A few minutes into his interview with Miriam O'Callaghan, Minister for Health Leo Varadkar drops his bombshell. It's a piece of personal information that, while not a secret, is not well known to the general public, perhaps because, whether we like it or not, it will probably change our perception of the Minister. Still, he presses on and opens up.
"I'm a proper northsider," Varadkar tells listeners to Sunday With Miriam (RTÉ Radio 1). In one fell swoop the revelation that he was born at the Rotunda Hospital in Dublin shatters the carefully cultivated image of an urbane medical professional that has accompanied his political career so far. Oh, and a few minutes later, the Minister also remarks that he's a gay man.
His sexuality, he stresses, is “not something that defines me” and “not a big deal for me any more”. It’s such not a big deal that the rest of the interview is spent discussing how he came to realise he was gay, the effect the news has on his family, and what the political ramifications might be.
The truth is, of course, that a prominent Minister’s decision to come out on national radio is significant, and everyone involved knows it. At the start Varadkar sounds uncharacteristically hesitant, as O’Callaghan, in full-on comfort-blanket mode, coaxes his revelation with coyly leading remarks, such as: “You haven’t settled down yet. You’re very eligible.” It’s also telling that another important part of the Minister’s identity, his Indian ancestry, is hardly touched on, although the occasionally disparaging remarks he says he has heard on this are surely a matter of interest.
Nonetheless, the encounter makes for fascinating listening. O’Callaghan shows off her strengths, providing an empathetic counterpoint to her more reserved guest. She also calls on her current-affairs background, quickly redressing any possible perception of bias or imbalance when talk inevitably turns to the forthcoming referendum on same-sex marriage.
It’s a reminder of the often underused potential of O’Callaghan’s Sunday-morning slot. Its format allows Varadkar the space to speak to a large audience without any of the addressing-the-nation portentousness of a television interview. That said, beyond the obvious, he gives little away about his private life or emotions, answering his host’s more probing questions with a vague “I guess so”. But there’s no doubting the quiet conviction behind his decision to talk publicly about his sexuality at this time: “I’d like the referendum to pass because I’d like to be an equal citizen in my own country.”
Varadkar's big reveal is covered on Today With Sean O'Rourke (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), where everyone talks at length about how irrelevant the news is. The Fine Gael TD Michelle Mulherin wonders why Varadkar had to come out, claiming: "These things are not relevant." Such sentiments are echoed by one of the people interviewed by Paddy O'Gorman at a gay-friendly pub in Dublin. But O'Gorman also notes that not everyone he meets at the bar is comfortable with speaking on air, succinctly underlining why this irrelevant issue is a talking point.
If high-minded wishful thinking on sensitive matters is admirable, if not necessarily instructive, so The Niall Boylan Show (4FM, weekdays) isn't always edifying but is uncomfortably illuminating. The primal id to O'Rourke's loftier programme, the phone-in show gives voice to those baser views excluded in mainstream debate: compared to the shouty exchanges hosted by Boylan, Liveline sounds like a Socratic dialogue.
Even here, however, a benign tolerance prevails, at least initially. “Fair play,” says Donal, describing the news as a “hullabaloo about nothing”; “I give him full applause for coming out,” says Helen.
But this apparent apathy masks misgivings, not always generously expressed. “I think gays in the public world are driving an agenda,” Donal adds. Helen qualifies her applause by claiming that “the dogs in the street” knew the Minister was gay. Before long a high-pitched row on same-sex marriage is in full swing, although there is little overt homophobia. Instead Helen is agitated at the prospect of gay couples – or “homosexuals”, to use her preferred term – getting full adoption rights. One suspects that such choicely pitched arguments will be heard more often in the coming months.
Having primed his callers for confrontation, Boylan presides over the resulting squabble in the manner of an old-time copper dealing with street urchins. That the host frequently has to deliver a metaphorical clip around the ear indicates just how big a deal Varadkar’s revelation is.
Moment of the Week: Dropping the F-bomb
On Monday the former editor of The Irish Times Geraldine Kennedy talks to Cathal Mac Coille on Morning Ireland (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) about the portrayal of herself and others on Charlie, the TV drama about Charles Haughey. Kennedy takes particular issue with the profane screen incarnation of the government secretary Dermot Nally. "Not someone who would say eff off?" asks Mac Coille. "He'd never tell the taoiseach to f*** off," says Kennedy, omitting the asterisks from her pronunciation. "Thank you for that," responds her host, suitably chastened.