Ex-RTÉ reporter has some very challenging things to say after covering Northern Irish politics for two decades
Tommie Gorman takes the ending of systematic violence in the North very seriously and very personally.
The Sligo man also believes in a united Ireland – but after two decades covering the North he has some very challenging things to say about the huge obstacles blocking the path to unity.
In his page-turner memoir of his life less ordinary, entitled Never Better, he recalls the decades of quiet hurt on the face of his Belfast next-door neighbour, Paul Connolly, who lost his mother in a hail of British army bullets way back in August 1971 in what was later dubbed the Ballymurphy massacre in which 11 innocent civilians were murdered.
He recounts the quiet dignity of Alan Black, the only one of 11 workers who survived an IRA sectarian massacre on a country road in Co Armagh in January 1976. This was the infamous Kingsmill massacre and one of countless atrocities seared into people’s memory.
Gorman recalls the reserve which could not mask the memories of great hurt which Alan Black, like Paul Connolly, carried all through the decades. On various anniversaries he felt an obligation to reluctantly talk to some journalists about those horrific events in the hope lessons could be learnt.
Such personal stories, told with warmth and empathy, were what sustained the veteran RTÉ reporter through two decades of covering the North, where politics on a good day proceeds at a glacial pace – and on bad days goes backwards. The real blessing, he concludes, is that a new generation of people will not know the horrors visited upon ordinary people like Paul Connolly and Alan Black.
In regards to a united Ireland, he is very frank about how hard that will be to achieve and the timeframe required.
After nine years covering the North West, mostly from his base in Sligo, 12 years working from Brussels, and over two decades in Belfast reporting on the North, Tommie Gorman, hung up his microphone last year on reaching 65. His memoir, published soon, is a gem recalling his early years in Sligo, his first journalism job in the Western Journal where he was paid only lineage for stories printed in the paper.
His first big break came in 1980 when he started with RTÉ. Over the ensuing 40 years he became a presence in Irish homes, bringing some unforgettable interviews with people like Gerry Adams, Roy Keane, Ian Paisley, Arlene Foster, Seamus Heaney, and many, many others. Besides revelling in journalism and the chase for stories, he has also had a continuing battle with cancer, first diagnosed way back in 1994.
The winning of that battle allowed him see his two children, Moya and Joe, grow to adulthood and have a rewarding life with his wife, Ceara. His innate optimism gives the book its title – Never Better – because every day is a cherished bonus.
He has written before this week’s publication of the North’s census results which told us catholic/nationalists outnumber protestant/unionists for the first time in a century. It is a remarkable development in a political entity created precisely to keep a unionist majority.
But Tommie Gorman knows it’s far more complex than that. He notes that the last time people in the North voted, 40pc of them backed parties which favour the union with Britain. It will be very hard to convince those people to change their minds.
Then there is the litany of things which are different and would need to be aligned.
The obvious one is the hybrid health system in the Republic where half the population pay for private health insurance. In the North there is a creaky version of the British national health system with the UK’s longest queues but just 5pc with private health insurance.
The same can be said of policing, education and a plethora of other issues which need to be thought through and a melding process agreed. Many of these are obvious, others less so.
Tommie Gorman cites the Motability Scheme in the North which is little known south of the Border.
Under this, people on certain categories of disability get a free new car, scooter, power wheelchair, or wheelchair accessible vehicle, as a benefit from the British state. Insurance and servicing are also free. In the four years 2018-2021 this scheme accounted for 32pc of all new cars sold in the North.
In some Sinn Féin heartlands three out of four new cars came via that scheme and that party’s representatives are busy detailing how it all works for their constituents.
The Motability Scheme has knock-on effects for the new and used-car market and the standard of cars in the North may be a factor in deciding the future of partition.
The writer also has interesting reflections on the varied fortunes of the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin, noting that for the latter the big prize is now government in Dublin which appears very likely.
But he argues that so far Sinn Féin has really only been a party of opposition and never really shouldered hard power in the North.
On that basis, its ability to govern remains unproven.