Paul O’Neill Irish Times editor

Paul O’Neill

THE EXIT of Paul O’Neill, after little more than five years as the editor of the Irish Times, came as a surprise to outsiders, although the rumour machine has been in overdrive since last month. Now, the focus turns to his successor.

The announcement from the IT on Tuesday noted that O’Neill’s legacy “will be lasting”, although that legacy is hard to assess. Readers of the opinion pages will know that it includes a shift rightwards, with a hawkish view against neutrality and a united Ireland, bringing Sindo-style voices like Anne Harris and Michael McDowell to the fore.

Given that the country has been shifting in the other direction politically, it is clear that O’Neill’s successor will be hard pushed to hold on to, never mind grow those younger readers attracted to the “digitally focused news and information business” during the pandemic.

While that pandemic was good to the IT and subscriber numbers shot up, the current economic outlook is more bleak. The IT is a big organisation and staff numbers at the publishing side of the group topped 430 at the end of 2020, slightly up on the previous, pre-pandemic, year.

O’Neill was in situ as deputy editor under Geraldine Kennedy at the time of the last economic crash, when swingeing cuts were demanded, and he did a lot of the heavy lifting before emerging as a formidable champion for editorial. Having to go another bruising round would hold little appeal.

Not that there won’t be a long queue of ambitious hacks looking to fill the €¼m pa hot seat – and not just for the moolah. The IT editorship remains a seriously prestigious job and there are plenty in the officer class eager for promotion.

As deputy editor, Deirdre Veldon has the distinct advantage of being a woman, although this is not a box the IT needs to tick again. Assistant editor Ruadhán Mac Cormaic would be considered a safe pair of hands (as was O’Neill). There there are assorted section editors like Mark Hennessy (news), Pat Leahy (politics), Ciarán Hancock (business) and Simon Carswell (public affairs), who has the slight advantage of having married into the extended Gageby family.

The various internal candidates might, however, do well to keep an eye on one John Mulholland, until last month the editor of the Guardian US edition. He previously had a sniff at the IT top job and is now considered by those in the know to be a potential dark horse. Watch this space.

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