Ryan Tubridy’s 14-year Late Late Show run finished up on Friday night. The next time the programme airs in September, it will have a Northern accent. Patrick Kielty, from Dundrum, Co Down, will be in the presenter’s chair – which is a bigger deal than it should be.
A Nordie getting the gig shouldn’t be unusual, or even newsworthy. But the woeful dearth of Northern voices makes this a watershed moment; an opportunity for increased representation and in turn, greater North-South understanding.
The issue of cross-Border media representation was discussed in Dublin’s Convention Centre last month as part of the Government’s Shared Island Dialogue series. The level of disconnect and insufficient representation or coverage in each respective jurisdiction was highlighted by Ireland’s Press Ombudsman Susan McKay, who said: “Partition is very much reflected in the media in this country for a range of reasons, some of them very understandable, some of them less so, some of them more complicated and less well examined.”
Some of it is due to a misplaced belief prevalent in editorial rooms that there is little appetite for Northern stories. But people across this island are impacted by the decisions and events on either side of the Border, and if we are ever to unite, we need to better understand one another. The media plays a fundamental role in building that understanding. But how often do you hear a Northern voice on the radio, or on the nightly news?
When is the last time you heard a Northern voice talking about any issue other than Northern Ireland?
It isn’t just the media where Northern voices are underrepresented. Political representation of the North in Dublin rests squarely on the shoulders of Sinn Féin’s Niall ÓDonnghaile, the sole senator who resides north of the Border. Despite the Coalition parties opting to call the programme for government “Our Shared Future” and creating a Shared Island Unit, the three parties failed to nominate a single Northern Ireland resident to Seanad Éireann.
We are living through a volatile period of history in which the consequences of Brexit have destabilised UK-Ireland relations and fast-tracked constitutional change, and this opportunity to give the North a voice was missed.
The cause has its origins in partition and the legacy of the conflict. Wider society has yet to fully reconcile with its past and is unable or unwilling to recognise the impact of partition. Its legacy was that those of us born on one side of the Border faced a century of having our Irishness demeaned and distorted, while those born on the “right” side of the Border were free to develop a proud and accepted Irish identity. This divergence has an impact on perception – to deny that there are those who see people in the North as less Irish is to deny reality.
Kielty will undoubtedly face higher levels of scrutiny than Tubridy. Despite initial reactions being largely positive, his “otherness” will inevitably seep further into the discourse. You only need to look to recent reporting in which an RTÉ insider questioned Kielty’s decision to remain in London with his family and asked: “How tuned-in can he really be to the Irish conversation if he is not going to be in Ireland all the time?”
The idea that someone who isn’t resident in the 26 counties couldn’t possibly be ‘tuned-in’ or capable of doing an interview is patronising at best
The unnamed person went on to further query how Kielty could possibly interview the Taoiseach “on taxes and rents... if he’s not living here, not even a resident in the country”. The questions in relation to Kielty remaining in London with his young family and flying in for the programme were floated as “genuine concerns”, but the idea that someone who isn’t resident in the 26 counties couldn’t possibly be “tuned-in” or capable of doing an interview is patronising at best.
Nobody has cited those concerns about Angela Scanlon, who commuted from London to present her TV show. But she is from Bray, Co. Wicklow. We entrust ambassadors to represent Ireland on the global stage and to be tuned in to Irish affairs. Understanding Irish affairs does not require being physically present in the 26 counties.
The tide is, however, changing. In 2018, Belfast born Drew Harris became the Garda Commissioner. In 2021, Tara Grace Connolly became the first person from Northern Ireland to represent Ireland as a UN youth delegate, and Kielty will become the first Northerner to present The Late Late Show. Are these tepid changes indicative a shift in public consciousness? As conversations on constitutional change grow, the imperative to strengthen North-South links becomes more pressing, and with that comes a curiosity which, if nurtured, could pave the way for the kind of mutual understanding and respect necessitated in order to unite the people of this island.
Further steps are necessary, some of which may be uncomfortable for some. The Government has committed to holding a referendum on extending presidential voting rights to Irish citizens resident outside the State. Much like the remarks from the RTÉ insider on Kielty’s London residence, opponents to extending the franchise often claim that those of us living outside the State could not possibly be tuned in to Irish affairs. There is a need to challenge and interrogate the undercurrents to this misperception, and to invite a deeper conversation on what it means to be Irish in 2023.
Kielty will be a torch bearer for us Nordies, and with his position in arguably the top seat in Irish entertainment, the inclusion of Northern voices just might, at long last, become normalised.