Progress can only be made in N Ireland by taking risks, say veteran journalists

Progress can only be made by taking risks, one of Northern Ireland’s best-known political journalists has said.

Former UTV political editor Ken Reid and BBC Northern Ireland political editor Stephen Grimason were speaking as they were honoured for services to journalism by the Queen’s University Belfast.

The two men, who covered some of the worst atrocities of the Troubles before chronicling the peace process, were presented with Chancellor’s Medals at a special ceremony on Thursday evening.

It comes as the Stormont Assembly remains collapsed after almost two years while the DUP refuses to participate until unionist concerns over post-Brexit trading arrangements are addressed by the UK government.

Stormont Assembly
DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson has been in talks with the UK government (PA)

Speculation has been growing in recent days that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson’s party is inching closer to a deal with the Government which could pave the way for the resumption of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

Mr Reid commented: “You don’t make progress in Northern Ireland unless you take risks – that’s the lesson (of the peace process), and people, I think, have become safety first, and I think that’s a problem.

“People will have to take risks again. It took 18 months for the Assembly to get going. Ever since then the Assembly has been completely fragile so in order to overcome that, you have to get people to take risks, perhaps look at the set-up of how the Assembly is run, but if they don’t then the thing is in danger.”

Mr Grimason added: “Leadership is a lonely command, and the tide of Northern Irish politics goes in and out. If you’re not careful, if you don’t lead you could be left on the beach, and I think that’s the problem facing Jeffrey at the moment.”

Mr Reid said it is “very frustrating… to see the thing slipping away if they don’t take it on, take risks and get in there again”.

Mr Grimason, originally from Lurgan, Co Armagh, and Mr Reid, originally from Belfast, first met while working as young journalists at former newspaper the Belfast News.

They continued to work as colleagues at the News Letter before becoming rivals as political correspondents at UTV and BBC Northern Ireland.

Mr Grimason later went on to work for the Stormont administration as director of communications.

He described leaving journalism as “a bit of a wrench” but said he had a “seat at the table for an awful lot of pretty dramatic Executive meetings”.

Recently both men have spoken of their battles with cancer and have received well wishes from former prime minister Tony Blair among others.

In an interview with the PA news agency, Mr Reid recalled covering atrocities including an IRA bomb attack at Narrow Water in Co Down in 1979 when 18 soldiers were killed.

Warrenpoint Bomb/Army truck
The remains of an Army truck which caught the full force of an IRA bomb at Warrenpoint, County Down, in 1979 (PA)

“I remember leaving there and smelling the stench of death, and then the sectarian murders, we experienced that, but then we had the delight of experiencing a political process which turned into a peace process and the development of the Good Friday Agreement,” Mr Reid said.

Mr Grimason added: “Ken and I had the best of it. We were there for all the really significant moments but also we saw the beginning of the end in terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

“We saw so many horrible scenes like the bookies murders on the Ormeau Road and Teebane. I was the first reporter at Teebane. In the end I think that the big success of the peace process was that actually peace, or an imperfect version of it, did win through.”