top of page

Under the shadow of a gunman...

In 1988 my late husband, the journalist Liam Clarke, was subject to a deadly IRA plot to kill him. Here I write about how we lived under the shadow of a gunman for years - and Liam's relationship with his Sunday Times line manager in 1988.

Here is a link to what I wrote in the Daily Mail on Saturday 6 March 2021, with photographs and comments. I've pasted in the text below.

That October night back in 1988 was chilly and wet, and the rain was pelting against the windows of our little three-bedroomed semi in Glengormley, a suburb just north of Belfast.

It was late and I was in our bedroom, hurriedly trying to cram enough clothes into a suitcase for a few days for my husband, myself and our two sons, Adam, 8 and five year old Daniel.

The boys were asleep in their bunk beds next door, blissfully unaware that their lives were about to be turned upside down for years to come.

In the narrow street outside our house, its engine running, was an unmarked Royal Ulster Constabulary (RUC) police car flanked on either side by armoured police land rovers. Two armed officers stood guard.

My husband Liam Clarke, a senior journalist with The Sunday Times, was downstairs talking to RUC special branch officers.

Less than an hour earlier, an anonymous caller had warned Liam that he was the target of an IRA assassination attempt - to take place the next day. Liam had immediately called the RUC and now we had to leave.

We did not know it then, but it was our last night in our Belfast home.

I closed the suitcase and woke our boys. They’d been looking forward to the Halloween half-term break from school, even though we had recently returned from a holiday in Peru.

They were confused and irritable at being woken as I stuffed some of their favourite toys into back packs.

We’re going to a hotel for an adventure for a few days, I told them.

‘Like Peru?’ they asked me. Yes, like Peru,’ I lied.

All this week I’ve been pondering the traumatic events of that night 33 years ago and the long shadow they cast on our lives. The trigger? The admission last weekend by Roy Greenslade, a former Fleet Street Editor turned professor of journalism - and specialist in media ethics to boot - that he was ‘in complete agreement about the right of the Irish people to engage in armed struggle’.

He had, he said, come to that position as early as January 1972, after British paratroopers shot dead thirteen unarmed protesters during a peaceful civil rights march in Derry.

Writing in the British Journalism Review, Greenslade added: ‘I came to accept that the fight between the forces of the state and a group of insurgents was inequal and therefore could not be fought on conventional terms. In other words I supported the use of physical force.’

Let’s not mince our words, here. Greenslade was referring explicitly to the IRA’s thirty years plus war of attrition against the British state: to the murder of Lord Mountbatten, members of his family and a young local boat boy off the coast of Sligo in 1979, followed that same day by a double massacre at Warrenpoint in Co Down, where eighteen soldiers were slaughtered; to the Harrods bomb in1983 that killed six; to the attempted murder of Margaret Thatcher in 1984 in the Brighton bombing in which five people died; to numerous other atrocities.

And to the deaths of hundreds of members of the British security forces and of civilians caught up in murderous attacks down those blood-soaked years.

During much of that time - as a hugely influential senior executive at the heart of the British newspaper establishment which was largely united in its condemnation of the IRA - Greenslade was writing under a pseudonym for An Phoblacht, Sinn Fein’s newspaper.

Week after week, its regular column ‘War News’ would list dehumanised details of the slaughter of soldiers, police officers, and civilians.

Dead IRA officers and volunteers, in contrast, would be remembered in the ‘Roll of Honour’ where their actions in defence of the cause of Irish freedom would vie for space with descriptions of their fine personal qualities.

In his Review article, Greenslade says that he knew that owning up to his support for Irish republicans ‘would result in me losing my job...However much I believed [the IRA’s] tactics to be valid, I could not hope to convince colleagues that the killing of civilians, albeit by accident, was justifiable.’

Greenslade’s Republican sympathies first emerged some years ago and he is now a member of Sinn Fein. He is known to have guaranteed bail for convicted IRA member John Downey, who was accused of the 1982 Hyde Park bombing, in which four soldiers died, and is a close friend of Pat Doherty, an alleged former IRA council member.

But last Sunday, in his own words, he ‘came out of hiding’ to confirm the extent and longevity of his breathtaking deception.

And why should these revelations so trouble me now? Because back in 1988, as Managing Director, News at The Sunday Times, Roy Greenslade was effectively my husband’s line manager.

