Out for Coffee with Sean O’Rourke

Sean O'Rourke1
Sean O’Rourke, host of Today on RTE Radio 1, joined me for a coffee in his Donnybrook RTE studio. There have been tons of media attention around his appointment in the morning slot formerly held by Pat Kenny, but he’s had “heaps of goodwill,” Sean says as we discuss his interview with Hillary Clinton, his time as political correspondent at the Irish Press and why the Indo got it all wrong about a supposed bust-up between him and Donald Trump.

LC: Tell me about your work with the Irish Press?
SOR: The Irish press was a really interesting period in my life. First of all, I worked for the Sunday Press for two years, as a sports journalist, and then I was the features writer for another two. I left the Irish press to work in RTÉ briefly and I went back as political correspondent in 1984 and did that for five years. That was very interesting because all I was interested in was current affairs and it was the absolute dream job. Looking back, I was probably too young for it. It was a very exciting time in Irish politics, just coming off the period when we had three elections in 18 months; there was that ferrous rivalry between Charles Haughey and Gareth Fitzgerald, the exchanges were pretty heavy.

LC: What were some of the most interesting stories you worked on while there?
SOR: Northern Ireland was important and then the stories of the day, like getting the first few chapters of the New Ireland Report (the prelude to the Good Friday Agreement) and going to all those summits between Fitzgerald and Thatcher. Some of the stuff hasn’t changed at all – like budget and deficits – it was news if the British Prime Minster and the Taoiseach spoke on the phone. One of the things that hasn’t been acknowledged enough is that politics was made to work, and Ireland is better than it was.

LC: The 1977 general election, where Fianna Fáil won a majority, you cited as a reason why you got into political reporting.
SOR: It was just one of these really dramatic elections and it confirmed that I wanted to work in politics or cover politics. It was assumed the out-going coalition government would be returned to power, and they were just swept out of office and Fianna Fáil got a majority, far better than what was good for them, because it had caused trouble in the party. It’s just one of those spheres of activity where you say “anything can happen”.

LC: You moved into RTÉ in 1989?
SOR: I left the Irish Press to go to RTÉ, thinking politics is going to be dull. Literally within a month, the government had fallen and there was an election. I had a number of great years in the This Week programme and then I did Morning Ireland and (was) Editor of News at One.

LC: Was News at One challenging?
SOR: Yes, because I always considered it one of the great news junctions of the day. It’s not like people turn on to hear me, they turn on to get the service that RTÉ provide in politics, industrial relations, courts or whatever. We have the resources to be fairly comprehensive in what we do. It’s great to be at the centre of that.

LC: What was the toughest interview while you were at News at One?
SOR: I always found David Trimble, not that he was difficult to interview, he’s just someone you had to be very careful with, because he’s a lawyer. And if you got a phrase wrong in the Good Friday Agreement, he’d pick you up. So, I would never interview Trimble without having a copy of it on the table.

LC: The most enjoyable interviews that you had?
SOR: Actually, I’ve had a lot of enjoyable interviews in this new show. I enjoy interviewing sports people, I enjoy interviewing writers and if you get an artist performing on the show it’s just such a privilege. I had a good conversation with Hillary Clinton last week.

LC: What was it like to interview Hillary Clinton?
SOR: The way I put it afterwards is she weaved her way through the interview and nobody is going to trip her up. She’s as tough as nails, she’s very smart, you’re talking about somebody who could very well be the next President of the United States; you don’t often get to talk to somebody like that.

LC: Did Donald Trump really reprimand you over the hair quip?
SOR: They (The Independent, who reported that O’Rourke and Trump got into a heated exchange due to an on-air interview) had it completely wrong. We had an exchange and it wasn’t unfriendly; it wasn’t the hair thing, he just thought I was a bit assertive with him, but actually we met and he said he didn’t think it was that nice, but he didn’t reprimand me.

LC: Finally, what was it like to take over from Pat Kenny?
SOR: It was initially quite tense; I kind of compare it to the circus meets the warzone because there was such an amount of controversy about it. It was great because radio as a medium was at the forefront of the public eye. I’ve had nothing but goodwill; I really enjoy doing the job and the tension has given away to enjoyment.
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This year’s batch of pupils celebrate graduating from Ringsend and Irishtown Community Centre crèche.