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Newstalk Breakfast duo preside over fractious debate as Shane MacGowan’s widow shares fond memories on RTÉ

Radio: Fault lines trump fairy tales as Newstalk Breakfast duo do their own thing

Ciara Kelly and Shane Coleman may have forged a zingy professional partnership over the years but, like any double act, the hosts of Newstalk Breakfast (weekdays) like to spend time doing their own thing too. For Kelly this means solo socialising, such as having a pint by herself, suggesting she’s as comfortable in her own company in private as she is confident in her opinions when on air. Coleman, on the other hand, likes to watch second World War documentaries.

“That’s my favourite thing,” he tells listeners on Wednesday, particularly commending a series on the rise and fall of the Third Reich as “perfect me time”. This might sound slightly disconcerting coming from a fastidious common-sense centrist such as Coleman, particularly in this period of festive cheer. But, then again, any story that ends with the defeat of the far right counts as heartwarming these days.

The prospect of anything similar happening in Ireland any time soon seems more like a fairy tale. Instead, Coleman and Kelly’s coverage of Sinn Féin’s (ultimately defeated) no-confidence vote in Minister for Justice Helen McEntee highlights the bitter political fault lines in the aftermath of last month’s riots in Dublin. Indeed, the Breakfast duo are at odds on the subject themselves, albeit civilly. Coleman dubs the no-confidence vote a waste of time – “Sinn Féin is playing politics” – while Kelly, a self-described law-and-order type, can understand the reasoning behind the motion. “I don’t have a resounding feeling of confidence in Helen McEntee,” she says, almost regretfully.

One thing the pair agree on is that the whole affair will result in what Kelly calls “Punch and Judy politics”, a prediction proven accurate by the subsequent debate between the Sinn Féin TD Martin Kenny and the Fine Gael Minister of State Patrick O’Donovan. Kenny takes the first swing, claiming that people don’t feel safe on the streets and that McEntee should have foreseen unrest when far-right agitators exploited the appalling stabbing incident two weeks ago.


O’Donovan, a bellicose media performer, in turn accuses Sinn Féin of showboating, before inevitably highlighting the party’s historical support for the IRA. “We don’t need to take any lectures from Sinn Féin on their newfound interest in the guards,” O’Donovan scoffs while sounding suspiciously like someone trying to distract from the matter at hand. It’s an unedifying contretemps, which Coleman gamely tries to steer in a less fractious direction: he sounds nonplussed amid such conflict, his taste in documentaries notwithstanding.

One suspects the no-confidence vote might have had a different outcome had it been up to the callers on Tuesday’s Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), who queue up to share tales of lawlessness on unpoliced Dublin streets. Joe Duffy talks to Margaret about a shocking attack she saw on Moore Street: a security guard was allegedly punched in the face and kicked in the stomach, his attacker threatening anyone trying to intervene. “I was very shook,” says the otherwise phlegmatic Margaret, who is no stranger to urban grit, having worked in the city centre for years.

During a subsequent walk around the O’Connell Street area, Margaret is equally disturbed by the lack of gardaí, “especially in light of what happened two weeks ago”. She’s not the only one. A succession of callers attest to not seeing a Garda presence in the north inner city. “It’s changed how I feel about Dublin,” says another guest. “I don’t feel safe.”

It would be wrong to say that Duffy is happy as he listens to these dispiriting snapshots of a tense capital, but he’s certainly in his element. In recent months the host has, at times, almost sounded on autopilot, or at least less committed than he once was. But here Duffy is doing what he does best: convening a town square on the airwaves where people can bear collective witness and help shape a broader narrative on contentious topics. (That said, he doesn’t brook all viewpoints with equanimity: when one caller suggests the Government is presiding over a totalitarian state, Duffy is palpably angry at the notion.)

While not as searing as the testimony that followed reports on institutional abuse, Liveline’s accounts of patchy policing and looming menace capture the nervous public mood more succinctly than any ostensibly reassuring statistics about crime being less pervasive than it seems. “There’s too many stories,” Duffy says bluntly. The next day it’s back to niggling arguments about reducing energy bills, but there are still times when Liveline matters.

It’s perhaps indicative of our melancholy times that the week’s most uplifting radio comes when Brendan O’Connor (RTÉ Radio 1, Saturday and Sunday) interviews the newly widowed Victoria Mary Clarke about the late Shane MacGowan. Despite her husband having died only two days previously, Clarke is almost joyful in manner, though her undertow of grief is ever-present, as she when recalls MacGowan’s final days: “He wasn’t ready to give up, but his body did it for him.”

Clarke also talks about happier times, from their first meetings in grimy 1980s London and their visits to northern soul clubs – MacGowan was a nifty dancer (as this writer once witnessed in his DJ days) – to their suitably anarchic trips to Thailand and Spain. Even the couple’s later years, when MacGowan used a wheelchair, are evoked fondly: “We didn’t really do much, but we were very happy.”

Throughout, O’Connor is a supportive host – Clarke thanks him for giving her a lift in – but wry too. “I thought he didn’t have a lot of time for me,” the host says about MacGowan, chuckling. Although she has just been bereaved, Clarke remembers her years with MacGowan in a philosophical spirit of celebration rather than sadness: “You can feel a tremendous amount of love still, without that person being there.” It’s a remarkable encounter, a bittersweet but welcome fairy tale for a season when goodwill appears thin on the ground.