A late surge from the mav­er­icks

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

Pat Kenny has been out of step with the mood of change, but shows he can still de­liver ab­sorb­ing in­ter­views

It’s the theme of the elec­tion: out­stripped by a dis­rup­tive in­sur­gent with a pop­ulist touch, the fal­ter­ing es­tab­lish­ment in­cum­bent searches through his op­po­nent’s murky past to un­cover in­crim­i­nat­ing se­crets. Sure enough, with polling day im­mi­nent, it hap­pens: Pat Kenny comes up with em­bar­rass­ing ma­te­rial on Ivan Yates, the rab­ble-rous­ing up­start who has dis­placed him as top dog on New­stalk.

On Tues­day’s edi­tion of The Pat Kenny Show (New­stalk, week­days), re­porter Seán De­foe trawls through au­dio ar­chives from pre­vi­ous elec­tions, un­cov­er­ing a clip from 1981 fea­tur­ing a youth­ful-sound­ing Yates, then a newly elected TD, talk­ing about his “hon­our and priv­i­lege” to serve in the Dáil. Af­ter lis­ten­ing to his col­league in such un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally mod­est form, Kenny can’t re­sist a dig. “Ivan Yates, such a hum­ble coun­try TD,” he chuck­les. “What on earth went wrong?”

It’s only friendly rib­bing, of course, but the same ques­tion could be asked about Kenny’s per­for­mance dur­ing the elec­tion. Com­pared to his stiffly brainy style, Yates’s scorched-earth ap­proach seems more in tune with the restive public mood. Kenny’s in­ter­views with the likes of Min­is­ter for Hous­ing Eoghan Mur­phy have been cer­tainly thor­ough, but haven’t pro­duced many fire­works.

Re­quir­ing a late cam­paign surge, Kenny fi­nally brings out the big guns and gets the mem­o­rable po­lit­i­cal in­ter­views he needs. He also talks to Leo Varad­kar. But while his en­counter with the Taoiseach has its re­veal­ing mo­ments, it’s far less ab­sorb­ing than his con­ver­sa­tions with two po­lit­i­cal mav­er­icks, in­de­pen­dent TD Michael Healy-Rae and Sen­a­tor David Nor­ris.

The pre­sen­ter talks to Healy-Rae af­ter a poll sug­gests a drop in sup­port for him and his TD brother, Danny, in their Kerry con­stituency. Kenny sug­gests that Danny in par­tic­u­lar could be in jeop­ardy, as there is less “gravy” in the form of vote trans­fers from Michael. What­ever about the po­lit­i­cal ram­i­fi­ca­tions of this pos­si­ble re­sult, it would be a catas­tro­phe for ra­dio pro­duc­ers, who have long re­lied on Danny’s sin­gu­lar pres­ence and ec­cen­tric opin­ions to liven up slow shows.

Kenny won­ders whether Danny’s views on cli­mate change and drink-driv­ing – tact­fully de­scribed by the host as “Ne­an­derthal” – are los­ing votes, but Michael is hope­ful that their elec­toral strat­egy will work. “We carved up the con­stituency in a very thought­ful way,” he says, not at all sin­is­terly. He then switches from mafia capo slang to sales­man’s pat­ter: “We like to think we of­fer a full and com­plete ser­vice to the peo­ple of Kerry.”

For all the spiel, he notes that his fam­ily’s de­fi­ant “us-ver­sus-them” at­ti­tude isn’t with­out foun­da­tion. “We’ve been ridiculed over and over again,” he says. And while he re­marks that his fam­ily “go very hard at pol­i­tics”, the nor­mally stri­dent TD also strikes an un­usu­ally ele­giac note as he urges peo­ple to vote. “Who­ever you’re go­ing to vote for, isn’t it a great thing to be able to say, ‘I ex­er­cised my demo­cratic right’?” On this show­ing, no won­der Kenny is con­cerned the Healy-Raes mightn’t be back.

