Chris Ryder, who has died aged 73, was a veteran Northern Ireland journalist described as a “Fleet Street man to his fingertips”. His career spanned most of the darkest, bloodiest years of the Troubles, which at times put him in mortal danger, as when the IRA considered assassinating him in the 1970s while he was working for the Sunday Times.
Among a generation of reporters, both locally born and those parachuted into Belfast after the Troubles began in 1969, Ryder commanded lasting respect and deep fondness. He was highly regarded as an extremely diligent correspondent with a contacts book stuffed with sources, and was also renowned as a bon vivant when the bombs were not going off.
Ryder worked as a news reporter for the Sunday Times from 1972 to 1988, in London and then Belfast, and then became the Daily Telegraph’s Belfast correspondent until 1995. Several of his investigations for the Sunday Times put him in the crosshairs of the Provisional IRA. In the mid-70s, its Belfast Brigade was angry over his reports on alleged corruption in the IRA’s ranks. The Belfast IRA leader Seamus Twomey discussed assassinating Ryder. Another correspondent from England heard about the plot to kill Ryder and contacted the Provos’ leadership, advising them that murdering a reporter would badly backfire on republicans and turn the world’s media against them. The plot was quickly abandoned.
Ryder’s contacts with the security forces were his greatest asset in his coverage of the Troubles. These led to an impressive body of work, including a series of books starting with The Ulster Defence Regiment - An Instrument of Peace? (1991), a history of the locally recruited British Army regiment established in 1970.
While paying tribute to the courage of individual members, who faced the prospect of being murdered while back in civilian life as farmers, bus drivers and milk delivery men, Ryder did not shy away from the controversies that dogged the regiment. He faced full-on the issue of secret dual membership of the UDR with loyalist paramilitaries and the regiment’s reputation as a sectarian force among the nationalist population, arguing that the UDR would have to be disbanded as part of necessary reforms to the security system.
A number of other critically acclaimed books followed, including The RUC: A Force Under Fire (1989, updated in 2000 after the Patten report into policing in Northern Ireland), and A Special Kind of Courage (2005), a fascinating insight into the world of army bomb disposal officers during the Troubles. Other books included a history of the Maze prison, in 2001, and the Drumcree marching dispute of the late 1990s – Drumcree: The Orange Order’s Last Stand (2001) – written with Vincent Kearney.
Born in the border town of Newry, County Down, raised in Banbridge and later educated at the Catholic boys’ grammar school St Malachy’s college, in Belfast, Ryder grew up in a Northern Ireland that by the early 1960s had reached a crossroads: either the unionist government would meet the reformist demands of the civil rights movement or the state’s resistance to change would lead to renewed sectarian conflict.
Before the region went down the latter, disastrous route, Ryder was busy enjoying the new-found freedoms of the hedonistic 60s, writing music reviews as a freelance. The future chronicler of war and division was then more interested in music, especially his heroes from the local Belfast band Them and their talented frontman, Van Morrison. Long before Ryder became a regular political pundit on TV current affairs shows, he appeared on an episode of Ready, Steady, Go, captured on camera jiving around the dancefloor to the R&B sounds of Them and Van the Man.
When the Troubles erupted, Ryder was working as a communications executive for the Ulster Brewery in west Belfast. His first encounter with the Belfast press corps occurred when he delivered barrels of beer as a gift to the Christmas party of the then Sunday News.
He was soon on the freelance journalist trail, at a time when there was huge demand from Fleet Street for local knowledge to aid the correspondents sent over from London to cover the spiralling violence. It set off a more than 40-year career in journalism, as well as a spell as a member of the Northern Ireland Police Authority in the mid-90s, which he eventually departed from acrimoniously, describing what was widely regarded as a toothless police watchdog as nothing more than “a performing poodle”.
Fellow journalists had a nickname for Ryder – “Table for Ten” – earned because of his generosity and kindness. On his semi-retirement from journalism 15 years ago, he organised a bash at an upmarket Belfast restaurant on Great Victoria Street not far from the Europa hotel, which until the siege of Sarajevo was renowned as the most bombed hotel in Europe.
His friend and former Sunday World investigative reporter Hugh Jordan remembered how Ryder became indignant when the waiter asked if he wanted four bottles of red wine for the table.
“Chris pointed to the 10 assembled hacks and said: ‘No! Bring a bottle for each of my colleagues because every one of them could easily drink one bottle and then they will want some more!”
Ryder always admired those in Northern Irish political life who stood against violence and advocated compromise, such as the Nobel laureate John Hume. His last major piece of journalism was an expansive obituary of Hume published in this newspaper in August. Only a few weeks later, Ryder was diagnosed with cancer.
He is survived by his wife, Genny Belton, a former RUC detective, and his four children, Michelle, Paul, Declan and Edward, from his first marriage, to Anne Henry, which ended in divorce, and seven grandchildren.
• Christopher Edward Ryder, journalist and author, born 9 May 1947; died 2 October 2020