Saturday 10 December 2016

Politics' leading lady - Claire Byrne

Claire Byrne was roundly praised for her handling of the Leaders' Debate this week. In its aftermath, we caught up with the busy broadcaster to ask about her passion for politics, her stellar career - and why there's no rivalry with Miriam

Chrissie Russell

Published 18/02/2016 | 02:30

Broadcaster Claire Byrne. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
Broadcaster Claire Byrne. Photo: Gerry Mooney.
2002: Claire Byrne in her first high-profile role at TV3 studios.
2010: Her first gig in RTE is presenting 'The Daily Show' with Dáithí O Sé.
2006: Claire joins 'The Breakfast Show' on Newstalk.
Claire with fiance and father of her two children Gerry Scollan pictured in 2012.

She was praised for bringing the politicians to heel in her no-nonsense Leaders' Debate on Monday night, but after the show, all moderator Claire Byrne wanted to do was ditch her shoes.

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"I sat down as soon as we went backstage because my back was killing me," laughs the presenter. "Standing there in high heels for two hours, I was really starting to feel it in my lower back!"

And despite being the epitome of cool, calm and collected on screen, she left the cameras only to get lost four times driving back to her hotel from the University of Limerick where the debate had been broadcast.

"My mind was obviously still on stage and trying to drive my car probably wasn't the safest thing when I look back on it," she confesses wryly. "I finally got back to the hotel and had a glass of white wine that was never more welcome."

Viewers will no doubt agree she earned it, and forgive her a bit of ditzyness after her star turn on RTE. There was an unprecedented wave of appreciation for the Co Laois presenter's impressive moderation style in the wake of her Leaders' Debate debut. So much so that Twitter lit up with calls for the rest of the politicians to give up and just elect Claire Byrne Taoiseach instead. Would she be tempted, I wonder?

"Absolutely not!" she says emphatically in an interview over the phone as she drives back to her Dublin home from Limerick. "I've never wanted to be a politician and last night didn't change my mind. I really admire people who do it in the interest of public service, but it wouldn't be for me. I'm very happy being on this side of it."

But she's still cheered by the feedback. "I tend to stay away from reading stuff online, usually in case it's really bad," she admits. "But I've had a flavour of what's online and it's been great, really gratifying for me and the team.

"All I wanted was to cut through all the bluster and jargon and give people a good idea of what each party is offering. I didn't want to let anyone away with too much or let anyone go off on a party political broadcast. I had it in my head that I was representing the viewer. And I think the hard work paid off."

Her conviction that she's on screen to represent the average voter extends to keeping a distance from the people she's scrutinising. Don't expect to find her at party conference bashes or the Dail bar.

"It's important to keep your distance," she explains. "I don't socialise with any politicians ever and I think that stands to me because my job is to represent the person who's sitting at home and they don't socialise with politicians, so how can I represent them, if I'm being buddy buddy with politicans?

"That's my theory anyway," she adds hastily. "I'm sure other people see it differently, but that's how I choose to operate."

Not that there has been any time for socialising lately anyway. By her own admission the debate show was a long time in the making. "It's difficult to put a time frame on how long," she says. "But the whole team worked really hard… it didn't just happen by accident, we put in hours studying all of the manifestos and making sure we had all of the angles covered."

In a way, she's been getting ready for this moment for years. "You're always preparing," she says. "It's part of your job, every time a new piece of information comes out you're adding that to what went before.

"This was my first big televised leaders' debate, but I've been doing political debate for a long time."

Surely this is a little bit special? "This is a bit like the World Cup I suppose," she laughs. And no, she's not made her mind up yet about what way she'll be voting.

Whether this is her World Cup or not, there's no denying that the 40-year-old has been a strong competitor on screens and radio for many years, starting off in East Coast radio then moving with ease from more light-hearted entertainment like The Daily Show to hard-hitting broadcasting slots on Prime Time and most recently, Claire Byrne Live.

"She eats, sleeps and breathes current affairs. That's right on the money for us," Jim Jennings, head of RTE Radio One told me back in 2012 when Claire first got her Saturday morning show on the station.

It was testament to her professionalism that her previous employer, Andrew Hanlon, TV3's director of news, who introduced Claire to screens, also hadn't a bad word to say about her, despite her departure from the station to join Newstalk in 2006, which resulted in a High Court battle.

"Claire and I were head-to-head in that row but what nobody knows is that we were sitting together at the back of the High Court and remained close friends. We're still friends," revealed Hanlon.

"The row was over adhering to the terms of a contract, but we spoke as friends about her going to Newstalk and I told her I completely understood. There's genuinely no sour grapes."

Claire's talked in the past about how Gay Byrne was her inspiration when she first decided, aged 12, that she fancied a career in the media. "I thought Gay Byrne was just the master of broadcasting, and I still think he is," she said. "I would watch and learn from him still."

As it turned out Gay was one of the multitude watching on Monday night. "She was very good," he says. "She'd a very difficult job and I think she did well."

Proving that the broadcasting legend's praise is hard won, he was scathing of her co-stars. "I think it's a pointless exercise having so many people on. They get too excited trying to talk over each other. Claire did as well as anyone could trying to control that lot."

If the Twittersphere was buzzing with praise for Claire then there was also the ominous sound of keyboards murmuring that her fellow political broadcaster, Miriam O'Callaghan should 'watch her back'. It seems a sad inevitability that the perception prevails that one female presenter's success must come at the cost of another's.

Certainly Miriam doesn't see it that way. "I texted Claire straight after the debate saying how wonderful she was and she texted back a lovely message saying a big thanks!" says the Prime Time host. "I thought the debate was a terrific watch and really wonderfully produced by the entire team. Claire's performance was absolutely outstanding in every way - truly a tour de force."

For her part, Claire refuses to be drawn on any 'rivalry' rumours. "Who says there can't be more than one woman in political broadcasting? That's crazy. I'm not even going to go there."

After being shut down so effectively I have a fleeting sense of what it must have felt like for Enda Kenny and co on Monday night. It's with trepidation that I move on to the topic of being a working mum and work life balance.

"I'm actually on my way now to crèche to pick them up," she says brightly. "I didn't see them last night obviously so I can't wait to see them."

She is of course talking about her two-year-old son Patrick and one-year-old daughter Jane with fiancé Gerry Scollan, who she says has been her rock through a busy couple of weeks.

"Gerry's been great, really fantastic. I'm lucky I have a really supportive partner - who also works really hard - but he knows this is a busy time. Particularly over the last couple of days when I really needed to get my head down and get stuck into my research.

"I'll make it up to him. When he's going through a busy period, I'll pick up the slack, that's how it works. You've to juggle."

Once the ballot boxes have been emptied she's thinking of taking a break over Easter, although at the moment that seems a long way away. First there's her radio show this Saturday with Michael Noonan and a debate on the economy, then another televised show on Monday next week with Leo Varadkar and the opposition spokespeople debating on health.

When the election happens she'll host an extended Saturday stint on radio covering results which may continue through to Sunday.

"It was great that the debate went so well and I'm really pleased with what we were able to do," she says. "But we're only half way through, there's still a lot of work to be done."

Irish Independent

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