Radio review: Hugh McElvaney’s damning, flummoxing interview
The county councillor’s account of his role in RTÉ’s ‘sting’ speaks volumes about the atmosphere of impunity in Irish politics
It’s a live broadcast that has already become a sensation, an unintentionally hilarious snapshot of a harried public figure trying to maintain their dignity while caught in the eye of a tremendous storm.
So preposterously entertaining is Monaghan County Councillor Hugh McElvaney’s local radio performance on Monday that it makes even Teresa Mannion’s much-lampooned report from a rain-lashed Salthill seem as dull as a Sunday morning traffic update.
The former Fine Gael councillor went on The Joe Finnegan Show (Northern Sound, weekdays) in advance of an RTÉ Investigates television programme on standards in political life, in which he appears to ask for £10,000 sterling in return for aiding the construction of wind farms.
As he rejects any notion of wrongdoing McElvaney is, depending on one’s interpretation, the embodiment of astonishing chutzpah or a doltishness that stretches credulity.
Far from saying he got caught trying to get his hands into the cookie jar, McElvaney presents himself as the victim of a conspiracy of Watergate-style proportions, as well as a one-man crusade for higher standards in the media.
Referring to his recent resignation from Fine Gael, the councillor refers ominously to “the dark forces of politics”, adding that “somebody somewhere thought that it was time to get McElvaney off the pitch”. Finnegan asks if he believes Fine Gael and RTÉ worked together on a dirty tricks campaign. “Well, RTÉ are the State broadcaster, aren’t they? And Fine Gael are the State, the government,” comes the reply. “They came up with this sting, but I was cuter than them, I lured them into their trap.”
As McElvaney tells it, it was all an elaborate reverse sting on his part. Referring to the undercover RTÉ reporter who posed as the Icelandic representative of a London investment firm, he says that he was on to her ploy from the off:
“Did she think I was a gombeen man from Monaghan?” Sounding pleased at his ingenuity, he recounts how he went along with her ruse to expose it, even apparently asking her for money.
Finnegan, not unreasonably, wonders why his guest didn’t just put the phone down instead. “Joe, there’d be no show, and I wouldn’t have the opportunity of showing up RTÉ, our State broadcaster, for what they are.”
As to why he would incriminate himself in the process, he says, “That’s my style, that’s what motivates me.”
The tenor of all this is far removed from the grilling one might expect on the likes of Morning Ireland. Rather, veteran presenter Finnegan talks fondly about how well he knows his guest and chuckles at the plausibility of such antics in the manner of a teacher dressing down a cheeky yet charming delinquent.
Some listeners text in to complain at this softball approach, but it actually gives McElvaney enough rope to fashion the proverbial noose, his line sounding ever more incredible the longer he maintains it.
When the deceptively indulgent presenter points out some hard home truths, McElvaney sounds slightly less defiant. After Finnegan notes that the television clips will appear shady to “those who don’t know you like I do”, his guest mutters “very damaging” in apparent agreement.
When the host remarks that McElvaney went into a lot of damning specific detail with the reporter, the councillor says, presumably by way of vindication, that “she really did have the big fish netted at this stage, didn’t she?”
Even Finnegan seems flummoxed by this logic. “Moving on, so,” he says, in a resigned air.
As things progress, Finnegan’s tone is as jolly as ever, but the substance of his questions are more quietly damning. He asks why McElvaney didn’t record his meetings with the RTÉ reporter if he knew it was a set-up. “It’s very easy being cute after the event,” is the reply. Clearly there are limits to his cunning plan.
In the face of all this, McElvaney compares himself to Mike Murphy and PJ Gallagher, claiming it was all a giant Candid Camera-style prank by him. “It was taking the piss out of RTÉ, and I proved it,” he says.
By this stage, all Finnegan can muster in response is a loud sigh.
It’s pantomime of the highest order, with listeners comparing it to Hall’s Pictorial Weekly’s lampoons of local politics. Indeed, that the on-air self-immolation of a local politician should be the focus of incredulous nationwide attention might seem unfair, were the wider ramifications not so glumly familiar.
But McElvaney seems so grotesquely impervious to embarrassment or wisdom (never mind anything worse) that it speaks volumes about the atmosphere of impunity that still appears to prevail in much of Irish politics.
The whole exchange recalls caustic songwriter Tom Lehrer’s comment about satire dying the day that Henry Kissinger won the Nobel Peace Prize.
It’s compelling radio, but any laughter is hollow.