‘What a way to start’: Claire Byrne puts Micheál Martin through the wringer

The presenter’s interview with Taoiseach sets tone as she takes over Today show on RTÉ Radio 1

In a week when nothing is going right for the Government, things couldn't have worked out better for Claire Byrne. As she makes her debut as host of RTÉ Radio 1's flagship magazine show (Today with Claire Byrne, weekdays), the presenter not only has the biggest political scandal in years to get stuck into, but also a juicy target to aim at, in the form of her inaugural guest, Micheál Martin. As Byrne remarks as she begins her interview, "What a way to start". It all but guarantees that her tenure opens on a high, and seasoned current affairs broadcaster that she is, Byrne duly puts the Taoiseach through the wringer about the Oireachtas Golf Society debacle.

Inasmuch as there’s a problem, it’s that Byrne saved the best for first. As the fallout from the infamous golf get-together in Clifden evolves from storm in a tee cup to category five political hurricane, the presenter’s coverage of the issue is typically thorough, but somehow is less engrossing. Her encounter with Martin only highlights that her subsequent guests, be they pundits or Opposition politicians, are mere observers to the unfolding events. The affair also overshadows other items, even crucial ones such as the reopening of schools.

All this is of course beyond Byrne's control, though it wrecks any early chance of displaying her range beyond her established pedigree. Still, there are many positives to her performance, starting with the Taoiseach's interview. With Phil Hogan still defiantly hanging on to his job on Monday, Byrne gets straight to the point, asking if he should quit as EU commissioner. Martin tortuously equivocates, tut-tutting about Hogan's behaviour without calling for his resignation.

Faced with sophistry that would make a Jesuit blush, Byrne tries to force the Taoiseach’s hand with blunter assessments (“He’s good at his job but he’s embarrassed you”) but can’t get a concrete answer. Martin is similarly reluctant to condemn Supreme Court Justice Séamus Woulfe’s presence at the same function, albeit for more constitutionally sound reasons: government interference in the judiciary is a “slippery slope”, he says. To which Byrne replies, “Where’s the separation of powers in Clifden?” It’s a proper zinger, which leaves Martin floundering momentarily. More of this and Byrne will have no bother in her new role.

Her conversations with other political figures are conducted with rigour, but don’t have the same spark. Even when Byrne suggests to Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald that she’s on thin ice criticising Hogan, given the crowds at the funeral of IRA man Bobby Storey, the tone doesn’t get heated, which underlines the professionalism of guest as much as host.

When the conversation moves from hot topics, Byrne sounds a more relaxed note. Whether discussing the intrigue surrounding Spain’s former king Juan Carlos (“I have to confess I’ve been obsessed with this story”) or lockdown DIY projects (“I make a mess of all those things”), the host comes across as affable yet engaged, a side she wasn’t always able to show as anchor of News at One. It hints at a wider-ranging appeal Byrne can hopefully bring to her current affairs chops, particularly when – if – some kind of post-Covid normality takes hold. After all, her predecessor Sean O’Rourke’s transition from newsman to daytime radio star was an unlikely success, notwithstanding the self-immolation of his reputation after he too was caught dining at the fateful golf event. Byrne has plenty of opportunity to settle into her sinecure: for now, asking the right questions will do nicely.

But the unbridled public fury voiced on Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) captures the public mood more than any forensic quizzing. With each passing revelation about "Golfgate", presenter Katie Hannon hears caller after caller express their anger. But instead of breaking out the metaphorical pitchforks for the restive mob – something Joe Duffy isn't above doing if it adds to on-air impact – Hannon deftly harnesses emotions into something more powerful.

In resigning, Hogan may have characterised his actions as a “distraction”, but as Liveline makes clear, people see the Clifden dinner as a fundamental breach of trust by those in power. This point is starkly hammered home by callers such as Sheila, unable to attend her brother’s funeral due to Covid restrictions on numbers: unsurprisingly, she is seething as well as grieving.

There’s also firsthand testimony about the Clifden shindig, though as Hannon pointedly remarks, not from any of the public figures in attendance. Instead, she hears from Cormac, who was on holiday with his family in the same hotel. Cormac’s tone is measured, his eye for detail more effective than vocal expressions of outrage.

After reading the golf dinner’s table plan, he realised too many guests were attending the function. “Anyone with an ounce of sense would have backed away,” Cormac says. Even more damning is his recollection of the behaviour of some Oireachtas golfers. “What really maddened me was the fact that they were in and out of the reception area with no masks, a law unto themselves,” he remarks. Hannon clearly appreciates her guest’s keen powers of observation: “You’re a great man to have on the ground.”

Hannon, who is due to helm a new Saturday show, is a good woman to have on hand as substitute Liveline host. She has an easy presence and is sympathetic, warm or jocular as required. But as a formidable journalist, she knows when to turn up the heat. Talking to retired judge Michael Patwell about the tenability of Justice Woulfe’s position, she discusses whether the judiciary should socialise with politicians. Patwell, for his part, thinks Woulfe should consider his position but candidly admits that he himself might have “tried to brave it out”. Hannon listens indulgently, before wielding the knife.

“Didn’t they used to call you Padlock Patwell?” she asks, while wondering if her guest is “willing to give one of your own a pass on this”. It’s a fitting sentence for the week that’s in it: harsh but fair.

Radio Moment of the Week: Marty parks Van
To mark Van Morrison's impending 75th birthday, Marty in the Morning (Lyric, weekdays) plays his songs all week. But as Whelan acknowledges, it's perhaps not the best time to celebrate the cantankerous singer. On Tuesday, Whelan regretfully reports that Morrison has "denounced the pseudoscience around coronavirus", aiming to restore concerts with full audiences. "Ah Van, how are you going to do that?" a bemused Whelan asks. He also mentions musician and conspiracy theorist Jim Corr, another coronavirus science sceptic, before delivering his own rueful verdict. "Everybody has their opinions, but lads, really, socially distancing is important." It's a rare topical utterance from the presenter, but a welcome one. As Van stalls Marty is free Whelan.