Ivan Yates keeps his counsel as election overshadowed by horrific events

Radio review: Newstalk host has comparatively quiet week while Mary Wilson chips away at political guests

The wait is over. After months of anticipation, Tuesday's general election announcement is the signal for contenders to start campaigning for real. Sure enough, assertive slogans appear almost immediately. "I'll be cutting through the crap," one seasoned political veteran promises in his promotional pitch. "Nobody is safe." It's fair to say that Ivan Yates, presenter of The Hard Shoulder (Newstalk, weekdays), sounds excited at the prospect of the election.

His ardour is unsurprising. A former Fine Gael TD and minister for agriculture, Yates is not so much a politics junkie as a recovering addict: as he regularly reminds listeners and guests, he participated in eight general elections. He certainly has a tallyman’s eye for detail when it comes to covering how votes break down at constituency level. As the cheerfully confrontational ads for his show attest, Yates is in his element.

The only problem is that there’s not much for him to sink his teeth into yet. His first proper debate of the campaign, between Fine Gael Minister Richard Bruton and Fianna Fáil TD Marc Mac Sharry, is more notable for Yates’s disappointing even-handedness than any disdainful grilling – he notes that Bruton, who is on the phone, is at a disadvantage to his opponent in the studio.

Still, the show has its intriguing moments. One political figure voices fears that Ireland could become a society where “capital is all-powerful”, in which “foreign-owned funds are going to be the landlords of the next generation”. The surprise is not so much the sentiments, which have been well aired by left-wing TDs, than the person expressing them: Senator Michael McDowell, the former Progressive Democrat leader.


‘Humility issue’

Yates, for his part, displays little overt party political bias, at least when it comes to the two main parties. If anything, he sounds harder on his old party, wondering whether there’s a “humility issue” in Fine Gael, and singling out Minister for Health Simon Harris for being “subsumed in his vanity”. Clearly, the host is no shrinking violet himself.

In the absence of political drama, he has more urgent issues to deal with, primarily the savage murder of Drogheda teenager Keane Mulready-Woods. There's no hiding Yates's revulsion as he describes the teen's killing and dismemberment as reaching "new levels of horror and depravity". His assessment is shared by crime journalist and erstwhile Newstalk colleague Paul Williams: "This as bad as we've ever seen it, and that's saying something."

The circumstances of Mulready-Woods’s murder are so sickening that Williams, not one to eschew charged language, comes across as understated. He describes the chief suspect as a “psychopath” and compares gang leaders to paedophiles for grooming children as criminal “cannon fodder”. But when Yates asks why the suspect is at large, Williams sounds more irritated, replying that criminals can avail of due process because Ireland is a “civilised society” where the rule of law prevails.

One might think these important elements in a country, but Williams sounds somewhat ambivalent about them. “The bleeding-heart liberals that are so close to our hearts,” he says in an unprompted aside to his host, “they would be out on the street marching, worrying about this animal, if his rights weren’t properly adhered to.” But he’s confident the murderer will be caught. “This bastard needs to be put behind bars and the key thrown away,” he says, “and the bleeding-heart liberals shut the hell up.”


One shares Williams’s rage and frustration at the vileness of this murder, but such cheap point-scoring is surely inappropriate. It’s noticeable that Yates, who can often be heard merrily baiting “pinko lefties” himself, keeps his counsel on this occasion, instead focusing on the victims of the gang feud. But on this evidence, it won’t be surprising if law and order joins health and housing as one of the key election issues covered by Yates in the coming weeks.

As if to underline this, Mary Wilson, host of Drivetime (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) talks to Sharon Keoghan, an independent Meath county councillor and Dáil candidate whose Duleek office was firebombed on Tuesday morning. Keoghan, an outspoken opponent of drug crime who had earlier condemned the shooting of an innocent taxi driver in the ongoing gang feud in Drogheda, thinks there is a connection between her stance and the incident, which she calls "an attack on the entire community". "You've got to ask, where is the law and order in this State?" she asks.

Clarifying the details

Wilson, for her part, is sensitive to her guest’s shock, while quietly clarifying the details of the story. The calmness of the interview is admirable, given what a sinister development the attack is. Wilson allows Keoghan have the last word, asking if she’ll continue to speak out. “I have to,” comes the reply. “It’s just wrong that they get away with this.”

No such leniency is shown when Wilson talks to politicians, however. While Yates, her Newstalk rival, revels in the role of showy ringmaster during political interviews, Wilson is the dogged investigator, methodically chipping away to frequently devastating effect. Talking to Fianna Fáil TD Stephen Donnelly, she recounts his shifting allegiances – an independent in the 2011 election, a Social Democrat in 2016 – before deftly wielding the blade. "How can people vote for you when they can't be sure what platform you'll be standing on next time?"

Donnelly, who recalls being “scared stiff” the first time he was interviewed by Wilson, replies that his politics are “exactly the same”.  But he sounds uncomfortable as his host keeps at him: “Did you adjust to Fianna Fáil or did Fianna Fáil adjust to you?” Donnelly wheels out phrases about being part of a team that has apologised for its mistakes in government and learned from them, but sounds unconvincing. He performs better when talking about health policy past and present, but the damage has been done.

Politicians take note. As Wilson proves, you don’t have to snarl to be fearsome.

Radio Moment of the Week: Talking shitake

On the Pat Kenny Show (Newstalk), a potentially niche item about foraging for edible mushrooms ends up highlighting the host's singular style. Speaking to "mycophagist" Bill O'Dea, Kenny is especially interested in mushrooms with detrimental effects. He asks about lethally poisonous mushrooms – about 10 varieties, apparently – before turning to fungi with more exotic properties. "You've got kids going out to find magic mushrooms," Kenny says, in the tone he deploys when trying to sound concerned yet also showing that he's still down with the kids, 40 years after his heyday as RTÉ's hip young host. At heart, he's still a fun guy.