TV & RadioRadio review

Brendan O’Connor tries not to take sides, but fails to hide his feelings

RTÉ presenter is in combative mood over neutrality and comes alive when tempers flare

What with the only things certain in life being death and taxes, Brendan O’Connor (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday) has the big issues covered. The host oversees spirited exchanges on both subjects on his Sunday newspaper panel, but while his guests get exercised over the merits of tax giveaways and the ethics of assisted suicide, it’s nothing compared with the emotions raised by the topic of neutrality. Given what’s at stake, O’Connor tries not to take sides, though he doesn’t succeed in hiding his feelings.

The discussion on Ireland’s nonaligned status is spurred by the comments of President Michael D Higgins that a series of public forums on security policy represents a drift towards Nato. “He has eviscerated a Government policy on a front page,” is O’Connor’s tactful summation of the President’s intervention. Not everyone is so dismayed. Former senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell shares the President’s concerns about being drawn into military alliances, decrying the expansion of Nato. “You’d be one of these people who thinks the West provoked this war,” O’Connor responds, seemingly provocatively, except that O’Donnell agrees with the characterisation, while adding her desire for peace negotiations. Her host sounds exasperated – “So we shouldn’t be helping the Ukrainians defend against a huge invader?” – but rather than argue the point further, he moves the conversation on.

Less impressed with the presidential viewpoint are economist Dan O’Brien and security analyst Declan Power. The two regular contributors to the show criticise the President for overstepping his remit and misrepresenting the issues. O’Connor presses his guests on their views, albeit with less ardour than with O’Donnell: one might surmise that the host favours bolstering Ireland’s military capabilities in some form. “Is it not right that we think about defending ourselves and not rely on old agreements with the UK?” he asks.

“Everyone’s calmed down a bit, so let’s go again,” O’Connor chirps, before turning to the reliably cheering topic of assisted dying

A slightly fractious air emerges when talk turns to Fine Gael’s manoeuvring for tax cuts, a proposal dismissed by self-declared “dismalist” O’Brien: “The economy doesn’t need a stimulus, either additional spending or tax cuts.” O’Donnell, meanwhile, is annoyed by suggestions that the economy is booming, passionately highlighting the hardship of many less well-off families. O’Connor dons the blue beret – a role he’s surely unaccustomed to, being a veteran of the odd brouhaha himself – and takes an ad break before things boil over. “Everyone’s calmed down a bit, so let’s go again,” he chirps, before turning to the reliably cheering topic of assisted dying.


Unsurprisingly, there’s less rancour here, with O’Donnell making the case for valuing older people, poignantly remembering her sick father describing himself as a nuisance. It caps a memorable edition of the newspaper panel, with the host sounding positively euphoric at how it has turned out.

O’Connor is right to be upbeat, as the panel is the highlight of the weekend. One senses he has high hopes for his conversation with writer Mark O’Connell, author of a new book about double murderer Malcolm Macarthur, whose horrendous crimes prompted the politically seismic Gubu affair of 1982. But the item never quite catches fire.

O’Connell recounts how he persuaded Macarthur to talk, by describing himself as an essayist rather than a journalist. “You’re appealing to his intellectual vanity,” remarks O’Connor, sounding faintly miffed on behalf of the fourth estate. Things proceed in this vein, with the host sometimes sounding impatient at his guest’s hesitancy to neatly categorise Macarthur, and even uneasy: “Do you feel okay about dragging up this story again and focusing it on the murderer?”

It’s more an inconclusive ethical sparring match than a proxy Macarthur interview. Still, it gives some sense of O’Connor’s own moral compass when it comes to his role, when he asks if his guest liked his homicidal subject: “I know to some extent as a journalist, we do judge people on what they’re giving us,” O’Connor says. No wonder he comes alive when tempers flare.

Ciara Kelly certainly isn’t shy voicing her own opinions – indeed, it’s an integral part of the gig – but it would be helpful if she allowed others to give their take

The Michael D controversy continues to simmer on Monday’s Newstalk Breakfast (weekdays), where the tone is anything but neutral. Co-presenters Shane Coleman and Ciara Kelly, so often at loggerheads, declare a temporary detente to decry the President in unison. “I think it is a dangerous intervention,” says Coleman, who has a point about the perilous precedent of the head of State freely making pronouncements on policy. Kelly is maybe on shakier ground when she frames the President’s actions as an attempt to stifle debate. “Free speech is a pillar of democracy,” she says, lest anyone miss the point.

For all that, Kelly doesn’t always give others the chance to speak on the issue, cutting across former minister for transport Shane Ross – hardly a shrinking violet himself – as he tries to explain why he believes the President is entitled to comment. Kelly is having none of it. “I want him to do his job,” she interjects, though of course the nub of the matter is just what the job in the Áras entails. Kelly certainly isn’t shy voicing her own opinions – indeed, it’s an integral part of the gig – but it would be helpful if she allowed others to give their take.

By Wednesday, however, both presenters are conducting interviews that are thorough and enlightening. Coleman hears Minister for the Environment Eamon Ryan, sounding unusually lively, espouse Green Party values (and deftly dodge questions on Michael D), while Kelly grills Minister for Justice Helen McEntee about the new hate speech legislation. Asked why the proposed Bill doesn’t give a legal definition of hate speech, McEntee says that would narrow parameters for prosecution, adding the Garda and judiciary will understand what constitutes a crime. Kelly responds with a pertinent question: “What if the common citizen doesn’t understand?” Belatedly, McEntee says there will be clear outlines for freedom of expression, but it’s not a strong performance. Kelly may be partial towards strong views, but she’s better as a balanced interrogator.