Radio review: Storm over high water levels and low drink prices

‘Breakfast’, Today with Sean O’Rourke, ‘The Last Word’, ‘Marian Finucane’

Accounts of damage caused by flooding dominated the airwaves: The river Suck at Ballinasloe after Storm Desmond hit the area over last weekend. Photograph: Airman Jamie Martin/Air Corps/PA

Accounts of damage caused by flooding dominated the airwaves: The river Suck at Ballinasloe after Storm Desmond hit the area over last weekend. Photograph: Airman Jamie Martin/Air Corps/PA

 

Bemoaning seasonal excess is practically compulsory at this time of year, but there has been real anguish on the airwaves this week about current surfeits of water and wine. And with good reason.

Accounts of the damage caused by floodwater rightly dominate news programmes, bringing home the scale of the misery left in Storm Desmond’s wake. The small details are as quietly heartbreaking as the bigger picture of devastation. On Breakfast (Newstalk, weekdays) Shona Murray reports from Crossmolina, in Co Mayo, where one man says the deluge that poured into the house of his 83-year-old mother was so great that it left her wheelchair floating in the living room.

If there is despair about the floods the mood is more positive about Government moves to curb the deluge of cheap alcohol. Speaking on Today with Sean O’Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), the liver specialist Prof Frank Murray describes as “fantastic news” the measures announced by Minister for Health Leo Varadkar, including minimum pricing and restrictions on advertising.

Murray outlines the harm caused by alcohol abuse, talking of “a tidal wave of illness and death due to alcohol”. He describes a spike in younger men and, increasingly, women dying of liver disease. The proposed checks, he says, have been proven in countries such as Canada to reduce consumption, as well as alcohol-related hospital admissions, deaths and crimes, “so it’s a win-win-win-win option”.

Not everyone is so welcoming. Over on Newstalk, Breakfast’s cohost Ivan Yates cranks up his indignation at the prospect of moderate drinkers being penalised with price rises, predicting that the restrictions won’t make “a blind bit of difference”. Instead, Yates says, we should emulate the responsible consumption patterns of Spain and Italy. “It’s a matter not of the nanny state but of personal responsibility,” he says, adding that “proper education” about drink is instead needed. (Interestingly, Prof Murray tells O’Rourke that “the drinks industry will always support education, as it’s least effective”.)

As with many of Yates’s tirades, there’s an element of playing to the gallery, or at least acting the grouchy realist to the liberal idealist of Chris Donoghue, his cohost. Despite the predictability of their designated roles, their verbal duels are entertaining. Donoghue loudly asks, “Do you work for the drinks lobby?” More tellingly, he also mutters in exasperation that Yates is a “wind-up artist”, although the latter is undoubtedly giving voice to a widespread opinion.

Leo Varadkar gives a strong response to such doubts on The Last Word (Today FM, weekdays), where its host, Matt Cooper, agonises about the cost to “responsible drinkers”. But far from setting up a nanny state, the Minister wants Ireland “to be a normal country”, not one with some of the world’s highest levels of alcohol abuse. Less drink, he says, would mean less disease and fewer accidents, assaults and suicides.

But Ross MacMathuna of the Alcohol Beverage Federation of Ireland describes minimum pricing as a blunt and ineffective tool, claiming that those addicted to drink are the least sensitive to pricing. He doesn’t want his individual rights impinged by having drink prices set by “a faceless bureaucrat” rather than by the market.

Reuben Gray of Beoir, a group for fans of craft beer, likewise stresses personal liberty and responsibility over legislation, or “shenanigans” as he calls them: “The problem isn’t with the drink or the cost of drink. The problem is the social aspect.” All of which has uncomfortable echoes of the anti-gun-control mantra of the US firearms lobby, namely that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”. Faced with an epidemic fuelled by alcohol, why indeed would you target its availability?

Alcohol-fuelled violence features in Pauline Tully’s distressing but gripping interview on Marian Finucane (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday). Following the conviction of her husband, Pearse McAuley, for attempting to murder her in front of their children on Christmas Eve last year, Tully describes her ordeal of being stabbed 13 times by her drunk spouse over three hours.

The interview is also notable for her sombre honesty about why she stayed in an abusive marriage for years. Finucane, and many listeners, wonder why she expected anything else from marrying the IRA man who killed Garda Jerry McCabe. As one listener points out, this attitude comes perilously close to blaming the victim. Tully addresses the question.

A former Sinn Féin councillor, she initially saw him as a soldier. When they started courting McAuley made a point of saying he would never hit a woman, “but he also assured me he didn’t have a problem with drink”. Even as his alcoholic rages grew more threatening, she would try to put his behaviour down to his experiences in prison. Plus, as Tully says, “There are good times, and you keep hoping it will last.”

In the end she escaped her husband’s attack only when he briefly fell asleep. It’s a dreadful tale that continues to affect Tully and her children. “Anyway, you’re standing,” Finucane can only conclude. That Tully can talk so frankly about her trauma is even more of a wonder.

Moment of the Week: O’Leary’s taxing column

In her regular political column for Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) Olivia O’Leary decries a magazine feature on expensive whiskeys, but her real ire is reserved for political promises to cut taxes. Warning against relying on “boom time taxes”, she chronicles practices that erode a “solid tax base”, from cutting property tax to plans to abolish the universal social charge. “Which would you rather?” she asks. “Tax cuts which allow some people to buy luxury bottles of whiskey, or tax levels which support decent services and ensure the river stays away from your door?” O’Leary’s column may be neither profitable nor even popular, but it’s brave.

radioreview@irishtimes.com

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