For two years I have been planning to host my radio in Belfast, and finally, on Tuesday, it came to pass. The day did not get off to a good start. Why is it that it’s always me who has a transport disaster? Global had booked flights for me and five others. All of them printed off their boarding passes the day before, but they told me I had to print mine at City Airport. I should have smelled a rat. I presented my ID and the BA lady told me she couldn’t print off my boarding pass because the spelling of my name on my passport didn’t match the spelling on the travel agent’s booking. I should phone my travel agent, she said. At 7.30am? No she couldn’t override it, and nor could anyone else. Eventually the travel agent was contacted. Not their fault, they said. BA said it wasn’t their fault. In the end a new ticket had to be bought. Unbelievable. I made the flight.
The original idea had been to do the show from Hillsborough Castle. I quite fancied broadcasting from the throne room, but that proved to be impossible as it is a Royal Palace. The Northern Ireland Office is located in a new building in the centre of Belfast and has panoramic views over the city, but that proved to be impossible “for security reasons”. Classic. So we did it from Global’s Northern Ireland office, next to the Waterfront conference venue. Having scoped it out, we left the video and tech people to erect the backdrop and get the cameras sorted out, as everything has to be visualized nowadays. Robbie, my producer and I headed off to have lunch with Stephen Nolan, the best known broadcaster in Northern Ireland. I got to know him from his 5 Live weekend evening show and we’ve stayed friends ever since. He has taught me more about radio than most. He had forgotten to book anywhere and every restaurant we walked past was closed, so we ended up at the Europa Hotel, which back in the day was the most bombed hotel in the world.
By this time my foot was hurting something rotten and there was no way I could walk back to the studio, so I grabbed a cab.
We had decided to devote half an hour to each of the five main political parties, plus half an hour for Brandon Lewis, the Northern Ireland Secretary of State. It would be a mix of me interviewing and listener calls. All the parties, except Sinn Fein, had confirmed their representative over the previous few days. At 3pm Robbie said “I’ve got a name”. I replied: “Please don’t tell me it’s Gerry Kelly”. Sure enough, it was. He is a convicted IRA bomber. Look him up. I’ve always refused to interview Sinn Fein, but given they actually won the election, I didn’t feel I had any choice, seeing as were in Belfast. Then with 15 minutes to go until show started at 7pm, Kelly pulled out due to something “domestic”. Shit happens, as they say. Part of me was quite annoyed, given I’d given a lot of though to what I would ask him, but I wouldn’t be telling the truth if I said I wasn’t a little relieved.
The programme proved to be a bit of a revelation. All the guests told me they regularly listen to the show and knew that I do more than most to give Northern Ireland the attention which other broadcasters fail to. First up was former DUP leader Edwin Poots. He was running a few minutes late and insisted on using the steps rather than the lift but did well to hide being a little out of breath. He was unrepentant about the DUP preventing an Executive being formed, which didn’t come as a huge surprise.
Next up was Eoin Tennyson, the new 24 year old Alliance member of the Norther Ireland Assembly. Wow. What an impressive guy. Articulate, inspirational and you really got the feeling if they were a few more like him involved in Northern Ireland politics you could feel optimistic about the future. Tuesday was his 24th birthday. At the end of the interview I asked how a 24 year old celebrates his birthday in Belfast. “By going to the Maverick gay bar,” he retorted. That answer would not have been possible ten years ago, I suspect.
Doug Beattie is the relatively new leader of the UUP, the Ulster Unionist Party. He was in a very cheerful mood, although in many ways he hasn’t got a lot to be cheerful about given his party’s failures in the recent elections. Surely the only way forward for the unionist parties is to find some way of putting their differences aside. Neither Poots or Beattie disagreed, but you get the feeling that it will take a new generation of politicians to make that happen.
Brandon Lewis was up next, and we spent much of the time talking about the Protocol, with some good to-ing and fro-ing about whether confronting the EU would really work. Brandon clearly loves Northern Ireland and is on top of the issues. It was quite a robust exchange at times.
Our final guest was Matthew O’Toole from the SDLP, who used to be a civil servant in Number 10. Like Eoin, he radiated optimism, and had a great sense of humour. The SDLP fell back at the elections earlier this month, but they do have some very talented politicians. Claire Hanna is one of my favourite people to interview.
We had some great reaction to our show. Our GB audience, I hope, felt better informed about the situation in Northern Ireland, and I hope we will be back soon. You can watch the whole show on Youtube HERE or you can download Tuesday’s Iain Dale Whole Show podcast wherever you get your podcasts from.