Radio review: Peter Sutherland’s secular sermon sits uneasily with his high-flying history

With his elite CV, the UN envoy is an unlikely but vocal champion of refugees, while Brian Eno goes high and low in a compelling talk

Peter Sutherland is a vocal and sincere proponent for the rights of refugees, but his previous posts, at the head of the  World Trade Organisation and Goldman Sachs International, hardly mark him out as an instinctive champion of the downtrodden. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

Peter Sutherland is a vocal and sincere proponent for the rights of refugees, but his previous posts, at the head of the World Trade Organisation and Goldman Sachs International, hardly mark him out as an instinctive champion of the downtrodden. Photograph: Aidan Crawley

 

Amid all the consumption of the Christmas season, it’s still possible to hear a seasonal message of hope, goodwill and generosity on the airwaves. While it is delivered in a traditional form, by a male authority figure from a lectern, the message in question is not a sermon, but rather the Michael Littleton Memorial Lecture 2015 (RTÉ Radio 1, St Stephen’s Day), given by Peter Sutherland on the subject of Migration, the Global Challenge of Our Times.

As the United Nations Special Representative for International Migration, Sutherland is well placed to talk on this topic, with his address underpinned by a sure command of facts. It is also, less predictably, shot through with an undemonstrative yet almost righteous sense of conviction as Sutherland ponders how best to improve not only the plight of millions of migrants, but also the attitude of host nations towards their often desperate new arrivals.

“Migration is the defining issue of 21st century,” he says. All of this should make for a stirring call to arms, yet somehow never quite does.

Sutherland suggests that “a union of 500 million people should never have felt so threatened by the arrival of a million or so desperate people fleeing from disaster”.

He brings home the sheer scale of human displacement, noting that 40,000 people are forced from their homes every day, up from 10,000 a day four years ago. He also makes the telling observation that people in host countries consistently overestimate the number of foreign-born residents, and underlines how fears of Muslim migrants in particular have been exaggerated: of 780,000 refugees resettled in the US since 2001, only three have been implicated in terrorist activities.

Sutherland says that as Irish people, “we should seek a society and identity defined by its values, not by its sense of nationality. We have had enough tribalism on this island.” His ultimate goal is simple but uplifting: “How to live well, together.”

Sutherland is a vocal and sincere proponent for the rights of refugees, but his previous posts have included head of the World Trade Organisation and chairman of Goldman Sachs International, roles that hardly mark him out as an instinctive champion of the downtrodden.

(Perhaps aware of this, broadcaster Keelin Shanley does her best during her introduction to build up Sutherland’s underdog credentials by highlighting Margaret Thatcher’s hostility towards him.)

That someone who has lived among the elite should be so strident in defending refugees’ rights while our elected leaders are mostly silent is perhaps the most striking element of the programme.

There isn’t much in the way of rousing polemic to be heard in Brian Eno Innovations (RTÉ Radio 1, Wednesday), as one might expect from a musician and producer famed as much for his cerebral nature as for his influential and innovative work.

Hearing him though in this public interview, recorded with broadcaster and Irish Times contributor Sinéad Gleeson at the Hay Festival in Kells last summer, is as electrifying as any demagoguery, and far more thoughtful and funny.

Gleeson navigates her guest through his rich career, as he recalls his work with the likes of David Bowie and U2. All the while, Eno speaks with easy authority on everything from highbrow art to popular culture. He describes his first encounter with pop music, in the form of early doo-wop, as sounding like “transmissions from another planet”.

“There are four ways that people practise this wonderful thing of surrendering,” he says. “Sex, drugs, rock and roll, and religion. I personally prefer the first three, but I’m looking for the particular religion that encompasses all of them.” Eno may not find what he’s looking for, but his inquiring mind and good humour lifts the spirit.

Less freewheeling in scope but just as compelling in substance, Christy Moore on Ewan MacColl (RTÉ Radio 1, Monday) has Moore discussing the work and life of MacColl, on the occasion of the latter’s centenary year (which has now passed, but no matter). Interviewed by John Murray, Moore is modest, even hesitant, but his passion for MacColl’s music is as obvious as his own standards are high: hearing his own rendition of a MacColl tune, Moore says he is unhappy with his recording.

Throughout it all, there are flashes of Moore’s unflinching honesty and droll sensibility. He says the famously spiky MacColl was “a man of strong beliefs and he was dictatorial in some of his behaviour”, but adds that as the music has lived on, “Who am I to be critical?”

When Murray notes that MacColl’s wife Peggy Seeger said her husband “mellowed somewhat” in old age, Moore muses dolefully: “Don’t we all, John?” Mellower he may be, but Moore’s understated charisma still shines on.

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