At exactly the same time that Greenslade was directing my husband in exposing the shadowy secrets of both republican and loyalist paramilitaries and delving in to the sometimes murky world of the British state, he was engaged in a secret propaganda war against that very state.

If Greenslade had worked for the British Army instead of The Sunday Times, he might have been called a double agent.

Now that he is ‘out of hiding’ he has questions to answer, questions that Liam can no longer ask - my husband died six years ago - so I must ask them on his behalf.

But first let me return to thatr night when we were forced to flee our home.

Liam had been away on a job that day for The Sunday Times accompanied by Crispin Rodwell, an award winning Irish photographer.

It was early evening after the boys had been put to bed when the phone rang. A man asked to speak to Liam. He was out working, I told him, and couldn’t be contacted until much later.

The man pressed me urgently.

‘He is meeting someone for a story tomorrow. You must tell him, under no circumstances, to go ahead with that meeting. Get him to ring me the minute you hear from him.’

When Liam got home, I passed on the message and he returned that call. It was obvious what he heard shocked him to the core.

He put down the receiver and without pausing dialled another number. When the call was over he said: ‘The police are on their way. We have to get out of the house. Tonight.’

Liam told me that he had been tipped off about a plot to kill him the next day. The plan was to lure him to a crowded bar in Belfast to meet a source, abduct him, shoot him in the head and then dump his body.

The plot was a direct result of a series of hard hitting stories he’d written about struggles within the ranks of the IRA, including piercing exposes of tension among factions, and intimate details of their military campaign.

On the surface, the IRA appeared united, but behind the scenes, fissures were deepening and Liam’s sources - as Greenslade would have known - were often Republicans unhappy with the direction the IRA was taking.

The IRA leadership, fearful of a deadly feud that would follow a split, had to dam those leaks - and silence the person responsible for disseminating them.

We spent two days in a small hotel outside Belfast, before being moved to another hotel for four days after Special Branch feared our whereabouts might have been divulged to the IRA.

Liam was then flown to London by The Sunday Times where he was ‘safe housed’ in a hotel near the paper’s base in Wapping.

Greenslade was fully informed of all developments from the very minute that Liam alerted the newspaper to the threat to his life. But now I wonder: did he know about the plot before? Had he been consulted about it. Might he have even been the person who tipped off the security services who then alerted Liam in that phone call to our home?

After Liam’s departure, my father who was then 74, collected me and the boys from our hotel. We broke the drive at Murlough Bay on the Antrim coast road where Adam and Daniel had their first chance for over a week to let off some steam.

As they played, my father turned to me: ‘What the hell did the two of you do to bring this to your door,’ was the question that exploded from his mouth.

He regretted these testy but understandable words immediately but the damage was done.

There is a syndrome that will be familiar to many people who’ve been subject to similar threats or attacks. As well as feeling fear, anger, distress and vulnerability, victims frequently experience a crippling sense of responsibility, guilt at having put their families through such pain and stress.

It is an overpowering weight to bear and I would later suffer from depression and severe anxiety that, over the years, has returned to plague and paralyse me.

During the weeks that followed, Liam flew secretly to Belfast on several occasions for briefings with senior Special Branch officers to discuss measures designed to protect us.

He wanted to move back to Belfast but the RUC ruled it out of the question.

Our final meeting was with Brian Fitzsimmons, then deputy head of the Special Branch (Fitzsimmons was later killed in 1994 along with 24 other anti-terrorist experts in the Chinook helicopter crash in Scotland).

Fitzsimmons advised The Sunday Times that, given the seriousness of the threat to Liam’s life, he should be armed with a semi-automatic pistol and that we should have weapons training at a local gun club.

‘If you are attacked,’ Fitzsimmons told us, ‘speed and certainty are of the essence.....What you need is something that will knock someone out with the very first shot. And aim at their upper body, not the head. That is a bigger target than the head, which is easy to miss, and the impact will blow any attacker to the ground.’

It was as if we had been transported to a parallel universe. From a life of buying a Chinese takeaway on a Saturday night and sharing it over a bottle of wine after both the boys - and the newspaper - had been put to bed, here we were being instructed in how to kill.

