Ten Questions – Ben Quinn meets Seamus McKee


Seamus McKee is a prolific Northern Irish broadcaster and has been on the air for the last thirty years, throughout the emergence of a more peaceful Northern Ireland.

Mr McKee presents Evening Extra on BBC Radio Ulster. He was a long serving presenter on Good Morning Ulster In the course of a varied broadcasting career he has hosted programmes on current affairs, education, religion and the arts, including Spotlight, Hearts and Minds, Songs of Praise and the Radio Two Arts Programme. In Northern Ireland he has been the commentator on a succession of outside broadcasts including the President Clinton visits and the Omagh Commemoration. He has fronted documentaries on BBC NI TV and on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4, on everything from the disappearance of Lord Lucan to the life and times of the late Gerry Fitt. For the BBC he has also presented live radio for the network from London, Paris and New York.

What were you doing when you were my age?

When I was 23 I was teaching in Our Lady and St Patricks College Knock. I had been qualified and teaching for three years. I taught English and French.

How did you get to where you are today?

I had qualified as a teacher at university. But my passion was the Drama Society at Queens. I enjoyed doing plays. I got interested I broadcasting when a friend of mine – actually two friends – got temporary jobs at the BBC. I applied for an audition and was lucky enough to get one. On the basis of this the BBC have me some work, where I was plunged in at the deep end. I left teaching that day, went down to the studio and was live on television that night doing a piece on school homework. I did a few more interviews in quick succession and then nothing for a long time. Gradually more and more work came through. I worked part time as a teacher and part time as a broadcaster doing shows on sport, arts and culture. Ten years later, I joined the BBC full time as a presenter on the morning radio program. I decided to give up teaching in 1981 and did full time broadcasting. Since then I have been doing radio, television and news and current affairs.

Who was the most influential person in your life and why?

A number of influences. Brenda, my wife. Influential because she has been wise, and on many occasions has helped me make tough decisions. You need extremely wise friends and family, who you are extremely close to. It is a difficult game to get into freelance journalism. When I started, I had left a secure job, with two young children and went into something very uncertain. I had left a job for life to a job for a year. With a leap of that magnitude – you need an anchor. Also, my parents- both families. They give you values that you carry with you all your life. Another big influence is Malcom Kellard, who gave me the first regular work – he was head of sport at the BBC. He was the first to believe in my work. Andrew Colman, who was the head of current affairs in BBC NI. You need someone in your career who will keep faith with you. These are people you look to for quality judgement. You need someone in your career whose are fair in their dealings with you.

If there was one thing that you could change about the Northern Irish political system what would it be and why?

I’m more used to asking questions- so maybe I will answer this way- Are people still too inclined to see things in terms of the interests of their own community, their own side? Too often still, does it come down to what will get someone elected? There are growing signs of genuine leadership in Northern Ireland. Strong signs of it developing. But have we enough?

What advice would you give to a young university graduate from Northern Ireland?

Believe in yourself, you are as good as any other graduate. Northern Ireland’s youth have a lot to contribute. Sometimes there is an inferiority complex. Believe in the value of your qualification and the achievement it represents. Most importantly, be prepared to adopt a lifelong learning approach. Always try to learn at any junction and always get to know people who can teach you things. Always be on the lookout for how you can change or be more of a part of a team.

Should the executive do more to encourage widespread integrated education?

First of all proponents of integrated education need to tell us what they mean by integrated education. So far they have no plan for encouraging this. The education department itself says that there will be integration because of an oversupply of school places. They are working on a system to combat this, and this in turn will produce more shared education. But one must question what this  means for Northern Ireland. It seems to mean that a state school and Catholic school or a Protestant school will come together to share premises. But is this really integration? It might mean all of the pupils of one area moving to another particular area, but it is an ambiguous strategy at the moment; nothing has been produced. There are a number of schools which adopt integrated education – only 6% of children in Northern Ireland are educated in integrated institutions. And truth be told, there is still opposition to this momentum. There is no paper put down with a plan. It is important but it may not be the answer. No matter how much you are integrated in schools you still return to divided areas. People should have the choice; you cannot force people to fit into a particular system.

