite this inauspicious start, Fortnight under Wilson’s editorship was about to enter probably its most serious and thought-provoking phase, just in time for the beginning of the Northern Ireland peace process. Almost alone among the journalists covering it, Wilson was largely sceptical about that process. He recalls that during this period the magazine continued to editorialise that “universal norms such as democracy, human rights and the rule of law would have to prevail. We pointed out what was happening was that the British government was moving from repressing the IRA led by Adams and McGuinness to treating with the IRA led by Adams and McGuinness, and not what should have happened – which was a genuine break with the past that had been characterised by endless abrogations of human rights and the rule of law to a democratic dispensation underpinned by both those things.”

Wilson was a humanist, socialist and internationalist and these flavours strongly influenced the magazine’s tone. However, in my opinion, Wilson’s strong anti-IRA posture was sometimes a barrier to him understanding the genuine changes that were taking place in the republican movement.

In 1994 Tom Hadden and Kevin Boyle weighed in with a weighty summation of their most recent book Northern Ireland: The Choice, the choice being between a society based on separation (as between the Israelis and the Palestinians) and sharing (on the model of post-apartheid South Africa). The writers came down on the side of a combination of internal power-sharing between the two communities with external shared authority between the British and Irish governments, which was the essence of the Good Friday Agreement four years later.

The magazine in these years was bigger than ever and the quality of the contributors was unprecedented. Wilson was particularly keen to attract women writers, with the monthly political column (the magazine was now monthly again) being penned by two heavyweight commentators, the up-and-coming Suzanne Breen in Belfast and the outstanding Emily O’Reilly (later to become the EU Ombudsman) in Dublin. Others who were contributing at this time were former Taoiseach Garret Fitzgerald, the Booker Prize-winning novelist Anne Enright; Conor O’Clery and Fintan O’Toole of the Irish Times; Robert Fisk of the Independent, Will Hutton of the Guardian, Jimmy Burns of the Financial Times; Queen’s University politics professor Paul Bew (soon to become one of David Trimble’s closest advisors); and LSE professor of international relations Fred Halliday. It was rare for any journalist or academic in Ireland or Britain to say ‘no’ when asked to write for Fortnight.

The poet Damian Smyth joined the magazine in 1989 as books and arts editor and then deputy editor. Both Wilson and Smyth believed that politics and the arts were strongly overlapping, and were strong supporters of Edna Longley’s thesis that Northern Ireland could be a ‘cultural corridor’ connecting Britain and Ireland, with the North ‘open at both ends’. Smyth also corrected the imbalance of far too many male poets in earlier periods by publishing many of the new generation of women poets such as Sinead Morrissey, Vona Groarke and Leontia Flynn.

In 1995 Robin Wilson stepped down in order to found the Belfast-based Democratic Dialogue ‘think tank.’ He was replaced by John O’Farrell, a young left-wing Dubliner who had recently completed a master’s degree at Queen’s University.

O’Farrell was keen to engage with republicans. He claims to have given Sinn Fein director of publicity Danny Morrison his first piece of paid work, an interview with visiting South African politicians Cyril Ramaphosa and Rolf Meyer, when he got out of prison in 1995. O’Farrell understood that “Sinn Fein and the IRA were moving away from fundamental positions, away from physical force/violence towards constitutionalism. We covered the peace process as if there was probably going to be a deal, which turned out to be what happened.”

In 2002 O’Farrell was replaced by the prominent freelance journalist and writer Malachi O’Doherty, best known at that point for his BBC Radio Ulster Talkback commentaries and a well-reviewed book on the IRA. However O’Doherty found it difficult to maintain the magazine’s circulation at a time of both relative peace and political inactivity as the Northern Ireland institutions went into storage (from 2002 to 2007). The endless talks and breakdown of talks as the DUP and Sinn Fein manoevred to upstage their more moderate counterparts, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, and the two governments desperately tried to sweet-talk the extremist parties into agreement (which they finally did at St Andrews in autumn 2006) did not make for political engagement from the small magazine-reading public.

In 2000 Hadden had managed to pay off much of the magazine’s significant debt by selling the building in Lower Crescent for a tidy sum. This was probably the only time in Fortnight’s history when it was fully solvent. However despite this new solvency, in 2005 the money ran out to pay O’Doherty’s full-time salary, the first time in over 30 years the editor had been paid a living wage.

It was now becoming clear that after 35 years the magazine was running out of steam. The end of the Northern Ireland conflict and the advent of social media, spelling the death knell for small, radical print publications everywhere, provided the broader negative context. It limped on for another six years, becoming bi-monthly again at the end. The ‘final souvenir issue’ in December 2011–January 2012 signalled a transition from relative harmony to a more disruptive wider environment in the future with a cover cartoon (by Martyn Turner) featuring Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness singing from the same hymn sheet over a story on the ‘North/South Euro crisis’.