Broadcaster Seamus McKee on asking those impossible-to-answer questions

To radio listeners his voice and penetrating interview style are familiar and even reassuring but Seamus McKee sometimes comes away thinking he could have dug deeper. Joanne Sweeney chatted to the respected Belfast broadcaster who told her the key to getting the best out of any interview is listening

BBC Northern Ireland presenter Seamus McKee at his home in south Belfast Picture: Bill Smyth
BBC Northern Ireland presenter Seamus McKee at his home in south Belfast Picture: Bill Smyth BBC Northern Ireland presenter Seamus McKee at his home in south Belfast Picture: Bill Smyth

VETERAN broadcaster Seamus McKee strives to ask the ‘impossible to answer’ question of politicians and all those in power and influence in his job as presenter of Evening Extra, Radio Ulster’s flagship evening news programme.

Over his 36 years at BBC Northern Ireland, he has ‘done it all’, from TV sports presenting, schools programmes, TV news presenting and documentaries as well as producing programmes. He has found, perhaps, his natural home on radio as the firm and dogged interrogator of the facts behind the developing news stories of the day.

Describing as a “serious-minded broadcaster who does not take himself too seriously”, McKee says has learnt to accept the brickbats as well as the accolades but has no regrets over any of the interview he has done.

“I can sit here and say I wished I done it better, or asked that question that I thought of afterwards, but there’s not a single interview that I regret doing,” he tells me in the living room of his south Belfast home. Two trophies from winning News Broadcaster of the Year in the Phonographic Performance Ireland (PPI) Radio Awards in 2014 and 2016 sit at either end of his mantelpiece in the home which he shares with Brenda, his wife of 43 years.

“I’m quite hard on myself so when I say to you that I think that there’s interviews that I could have asked more penetrating questions, that’s more than one or two interviews because, as I say, I’m hard on myself,” he continues.

“I often think when I come home that it’s better to ask just one question that you are determined to get answered and where it’s nearly impossible for [politicians] to answer, as that’s really interesting.

“It forces them to say what they really mean, what they are really thinking and to say what’s really going on and forces them to clarify their thinking.”

One of his next anticipated interviews will be with writer and journalist Malachi O’Doherty on his latest book, a biography of Gerry Adams, at the Aspects Festival in Bangor later this month.

O’Doherty grew up just a few hundred yards away from McKee, who was raised in Riverdale in west Belfast, the son of a paint store owner, Jim, and Dublin-born mother May.

McKee has been intrigued by O’Doherty’s previous books but admits that some aspects of his neighbour’s life was quite different to his own.

“Malachi has described, to the horror of his parents, when he knew there was going to be an army raid and would put his head out the window and blow a whistle in warning. The house would be raided, with him being pulled out to the street by the soldiers. I read that and thought it was so extraordinary that I grew up close to him and yet my experience was so different.”

It’s an interview he’s looking forward but he hasn’t figured yet out what the impossible-to-answer question may be.

“No, I haven’t thought about the impossible question yet,” McKee laughs, “but

he’s such an interesting writer. Anyone who begins a paragraph with, ‘As a boy I would make my own gunpowder’ has my attention.”

McKee says his real job is listening and that some people’s stories will stay with him forever.

For instance, interviewing fellow journalist Quentin Letts, an eye-witness to the stabbing of the policeman in the recent Westminster attack by Khalid Masood, or learning how Mina Jadeja, the first English person to be appointed to The Commission for Victims & Survivors, still lives in pain after being seriously injured in the 1983 IRA bombing of Harrods in London, stand out for him.

More recently, it was listening to Teresa Watt, the widow of Barney Watt, talking about her relief when her husband’s name was finally cleared after he was shot by the British army during a riot in Ardoyne in 1971; he was accused of being a IRA bomber.

“I interviewed Teresa in her solicitor’s office after the coroner’s ruling. She’s a tiny woman, so frail, but she must have had huge strength over 46 years not to go under all the time she was being told that her husband was a bomber. Those stories are just so compelling and you can’t help but be affected by stories like this,” says McKee.

“It’s important that I just listen. I deliberately go out to remind myself of what this place is still going through, so that I don’t take things for granted. I heard stories like this recently at Feile an Phobail, I heard more at the Four Corners Festival, from loyalists, republicans, unionist and nationalists who all have been through hell but who speak in a very measured way which does not speak of revenge.

"They speak in a way that says, ‘I respect you and I would like to be respected’. When you hear those voices, it gives me hope for this place.”

One of his most talked-about interviews was in 2011 with Andrew and Pat Cardy, the parents of Lisburn girl Jennifer Cardy, after serial child killer Andrew Black was found guilty of her abduction and murder in 1981.

Andrew had got to know McKee as a person first, having done some work in his house as a kitchen fitter. The couple chose him to tell their emotional and harrowing story in the living-room of the broadcaster’s own home.

“They sat here that day and told me their story, having never spoken before. You feel privileged as they were opening up about something that haunts them. There was an immense reaction to that interview at the time with people full of admiration for their fortitude.”

His grandchildren, Ava and Flynn, aged six and two, children of his eldest daughter Emma, bring great joy to McKee and his wife Brenda. He writes a poem to each grandchild on their birthday each year. He’s also very proud of his journalist daughter Ruth and his wife, who was a dance teacher and was instrumental in getting the plaque to choreographer and Holocaust survivor Helen Lewis, a pioneer of modern dance in her adopted home, mounted in Belfast earlier this year.

“That’s the great joy for me nowadays, seeing how well they are all doing. That and swimming, that’s my thing. I swim with a group of men most mornings who I like to call the ‘gentlemen wallowers’ – they know who they are.”

:: Seamus McKee will be in conversation with Malachi O’Doherty about his new book Gerry Adams: An Unauthorised Life at Aspects Festival on Thursday September 21 at North Down Museum. He presents Evening Extra on Radio Ulster from Wednesday to Friday each week from 5pm.