S.H.: As a child, in the 1950s, you spent a year at Coláiste na Rinne, the Gaeltacht near Dungarvan, Co. Waterford. Garrett FitzGerald did the same thing in the 1930s. I, too, spent many summers in that same spot. What are your memories of that time, and place?
V.B.: It was very raw. Cold, bleak and at times cruel. But I became fluent in Irish there and easily got honours in the Leaving Certificate six years later having learnt no Irish in the interval. It also taught me maths.
While attending UCD in the 1960s, you must have taken part in discussions about the move to Belfield, Minister of Education Donagh O’Malley’s proposed merger of UCD and Trinity, and much more besides. You also established the ‘College Tribune’ in 1989, so you’ve been involved in college life for decades. Do you have a favourite story about UCD? Did anyone, in particular, influence you strongly?
I have no recollection of any discussions or debate in UCD in the mid-Sixties about the move to Belfield, which, in retrospect, seems odd. I do remember thinking however that it was a bad decision. It would have been possible for UCD to buy up properties on Stephen’s Green at the time and extending down Dawson St; more interesting than what it has become. The argument I know is that it would have been very difficult to cater for the 25,000 students that now populate UCD but, I think, it could have been done at a time when property was relatively cheap.
No favourite story that I wish to disclose!
Several people influenced me, lecturers, other staff members and fellow students, particularly fellow students.
You once wrote, reflecting on your coverage of the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, and the quashing of the “Prague Spring,” that you had learned “the falsehood of optimism. That the belief of inevitable progress towards democracy, freedom, equality, fairness and justice was unfounded. And not just in Czechoslovakia.” Do you think the results of the Arab Spring alters that conclusion?
I hope I didn’t write about the “falsehood” of optimism but I do believe there is not an “inevitable” progress towards democracy, freedom, equality and justice. Indeed western societies are a good deal less equal, more unjust and less free than they were in the 1960s.
You’ve had a hand in breaking many controversial stories over the years, to do with the links between the Workers’ Party and Official IRA, the DIRT scandal, and so on, and you’ve also been the subject of controversy from time to time. What is the most important fact, from all that time, which you think the people of Ireland should know about, but is widely ignored or forgotten?
By far the most important fact is the scale of inequality here and how this is not at all inevitable or unavoidable. The Institute of Public Health published a report ten years ago, “Inequality in Mortalities” which found that because of inequality there were around 5,400 premature deaths here every year. The political establishment is in denial about this and society in general is too.
Lastly, what piece of advice would you give to fledgling writers beginning in modern journalism?
Don’t. No jobs, no prospects and, anyway, it is not what it is cracked up to be.