Claire Byrne challenges Ireland’s climate strategy: ‘People are being asked to pony up a lot’

Radio: The RTÉ host deftly turns a consumer item into a querying of government policy

Retrofitting homes for energy efficiency may be a burning environmental issue, but it's not an obviously red-hot topic for radio. So kudos to Claire Byrne, who on Wednesday not only brings a practical curiosity to the subject but even manages to inject a Shakespearean sensibility into proceedings, albeit unwittingly.

During a discussion of the "cost and complexity of retrofitting" on her show, Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), she wonders if it's worth paying the price required to attain the coveted building energy rating necessary for a grant. While her doubts mightn't quite reach Hamlet levels, she does ask the question: B2 or not B2?

While Byrne occasionally adopts a sceptical air during her Q&A with Stephen O’Connor and Mike O’Rourke of Electric Ireland Superhomes, it’s not about the efficacy of retrofitting. Rather she’s concerned that the financial onus for these upgrades, central to the Government’s climate-action plan, has been largely placed on homeowners. “People are being asked to pony up a lot of cash on this,” she says.

Claire Byrne's segment on retrofitting homes is deceptively effective, one ostensibly pitched as a consumer item but which, by digging into the detail of household upgrades, ends up querying a central plank of the nation's climate strategy

In response, O’Connor points to reduced energy bills, increased domestic comfort and even improved property value, and suggests it’s a good investment compared with others: “A hundred thousand people this year are going to spend €40,000 on a new car that’s going to sit in their driveway and depreciate.”

If Byrne isn’t entirely swayed by such reasoning, she is even more dubious about the interior-design ramifications of retrofitting. When O’Rourke says that sealing up fireplaces may be “the difference in getting to a B2 and not to a B2”, the host sounds uncertain. “What are you proposing to replace these open fires?” Byrne asks, her incredulous tone suggesting she’s possibly fond of a hearth herself.

It’s a deceptively effective segment, one ostensibly pitched as a consumer item but which, by digging into the detail of household upgrades, ends up querying a central plank of the nation’s climate strategy. “As a country, we have to attract people into this,” Byrne observes. “People are listening, saying ‘My house is grand, actually. I don’t need to do this. Convince me.’”

On this evidence, the fiscal and aesthetic arguments aren’t totally persuasive, the prospect of apocalyptic environmental collapse notwithstanding.

Such conversations highlight Byrne’s penchant for taking a more granular approach to social and political topics, with an attitude of no-nonsense pragmatism that seems particularly primed toward that storied land of media stereotype, middle Ireland. Comfortable with policy detail when interviewing Minister for Justice Helen McEntee, the host is equally au fait – and at ease – with the minefield of WhatsApp group conversations during her regular mental-health slot with Dr Harry Barry and Dr Ann-Marie Creaven.

Where her Newstalk rival Pat Kenny showed off his erstwhile hip side (cough) during a similar discussion on psychedelics some years ago, Byrne is happy to be square

It's only when dealing with more outre topics that Byrne's on-air style can seem clunky. On Tuesday, speaking to the psychiatrist Prof Brendan Kelly about the growing use of psychedelics in treating trauma and depression, the host's opening gambit somehow sounds forthright yet quaint: "So it's magic mushrooms we're talking about here."

Her guest quickly deflates any sensationalism, describing psychedelic substances – “a family of chemicals” – as being systematically studied to see if they can be “harnessed and made safer in order to treat people with debilitating and treatment-resistant psychiatric condition”. It’s a long way from the old lysergic rallying cry of “turn on, tune in, drop out”.

It’s an absorbing conversation nonetheless, touching on neurology and pharmacology, as well as wider social issues. Kelly says psychedelics may have a role in treating some special cases but is pointedly dismissive when asked it they represent a revolution in psychiatry. “If we could cut down on our society’s use of alcohol, cannabis, [and] cocaine, with addiction services to help, these things would produce a revolution in our mental health,” he says.

Byrne sounds awkward contextualising the countercultural history of drugs such as LSD: “There was a school of thought that they induced people to become more rebellious,” she says stiffly. Her guest speaks a more prosaic truth. While psychedelic drugs may grab the headlines, Kelly says, “something like meditation will change your view of the universe, with far fewer side effects”. It’s a fittingly sensible conclusion to the item. Where her Newstalk rival Pat Kenny showed off his erstwhile hip side (cough) during a similar discussion on psychedelics some years ago, Byrne is happy to be square.

Lest there be any confusion, the harmful effects of drugs are starkly illustrated on Monday's Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). Ailbhe Conneely reports on crack-cocaine use in Tallaght, a problem currently "ravaging the community". This might seem a grimly familiar story, but there are alarming new aspects to this situation. For one thing, there's the devastating personal impact of crack, compared even to heroin – "The harm that it causes is a lot quicker to take a person," says Debbie McDolan, a community worker. "It takes your soul."

Morning Ireland's report on crack cocaine is clear-eyed and unsensational, but it's also an indictment of profound political failure: as the presenter Audrey Carville puts it, 'Is there not something fundamentally broken in the system?'

More vulnerable women are being drawn into crack addiction than in previous drug waves. “Drug dealers today are enticing them into sexual favours,” says another community worker, Fiona Murphy, who tells of packets of crack being thrown on to the balcony of women in recovery. “There’s no escaping from it.” It’s a shocking scenario, yet Conneely hears how the Government has only pledged €500,000 for crack-addiction services, leading to calls for an additional €1 million for addiction supports.

But as the Tallaght native Senator Lynn Ruane points out, deeper problems are at play, such as addiction spanning several generations in families. "We can't uncouple the crisis in drugs from the crisis in inequality and poverty," Ruane says.

It's a clear-eyed, unsensational report, but it's also an indictment of profound political failure: as the Morning Ireland presenter Audrey Carville puts it, "Is there not something fundamentally broken in the system?" Yet aside from an interview with the Sinn Féin TD Seán Crowe on Tuesday's programme, there is little follow-up coverage of the topic elsewhere on the national airwaves. If futureproofing our fireplaces merits consideration, the notion of entire communities going up in smoke deserves urgent attention.

Moment of the Week

In a break from their usual nonsensical giddiness, Dermot and Dave (Today FM, weekdays) discuss how referees from a north Dublin schoolchildren's league are striking against intimidation from parents and coaches. Dave Moore, who coaches under-nines soccer himself, isn't surprised, describing "heated situations" he's seen. But he's baffled: "I'm a coach – it matters, but it also doesn't matter." Dermot Whelan, the duo's serial joker, wonders why it's tolerated: clubs should ban parents "rather than posting #respect", he says. Whelan hits on a sadder truth of modern sport: "Sometimes the ref is less independent arbiter than panto villain." Daft they may be, but the pair remind listeners that football is, in fact, less important than life or death.