Henry McDonald: Leading journalist and author of authoritative books on the Troubles

McDonald grew up as ‘a seasoned war baby’ amid violence of 1970s Northern Ireland and went on to chronicle the conflict for decades

Born: 6 July 6th, 1965

Born: February 19th, 2023

Henry McDonald, the Guardian’s Ireland correspondent from 2007, who has died aged 57 following treatment for cancer, was alert to the dangers of his work, but the personalities and obscure details of the Troubles fascinated him. He was intrigued by those involved – how they rationalised political positions or advocated violent causes.

In a 2010 podcast for the Guardian, he recounted crossing the Border to obtain a statement from a dissident group, the Real IRA.


“I was instructed to go into a public toilet,” he explained, “and behind the cistern there would be a thing I had to pick up. I fumbled around and found a surgical glove. Inside was a USB memory stick. I put it into a laptop and there was a detailed statement from the Real IRA’s leadership.”

Henry was born in the Markets area of Belfast, a Catholic enclave in the city centre. It was a stronghold of the Official IRA, which formally declared a ceasefire in 1972 in order to pursue leftwing politics.

His father, Thomas McDonald, was a labourer; his mother, Florence (nee McManus), a dressmaker. In Northern Ireland, geography and religion often dictated destiny but Henry rose above sectarian divisions.

One Friday afternoon, he and a childhood friend were playing football on the street when gunmen in a Ford Cortina opened fire on the local pub with a Sterling machine gun. As “seasoned war babies”, he later recalled, their immediate instinct was to dive to the ground. The bullets passed overhead.

A few months later, in 1975, Henry and his father were watching It’s a Knockout on television when a car bomb exploded outside their house. Both were thrown across the room and showered with broken glass, but suffered no serious injuries. The Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF) were thought to have targeted nearby Mooney’s Bar.

From an early age, Henry enjoyed writing stories. He attended St Malachy’s college grammar school and was one of the first punk rockers in Belfast, relishing the anti-establishment culture that defied tribal politics. He later fronted a punk band called Flea Circus.


He also joined the youth wing of the Workers’ Party (the Marxist movement that developed out of Official Sinn Féin). In the summer of 1981, Henry was sent on a summer work camp to East Germany. He described it as a “carefully controlled but not unpleasant bubble” that soon became a “hive of hedonism and bed-hopping”.

He studied philosophy, initially at Edinburgh University but then switched to Queen’s University Belfast, where he finished his degree and edited the student newspaper. He subsequently took a journalism course at Dublin City University and in 1989 became a reporter on the Irish News in Belfast.

He moved to the Evening Press in Dublin then back to Belfast, where he was security correspondent for the BBC. Authoritative books on paramilitary groups followed: INLA: Deadly Divisions, which he wrote with his cousin, Jack Holland, in 1994; UVF: The Endgame (1997), and UDA: Inside the Heart of Loyalist Terror (2004) were co-authored with Jim Cusack. Henry was an astoundingly fast and lively writer.

In 1997, Henry joined the Observer, and a decade later the Guardian as well. He frequently delivered scoops while also writing biographies of David Trimble, the Ulster Unionist Party leader (2000), and Martin McGuinness, the IRA commander and Sinn Féin deputy first minister (2017).

Turning to novels, he produced The Swinging Detective (2017), a political thriller set in Berlin, and Two Souls (2019), a story that combined punks, Belfast street life and his passion for football. A third, Thy Will Be Done, a ghost story spanning the 20th-century experience of Belfast working-class Protestants, is with a publisher.

In 2018, he was asked to work in the Guardian’s London office. Around the same time, he was diagnosed with cancer and a heart problem. He left two years later and returned to Belfast, where he worked for the Sunday Times and recently as political editor of the Belfast News Letter. Henry was always generous with his time in encouraging young journalists starting off in the profession.

Henry married Claire Breen in 1996 but they later separated. They had three children, Lauren, Ellen and Patrick, who survive him, as does his partner, Charlotte Blease, and his sister, Cathy.