It's a supposedly democratic contest that has nonetheless raised suspicions, with long-standing rumours of votes swayed by underhand tactics and nefarious foreign interference. But with the decisive poll nearly upon us, Matt Cooper discusses an encouraging development that suggests dark outside influences might not yet have the final say in this issue of national significance.
True, the abortion referendum campaign remains as bitter as ever, but at least long-held suspicions of shady voting pacts are temporarily dispelled with Irish singer Ryan O’Shaughnessy’s progression to the final of the Eurovision Song Contest.
It being five years since an Irish entrant has got so far, there's an almost giddy air on Wednesday's edition of The Last Word (Today FM, weekdays), as Matt Cooper discusses this unlikely development with journalist Jennifer Gannon and fellow Today FM presenter Louise Duffy. Everyone is pleased for O'Shaughnessy, though more attention is paid to the excited TV commentary on the event by Marty Whelan, on leave from his Lyric FM show for the week.
“It was like Italia ’90 for Marty,” says Gannon, who is nonetheless pessimistic about Ireland’s chances in the final: O’Shaughnessy’s song, she says, “sounds like something found down the side of [Westlife singer] Shane Filan’s sofa”. Still, with a semblance of a level playing field restored to the Eurovision, Cooper and his guests hope for the best.
The efforts of Google to ensure transparency in the referendum campaign are greeted with less widespread approval on Cooper’s programme, however. Following Google’s decision to drop all referendum adverts, Save the 8th spokesman John McGuirk is livid, claiming the move is part of “a concerted campaign to silence the No campaign”.
Anti-abortion groups had invested heavily in online advertising, but now McGuirk says that “we’re only allowed to advertise where the Yes campaign says we can”. Cooper is perplexed at this, characterising Google’s move as a business move: “This is a private company which has made a decision not to accept any ads”.
McGuirk is having none of this, suggesting that the online giant gave in to pressure from that most reliable of bogeymen, the media. Though pro-Yes Senator Alice Mary Higgins is ostensibly his on-air sparring partner, McGuirk seems to regard Cooper as his real foe, not least for having the temerity to correct factually incorrect assertions.
When McGuirk says that the No side has been unjustly thwarted while Amnesty International Ireland has not returned a large foreign donation from billionaire George Soros, Cooper immediately says this is "erroneous" and a "smear", pointing out that the funds have not been used in the campaign. McGuirk in turn calls the host an "eager defender" of Amnesty's Irish director Colm O'Gorman.
McGuirk also describes media coverage of the campaign as “an utter outrage”. Broadcasters may give equal time to both sides, but host little discussion of the actual legislation, he says.
Yet McGuirk’s own debating style has all the nuance of a grenade attack. He constantly cuts across Higgins, even as he complains of not being allowed to have his say. He misquotes Higgins to bolster an argument that Yes campaigners shut down online ads, backing down when she asks for proof: “I’m sorry if you didn’t say it”. He even repeats his claims about Amnesty’s foreign money, again eliciting a forceful rebuke from Cooper.
In terms of chutzpah, McGuirk’s appearance is striking. He is undoubtedly correct that Yes campaigners are happier after the Google ban. But the seemingly cavalier manner in which he makes his erroneous charges to Cooper equally chimes with concerns about voters being swayed by Trumpian fake news.
As for Cooper, he says that as a moderator in these debates, he is “eager to defend the truth”. As the referendum campaign nears endgame, he will likely have his work cut out for him.
In the midst of all this fractious argument, listeners seeking levity could do worse than tune into the whimsical comedy of Colm O'Regan Wants a Word (RTÉ Radio 1, Monday). But to be frank, they could probably do better too. Part of RTÉ's admirably diverse Comedy Showhouse strand, the programme features O'Regan dissecting contemporary mores with the help of fellow comedians Tara Flynn and Paul Tylak. The focus of this bank holiday edition is the fashion world, so the panellists are joined by designer Sonya Lennon, whose main role is to be the foil for a succession of silly quiz questions.
But it’s O’Regan’s verbal dexterity that’s front and centre from the start. “I may not be fashionable, but I want to be fashion-able,” he says, offering a pun that might be deemed obvious by a would-be schoolyard wag, never mind a professional comedian. In fairness, there are quite a few good gags to be heard, such as his lascivious theory why Coco Chanel’s little black dress was dubbed “the Ford Model T of haute couture”.
But O’Regan never quite hits his stride. He is in part diverted by skits from Flynn and Tylak, which mix witty lines with more generic material: portraying millennials as apathetic ironists does not count as biting observation. All in all, it’s a diverting half hour, the slightly confusing format and uneven joke count offset by the host’s likeably laconic personality and his keen comic eye.
Evidence of the latter comes when O’Regan tells of medieval “sumptuary laws” that forbade women from wearing certain garments, lest she be seen as a lady of the night or worse, as having ideas above her station. O’Regan sounds an arch note of disbelief that a woman could be judged for what she was wearing or where she goes: “I’m so glad I live in a country where that doesn’t happen.” Now you’re talking my language.
Radio Moment of the Week: The Beak of Dawn
By now an annual fixture in the schedules, The Dawn Chorus (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday) continues to astonish. A pan-European venture which charts avian cheeps, chirps and twittering as morning breaks across the continent, it is helm here by Derek Mooney and Aonghus McAnally, who chat with foreign presenters and Irish ornithologists with equal enthusiasm. Fascinating as it is to hear the guests try to identify individual species, the highlight comes as the sun rises and human voices surrender the airwaves to massed birdsong. It's wonderful, awe-inspiring radio.