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‘Is it a little bit of a dog whistle?’ Newstalk Breakfast hosts swap conversations for clickbait

Radio: Shane Coleman and Ciara Kelly half-heartedly stir the pot, while Kieran Cuddihy enjoys some senatorial skirmishing

Just as the word “journey” no longer means a physical trip between destinations but, rather, any experience, no matter how prosaic – “investment journey” is a personal favourite – so the phrase “start a conversation” seems to be changing, from signifying a benign chat to signifying the picking of a fight. That’s clearly the concern of Shane Coleman, on Newstalk Breakfast (weekdays), when he asks, “Do we need to have more conversations about immigration?” As he raises the question with Ciara Kelly, his copresenter, Coleman admits to worrying that discussions on the reliably contentious issue are usually framed negatively: “When some people call for it, is it a little bit of a dog whistle?”

Undeterred by his own concerns, Coleman initiates a debate on the topic between the conservative commentator John McGuirk, whose number seems to be on speed dial for producers in need of an immigration sceptic, and the former Barnardos chief executive Fergus Finlay – no slouch either when it comes to expounding on the airwaves. Sure enough, the argument divides on expected lines, with McGuirk carping that people are now seeking asylum because of discrimination rather than persecution – a fine line, to be sure – while Finlay says that, with one in six people here now foreign-born, “it’s something to be proud of”.

It’s less a dialogue than two people talking at one another, particularly as Coleman speaks to his guests separately rather than let them converse with each other. It’s hard to escape the suspicion that it’s more clickbait than considered analysis, particularly as the segment is ostensibly predicated by an anti-immigration speech by Suella Braverman, the UK home secretary – hardly newsworthy from a politician whose career is based on vilifying refugees. What next, a debate on EU membership because Nigel Farage has badmouthed Brussels? Coleman, usually a composed and articulate presence, sounds unsure how to pitch the discussion. Not really surprising, given his earlier opinion that “immigration has been a real boon for this country”.

At least immigration is a serious real-world issue. The two presenters also devote precious airtime to the controversy-on-a-string surrounding Ireland rugby fans singing the Cranberries song Zombie after the win over South Africa. Following a kerfuffle on social media – again, not exactly a black-swan event – Coleman speaks to the comedian Tadhg Hickey, who objects to the song as “partitionist” while emphasising that people can sing what they want.


On Wednesday, Coleman returns to the topic with Colin Parry, whose son Tim was killed in the IRA bombing of Warrington in 1993 that inspired the song’s anti-violence lyrics. Parry sounds by turns perplexed and baffled that it should be a problem. When Kelly later brings up the matter with Tánaiste Micheál Martin, it’s hard to disagree with the Minister’s verdict: “Absurd.” With nobody really worked up about the subject, it seems like a halfhearted stirring of the pot when there are more important – or at least entertaining – topics to talk about.

The skirmishing comes to a head when Mullen thanks the host for the opportunity to call out Brolly. “Well, you threatened to sue us if we didn’t,” Cuddihy scoffs

Things are more heated on Tuesday’s edition of The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays) as Kieran Cuddihy, its presenter, swaps tetchy exchanges with Senator Rónán Mullen about comments previously made by the pundit Joe Brolly. Mullen claims that Brolly, speaking after far-right protests outside the Dáil, attacked his reputation by implying that he and other Senators “were giving cover for some very nasty people” in opposing hate-speech legislation. He also complains that Cuddihy didn’t grill Brolly in the same way he was being pressed, prompting the host to call his guest thin-skinned. When the Senator characterises Brolly as having a mean side, Cuddihy is incredulous: “This is a funny way to occupy the moral high ground.”

The skirmishing comes to a head when Mullen thanks the host for the opportunity to call out Brolly. “Well, you threatened to sue us if we didn’t,” Cuddihy scoffs. (“I said this raises legal issues,” Mullen replies.) For all that, the presenter sounds almost giddy by the end, promising Mullen he’ll have him back as a guest. For good reason: their encounter certainly grabs the attention.

It caps a good month for Cuddihy in terms of memorable items. So sensational was his interview with Seán Quinn that a Garda investigation was launched into the former billionaire’s comments to the effect that he’d rather see two former Quinn Group executives beaten up than Kevin Lunney, who was kidnapped and savagely tortured in 2019. (Quinn also condemned all forms of violence numerous times during the interview.) Despite his good-natured persona, Cuddihy’s chats aren’t always amiable.

Continental Riffs is probably best characterised as slow radio, a pleasingly meandering conversation that gently washes over the curious listener

Listeners in search of more soothingly restorative fare might check out Continental Riffs (RTÉ Radio 1, Sunday), which could equally have been called Conversations with Friends had Sally Rooney not taken the title already. The series is simple in concept, if more mercurial in practice. Two creative figures, usually acquaintances, talk to each other about journeys real and metaphorical, recalling personal experiences of Europe and considering the continent “through a cultural lens”. This might sound portentous, but thankfully an informal air reigns: earlier episodes have featured the actor Cillian Murphy ruefully recounting how he lost his passport while hitchhiking through France.

That said, the content is undeniably rarefied at times. The most recent programme has the choreographer Fearghus Ó Conchúir and Nora Hickey M’Sichili, director of the Irish Cultural Centre in Paris, recalling how early forays into Europe helped shape their personal and professional lives. In common with previous editions, there are fond reminiscences about studying at various European institutions. But these memories are melded with broader cultural and social brushstrokes, the discussion touching on everything from geography and language to sexuality. Again, this could be cerebral or even smug, but the easy-going yet quietly stimulating chemistry between the two friends lends an appealing ambience. It’s probably best characterised as slow radio, a pleasingly meandering conversation that gently washes over the curious listener. Sometimes there’s no need to argue, as The Cranberries once observed.