Letter from the editor

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IN Rosie's absence on a well-earned holiday in Normandy, I've had the pleasure of occupying the editor's chair these past few days. Pleasure is the wrong word: it has been a delight, not least because this has been one of those occasions when you feel privileged to have been a journalist, to have been a witness to history being made, to have brought momentous events into people's homes.

I refer, of course to Ulster - not to the "Colonel and the Wren" case, which judging from some of our rivals' acres of coverage on Friday morning, was more significant than the nail-biting negotiations in Stormont.

On Thursday, with the deadline for the talks only hours away, I decided to devote most of the front page and pages two and three to Ulster. I could have gone in another direction and pumped up other stories. In which case, what would they be? George Michael? The Wren? Interesting and certainly entertaining, but not for the front - not for The Independent. Down the years of reporting the Troubles, in David McKittrick we have been blessed with the finest commentator. Our Ulster coverage has always been second to none.

Our rivals stood back. While we ear-marked pages one, two and three, come what may, they appeared less certain. Their solution, reflected in their early editions, was to give over masses of space to the Wren and to other light stories, which presumably, had there been a deal in Ulster, would have drastically diminished as the night went on.

But I felt that even without a deal, Ulster was still the only real story in town and would dominate Good Friday.

"Without a deal" - those were the words that haunted me on Thursday night. We had until 2am, when we finally closed the paper, to get the message right. But what could we say that would survive the morning? What if, God forbid, there was a deal at 2.05am? Did we want an upbeat or downbeat picture on the front page? Imagine if the talks collapsed suddenly at 4am and our newspaper came thudding through letter boxes a few hours later bearing an optimistic headline and a smiling Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern? It did not bear thinking about.

I confess, we sat on the fence. After rejecting an excellent picture of Blair, looking haggard and sleep-deprived, on the basis that his appearance would instantly change if a deal was struck and morning television viewers might see a beaming Prime Minister on their screens in sharp contrast to our instantly dated, sombre portrait, I was all set to go with a picture of Belfast children raising their hands in "V for Victory" signs.

It was a good picture that signified the aspirations and innocence of future generations. But we could be horribly wrong. Would those same children still be feeling victorious on Good Friday morning if the talks had fallen apart in the small hours after we had put the paper to bed?

Then, on the Picture Editor's screen, I spotted a snap of Blair and Mo Mowlam together, inside Stormont. They were sitting in a negotiating room, the table littered with the debris of hours of discussion: papers, mineral water bottle, six tea-cups, milk jug, salt and pepper pots. It was an intimate shot that took us behind the news, inside Stormont. Fortunately they were neither smiling nor gloomy, just focused and serious.

That was the picture. Then, the headline. "Eyes of the world on Ulster" - not dramatic enough. I liked, "Up to the wire and beyond", but it could look stale if a deal was struck by the time the paper landed. "Ireland's hope for a new dawn" - strong, reflects both a sense of moment and a mood of expectation, and afforded some protection if the whole process broke down. That was the headline. That was the paper on the day Ulster had a peace settlement.


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