Be­yond the po­lit­i­cal spec­trum

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - RADIO - Mick Heaney

Ray D’Arcy hears damn­ing re­but­tals of Cather­ine Noone’s autism com­ments, while Ciara Kelly ties her­self in knots try­ing to make a point

If you’re ex­plain­ing, you’re los­ing, ac­cord­ing to the old po­lit­i­cal adage. To which one could add the corol­lary: if you’re be­ing dis­cussed on an af­ter­noon ra­dio chat show, you’re in ab­ject rout. That’s at least judg­ing by the on-air re­ac­tion to the week’s big elec­tion talk­ing point, Cather­ine Noone call­ing Taoiseach Leo Varad­kar “autis­tic” dur­ing an elec­tion can­vass in Dublin. When a pro­gramme as ge­nially in­of­fen­sive as The Ray D’Arcy Show (RTÉ Ra­dio 1, week­days) finds room for an elec­tion story along­side more cus­tom­ary items on DIY re­al­ity shows, you can be sure that some­where a party spin doc­tor is spew­ing pro­fan­i­ties at hap­less un­der­lings.

Omi­nously for the em­bat­tled Fine Gael elec­tion can­di­date, D’Arcy opens his show by read­ing an in­can­des­cent email from the par­ent of an autis­tic child. He then talks to au­thor and il­lus­tra­tor Aoife Doo­ley. Di­ag­nosed with autism in 2018, she is as af­fa­bly open in her con­ver­sa­tion as she is qui­etly damn­ing in her ver­dict. Doo­ley says she wasn’t that sur­prised at Noone’s com­ments, as many people are “un­e­d­u­cated” about the con­di­tion. Be­fore her own di­ag­no­sis, she re­calls, “I hadn’t a clue what autism was my­self”.

But amid the chatty rap­port, Doo­ley makes her points with low-key lethal­ity. She sug­gests that as a pub­lic fig­ure, the Sen­a­tor should have known not to use such sen­si­tive terms. “I’ve got the in­tel­li­gence not to talk about cer­tain things that I don’t know about,” she says. As for the Taoiseach’s as­ser­tion that he was happy with Noone’s apol­ogy, she is equally dis­mis­sive. “Of course it’s good enough for him, he’s never had to deal with the kind of things some­one on the spec­trum has.”

The con­ver­sa­tion is all the more ef­fec­tive for the in­for­mal man­ner in which it’s con­ducted. Even when she’s re­count­ing down­beat ex­pe­ri­ences as a per­son with autism, from un­help­ful trans­port of­fi­cials to people call­ing her “vac­cine-dam­aged”, Doo­ley’s tone is one of be­mused tol­er­ance rather than pathos or anger, lend­ing her anal­y­sis even more power. It’s no co­in­ci­dence that D’Arcy, with his well-bur­nished ev­ery­man per­sona, hosts such a telling con­tri­bu­tion: it’s hard to imag­ine the likes of his RTÉ col­leagues Sean O’Rourke or Mary Wil­son con­duct­ing such an in­ter­view. Ei­ther way, the item sug­gests it’s time to up­date an­other maxim, namely the late US politi­cian Tip O’Neill’s much-quoted line about all pol­i­tics be­ing lo­cal: th­ese days, it’s per­sonal.

A dif­fi­cult trick

Noone’s re­marks are also dis­cussed on

(New­stalk, week­days), as host Ciara Kelly at­tempts the dif­fi­cult trick of stir­ring up con­tro­versy with­out of­fend­ing any­one – with in­evitably mud­dled re­sults. Kelly says that while the com­ments may be crass, she fre­quently hears people be­ing de­scribed as “autis­tic” in pri­vate con­ver­sa­tions. She muses whether people are sick of hav­ing to say one thing in pri­vate and an­other in pub­lic, then won­ders if – wait for it – there’s a back­lash against “the po­lit­i­cally cor­rect”, a ques­tion that sug­gests she should lis­ten to her own sta­tion now and again.

“Is it a big deal?” she asks her lis­ten­ers. “Or are we mak­ing big deals about things that are not quite the big deals they would seem?”

If the en­su­ing calls are any in­di­ca­tion, it’s a pretty big deal. “I’m ab­so­lutely fu­ri­ous,” says Sam, the mother of an autis­tic child, who makes her ar­gu­ments with calm ef­fi­ciency de­spite her anger. She skew­ers Noone’s com­ments as dan­ger­ously flip­pant (“It negates how se­ri­ous the is­sue is”), par­tic­u­larly in light of in­ad­e­quate State sup­ports for people with the con­di­tion: “Maybe people wouldn’t be as out­raged if we had sup­port.”

As with D’Arcy’s show, hear­ing such clearly voiced fury and frus­tra­tion in an os­ten­si­bly non-po­lit­i­cal set­ting em­pha­sises why Noone’s blun­der touched such a nerve.

For her part, the New­stalk pre­sen­ter sounds un­com­fort­able at push­ing back against such jus­ti­fi­able ire just to gen­er­ate some on-air fric­tion. As she airs the old re­frain about people get­ting out­raged too eas­ily, she de­fends her­self: “Don’t kill me, I’m just ask­ing the ques­tion.” Wrap­ping up the dis­cus­sion, Kelly doesn’t so much tread a care­ful path as lose her way com­pletely. “No one is sug­gest­ing, nor do I think they should, that an Taoiseach has any traits of autism,” Kelly says, sound­ing more uncer­tain with ev­ery clause. “Isn’t that why people are of­fended by this; that they don’t like that slur or in­fer­ence be­ing made, not that be­ing autis­tic is a slur.”

To her credit, Kelly re­alises how con­vo­luted this all sounds. “I’m ty­ing my­self in knots,” she con­cludes rue­fully. What was that line about ex­plain­ing again?

The irony is that on the same pro­gramme Kelly hears a spir­ited case in favour of clear, prop­erly ar­tic­u­lated lan­guage. Af­ter a sur­vey finds that one-third of Leav­ing Cert stu­dents think English shouldn’t be com­pul­sory – let’s face it, the same pro­por­tion prob­a­bly think school in gen­eral shouldn’t be manda­tory ei­ther – Kelly talks to jour­nal­ist Lise Hand, who ro­bustly de­fends the sub­ject.

Hand calls English “the bedrock upon which you build ev­ery­thing”, from com­mu­ni­ca­tion skills and crit­i­cal think­ing to de­ci­sion-mak­ing and “the sheer plea­sure of read­ing”. She also says that the sub­ject builds em­pa­thy, by in­tro­duc­ing pupils to books they wouldn’t oth­er­wise en­counter, us­ing boys read­ing The Hand­maid’s Tale as an ex­am­ple: “If it’s put in front of them as part of school cur­ricu­lum, they have no choice.” (One could of course say much the same thing about Ir­ish, though the em­pa­thetic ef­fects of read­ing Peig re­main un­clear to some.)

As she later tells her au­di­ence, Kelly firmly shares Hand’s be­liefs. But ever the would-be con­trar­ian, the host won­ders whether gram­mar and spell­ing – “that old-school stuff that was half beaten into us” – are still rel­e­vant in the era of text-speak. Hand un­hesi­tat­ingly af­firms it is. “If you can con­struct a sen­tence, you can con­struct an ar­gu­ment,” she says. As a clinch­ing state­ment, it’s clear, in­tel­li­gent, un­am­bigu­ous. A politi­cian would be proud.


New­stalk’s Ciara Kelly.

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