Borderline gloom as Pat Kenny gets northern exposure

Radio review: Newstalk host throws himself into Derry visit, while Mary Wilson hears a warning from history

Pat Kenny interviews local resident John Kelly, whose brother Michael was one of the unarmed civilians shot dead by British paratroopers on Bloody Sunday

Like relatives guiltily visiting an ignored but ailing family member before they depart this world, national radio presenters spent much of last week flocking north of the Border while they still can. Compared with the Brexit fiasco in Westminster, which moves so fast that the situation has probably changed since starting this sentence, the Border is a reassuringly solid fixture from which to view unfolding events, no matter that it may become even more solid. Pat Kenny captures the mood as he broadcasts from Derry on Tuesday (The Pat Kenny Show, Newstalk, weekdays), talking about "this frontier town where currently there is no frontier".

Kenny isn't the only Dublin-based broadcaster venturing across the Border. Ciara Kelly, host of Lunchtime Live (Newstalk, weekdays) visits Lough Erne on Wednesday, in order to talk to "all our nordie friends", a phrase which isn't in the least patronising. On the other hand, Kenny throws himself into the job at hand. He sounds genuinely impressed by his temporary home in Derry's Guildhall and covers as many facets of his environs as he can.

Accordingly, the presenter talks to local craft brewer James Huey about the city's famed walls, speaks to Chrissy McKaigue of the tiny but formidable Slaughtneil GAA club and hears a report from the school that inspired TV sitcom Derry Girls. Inevitably, however, darker aspects of the city's past also surface. Kenny interviews local resident John Kelly, whose brother Michael was one of the 13 unarmed civilians shot dead by British paratroopers on Bloody Sunday.

In the run-up to the decision on the prosecution of soldiers for the massacre (one is eventually charged), Kelly is still haunted by the events of that 1972 day: “I remember every second”. The passage of time has done nothing to lessen his sense of outrage.


“We can’t forget, because an injustice happened that day,” he says. Asked by his host about his desired outcome, Kelly is unequivocal.

“I want a conviction and I want jail time,” he says, adding by way of qualification, “This is not about revenge, this is about justice.”

Either way, it’s an unnerving glimpse of the rawness that still surrounds the Troubles, which only complicates the Brexit Border games.

McKean's guest sounds like she's a couple of soda farls short of an Ulster fry herself

Kenny’s show also carries bleakly illuminating reports from Barry Whyte about the impact of Brexit on the boundary between Donegal and Derry. Former and serving gardaí tell Whyte the force is unequipped for any increase in duties. Businessmen are also downbeat, from the petrol station proprietor who says “the shutters will come down” if a hard border emerges, to the Donegal coach service owner who has set up a separate company in Derry. Their anxiety is heightened by a sense of abandonment. “People in Dublin have no clue what’s happening up here,” says Don Reddin, the coach owner.

Still, some people view the looming chaos with equanimity. One farmer tells Whyte he wants a no-deal exit. “As my mum says, before we joined the EU, we were fine,” Whyte’s interviewee says. There may be some disruption, he admits, but he’s determined that “we can stand on our own two feet as a country”. The island of Ireland is not the country he has in mind, one gathers. Hard border or not, some divisions clearly remain entrenched.

Reporting from Newry for Seán Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays), the intrepid Henry McKean meets people whose outlook is if anything gloomier, not to say unhinged. (Moncrieff, for his part, makes his own views on Brexit clear, saying of arch-leaver Jacob Rees-Mogg, "Whenever he smiles, a child dies.") One man tells McKean that he doesn't think things have ever improved in Northern Ireland. "In my view we're no better off, peace process or no peace process," he says. Instead, he waxes nostalgic about life in south Armagh during the Troubles. "We had no drugs, no burglaries, no rapes, no murders," he says, before conceding the latter assertion is open to argument: "You can rectify murder if you want to." Beneath it all, however, there's a familiar streak of fatalism: "We're stuck in the middle."

Finetuning his radar for eccentric characters, McKean then speaks to a woman who insists Brexit won’t happen. “It was never wanted, irrespective of the fact that 17 million people voted for it,” she says. Dark political forces are at work, she says, calling Brexit as “a whole big game player”. Even the normally wry McKean sounds curious. “A game player of manipulation to appear that there was going to be a breakfast,” the woman explains, mispronouncing “Brexit” before correcting herself. McKean’s guest sounds like she’s a couple of soda farls short of an Ulster fry herself, but at least she distracts from the report’s prevailing mood of despondency.

In the unlikely event that listeners retain any faint optimism after all that, it's dispelled by Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). In a series of reports, Fergal Keane looks back at the dreadful events that shook Belfast in March 1988 after the killing of three IRA members in Gibraltar. "We thought it was timely to look back, if nothing else, as a warning from history," explains presenter Mary Wilson, sounding more sternly lugubrious than usual.

With good reason too. Keane, a young reporter in Belfast at the time, vividly recreates the tense atmosphere that enveloped the city before the IRA funerals. In retrospect, the week’s atrocities unfold with a terrible inevitability, from UDA terrorist Michael Stone’s graveyard killing of three mourners to the abduction and murder of two undercover British soldiers at the funerals that followed. Keane’s episodic retelling lends a dramatic flair, but never loses sight of the savage reality of what happened: he describes how one man was shot dead in front of him as he followed the homicidal Stone.

It’s a salutary piece of radio, reminding listeners how bad things can get when positions become intractable. Hopefully the warning gets heeded.

Radio Moment of the Week: Music to Kelly’s ear

As well as playing impeccable music from a dizzying array of genres, one of John Kelly's virtues as host of Mystery Train (Lyric, Sunday-Thursday) is his drily bemused manner in the face of adversity. On Tuesday, after playing a song called Music is my Sanctuary, he apologises for a (largely inaudible) studio. "If you hear anything that sounds untoward, it's not you, it's me," Kelly says, sinking into a self-deprecating reverie: "Am I talking too loud, am I not talking loud enough, am I talking too much?" He cues up another track, only for it to cut out. "See what I mean?" Kelly chuckles, before the tune finally kicks in. In his hands, music is a sanctuary for everyone.