Wednesday 15 August 2018

'There's more going on in the world than Trump and Brexit' - new Late Debate presenter Fionnuala Sweeney

Fionnuala Sweeney has joined The Late Debate on RTE Radio 1
Fionnuala Sweeney has joined The Late Debate on RTE Radio 1
Aoife Kelly

Aoife Kelly

Returning RTE presenter Fionnuala Sweeney says she intends to look beyond Trump and Brexit in her new role as a presenter of RTÉ Radio 1's The Late Debate.

Fionnuala's first show airs tonight (Thursday) at 10pm and, with several years as an anchor at CNN in London and Atlanta, she intends bringing an international slant to the slot.

Her experience is vast.  The role at CNN saw her host live coverage in the field from locations including Abu Dhabi, Jerusalem, Gaza and the West Bank on stories including Israel's withdrawal from Gaza and parts of the West Bank and Operation Cast Lead in late 2008.

The Belfast-born journalist also anchored special coverage from Cairo on the start of the uprising against Colonel Moammar Gadhafi in Libya. In 2006, she anchored and reported from Haifa during the Israel-Hezbollah Conflict, which earned CNN an Edward R. Murrow award.

This experience will inform her take on The Late Debate: "National stories on the day that are big stories need to be covered but I think what I can bring to the table is the international experience and stories that are relevant to Ireland," she tells

However, while our focus on international news has become somewhat fixated on Donald Trump and Brexit in the past 18 months or so, Fionnuala is keen to cast a wider net.

"I think there are other stories as well, what is happening in the rest of Europe with Hungary, the Czech Republic and Poland, for example.  I think we are caught between - situated physically between - America and Britain so we're dominated by Trump and Brexit stories but there is other stuff going on around the world that we need to be cognisant of."

Fionnuala is one of three new presenters - with Sarah McInerney, formerly of Newstalk, and Katie Hannon - taking the helm at The Late Debate on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights. 

While the debate about gender representation and the gender pay gap in media across the UK and Ireland rages at the moment, the appointment of three talented women to these roles is something to be celebrated.

However, there is a sense that they are not issues with which Fionnuala has particularly had to wrestle thus far in her career.

"In my case I've clearly been a woman who always got jobs in broadcasting in RTE and CNN being female, before any of the transparency of this debate," she says.

Fionnuala's arrival at RTE comes in the wake of a gender pay review which found that the pay gap at the State broadcaster as just 4 per cent, significantly less than the national average of 14 per cent. 

Of the pay gap, she says, "I have no problem with somebody earning more money or being on a higher salary based on their experience and body of work and clear, obvious seniority in terms of years of experience, but where it is problematic is where there might be two people on the same programme, on at the same time, doing the same job, doing the same heavy lifting in terms of interviews, and quality of interviews, and there being a substantial pay difference."

It has been three years since Fionnuala departed her high profile role at CNN.  She says she "took a year off" and then went to Washington where she became Vice President & Executive Editor of The Cipher Brief, a Washington-based digital, security-based conversation platform where she determined editorial coverage of intelligence and security.

By the time Donald Trump had been elected at the end of 2016 she had already applied for a fellowship with the Global Brain Health Institute (GBHI) at Trinity College and decided, just before his inauguration, that she would move back to Dublin rather than do the fellowship remotely from Washington.

The GBHI is funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies which was established in 1982 when Chuck Feeney committed almost all of his assets to the foundation.  The Institute works to tackle dementia, which directly afflicts over 48 million people as well as family members and caregivers globally.

Fionnuala heard co-director of the GBHI and chair of psychology at Trinity, Dr Ian Robertson, speak in Dublin in 2015.  She arranged a meeting with him in January 2016, expressed her interest in the area, and asked if she could contribute.

Asked what prompted her interest in this area, she speaks in general terms, "I see people who are getting older.  And people think dementia or Alzheimer's is a normal part of ageing.  It's not."

Many people diagnosed with dementia in their 60s, 70s, or 80s exhibit changes in their brain at the age of 40 or 50 and Fionnuala says "there are things you can do about that - you can alleviate by 30 per cent the potential risk of getting it".

"It's like a tsunami," she continues.  "It doesn't just affect the person, it affects the whole community, the family, it causes a lot of personal grief, a lot of ripples, but it also costs a lot to the healthcare system, not just in Ireland, but everywhere.

"In Ireland we have a dementia strategy and people are very committed.  With something like cancer 30 years ago, when you said you had cancer to somebody they didn't really know what to say whereas now I think we can have a conversation with someone."

The hope is that we can soon have the same conversations about dementia.  Although Fionnuala has taken a role on The Late Debate, she says her work on dementia is "actually always going to be a part of my life" and she will continue to work on research projects and advocacy.

Although it might seem a million miles away from broadcasting, she says she's "still a journalist", adding, "It's just a different form of journalims, more long form journalism, more than writing a package under three minutes or interviews that last six minutes."

It's clear she's thrilled to return to radio, which she describes as a "very pure form of broadcasting because you can focus on what's being said without any distractions".

Prior to her start news reporting for 2FM and RTE, Fionnuala had worked at Energy Power 103FM, a pirate Dublin station.

"I think it's great to be able to try different mediums but I've always loved radio, listening to radio, " she says.  "Even when I was travelling anywhere in the world, the advances in technology meant I'd be able to listen to radio from Ireland to keep in touch. 

"So for me, in terms of coming full circle, [coming back to radio at RTE] in some ways is 'coming home'."

People of a certain vintage in Ireland may best remember Fionnuala as the host of the Eurovision Song Contest 1993.  We hosted in Dublin as we had won the previous year with Linda Martin's Why Me.  The year Fionnuala presented we won again with Niamh Kavanagh's ballad, In Your Eyes.

Fionnuala has hugely fond memories of that time.

"I am just really proud that I as a part of that, that I got to be a part of that," she says.  "I know personally it was a really exciting and exhilarating time in my life and there's a certain quiet, proud, humble satisfaction that I was considered for that role and got to play a part and present it in Ireland at a time when Ireland had just won it.

"We won that year and we won again the following year and when I see it now I just think I was very proud to be a part of it.  It gives me great satisfaction because it touches so many people by how diverse it is but also how inclusive.  It touches whole continents of people."

The Late Debate airs on RTE Radio 1 Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays at 10pm.

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