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Sunday 13 January 2013

Journalist and renowned historian Robert Kee's major intellectual passion was Ireland

Journalist and renowned historian's major intellectual passion was Ireland, writes Ruth Dudley Edwards

IN October 1989, after the Guildford Four's 1975 convictions had been quashed and they had been released, I wrote a letter of congratulation to Robert Kee. It was typical of him that he responded with a characteristically self-deprecating note saying this couldn't have happened without the work of people like me.

Balderdash. All most people like me did was sign petitions and harangue the odd politician or diplomat about what seemed a manifest injustice. But it was Kee who did the patient research work and produced – in 1986 – Trial and Error: Maguires, the Guildford Pub Bombings and British Justice.

The Maguires' verdicts would be overturned in 1991.

Kee had nothing to gain professionally or financially by devoting months of his life to championing 11 very ordinary people (and three of the Guildford Four were self-confessed petty criminals). But he cared passionately about truth and justice for their own sake. Because he was a famous journalist, broadcaster and historian rightly revered for his objectivity, the book was taken seriously by the powerful.

And because he had an exceptional gift for bringing clarity and coherence to complex stories, no open-minded reader could doubt that the people he was defending had been appallingly served by the police and the law.

By this time Kee had lived many lives. Born in 1919 in India to British parents, he was a scholarship boy at Stowe and Magdalene College, Oxford, where he became a life-long friend of his tutor, AJP Taylor, despite the embarrassment of the first Mrs Taylor's public infatuation with her husband's handsome protege. Kee joined the RAF in 1940, became a bomber pilot, and despite two attempts to escape, from 1942 spent more than three years as a prisoner-of-war in Poland.

As a broadcaster, Kee was respected for his intrepid and lucid coverage of wars in Algeria and the Congo, and a presenter of such news programmes as Panorama, from which he resigned over a programme on the Falklands he thought lacked objectivity.

A prolific writer of novels and history (World War Two would always be a preoccupation), his major intellectual passion became Ireland, which he knew well through Oonagh, Lady Oranmore and Browne, his long-time lover, a famous hostess at Luggala, in Co Wicklow.

In the Fifties, Kee took on the self-imposed burden of writing a history of Ireland that would explain it to the ignorant and largely indifferent British. In three volumes (The Most Distressful Country, The Bold Fenian Men and Ourselves Alone), The Green Flag: a history of Irish Nationalism was published in 1972, by which time Northern Ireland was aflame.

Yet Kee's empathy, scrupulous fairness, his mastery of story-telling and his vivid style won him respect and praise from Irish and British critics alike. Many years later he would recall that "the first inspiration for it came from a magical valley in Co Wicklow, to whose resident spirit I send across many years' gratitude and affection".

In 1980 came the 13-part Ireland – A Television History, a hugely successful BBC-RTE co-production, and its even more successful accompanying book Ireland: a History. Kee was, said Fergal Keane on Friday, "the most fair-minded UK observer of Ireland that ever lived".

Socially a good listener who was a pleasure to meet, professionally Kee was a perfectionist of total integrity with no toleration for any kind of intellectual or moral sloppiness. "They're very fond of judgment on television," he said once. "The great cliche at the end of a programme is to say 'one thing is certain'. But the one thing that is certain is that almost nothing is certain."

Amen to that. May RTE take note.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards