Talk to Joe? Not when Joe Duffy goes on the warpath

Radio: Bracing though it is to hear the Liveline host venting opinions, it’s the stories of his guests that have most impact

He’s talking about peaceful protests, but Joe Duffy is on the warpath. On Tuesday – day 433 of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as he reminds listeners to Liveline (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays) – Duffy hears from demonstrators who have been picketing the Russian embassy on a daily basis, though in truth he’s more interested in asking whether Ireland should cut diplomatic ties with Putin’s regime. And judging by his occasionally belligerent mood, the host seems to have definite ideas of what the answer should be.

The discussion is prompted by Fine Gael TD Charlie Flanagan’s call for the expulsion of Russian ambassador Yuri Filatov, in the wake of his comments threatening Ireland with consequences if deemed a direct participant in the Ukraine war. Noting the call to close the embassy has been greeted with “deafening silence” among all political parties, Duffy turns up the volume on the issue.

It starts out calmly enough, as he speaks to regular protesters such as former RTÉ producer Julian Vignoles, who dubs himself one of the “pensioners against Putin”, such is their vintage. But when a caller later suggests Filatov should stay, so he can be reminded people will not tolerate Russian transgressions, Duffy is indignant. “We have tolerated it. He’s still here,” he says, noting that the “Teflon” ambassador doesn’t seem bothered by any verbal flak: “He’s non-stick. It’s water off a duck’s back.”

Liveline has more power when Duffy lets people talk rather than interrupt them, as is highlighted in devastating fashion on Wednesday’s programme

Similarly, the host dismisses talk of a negotiated peace settlement. “War only ends primarily when one side is beaten by the other side,” he says, citing the defeat of Hitler. For good measure, he adds that Russian troops are “raping women to death”, as Nazi soldiers once did. He’s so impassioned that callers with mildly divergent views struggle to get a word in edgeways at times. Talk to Joe? Not when he’s in this form.


But if Duffy is showy in his outrage, there’s no doubting his sincerity. It’s not the first time he’s voiced bewilderment at the continued presence of the Russian envoy. Moreover, in devoting a programme to the matter, he ensures that Ukraine remains in the public consciousness, at a time when the war is receding from prominence in the news, mysterious Kremlin drone strikes aside.

That said, Liveline has more power when Duffy lets people talk rather than interrupt them, as is highlighted in devastating fashion on Wednesday’s programme. He hears from Mary, whose former partner Daniel Kane was the first person in Ireland to be convicted of coercive control, an anodyne-sounding charge that masks his horrific catalogue of violent abuse. Kane would stamp Mary’s head so brutally that her biggest fear was not dying, but ending up “a vegetable”; he also strangled her and cut her face with a pizza slicer. Yet despite being hospitalised 19 times in 2019, Mary wouldn’t press charges: “He always said nobody would believe me.” Eventually the medical evidence became so horrifically damning that the Garda arrested Kane.

Given what she endured, it’s hardly a surprise that Mary still feels the aftereffects of her ordeal: “It doesn’t go away, that fear.” It’s a terrifying reminder, yet again, of the perniciousness of violence against women. Duffy hangs back, giving Mary the time to recount her experience, though he’s clearly affected by her account. “I’m close to tears listening to you,” he says. Bracing though it is to hear Duffy venting his opinions, it’s the stories of his guests that have real impact.

You’re fairly good at bluster, and people say you just throw back statistic after statistic. What do you say to people who accuse you of being a spoofer?

—  Claire Byrne to Minister for Housing Darragh O'Brien

There’s an unexpected outbreak of edgy editorialising on Today with Claire Byrne (RTÉ Radio 1, weekdays), as the usually composed presenter lets fly at a guest with jolting alacrity. The object of Byrne’s scorn is Minister for Housing Darragh O’Brien, who defends his record with the same kind of unshakeable self-confidence as a Crimean War field surgeon surrounded by amputated limbs: impressive in the circumstances, but hardly reassuring. As the Minister talks up the “record number of homes” being built, one could be forgiven for thinking that he’s describing a winning streak on a Monopoly board rather a politician presiding over an era of unprecedented homelessness.

In this context, it’s perhaps understandable that Byrne should boil over in frustration at her guest, except that she does so with this gambit: “Are you honest enough to admit that when it comes to solving the housing crisis, it’s just too little, too late?” This is met with bromides about “turning the corner” and boasts about building 30,000 new homes last year. Byrne points out that considerably more houses are required, but O’Brien is undeterred. Reeling off figures about more construction workers and increased social housing, the Minister gives the impression of being on top of the data, while glossing over the core matter of the State’s inability to provide homes for its citizens.

Having had little success in getting her guest to run up the white flag, Byrne abruptly switches focus from policy to personality. “You’re fairly good at bluster, and people say you just throw back statistic after statistic,” she says, “What do you say to people who accuse you of being a spoofer?” O’Brien naturally disagrees, saying his stats are facts (though of course, they’re not all the facts), but he sounds taken aback by the host’s sudden bluntness. It’s certainly a jarring change of gear, possibly as uncomfortable for host as guest: Byrne gets uncharacteristically tongue-tied when pronouncing “statistic”. The attack dog approach seems an awkward fit for Ireland’s least loosey-goosey broadcaster.

Moreover, it doesn’t work. While Byrne’s fusillade doesn’t exactly elicit sympathy for O’Brien, it somehow lets him off the hook. He quickly resumes spinning his narrative, leaving the host to ask forlornly whether the Minister has an impossible task. It’s a fair question, but ultimately irrelevant. Bellicosity rarely achieves the desired results.