The gun and weapons training was paid for from Roy Greenslade’s editorial budget, as was the elaborate security system installed at the new home we bought in Coleraine, a quiet town some 60 miles from Belfast where my parents lived.

The house was a three-storey end-of-terrace. At the rear, the sash windows were fitted with sensor bars to detect any suspicious activity. At the front, the glass was replaced with bullet proof glass.

We had cameras, movement sensors in every room, intercoms, panic buttons and a system that was wired through to the local police station.

We were among the lucky survivors of those terrible years but in 1995 - three years before the Good Friday Agreement was signed - we were once again put at risk and by Greenslade’s direct actions.

By now a columnist for The Guardian (he had left The Sunday Times to become Editor of The Daily Mirror in 1990), he penned a vicious attack on his previous newspaper - and on Liam in particular - in which he accused it of trying to derail the peace process by deliberately publishing false stories about the fragility of the IRA’s fledgling ceasefire.

As my husband later wrote, the allegations were based ‘on conversations [Greenslade] claimed to have had with unnamed Irish journalists....It was a malicious attack, based on no more than tittle-tattle, yet the damage was real....His fanciful thesis was that I was in thrall to the British security services....The allegations were wild, wrong and, for me, dangerous. For a journalist living and working in Northern Ireland to be accused of collusion with the security forces is life-threatening.’

Aware of every detail of how our lives had been up-ended by that 1988 plot, I wondered then - and again now - what on earth possessed Greenslade to have embarked on such a vicious and unfounded attack on a former colleague that would once again have placed him - and also our family - in immediate danger?

Throughout his career, Liam gave no quarter to paramilitary organisations and their actions, whether republican or loyalist. Yet he was no stooge of the British state. Indeed, he was arrested several times and subject to ‘requests’ to reveal his sources. He would never have done that.

Liam died from a rare cancer on December 27 2015, aged 61 - and with his boots on, still working, as Political Editor of the Belfast Telegraph despite a terminal diagnosis.

But in the last six months of his life he was plagued with guilt and depression over our family’s disrupted life in the Eighties and Nineties and its impact on our sons. They were torn away from a home, school and friends they loved, never to return. For years we had to warn them not to say who their daddy worked for.

After Liam’s death, Henry McDonald, a close friend and colleague wrote:

‘Liam’s compassion for people regardless of their politics stretched all the way from the fringes of Ulster loyalism to Sinn Fein and IRA members. I know for a fact that Liam found out about a plot to kill a senior Belfast Sinn Fein member by loyalists in the early 1990s. Liam immediately warned him, advising him to change his routine and beef up his security. The warning was heeded and mercifully the attack never took place.

‘His willingness to help a member of a movement that included others willing to kill Liam at one time was a measure of the man. It was also part of his political philosophy. He saw armed struggle and political violence as not only immoral but futile and counterproductive.’

That is an epitaph to be proud of - and a very different philosophy from that Roy Greenslade boasted of this week.

A few years ago Greenslade wrote: ‘Journalists cannot abide being the subject of the journalism they practise themselves. It is fine for them to hold every institution to account – Westminster, Whitehall, the judiciary, the police, the church, banks and businesses – and fine also to berate and ridicule everyone in public life, be they politicians or celebrities.

“But woe betide those evil ‘commentators’ who treat their own trade to similar scrutiny, who regard media, and especially the press, as an institution that should itself be held to account in the wider public interest.’

Well, it is time for Roy Greenslade to practice the transparency and undergo the scrutiny he so lauds.

So I ask: will he sit down with me to discuss what I have written here today and to answer my questions?

Did he know in advance about the IRA threat to kill my husband in 1988?

Does he agree that by concealing his allegiance to the IRA he was lacking in his duty of care to a colleague who risked his life covering The Troubles and the Peace Process?

And why, in 1995, did he accuse Liam of involvement with British intelligence and endanger him and his family?

Last Saturday would have been my 41st wedding anniversary. I’d planned to spend the day looking through old photographs of Liam and the boys and reflecting on better days together. But instead I was drawn back to that terrifying October night more than three decades ago,.

Liam is gone but the questions remain, and perhaps some echo of the answers I seek from Greenslade might reach my husband beyond the grave.


Featured Posts
Recent Posts
Search By Tags
No tags yet.
Follow Us
  • Facebook Basic Square
  • X
  • Google+ Basic Square
bottom of page