I believe integrated education is key for new generations to re-imagine Northern Ireland through shared experience. Do you have any thoughts?

There is the potential to re imagine Northern Ireland. But you must question how can this be realised and enacted? Possibly the start is in integrated education, it remains to be seen.

How can young leaders inspire the so called ‘lost generation’ to achieve real change in Northern Ireland?

The primary question here is how does anyone inspire – it is what you do yourself in your life. There needs to be practical things that people show can be done. Tangible benefits. If they are in business, the social sector, whatever; just by taking small things in their own lives and trying to show what can be achieved, whether it is providing a job for another young person, or helping another young person, helping someone who has lost hope, drugs, maybe been rejected – it is a micro macro approach. Your life reflects the society you wish to be a part of. Very often you don’t appreciate how lucky you are. Maybe if people thought a bit more that if they are in a position where they can influence, they must think about getting things done, they must use their power to share and spread good fortune. No grand plan, just simple steps – where is the opportunity today that I can do something? A sense of duty must be re-established. You must build up to a level where you can extend the hand to others. When you look about, see what needs to be done, for young people and with young people.

What does the prospect of Scottish Independence in 2014 mean for Northern Ireland?

The answer is that no one is entirely sure. I don’t know that anyone is sure. A lot of uncertainty surrounds the idea of independence. Will it energise nationalist opinion in Northern Ireland and if so where does this go? There is very little interest from the Republic in re-uniting the island. What does this do to nationalist opinion? What is the effect on the union? How does it change the state of the union? The queen will still be head of state, Salmond has affirmed this. So will there be a situation in which England will be dominant? Not a British invention of Northern Ireland, it will be an English invention. Will they become more conscious of how much they are subsidizing us here? Will this cause a problem for Downing Street? Ten billion a year to Northern Ireland will be question. Whether the vote occurs or not, the mere fact the issue had been raised by the majority party raises serious and very interesting questions for the Union.

With a decade of centenaries ahead, from the signing of the Ulster Covenant to Easter 1916, have you any ideas on what solution can be offered for dealing with the past and achieving reconciliation?

This is a very difficult question. This is the one issue that seems to fox everybody. How do you deal with the future when you cannot agree on the past? Was it a war? Was it a freedom struggle? Was the violence justified, was it unjustified? People will never agree on these issues or reach a consensus on Northern Irish history. So it is difficult when we attempt to begin to deal with this? If we cannot agree on how we got into this, how can we begin to resolve the issues? Maybe a solution can be found in developing a sense of respect for people’s experiences. If people get a chance to tell their stories, if people can be given a voice there may be a solution in that. There needs to be a fostering a huge amount of sensitivity. People are still very raw. Again it comes down to what you do in your own circumstances. No structures can achieve change of this manner and magnitude – it must be a grassroots, organic empathy. The government must encourage this sensitivity. One way of dealing with the past is to confront sectarianism now – people are still being intimidated. A way of dealing with the past is to make sure it stops, even the remnants.

Are pre-occupations with the past and tribal loyalties limiting the future of Northern Ireland or is the ‘shared but separate’ post conflict state working?

You cannot socially engineer your way to prosperity, it is still the case that the majority of people in Northern Ireland choose to be separate. They choose to assert their difference from others. For as long as people go on doing this we are going to have to live with that. Loyalty to their side supersedes their loyalty to society. It is disappointing, but we are after all in a post conflict society. There exists a ‘two of everything approach’ to governance. There is a cost to this division. For example, if there were more shared facilities – leisure centres and the like – there may be possible savings. There is some shared ground in modern Northern Ireland, but maybe it still is not enough. Real change takes a long time, generations, and for now we must bare this, even though it is dysfunctional. What is important to remember is that it’s what you can add to the mix, not the differences that matter. Northern Ireland needs to catch up with other nations, that different must not breed separation, but realise that it is precisely their difference that adds to progress.