Good Morning

Morning Ireland, RTÉ’s flagship current affairs show, is celebrating it 20th anniversary. Political Editor Harry McGee, who worked on the programme, reports:

YOU recognise most radio programmes by their signature tunes. Not so Morning Ireland. Sure, it has its own jingle. But the Morning Ireland sound embedded in most people’s minds is one that’s a bit like a rusty door being opened. It is David Hanly growling “Good Morning.”

They say that Hanly is the only man alive who can make ‘Good Morning’ sound like a threat. In an interview I did with him a few years ago, Hanly described its timbre.

“I suppose it’s about 35 years of Guinness and cigars. It was not something that I ever thought about. It has got browner as the years have rolled on.”

The programme with which Hanly has always been synonymous has also, to employ his phrase, got browner over the years.

Twenty years ago this November, the programme was launched as an ‘experiment’ to see if RTÉ could produce a home-grown version of the Today show on BBC Radio 4.

Two decades later, Morning Ireland (MI) has long established itself as a behemoth in the context of RTÉ and current affairs. The sheer weight and influence of the programme is only partly explained by its enormous listenership - it is the country’s most listened-to programme with 472,000 listeners.

The rationale behind the programme has been to allow the news space to breathe. It puts the big story of the previous day into a wider context. It kicks stories on. It sets agendas. It subjects politicians or the central figures in a dispute (they are always the central figures) to close interrogation. At key junctures, the programme has made or broken governments, and made or broken careers. The quickest illustration of its importance can be gleaned from the calibre of its presenters over the years: Hanly; David Davin-Power; Fintan Drury; the BBC’s Fergal Keane; Shane Kenny; Seán O’Rourke; Richard Crowley; Áine Lawlor; John Murray; Cathal Mac Coille and Richard Downes.

Davin-Power, now the station’s political correspondent, was one of the original presenters along with Hanly in 1984.

“It was seen as an experiment. Fred O’Donovan was chairman of the RTÉ Authority and he said that people preferred music in the morning to speech. The team were a bit taken aback by the remark. We really felt we were living on borrowed time.”

RTÉ was shorn of resources at the time and the team were often left scrambling to fill its one-hour slot.

While Today was obviously the industry standard, the editors didn’t slavishly follow its format or style. Hanly says that MI was never as grandstanding or aggressive in manner. Then editor Shane Kenny and Tom Savage were the key drivers of its format and style. In the early days, says Davin-Power, they’d experiment with theatre and cinema reviews. “We quickly realised what people actually wanted was hard news.”

BOLD as it was, it took some time for the programme to establish itself.

“I remember Seán Ó Mórdha, the film-maker, saying to me in the very early days that we would struggle until we got a big story. Then a most tragic event happened, the Eastbourne air crash, in which a number of prominent and well-liked Irish journalists were killed. It happened too late for it to be fully covered on TV the night before.

“MI covered it in great detail the following morning. Our coverage of the tragedy established its importance.”

The programme has expanded as society and work schedules have changed. Nowadays, it is two hours long and has a team of 14, including three presenters; six reporters and four editors.

I worked on the programme for two and half years, and nothing came close when it came to hard graft. The two hours of air-time in the morning is the culmination of 24 hours of toil. After a while you got blasé about waking somebody up at 1am to ask them to come into studio six hours later. I can’t remember one refusal in my time.

There is a convention that the Taoiseach of the day does not give live MI interviews. He is about the only politician in the country who doesn’t.

MI series editor Shane McElhatton describes its function in these terms: “It provides a perspective on stories from the night before, allows a more reasoned look at what has happened. It also sets the tone for stories that will develop during that day.”

Like all programmes, and newspapers, MI has off days. But it is too large, too well resourced and still hungry enough to see off all competition. There have been a good few stand-outs this year. The ones that spring to mind are the interview with showjumper Cian O’Connor and his vet James Sheeran; Beverly Flynn’s stomping performance after being thrown out of Fianna Fáil and the unforgettably sad interview Paschal Sheehy did with the late Kerry lung transplant patient, Billy Burke, in April.

Hanly has been the one constant in all that time. Since June, for the first time in two decades, he has been off air as he recuperates after undergoing a heart bypass operation.

His editors hope that it won’t be too long before a gruff “good morning” once again rudely awakens the nation from slumber.

In their own words:

“I have listened to your weasel weak-minded words for a few minutes.” - Michael McDowell attacks Seamus Brennan live on air in 1992. The PD/FF Coalition was in crisis and Brennan was making an effort to salvage it. McDowell’s words gave proof positive that the Government was quickly unravelling.

Then Taoiseach John Bruton’s admission on air that he did not answer certain questions in the Dáil on the Fr Brendan Smith controversy because he wasn’t asked the right question. FF leader Bertie Ahern was on the phone within seconds, accusing Bruton of saying on air what he refused to say in the Dáil moments before.

“It was a big personal thing for me. He rang from Greece after he found out and said he wanted to give the first interview to David Hanly. I felt honoured because he had not forgotten an old friend.” - David Hanly’s interview with Seamus Heaney after he won the Nobel Prize.

“Tom Ryan was the chief executive of the VHI which was going through one of its recurrent crises.

“It was 6am and we didn’t have a number for him. There was nothing for it but to divide all the Tom Ryans in the phone book and ring them at six in the morning.

“At one stage a woman answered. I asked does Tom Ryan of the VHI live at this number. The next thing I heard was “Tom, Tom, do we have a VHI policy?

“Needless to say, the phone was put quickly down.”

David Davin-Power recalls early difficulties.

Sean O’Rourke was interviewing Joe O’Toole about a shortage of remedial teachers. O’Toole quipped the policy was like a car with four bald tyres and, when you opened the boot, the spare was flat. O’Rourke started laughing and could not stop. O’Toole also became convulsed with laughter. O’Rourke managed a strangled ‘It’s the way you tell them’ before the studio collapsed with laughter. For the last five minutes of the programme, all you could hear were people rolling around with laughter.

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