Alex Kane: After 20 years as a News Letter columnist, goodbye and thank you
My goodness me, doesn’t time fly?
Especially when you’ve been enjoying yourself.
Yet here we are, after twenty years, six editors, about a million words and a thousand or so columns, this is the last one.
Stepping down from a column after such a long time was never going to be easy and I really appreciate the fact I was asked—a number of times as it happens—to reconsider the decision.
But it’s something I’ve been thinking about for a year or so and the combination of a 20-year run and changeover of editor seemed the perfect moment to slip quietly through the net.
A few months before she died in 2003 I was talking to my mum about my adoption and how much I owed her and my dad for giving me a new home when I was six and the security and opportunity to rebuild my life.
She took my hand: “Sam would have loved to have read your column in the News Letter, a paper he read every day.
“You did well for a boy who couldn’t read, write, or even speak when we took him from the orphanage. He would have been very proud of you.
“I’m really sorry he missed this part of your life.”
So am I, but very glad my Mum got to read the column for the first few years.
It was their patience and love that gave me the confidence to find my own voice and not be afraid to have an opinion.
In a house filled with books, newspapers and magazines I was encouraged to read anything and everything.
Encouraged to question everything I read.
Encouraged to speak up if I disagreed with what I read.
Encouraged not to be afraid to challenge conventional wisdom.
Perfect training for a columnist.
And the perfect rebuttal to the opinion of a psychiatrist who concluded—in an assessment during my time in the orphanage in 1960—that I was, ‘almost certainly educationally sub-normal’.
Having your own column, being a part of a newspaper family, is a privilege.
Particularly when it has lasted so long.
It takes time for readers to get used to you: because if they’re not on your side, or willing to read you, then you’re not going to survive week after week, year after year.
It’s a relationship built on trust from them, trust that what they’re reading is what you believe.
Believe it’s your opinion and not steered or shaped by others inside or outside the newspaper.
Which this column never was.
They don’t have to agree with you. But they do have to believe you are being honest with them.
One week they’ll want to carry you shoulder high and laud you as a genius.
The following week they’ll want to kick you down the street. But if they believe that what they’re reading is the authentic you, the ‘brutally authentic’ you, as one person told me recently, then they’ll stay with you even when they fundamentally disagree with you.
The best relationship between a columnist and reader (and I always write for the individual rather than the crowd) is one of mutual respect.
I want you to read me, especially if it’s likely you’re going to disagree with me and I always loved it when letters were sent to the editor or, as is mostly the case recently, sent directly to my Twitter email account. Because you’d probably be surprised to realise how much your opinion influenced my writing and made me reconsider previous certainties.
A columnist who isn’t willing to change his mind may as well be deaf and blind.
The other thing I learned from the column—don’t take yourself too seriously.
When I first began writing it, I was, for a while, billed as ‘The columnist everyone is talking about.’
A letter-writer to the paper cautioned me not to get carried away by the description, nor assume that what everyone was saying about me was particularly nice. But when the paper stopped that billing, one of my aunts asked, “is it because nobody is talking about you anymore?”
Family, especially aunts, are always the toughest critics.
I also remember going into a petrol station near Dungannon one Saturday morning, on my way to a UUP meeting.
A very pleasant man spoke to me while I was picking up some papers and said it was nice to see me in his neck of the wood and then continued his shopping.
I watched him come out just as I was about to drive away.
He was carrying a copy of the News Letter and I was on the front cover.
One of my fans, I thought. But no, he pulled out the Farming Life section and threw the rest of the paper, along with my column, into the bin.
It was a very chastening experience.
All columnists have issues they return to repeatedly.
For me it was the preparedness of unionism for the mountain of challenges it faces.
I have spent years urging the various unionist parties to do a number of things:
Prepare for every eventuality and make sure every strategy is thought-through and backed-up with detailed option papers;
Recognise that alienating potential voters with policies which are outdated or unattractive is a self-defeating course of action;
Create a forum where the values, priorities and essence of unionism are calibrated and easily understood and promoted;
Stop assuming everyone who doesn’t wear a sash or vote for a unionist-party, is some sort of Lundy;
Understand that changes in demographics and societal attitudes are a fact of life and need to be accommodated;
Spend less time fighting each other and more time countering the arguments of their opponents by honing a positive, attractive message;
Acknowledge that using tactics which have failed time after time is the ultimate definition of stupid;
Realise political unionism needs to stop looking over its shoulder at those without a mandate and stop being manoeuvred into absurd positions by those who don’t bear the electoral brunt of failed strategies;
Wake up to the reality that when you dislike something you have to have strong arguments and even stronger political friends to promote alternatives.
I accept I haven’t always got it right when it comes to analysis and prediction in the column. But what I’ve always tried to do is call it as I see it and make a case for modern, progressive, pluralist unionism.
It’s why I supported power-sharing in the mid-1970s: and why I still think that had Brian Faulkner been given more latitude by unionism (and by some members of the SDLP) we might not have seen the political and electoral rise of Sinn Fein.
It doesn’t mean the arguments for Irish unity would have diminished, but it does mean the dynamics of that debate would have been very different.
Not least because a stable power-sharing government would probably have limited the scope and scale of the assorted loyalist/republican terror campaigns.
It’s also why I don’t care about background, gender, education, class, status, colour, creed, sexual orientation, moral beliefs etc when it comes to sustaining and maximising the entire pro-Union vote.
In other words, if someone can be persuaded that the constitutional status quo is or probably preferable to any alternative then I don’t want party-political unionism or loyalism to do anything which could shift them to a neutral, agnostic, or worse, anti-union position.
I’ve seen that happen far too much and I will continue to argue against it.
Unionists come in all shapes and sizes, and all should be made to feel welcome.
I owe a debt of gratitude to my editors. Geoff Martin (who invited me in as a columnist), Nigel Waring, Austn Hunter, Darwin Templeton, Rankin Armstrong and Alistair Bushe, all of whom left me free to write what I pleased: and two of whom resisted pressure by some key players within unionism to dump me.
A thank you, too, to a succession of sub-editors who made sure my typos and other assorted errors were removed in time.
A thank you to those politicians who encouraged me along the way and became increasingly willing to speak to me off-the-record.
Thank you to Sam McBride and Ben Lowry for their friendship and support, which I value very much.
And a particular thanks to Mervyn Pauley, the News Letter’s political editor for thirty or more years, who opened the door for me long before I became a regular columnist.
Thank you to you, my readers.
Those who have been with me for the last 20 years (and some of whom may still remember the first long piece I wrote for the paper in 1979) and those who have got to know me through the online versions.
It has been an honour and a privilege.
It has also been a huge pleasure.
I know you’ll understand if I finish with a final nod to my Mum and Dad.
I would never have become a columnist anywhere had it not been for their efforts.
Firstly, for rescuing me from the orphanage; and then for ignoring the psychiatrist’s report and working day and night to find the voice they always believed was deep inside and longing to be heard.
And while it will no longer be heard in the News Letter, it will still be heard.
I’ll close with a paraphrasing of the wonderful Dave Allen:
And may your God go with you.
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