17 August 2006
Covering council meetings as a reporter for the Tyrone Constitution, John Irvine had no idea what his future held for him. He simply didn’t think that far in advance.
And today, winding down in Belfast with his wife Libby and children, Elizabeth and Peter, before taking up his new post as ITN’s Washington Correspondent, he puts his career as one of the world’s most respected broadcast journalists down to “luck”.
He modestly describes his stint covering the Israel-Lebonese war from northern Israel as simply a favour for his foreign editor, covering another colleague’s leave of absence.
He explains: “The correspondent that was supposed to be covering it had a family bereavement and I was asked by my foreign editor to cover the story.
“It turned out to be an interesting week in northern Israel. The rockets were flying around me and I was thinking that this would be the last of the bombs and bullet reporting I would be doing for a long time.
“Normally, the population in that area is around one million people, but it has been made uninhabitable by bombing. Most of the people have left and, as for the rest who have stayed, it’s a very difficult existence for them.”
Then, he laughs, trying to make light of the seriousness of the situation – a typically Northern Irish trait: “Knowing me, a rocket would likely land on my head and that would be the end of me going to America … I’m glad to be leaving it behind me.”
Witnessing savage acts of war unfold around him is nothing new to John. He previously completed a stint as Middle East Correspondent for ITN, living in Jerusalem. During his time there, he was one of the first reporters on the scene when a suicide bomber blew himself up at the David Citadel Hotel, one mile from the family’s apartment. Another suicide attack occurred outside their children’s school.
While stationed in Baghdad for the duration of the Gulf War, he and his cameraman Phil Bye had to take shelter in a dugout with Iraqi soldiers when American artillery opened up on Baghdad airport.
Subsequently, his greeting of the American soldiers as they entered Baghdad on Wednesday, April 9, to liberate Iraq won him the Royal Televison Society Journalist Of The Year award. He simply put it down to “getting out of the hotel”.
But surely, seeing the darker side of what the human race is capable of is bound to take its toll on even the emotionally strong?
“The answer should be yes, but I would like to think it is no,” he replies after giving the question great thought. “I think you have to compartmentalise your life. There’s a family part to life and then the business side of life – work – and you always have to remember that you are simply a conduit conveying a story back to the people watching at home.
“ITN often has charity appeals that run after stories and they have worked out really well, like the Indian earthquake in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir or the Tsunami, where viewers were given the opportunity to donate money.
“The appeals that run on the back of the news story are the most important aspect to me – that means the message I’m trying to tell has got to the people back home.”
In fact, he says the appeal launched by ITN during the Boxing Day tsunami, in which John and his family were caught up during their Christmas holiday on the Thai island of Koh Yao Noi, was their most successful to date.
“Family always comes first and anything I’m asked to do I discuss with Libby first,” he adds. “I’m lucky to have such a supportive wife.”
His wife of 14 years gave up her career in events management at the BBC after the birth of their second child.
Speaking on his decision to report on the Tsunami his family miraculously survived, he says: “Fortunately, neither Libby or the children sustained any more serious injuries than a few cuts and bruises. No bones had been broken, otherwise I wouldn’t have worked.
“I think ITN would’ve been disappointed if I hadn’t done my job at the time – I was Asia correspondent and it was the biggest story to hit the news headlines in years.
“I think it was right and proper that I reported on it.”
John believes his experiences of reporting the Troubles equipped him for all that international terrorism would throw at him.
“In terms of toll, things that have had the most effect on me were actually covering stories here in Belfast, simply because it was home,” he continues.
“You thought that somehow reporting on the tragedy and heartbreak might make a difference, yet the violence continued.”
A dedicated father, it was the children left behind as a result of the violence that concerned John the most during his time spent here as reporter in the 80s and 90s for UTV and, later, as ITN’s Ireland correspondent.
“It was the funerals where maybe a child had lost a mother or father that would have had a deep effect on you and I think maybe gave me a thick skin for what I would go on to see abroad,” he admits.
“The Omagh Bomb in August 1998 was the biggest story I’d covered here by far. It was a town I had spent four happy years in working at the Tyrone Constitution in my early 20s and a town I knew very well.
“It gave everybody a great jolt, it was an incredibly vicious reminder of what we were all trying to leave behind.”
The only child of Dr Ken and Jackie Irvine, John was born and reared in Belfast. A former pupil of Campbell College, he admits that he would like to eventually settle down here.
“I’m not as young as I used to be – I’d definitely like to return to Northern Ireland to settle down eventually,” he says. “I look forward to getting back to Belfast for a few pints of Guinness.
“My parents are supportive and happy for Libby and myself … they do worry now and again, but they are plucky enough not to show it.
“It’s fine to be ambitious, but there’s no hard and fast rules for the job and I try not to think too hard into the future. When I worked on the Tyrone Constitution I didn’t know on a Monday what I’d be doing on a Tuesday.
“I’ve a four-year contract in Washington and I’ll be covering whatever stories come up from Capitol Hill and the surrounding area. Whatever America decides has implications for us all these days,” he sighs.
“After that, Libby, the kids and I will put our heads together and decide where we want to go from there. Well, maybe Elizabeth will be allowed a say, she’ll be 15 by then, but she certainly won’t be getting veto power!
“It’s a difficult life for a family and not everybody’s cut out for it. It’s a nomadic existence and we treat it as an adventure.
“Libby’s feet are firmly on the ground and if she wasn’t the woman she is I wouldn’t be doing it – what is it they say … ‘Behind every successful man is a greater woman’ .”
The children have seen more of the world and know more about the different cultures and religions of the world than most children their age. They have been educated through the French schooling system – the Lycee Francaise – and are fluent in French.
“They’re better at it than their mum and dad!” jokes John.
They will continue their studies in Washington and are excited about making even more new friends.
John adds: “They’ve met lots of other children from all over the world and their journey so far, touch wood, has been a very enjoyable one. I don’t mind if they want to follow in my footsteps when they grow up, that’s fine as long as they are happy and fulfilled, but I’d prefer them to stick to being kids for now, there will be time enough to think about that later in life.”
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