Donald Trelford, former Observer editor
Sunday June 13, 2004
The Observer

It falls to few journalists to change the course of history. If Mary
Holland didn't quite achieve that, she certainly altered public
perceptions in London, Belfast, Dublin - and, crucially, in the
media, about the situation in Northern Ireland. She also challenged
all sides in the dispute to rethink their positions.

I still vividly recall the Observer editorial conference in 1967 at
which she forecast the coming crisis in Ulster - the
institutionalised discrimination against Catholics in housing and
education, the brutality of the police, the poverty, anger and
despair of people on both sides of the community. The editor at that
time, David Astor, spoke for all of us around the silenced table when
he said: 'Please, Mary, go and report it.'

This she did for the next three decades, mostly for The Observer, but
also for the New Statesman, for television and the Irish Times. Her
first Observer article on Northern Ireland - headlined 'John Bull's
Alabama' - forced other Fleet Street news desks, then obsessed with
the Vietnam war, to start taking the story seriously.

What made Mary's impassioned political eloquence at conference all
the more surprising was that she was at that time the fashion editor -
she had joined us from Vogue and had been seen around the office in
a mink coat. She was a small, gentle, unassuming person, but she was
always determined to get at the truth. Her intelligence and manifest
integrity won her the confidence of fierce men on all sides of the
Irish divide. She sometimes seemed over-serious, but was capable of
delivering wicked shafts of humour from the corner of her mouth.

Her coverage of Irish affairs was interrupted by her marriage to
Ronald Higgins, a bright diplomat who was posted to Indonesia. Mary
was miserably unhappy in Jakarta; the staff were housed in bungalows
protected by barbed wire from the violence outside.

Without her husband's knowledge, Mary wrote articles on Indonesia for
The Observer, which were published under a male pseudonym. The
marriage didn't survive and, after nine months, Mary returned to her
destiny in Northern Ireland. She later had two children with Eamonn
McCann, the colourful Irish radical.

By this time Mary was a much more radical figure herself, and was
involved in campaigns for reform of the abortion and divorce laws in
Ireland. Her firebrand image led some critics to brand her 'the
Observer's Provo' - a charge invalidated by the respect in which she
was held by many Ulster Unionists - though it may be argued that she
was slow to recognise in print that the early civil rights movement
had been taken over by the Provisional IRA.

Mary abhorred violence on all sides. She always emphasised the human
suffering involved - not just by Catholic and Protestant families,
but by the working-class British soldiers sent to fight the working-
class Irish.

When the distinguished Irish writer and politician Conor Cruise
O'Brien became editor-in-chief of The Observer in 1979, he took issue
with Mary over an article on Mary Nellis, now a Sinn Fein councillor
in Derry, accusing her of culpable naivety about Irish nationalism.
Although her fellow journalists stopped him from dismissing her, she
no longer wrote for The Observer while he was there. When O'Brien
left a few years later, I quietly brought her back.

Mary died unhappy that the Good Friday Agreement, for which she had
such high hopes - and on which she had a scoop - seemed to be falling
apart. She should be content, however, that she had done all she
could to bring peace to the island she loved.

· Donald Trelford was editor of The Observer, 1975-93.

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