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Claire Byrne, now free of TV, delivers deft radio

Radio review: When a prime time RTÉ slot becomes vacant, Katie Hannon is ready for it

As regular listeners to Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) will know, there are few things that Cormac Ó hEadhra enjoys more than asking awkward questions. So, on Tuesday, it’s somewhat perplexing to hear Ó hEadhra complaining about people who throw gratuitous curveballs at hapless interviewees, or as he puts it, “Some donkey asking a question that makes no sense”. On the face of things, for the gleefully belligerent host to gripe about queries being too tough seems akin to a glasshouse-dwelling pot chucking stones at a kettle while berating it for being charred.

But Ó hEadhra isn’t criticising his broadcasting peers for discomfiting public figures, rather he’s irritated at people who pepper job candidates with trick questions, such as how many golf balls can fit in a school bus. “It’s pure nonsense, isn’t it?” he remarks to human resources consultant Caroline Reidy during the show’s item on gratuitously difficult job interviews. He goes on to muse if the best response would be “a smart-alec answer or a bit of humour”.

Well now, one can only imagine the scornful reaction if a guest attempted such tactics when grilled by Ó hEadhra or indeed Sarah McInerney, his equally tenacious co-presenter. Some indication comes when Ó hEadhra covers the government’s decision to put the military on standby to provide security cover at Dublin airport. Here, his question isn’t so much whether the army should be sent in, but whether soldiers actually want to be there. The answer is a qualified yes. “We’re going to step up, we always do,” says Conor King of the Representative Association of Commissioned Officers, who, nonetheless, decries the move as another example of the hard-pressed defence forces being used as emergency cover for shortfalls elsewhere.

The host puts this thesis to Kevin Cullinane of Dublin Airport Authority (DAA), albeit in more colourful terms. “You’re looking for highly trained people, but treating them as yellow-pack workers,” Ó hEadhra says, asking whether any army personnel would be paid the same as airport staff. When Cullinane responds that DAA will reimburse the defence forces, the host chides him. “Not the question, Kevin,” he sighs. “Would you pay them equally? It’s quite simple.”

Cullinane clarifies that soldiers would receive army rates of pay. He’s thanked by the host for giving an “absolutely clear” answer, even though – or perhaps because – it doesn’t present DAA in great light. His host wonders whether, having let many workers go during lockdown only to rehire people at less pay, the airport body is “trying to avail of what is essentially cheaper labour”. Cullinane denies this, but the exchange crystallises the interlocking problems of staff shortages, low wages and wider structural deficiencies. Ó hEadhra’s questions may be straightforward, but his guests don’t always enjoy being asked them.

The issue is revisited on Tuesday night’s edition of the Late Debate (RTÉ Radio 1, Tuesday-Thursday), even if Katie Hannon doesn’t sound thrilled at the prospect: “God knows the entrails of this have been picked over,” she ruefully observes. Even so, Hannon approaches the topic in customary fashion, bringing her sprightly humour and keenly inquisitive sensibility to bear on Fine Gael TD Alan Farrell. “It was a mad idea a few weeks ago, why is it a good idea now?” she asks, a slightly wicked lilt in her voice.

A gratifyingly lucid discussion follows, with Hannon’s political and media contributors all making good points, the most salient takeaway being the degradation of the defence forces in terms of both capability and morale. As Social Democrat TD Gary Gannon puts it, military personnel feel “their role is not valued in the eyes of the State”.

It’s a good example of Hannon’s talent for marshalling her panel into interesting conversation. The show’s nocturnal setting can make for a looser atmosphere, but the host ensures her guests don’t stray too far off topic, nor engage in excessive partisan sniping. Not that Hannon tamps down on charged exchanges. Indeed she sounds pretty exercised when talking about Minister for State Josepha Madigan’s controversial naming of four schools allegedly unwilling to open classes for children with special needs: hardly surprising, as Madigan named the schools on Hannon’s Saturday afternoon current affairs show on Radio 1.

The specifics aside, it all serves to underscore the host’s current buoyant presence on the station, her profile boosted not only by two stimulating programmes of her own but also her recent extended stint on Liveline. If any prime time slots were to come free on Radio 1, Hannon surely should be waiting in the wings.

Following her unexpected decision to quit her television show, Claire Byrne is for her part now able to concentrate more fully on her wireless gig (Today, RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays). Byrne mightn’t be a swashbuckling broadcaster, but her earnest persona brings the necessary heft to her items on the war in Ukraine, a topic in danger of being relegated to the peripheries of the airwaves despite the ongoing carnage.

The continued bloodshed is highlighted by her interview with British journalist John Sweeney, who provides an on-the-spot report from the shopping centre in Kremenchuk destroyed by a Russian missile strike, killing multiple civilians. Sweeney’s stark account is complemented by Byrne’s compelling conversation with Stanislav Lapko, who has just returned from combat duty in his native Ukraine, having left his Louth home to fight when Russia invaded.

Lapko talks frankly about the impact on his family – his wife never fully accepted his decision – and coolly recounts the street-to-street fighting he saw. Most striking are his accounts of captured Russian soldiers (“they looked really scared”) and his admission that though he’s now safely home, “my mind and my body are missing the adrenalin”.

Byrne deftly draws out the story, whether empathising with Lapko’s wife or inquiring after his own feelings about Russian prisoners. She also sounds relieved to hear that, for the moment, Lapko is to remain in Ireland, providing help from here. After such ground-level testimony, Byrne knows how grim the consequences of sending in the army can really be.

Radio Moment of the Week

Always one for icky subjects, on Wednesday Sean Moncrieff (Newstalk, weekdays) discusses the mechanics of unblocking toilets with Barry Benson of Dyno-Rod. It’s a conversation that’s both quirkily informative – most home blockages are caused by wet wipes or grease – and unimaginably yucky: Benson breezily recounts searching for an engagement ring in a septic tank, up to his waist in sewage. There are other hazards, such as the live grenade recently found in Cork, necessitating the bomb disposal unit to carry out a controlled explosion. “All the risk assessment in the world wouldn’t prepare you for that,” Benson chuckles. Hearing this, Moncrieff can’t help himself. “The s**t literally would have hit the fan,” he says giddily, clearly flush with success at his gag.