Obituary: W. D. Flackes
WHEN W. D. Flackes was reporting from the Commons press gallery for the Press Association just after the Second World War, he once told me that his toughest assignment was to take a speech by the late Leslie Hale, the then Member for Oldham. Hale's unofficial title was that of fastest speaker in the House - more than 200 words a minute. But, using his highly individual adaptation of Sloan shorthand, Flackes regularly accomplished the feat. He was not to know then that, two decades later, his own rapid speech, accelerated by the clipped vowels habitual in Ulster, was to become even more celebrated. For it was the staccato articulation of his voice on BBC News from Belfast which was to punctuate the sombre evolution of the Northern Ireland crisis over nearly 20 years from the mid-1960s.
Billy Flackes was a small man of plain habits, solidly built but never a pound overweight; a non-smoker who never took more than one gin and tonic before lunch; but endowed with an engaging and unfailing sense of humour and an entirely spontaneous affability. When these were coupled to his generous tolerance of perhaps slower minds, he made permanent friends wherever he went.
He had the rare gift of making his presence instantly evident in any room he entered without ever appearing to take it over. Perhaps his speed of movement, using short steps at a quick march tempo, had something to do with it. Even in his last years of retirement, this pace was undiminished and there is no doubt that sheer physical stamina played a large part in his success in the difficult days of the late 1960s and early 1970s in Belfast.
For when rioting in the streets gave way to gunfire and explosives and Jack Lynch's administration in Dublin was sending Irish troops to the border, and when the Stormont parliament eventually began to totter, the fluid situation in Ulster often kept Flackes close to the radio and television studios in Belfast and, increasingly, in London, seven days a week.
He took up the new post of BBC Political Correspondent in Belfast in the autumn of 1964, a matter of 18 months before national media editors caught the scent of an important story maturing in Ulster. When it began to come to the boil - in 1966 - Flackes at once displayed before the network audience a notable talent for the simple exposition, balanced yet necessarily brief, of what was a highly complex community problem. His success fed upon itself to the extent that a lesser man would have been quickly overwhelmed by the personal demands which, in the early 1970s, flowed in from Europe, the Americas and the Far East.
His secret was largely a basic zest for the job: he was fully absorbed in it to the exclusion of nearly every other interest; and this was supplemented by many years' conscientious probing into the determinants of the Ulster problem; and underpinning all was his unchallenged status as a confidant which extended right across the political spectrum. His background knowledge was to find a full outlet in 1980 in his Northern Ireland: a political directory, which (in subsequent collaboration with Dr Sydney Elliott) is just now reaching a fourth edition.
Born in the village of Burt in East Donegal in the then Irish Free State, Flackes began his working life in the Belfast timber business. Later he worked as a telephone installer, largely in Londonderry. But the urge to write would not go away. At the age of 18 he was running his own weekly newspaper in South Antrim and he later held staff jobs during the war on a series of local newspapers in Northern Ireland.
It was at this time that he produced biographies of Basil Brooke, the Unionist Premier at Stormont, and of the then General Bernard Montgomery, who had strong family connections with Donegal.
Strangely it was not the move to London after the war which was to make Flackes a household name but rather his decision to accept the invitation of the late John Sayers to move back to Ulster to join the Belfast Telegraph in 1957. Shortly afterwards he began contributing political commentaries to the new commercial television station in Belfast, UTV, and he found himself, fortuitously enough, falling into line for the BBC post which he was to fill with such distinction.
Flackes was appointed OBE in 1981 and, although he retired from the BBC in the following year, he was nominated to the board of the Irish Television Service, RTE, in Dublin, serving until 1991. He continued to broadcast until recently. His last illness, diagnosed earlier this year, was mercifully brief and he died in hospital in Belfast a few hours after being admitted, following a stroke last weekend.
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