Nor­ris is an out­lier of an al­to­gether dif­fer­ent stripe, but sim­i­larly adds spark to the show. The Sen­a­tor, scholar and long-time gay rights ac­tivist is pro­mot­ing a can­cer char­ity pop-up shop and, hav­ing sur­vived the ill­ness him­self, re­flects on mor­tal­ity with de­cep­tively flip­pant can­dour. “We’re all per­ish­able goods,” he says. Kenny, mean­while, in­dulges in typ­i­cally heavy-handed ban­ter with his guest: “Much to ev­ery­one’s sur­prise, you’re still here.” More work needed on that bed­side man­ner, Pat.

When it comes to pol­i­tics, Nor­ris can still ruf­fle feath­ers. Not­ing the mood for change, as ev­i­denced by Sinn Féin’s poll num­bers, he be­moans the two main parties’ re­fusal to coun­te­nance coali­tion with them. “They did ter­ri­ble things,” he says of the repub­li­can move­ment, but thinks it’s time to for­give and for­get. “I mean, I got a note 35 years ago say­ing they’d sen­tenced me to death. I think it was for be­ing a fairy,” he re­calls. “They’ve changed on that big time.” If only all elec­tion in­ter­views were so en­ter­tain­ing.

In com­par­i­son the Taoiseach sounds vaguely des­per­ate as he at­tacks Sinn Féin. He paints the op­pos­ing party’s eco­nomic man­i­festo in lurid terms – “These poli­cies didn’t work in East Ger­many or Venezuela” – and sounds alarm at the prospect of Sinn Féin ap­point­ing judges. At times like this, Kenny’s in­formed style is put to good use, as when he asks if Varad­kar had any idea of for­mer FAI chief ex­ec­u­tive John De­laney’s du­bi­ous prac­tices when he was min­is­ter for sport. “No,” comes the for­lorn-sound­ing re­ply, un­der­cut­ting his sense of au­thor­ity some­what. Rais­ing the tem­per­a­ture may work for am­bi­tious broad­cast­ers and non­con­formist politi­cians, but it’s not a great move for es­tab­lished in­cum­bents.

In­sis­tent Cooper

Over on The Last Word (To­day FM, week­days), Matt Cooper heads into the elec­tion’s home straight by fin­ish­ing his se­ries of in­ter­views with party lead­ers. Cooper prefers to po­litely but in­sis­tently ques­tion his guests rather than fe­ro­ciously grill them, but his en­coun­ters are il­lu­mi­nat­ing none­the­less. For one thing, the Taoiseach sounded more com­posed when Cooper spoke to him ear­lier in the cam­paign than he did on Kenny’s show.

The fi­nal round of in­ter­views throws up some telling mo­ments too. Richard Boyd Bar­rett of Sol­i­dar­ity-Peo­ple Be­fore Profit wel­comes the fact that peo­ple want to fol­low his party’s slo­gan and “break the cy­cle”, but con­cedes Cooper’s point that he and his col­leagues may be swept away in the process. Mean­while, Aontú leader Peadar Tóibín strik­ingly char­ac­terises his for­mer col­leagues in Sinn Féin as “a party of max­i­mal­ist op­po­si­tion”, while set­ting out the cre­den­tials of his own, avowedly anti-abor­tion party. “We stand out­side group­think,” Tóibín says earnestly, us­ing a phrase that sig­ni­fies group­think of its own, gen­er­ally in­volv­ing com­plaints about po­lit­i­cally cor­rect lib­eral elites.

Through­out it all Cooper knows when to press and when to hold back, with ef­fec­tive re­sults. Pre­sen­ters don’t have to choose be­tween dis­rup­tion and au­thor­ity. Some­times they can get the bal­ance right.

PHO­TO­GRAPH: TOM HONAN

A sin­gu­lar pres­ence: Michael Healy-Rae.

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