Bertie Ahern loses his bottle as Pat Kenny gazes into Brexit’s crystal ball

Former taoiseach says EU Brexit discussions won’t linger on ‘who threw the bottle out of the pram’

Cormac Ó hEadhra from Late Debate, RTÉ R1.

Cormac Ó hEadhra from Late Debate, RTÉ R1.


Amid the kerfuffle about tickets for U2’s forthcoming Joshua Tree show being resold for exorbitant prices, listeners can take consolation from another famous figure harking back to his glory days for free. True, the sound of Bertie Ahern discussing Brexit may not have quite the same thrill as that of Bono and co revisiting their classic 1987 album, but the former taoiseach’s interview on the Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk, weekdays) has its own entertainment value, at least for those who miss his talent for memorable malapropisms.

On Wednesday, as he analyses Theresa May’s speech on her vision (or fantasy) for Britain outside the EU, Ahern has the air of a seasoned campaigner, alive to the perils of what he once famously called the “smoke and daggers” of realpolitik. He speaks with an insider’s knowledge about personalities involved, describing the European Parliament’s negotiator Guy Verhofstadt as someone who will “make life hell” for the UK.  

Then, hitting his stride, Ahern muses that the EU’s negotiating team is unlikely to argue with the UK over “who threw the bottle out of the pram”. (As to the fate of any rattles in the pram, he says nothing.) It’s not quite in the same league as his seminal epigrams such as “upsetting the apple tart”, but it brightens up an otherwise glum item. That the words of a politician who bullishly presided over a calamitous economic bubble can evoke a perverse nostalgia is an indication of just how grim things have become.

Kenny gives extensive coverage to May’s crucial speech, both before and after it has been delivered. (He also discusses that other burning issue, the scarcity and cost of U2 tickets.) But as has generally been the case with all things Brexit, the discussion mostly consists of opinionated crystal-ball gazing, which is perhaps to be expected when the process hasn’t actually started yet. In the end, one is left with the odd memorable soundbite, such as celebrity economist David McWilliams’s observation that if Ireland follows the UK out of the EU, the country will just become “England with camogie”.

As for the host, he conducts his interviews in a spirit of professional curiosity, but he has let his own feelings be known earlier when flagging his show on Newstalk Breakfast. “I just thought it was silly, just nonsense,” he says of May’s speech.

Such editorialising has been a feature of the unbuttoned Pat 2.0, but one wonders if less rigour is becoming another characteristic. On Monday, he talks to Sky News reporter Enda Brady about problems in the UK’s National Health Service. Having heard about longer waiting times, Kenny contrasts this with the situation which saw 600 patients stuck on trolleys in Irish hospitals. “If you do the math, and multiply by a factor of about 13, that would be the same as 20,000 people on trolleys overnight in Britain,” he says. “What do you think would happen if that figure was released to the British media?” Brady is too diplomatic to reply that they’d probably point out the figure is wrong by 12,200 or so. After gaffes like this, little wonder Kenny is keen to have Ahern on his show.

Soothsaying pronouncements on Brexit also feature on the Late Debate (RTÉ Radio 1, Tuesday-Thursday). On Wednesday’s edition, Cormac Ó hEadhra’s panel discusses how the Border might change. The discussion predictably yields little in the way of concrete information – as happens when people argue over proposals that haven’t yet been proposed, such as British officials manning Irish immigration checks – but provides a telling vignette of contemporary politics in Ireland, on the left at least.

When the possibility of a hard Border is raised, People Before Profit TD Bríd Smith says such an outcome will be prevented by the protests of outraged northern voters. This street politics route has a romantic but decidedly unrealistic ring, but the reaction of former Labour Party general-secretary Ray Kavanagh is striking. “Theresa May must be shaking in her underpants,” he says, managing to patronise both Smith and the British prime minister.

When the conversation turns to Bus Éireann’s fiscal woes, Smith expresses her annoyance at the low level of government subvention for public transport and bus services in particular, and complains that private operators have been given free rein to compete. Kavanagh responds by poo-pooing Smith, saying she cares nothing for consumers who prefer to take private services that run twice as frequently for half the price.

Kavanagh’s point is as jarring as his dismissive manner, implying as it does that bus drivers should accept the generally lower wages of the private sector, which seems an odd position for a Labour politician to take. In the face of Kavanagh’s self-satisfied responses, which pretty much epitomise the concept of “mansplaining”, Smith contemptuously shoots back that all this indicates how much the party founded by James Connolly has changed.

As his guests get stuck into each other, Ó hEadhra hangs back. Normally a dab hand at causing bother among panellists when some on-air drama is required, the presenter knows the pot is bubbling nicely without his help. It’s lively radio, but dispiriting too. Next time, maybe Bertie could be invited along for light relief.

Radio Moment of the Week: Yes Ray can

Having recently received an official warning that he has appeared too biased towards the pro-choice side in items on abortion, Ray D’Arcy (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) has taken a new approach towards contentious issues. On Tuesday, he greets the news that the Government is to launch a consultation process on the establishment of a new homecare scheme with a wry chuckle. “Can you hear that,” D’Arcy asks, over what sounds like a tin being rattled. “It’s a very common sound in this country – that’s a can being kicked down the road.” It’s an inspired audio gag, more damning than anything D’Arcy says.

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