Radio review: Matt Cooper stands back as Simon Coveney sets low bar

Minister for Housing’s reminder of humanitarian acts sounds calculated on Last Word

Simon Coveney TD and Minister of State for Housing and Urban Renewal Damien English. Coveney cut a slightly forlorn figure when grilled by Matt Cooper on the technicalities of the rental market.  Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

Simon Coveney TD and Minister of State for Housing and Urban Renewal Damien English. Coveney cut a slightly forlorn figure when grilled by Matt Cooper on the technicalities of the rental market. Photo: Gareth Chaney Collins

 

It’s a time-worn adage in politics that if you’re explaining, you’re losing. After hearing Minister for Housing Simon Coveney’s performance on Tuesday’s edition of The Last Word (Today FM, weekdays), you might add the corollary that if you’re explaining how things could be worse, you’ve already surrendered, signed the punitive peace treaty and have been crippled with reparations.

Coveney is ostensibly appearing on Matt Cooper’s show to promote the government’s new rental strategy. But before Cooper can ask his opening question, the minister cuts across to talk about his previous position as Minister for Defence. “I remember when we made the political decision to send the naval vessel to the Mediterranean, a lot people thought it was a crazy decision,” he reminds listeners, “but what an extraordinary mission it has turned out to be”.

He goes on to praise the naval personnel for their work in saving 14,000 people, referring to the previous night’s television documentary The Crossing. All right and proper, as Cooper acknowledges, but it doesn’t seem like an entirely disinterested observation by the Minister. Sure enough, Coveney then adds that when “we’re talking about a housing crisis” while seeing hundreds of people with nothing drowning in the sea, then “you realise actually living in Ireland is not such a bad place”. Talk about lowering the bar.

Air of bathos

Expectations suitably dampened, the Minister tries to sell his policy, but an air of bathos has descended. After his emotionally stirring speech, Coveney cuts a slightly forlorn figure when grilled on the technicalities of the rental market, akin to a commando obliged to work as a lollipop man. The Minister may be justifiably proud about his role in such a vital humanitarian operation, but there’s a hint of calculation, even cynicism, in trotting it out when facing tough questions about a genuine, if non-lethal, domestic crisis.

It all underlines how a supposedly clever interview tactic can easily backfire on radio. No wonder Coveney’s potential future rival for the Fine Gael leadership, Leo Varadkar has plumped for the safer option as a guest DJ on RTÉ Radio 1’s Late Date over Christmas.

Cooper covers the refugee tragedy in the Mediterranean in more comprehensive fashion when he interviews actor Liam Cunningham, an outspoken advocate for more Irish action in this area. Even on the radio, Cunningham comes across as a glowering presence, meeting the taunting texts of “liberal lefty” head-on: he may be joking when he challenges the “naysayers” to give their addresses so he can “go and visit them”, but it doesn’t necessarily sound that way.

As for Cooper, he gamely lobs the standard question about the feasibility – and desirability – of accepting more refugees here, but rarely presses his guest beyond the first answer. A notable exception is when Cunningham responds to the point about Saudi Arabia not accepting refugees with a curt “Neither does Israel”. Cooper doesn’t allow such whataboutery to pass, though neither does he get a satisfactory answer.

Depth of anger

This is perhaps understandable. Cunningham’s sincere humanitarianism is apparent, but so is the depth of his anger at the situation. “If we were in trouble we wouldn’t want anyone to help us– my ass,” he mutters sarcastically. It’s another compelling turn hosted by Cooper, though in both cases the host plays a bit part in the spectacle.

When it came to spinning a calamity as a triumph, the late Taoiseach Charles Haughey was a past master, as The History Show (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday) reminds us. With the 35th anniversary of the Falklands war looming next year, Myles Dungan revisits the fallout of the decision by Haughey’s short-lived government initially to support sanctions against Argentina for its invasion of the British-ruled islands, only to cease them after the Royal Navy sank the Argentinian warship the General Belgrano.

Dungan is joined by Noel Dorr, Ireland’s then-ambassador to the UN, who shows why he rose to the top of his profession. Even now, Dorr is a paragon of discretion. He recalls the pressures he faced from the Haughey administration, including negative press stories, but never criticises or blames anyone for his discomfiture.

“I’m beginning to understand the word diplomacy,” says Dungan. The presenter’s laidback style helps make a potentially arid topic accessible. He has a fondness for sporting metaphors, characterising Dorr’s portrayal in the press as “no longer a full back with a safe pair of hands… [but] now a centre fielder on a solo run.”

But the most striking voice is that of Haughey. His actions regarding the Falklands may have been guided by his instinctive anti-Britishness, but he also had a point that supporting a war during the tense nuclear stand-offs of the 1980s was “like starting a fire in an inflammable forest”. On the other hand, the decision to cease sanctions caused great damage to Anglo-Irish relations at the height of the Troubles, something that Dorr alludes to – diplomatically, of course.

But one is still mesmerised by the spectacle of Haughey, a politician condemned for mendacity, vindictiveness, opportunism and worse, confidently describing his actions as a “moral obligation and matter of conscience”. Then again, his credo was “never explain, never apologise”. Maybe things have got a bit better.

Radio Moment of the Week: Banville brings Pat to book

During his appearance on the Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays), writer John Banville tells his host that radio is his favourite medium. It’s certainly a medium that suits Banville; as he discusses his life in Wexford and Dublin, he infuses his deadpan delivery with a bone-dry wit that occasionally leaves his host sounding nonplussed. Banville ruffles accepted literary conventions when Kenny mentions that every writer tells him that fictional characters take on a life of their own. “They’re lying,” Banville replies bluntly. “Characters don’t take on a life of their own. Characters are made out of words, and out of oneself.” Wisely, Kenny takes his guest at his word.

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