Sean O'Rourke recreates past battles for referendum phoney war

Presenter’s attempt at sparking divorce debate allows for rigorous, if alarming, critique of contemporary society

There's a trusty adage about warfare which holds that generals always fight the last war rather than the next one. Whatever about military campaigns, it's an approach that's been adopted in regard to constitutional ones on Today with Sean O'Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). With the forthcoming divorce referendum producing few fireworks, O'Rourke attempts to conjure up the whiff of cordite by recreating the close-fought battles of the previous constitutional poll on the issue.

On Tuesday, O'Rourke discusses the referendum on easing time restrictions for divorce with family law solicitor Marion Campbell and Caitríona Lynch, described by the host in faintly belittling terms as "somebody who campaigned against divorce in 1995".

Opposing views thus primed, O’Rourke lets his guests go at each other, but the results appear disappointingly polite. Lynch starts her pitch by thanking Campbell for laying out her arguments for lessening divorce time limits, adding that “this is just a little skirmish in the bushes now, for me the war was lost 20 years ago”.


This apparently conciliatory tone momentarily threatens to dash any on-air conflict. But Lynch clearly remains dubious about the outcome of the 1995 referendum. “I thought it might be interesting for someone who was in that war to look at the mortality rate and the injuries caused by that war,” she says, continuing the martial theme with gusto.


What follows is not so much a debate as a conversation at cross purposes, marked by Lynch’s rebuttal of contemporary mores in favour of a more rigorously conservative vision. When Campbell says that children should not be forced to stay in toxic relationships, Lynch agrees, revealing she was raised by her mother after her parents’ marriage broke down. The problem arises for Lynch after divorce and remarriage, which introduce other relationships into the equation.

“For me personally, my father was always my father, he was always my mother’s husband,” she says. By not divorcing, Lynch’s parents understood “there was someone more important than them”. She concludes that “the casualties that are there when we have a society based on 100 per cent lifelong commitment to marriage are far less than we are having now”. By plumping for divorce, Ireland settled for “a different, worse life”, though the notion that the 1970s and 1980s represented better times will surprise many who lived through them.

It’s certainly bracing to hear such deeply-held beliefs delivered with conviction and sincerity, no matter that at times it sounds less like a constitutional debate than something from The Handmaid’s Tale. Even O’Rourke seems taken aback by the strength of Lynch’s opinions, sheepishly asking if her parents might have been happier had they been able to remarry. As for Campbell, she comes across as sensible and efficient but less memorable. After all, it’s not unusual to hear such voices of reasoned compassion on the airwaves.

The conversation ends on a deceptive note of resignation: even as Lynch rues the fact that “the war is over”, she doesn’t sound like she’s given up the fight. As for O’Rourke, he allows the space for an intriguing and challenging viewpoint to be aired.


Elsewhere, Marian Finucane (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday) secures a scoop by interviewing Michelle Ryan, daughter of the late Bobby Ryan, in the light of the conviction of Patrick Quirke for his murder. Finucane frames the item in altruistic terms, saying that after the attention given to Quirke during his trial, she wants to hear about the victim. The tone is fond, as Michelle paints an affectionate and even upbeat portrait of her father, but it's also a necessary piece of redress. For listeners who know Bobby as "Mr Moonlight" from news reports, Michelle's memories are a reminder that he was a person rather than just a nickname.

That said, Michelle sounds happy to recall her father’s part-time gig as a DJ, even talking about her own forays into music with him. But the warm anecdotes only add to the air of foreboding and dread. She remembers the “sickening feeling” during the frantic days after Bobby’s disappearance, and how she hugged the coffin when his body was discovered 22 months later. Above all, Michelle illuminates what Finucane calls the “collateral damage” of such crimes, be it trying to shield her children from news about their late grandfather or having to move from her native Tipperary after Bobby’s death: “It got too hard.”

Throughout, Finucane is at her most sympathetic, deferring to her guest when she wants things to remain private, adding to the human interest by asking about family and finally ramping up the occasion by asking about Quirke: “Do you hate him?” Michelle avoids that term – “a very strong word” – but admits she will “never ever ever ever forgive that man for taking our world away from us”. The interview manages to highlight the tragedy and cruelty of Michelle’s loss without being voyeuristic or prurient. That alone is something of a coup.

Finucane is altogether looser when she talks to broadcaster and academic Emma Dabiri about her early life as a black girl in Ireland, with particular attention to her hair: she has just published a book on the subject. The interview has car crash potential, with the host occasionally sounding a note of matronly misapprehension. "You were made, you said, made feel different," she says, as if doubting her guest's testimony.

It ends up being an engaging and informative encounter, however. Dabiri talks about the cultural resonances and practical care of “black hair”, while the presenter harks back to the black power movement of the 1960s, an implicit reminder of her own efforts as a trailblazing woman on radio herself. But on this showing, Finucane is no old general: she’s aware of current struggles as well as past ones.

Radio Moment of the Week: Yates gets wired

As presenter of The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays), Ivan Yates is a serial soapbox hogger. But there's real outrage in his voice on Wednesday, after the "explosive" revelations that the Government is pressing ahead with its €3 billion rural broadband project despite the advice of a top civil servant. Yates uses his experience as a former minister to skewer the "flawed process" in meticulous but relentless fashion.

“This is a vanity project and the Government should be stopped in its tracks,” he concludes. “They’ve got themselves impaled on a hook of credibility.” Twisty metaphors aside, Yates’s straight talking hits the target.