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Ciara Kelly tries to stir the autism controversy without offending anyone. She fails

Radio review: Ray D’Arcy shows all politics is personal, while Ciara Kelly ties herself in knots

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, Senator 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 Senator – and 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 Lunchtime Live (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.

Ever the would-be contrarian, the host wonders whether grammar and spelling are still relevant

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.

Radio Moment of the Week: Phone pun fun

One of the regular rituals on Newstalk Breakfast (weekdays) has co-anchors Kieran Cuddihy and Shane Coleman talking to Pat Kenny about upcoming items on his show. On Wednesday, this involves Kenny unintentionally playing the straight man to the breakfast show's impish duo. Kenny flags one of his stories, on Boris Johnson refusing Donald Trump's request that Britain not buy telecommunications equipment from Chinese company Huawei: "Boris has given him two fingers." Cuddihy's response is gleeful. "You know what Boris is doing? He's meeting the Chinese half Huawei." Cue groans. But it could have been worse. Chinese take-Huawei, anyone?