Donal MacIntyre : Interviewed On Ice

A considerable number of people want to see Donal MacIntyre dead. Whether it’s being shot at in Burma or finding his car painted with the insignia of neo-Nazis, repeated death threats have seen the investigative reporter move house over 40 times. Yet after 15 years, he still hungers for new challenges. Yesterday it was the ghettos of Washington DC; tomorrow it will be kidnapping in Mexico City. But tonight it’s the Ultimate Ice Disco in Guildford.

Dressed all in black and padded up like a motorcyclist, MacIntyre sticks out from anyone else on the near-empty skating rink. Having lost weight since last year’s A Very British Gangster, a five o’clock shadow enhances his chiselled features in a way that makes him look much younger than 42.

He swaggers away from the ice, the blades of his boots boosting his stature as they clank across the floor. Sweeping into a café that’s about to shut, he orders two coffees (“It has to be coffee, at all times of the day and night”) and lands on a seat, his energy barely contained.

A busy weekend is drawing to a close and MacIntyre is riding the high of having successfully squeezed in an ice-skating lesson in preparation for ITV’s new series of Dancing on Ice. He has always been mad about sports. He boxes, climbs mountains and at one point even represented Ireland in canoeing. But he balks at the mention of adrenaline.

“That’s just Hollywood-esque pop psychology. Here I am ice skating, but let me tell you there is no one out there going faster than they’re capable of than I am and yet there’s no one out there more fuckin’ padded up than I am. I’ve always had one foot on the brake and one foot on the accelerator. Whether it’s a war zone or undercover, it’s a combination of ego, achieving goals, performance, testing yourself under pressure, and maybe some self-punishment. Certainly testing, testing, testing myself all the time. I certainly don’t do it for the adrenaline kick. At all. Not at all. And I never will. Very few people understand that concept.”

MacIntyre puts this drive down to a mixture of psychosis, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, growing up as the middle child, and an inherited sense of ambition. His father Tom, an Irish writer, walked out when he was four, leaving his American mother to raise him and his four siblings in County Kildare. They were a “slightly wacky family” that stood out in a land where divorce would not be legalised for another 27 years (“Ireland hadn’t come to terms with even the notion of family breakdown at that point”).

They were a well-read family of “news junkies”, digesting as many papers as they could and listening to the BBC World Service every night until two am. This autodidactic streak led him to grow tired of school. Eventually he gave up questioning the teachers and just turned up for the exams.

It’s an attitude perfectly embodied in his demeanour. MacIntyre is intelligent and articulate but quickly grows distracted, flitting from accommodating warmth to frustration at the conversation’s pace. For someone who has spent the most significant moments of his life being other people undercover, it’s difficult to see the depth of patience he must have relied on to assume false identities for years at a time.

But to ask about the possibility of doubt is to be rebuffed in near-disdain. “I’m quite compartmentalised in my approach to the stories… Post-traumatic stress disorder, on the other hand, is a genuine concern.” Pushing away the voice recorder, he labours through each answer as if forced to state the obvious, fidgeting with the Velcro straps of his elbow pads and eyeing the rink in the distance. “I have to get back out there. I’ll be damned if I’m going to let an interview get in the way of this.”

MacIntyre pirouettes. ABBA booms out over the sound system as he practises his finish, his heels swapping places gracefully. Soon the rink is cleared for the ‘speed round’ and MacIntyre stays put, ready to blend in with those here just for fun. At one point he almost tumbles but catches himself and skates away, his composure barely rippled. His teenage instructor watches on, knowing to keep his distance.

Half an hour later and it’s time for another coffee. He’s still a bundle of exhausted energy but there is something deeper, steelier there. As someone who carried on for so long regardless of bounties or death threats, there must be.

 “A lot of the security is in your head. I mean I do live a slightly bizarre life but I normalise it, as we all do. There were times when it did bother me. The first was in Nottingham after an undercover investigation there. I remember thinking: ‘fuck...fuck...I’ve got to freeze my sperm’. Suddenly a very biological need to survive and produce progeny kicked in.”

That fear, too, has faded away. Married to Ameera De La Rosa, they have a child together, 20-month-old Tiger Willow, and Allegra, De La Rosa’s daughter from a previous relationship. With little time to spend at home, he tries to bring them along on his various investigative assignments – something he admits is rare for a journalist.

“It’s a shared experience. They get to see the historic sites while I get to see the down and dirty underworld, which seems a fair trade off. But with a family, you do have to think about the danger.” He looks over his shoulder, eyes drawn back to the rink.

“My wife would be more nervous about these things. You have to manage for that. A lot of threats come in which are really insignificant but she wouldn’t have the judgement and experience to deal with it. So you have to filter them out. Over time, living in various safe houses, the threats dissipate and how you handle them improves.”

There was one moment, however, where it became too much. He had spent three days in Brixton trying to get mugged on film and when it finally happened, he broke down on screen. Until that point, it hadn’t been a particularly eventful investigation but, in the end, he achieved the result he was looking for – so why did it have such an impact?

“All my collective fears were crystallised in that moment. The emotion I showed then kind of reflected the emotion I had suppressed in other jobs. When I go undercover and do dangerous things, I’m unseasonably optimistic. I take every possibility into account, safety wise, but I never quite believe it’s going to happen.

And that means I can swagger with all the confidence I need. Because if you are nervous that things are going to happen, then you wouldn’t be able to carry it off. So there’s an interesting paradox. My bubble had been pricked and, for that moment, everything was shaken.” He nods back towards the rink, not needing to excuse himself one last time. “Sometimes it’s good to have those blowouts. No harm.”