‘Were we right in the head?’ Joe Duffy asks as free contraception proves a difficult pill to swallow

Radio: Budget 2022 seems to have pleased no one, judging by reaction on airwaves

If reaction on the airwaves is to be believed, the Government has pulled off the impressive feat of producing a giveaway budget that pleases no one, but at least one person is happy.

As Joe Duffy discusses what's coming up on Wednesday's Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) with his station colleague Ronan Collins, he sounds chuffed that an Irish Times columnist's prediction about irate reaction to one particular budget measure has proved correct. "The great Miriam Lord predicted Liveline would be getting calls about the free contraception for women aged 17 to 25," Duffy chirps, "And she's right."

The issue having been flagged, callers duly voice irritation at the measure on the show. To paraphrase Field of Dreams, if you billed it, they will come. But listeners hoping for furious fulminations about collapsing morals are in for a disappointment, as indeed is the host. “I think some people expected a Normal People reaction to this announcement,” says Duffy, referring to the entertaining on-air response to last year’s saucy TV adaptation of the Sally Rooney novel, “but that’s not what we’re getting at all.”

The tone is set by the first caller, who is unhappy that the free contraceptives aren't for both sexes. 'I see it as a retrograde step, putting it all back on the women,' Eileen says

The tone is instead set by the first caller, Eileen, who is unhappy that the free contraceptives aren’t for both sexes. “I see it as a retrograde step, putting it all back on the women,” she says. It’s a sentiment echoed by Elizabeth, who thinks the measure absolves men of responsibility by placing the onus for protection on women: “This is going back to the old days, when they locked up women for having babies.”


Such a response is to be expected in a country that passed referendums on marriage equality and abortion with landslide majorities.

Disagreement largely comes in the form of callers approving the measure for pragmatic reasons. Elaine notes that in most unplanned pregnancies it’s women who deal with the consequences. “I’m not saying it’s fair, but that’s the reality of the situation,” she says. “Females have more to lose.”

On the rare occasion that moral objections to contraception are raised, there’s an uncomfortable air of tokenism. Tony says he doesn’t believe in “having an intimate connection just for fun”. But he sounds almost apologetic, even vulnerable, gently revealing he has epilepsy and is unmarried.

Catherine is more promisingly strident in decrying the “shameful” measure. “You’re laughing today about breaking the commandments of God,” she tells Duffy, before ominously reminding him: “You have to meet your God.” In as much as the host is discomfited by this, it’s because Catherine’s call comes at the wrong time, at the end of the show.

With most guests singing from the same hymn sheet, the conversation turns to reminiscences about the bad old days when contraception was illegal. Mary recalls being sent by her GP in the mid-1960s to ask the parish priest if she could be prescribed the pill for health reasons. The request was eventually approved by Archbishop John McQuaid. “Were we right in the head?” Duffy wonders, theatrically but astutely.

Snapping at her guests' heels, Claire Byrne seizes on any inconsistencies, as when Pascal Donohoe claims tax tweaks will boost renters' income

If such anecdotes speak of Liveline’s oft-vaunted virtue of providing a forum for previously unheard voices, another caller, Ruth, highlights a weakness in the discussion. “I’d rather this time be given over to those 17-to-25s to have their say on this,” she says, underlining the absence of young callers in the debate and on the show in general, for that matter. Duffy can’t be blamed for the older age profile of his audience – Radio 1 is hardly aimed at a youthful demographic – but without younger, diverse voices Liveline risks becoming, well, predictable. Duffy can’t be happy about that.

Over on Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe and Minister for Public Expenditure Michael McGrath hear just how little the public cares about their giveaway gestures as they appear on the show's customary post-budget phone-in on Wednesday. A tone of resigned anger runs through most callers' questions, chiming with Byrne's verdict that her ministerial guests have "spent a lot of money doing very little". Yet the fiscal duo emerge relatively unscathed, with no major gaffes.

It’s not for want of trying by Byrne. If the host sounded uncharacteristically tentative during last year’s budget Q&A, her first time in the gig, she is more like herself here. Snapping at her guests’ heels, she seizes on any inconsistencies, as when Donohoe claims tax-unit tweaks will boost renters’ income. Leo Varadkar “said that’s to deal with inflation”, Byrne notes. “Now you’re selling it as a measure to help renters.”

That said, neither Minister is thrown seriously off-balance by either host or callers. Faced with awkward questions, they combine emollient sympathy (a McGrath speciality) with selectively curated data, presumably hoping listeners will mistake the trees for the forest.

The only time the Ministers sound genuinely uneasy is when Byrne plays a clip of Brian O'Connell's interview with Adam Terry, a 10-year-old Cork boy awaiting surgery for scoliosis. The full interview, broadcast on Tuesday's show, is "an emotional listen", as O'Connell says. Moreover, it's an indictment of how the system is failing Adam.

Adam, an articulate 10-year-old whose scoliosis surgery has been repeatedly delayed since August 2019, feels he's at the bottom of the barrel. 'Sometimes I feel like I'm crying myself to sleep because it's so unfair'

Adam’s mother, Christine, outlines how her son’s scheduled surgery has been repeatedly delayed since August 2019, during which time his situation has worsened and his pain has become more excruciating: his chest cavity is in contact with his pelvis. “That’s bone on bone,” Christine says, fighting back tears. “I’m upset now,” she adds, “but that’s pure anger.”

Adam’s testimony is even more harrowing. An articulate young man, he feels he’s at the bottom of the barrel.“Sometimes I feel like I’m crying myself to sleep because it’s so unfair,” Adam says of the repeated deferrals to his operation. “It just makes me so angry and frustrated and sad.”

When Byrne airs this clip the following day, apropos Donohoe’s mentioning of hospital waiting lists, the Ministers are chastened. Both men mumble about the “heartbreaking” nature of Adam’s situation while offering platitudes about taking action. “Clearly we need to do better,” Donohoe says, feebly. “Hmm, 10 years in government,” Byrne replies, doubtfully. What was that about taking responsibility again?

Moment of the Week: Music legends remembered

The death of The Chieftains' frontman, Paddy Moloney, prompts many warm tributes, with Tuesday's Arena (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) entirely given over to remembering him. Seán Rocks hears guests attest to the late musician's talent, generosity and influence. Peadar Ó Riada memorably calls Moloney "buachaill dána" for bringing Irish music across the globe: "He was bold, he'd strike out where others would be afraid to go." Even more stirring is Moloney's remarkable composition The Morning Dew, played by John Kelly as he opens his show, Mystery Train (Lyric FM). Kelly follows The Chieftains track with An Buachaillín Bán, a haunting tune by influential accordionist and broadcaster Tony McMahon, who also, sadly, died recently. Describing both men as "utterly irreplaceable", Kelly adds: "All we can do is thank them for the music." Amen.