Joe Brolly back with a new podcast
FORCE of nature can be a cliché when describing people, but for GAA pundit, barrister and now podcaster Joe Brolly, it fits the bill.
Arriving in the Belfast offices of The Irish News, there’s no mistaking Brolly is in the building as he immediately falls to his knees in praise of photographer and former Olympic boxer Hugh Russell.
With him is the award-winning author and interviewer Dion Fanning, who is co-hosting the new no-holds barred podcast – Free State with Joe Brolly and Dion Fanning.
Covering everything from sport to politics, addiction and more, the varied guest list includes a Nigerian prince, former prime ministers, ex-convicts and sports stars.
Known for his pointed and often provocative takes on topical issues, Brolly was unceremoniously booted off RTÉ after 20 years as a GAA pundit on The Sunday Game.
Fed up with the “banal politeness” of mainstream broadcasters, it’s easy to see why the podcast format appeals.
Preparing a list of prepared questions, as it turns out, was absurdly optimistic as within minutes the duo have anticipated every topic from Gary Lineker’s showdown with the BBC to the political stalemate at Stormont.
Answers can somehow swing from the DUP to meeting Joe Biden, transgender culture wars and an American footballer who once wrestled an 800lb bear.
Joe in particular needs little prompting, while introducing Dion as “the posh one” from south Dublin.
“Dion comes from a very literary, journalistic background and he has a posh accent,” Joe says.
“He’s a free thinker as well. One of the things that compels me to do the podcast is that it has become increasingly difficult for me to express my opinion on things.
“I’m conscious that there’s a huge audience out there who want to hear things that are said without any of the banal politeness.
“It’s an increasing problem that people sound the same, young people think they have to speak in a certain way, use clichés instead of being a human being.
"...The thing about the podcast is you can express yourself freely, no-one can say to you 'you can't say that'."
On the Gary Lineker fallout, Dion says: “They tried to sanction him because the BBC said ‘you can’t take any position on party political matters’, as if party politics is at a higher level of discourse.
“When you see in America and Britain, party political discourse isn’t conducted in good faith any more.
“When politicians are saying there’s an invasion and a swarm of migrants coming into the country, there’s no impartiality.”
Asked how he can possibly be expected to get a word in edgeways on the podcast, Dion says: “Somebody has to be the adult in the room, and unfortunately that somebody is me.”
Joe agrees he has had to find a different gear, away from his punditry or career as a criminal barrister.
“Dion’s a natural interviewer. We’ve been recording podcasts already, and for me it’s about listening,” he said.
“Whereas when you’re a criminal advocate it’s about trying to overwhelm a person in the dock.
“So you have to try not to bring all those techniques to bear.”
One of the episodes in particular focuses on Dion’s past experience with addiction.
“It was amazing listening back to it, I think people will be surprised after being used to Joe Brolly with opinions,” said Dion.
“When he’s being the interviewer, it’s full of insight and full of stuff that will surprise people.”
Asked how he can attract listeners who don’t agree with him, Joe describes making a beeline for the DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson during the recent St Patrick’s celebrations at the White House.
“You could see his face: ‘Oh, here he comes.’ I said: ‘Sir Jeffrey, you must come on my podcast.’ You could see the relief on his face and I just shook hands with him,” he said.
“A lot of this stuff is all front which drops away once they get chatting to you. We saw this classically with Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness.
“What’s the secret of civilised community? It’s getting to know each other.”
He takes particular issue with what he calls a "hate campaign" against transgender people and immigrants.
“Why the f*** should people hound and persecute a fellow human being because of their sexual identity?”
He added: “The idea that instead of looking at the root causes of poverty, of inequality, that people are going to protest outside motels where immigrants are getting s*** food, living in fear. That somehow that’s going to make life better for everyone in society is absolutely ludicrous.
“So we’ll not be doing the shock jock Piers Morgan thing. It’s a very worrying trend. Trump and Boris are twins across the ocean, Brexit and 'build the wall'.
“It’s pure hatred, it’s motivating people to hate others.”
Joe also expresses frustration at what he calls 'IRA-ing' by the DUP and others when he tries to make a point, instead of engaging in factual debate.
His late father Francie, a former Sinn Féin MLA, was arrested in 2005 over the 1972 Claudy bombing.
He denied any involvement and was later released without charge.
"There was a blaze of cameras and publicity came to the house," Joe said.
“What’s used against me now is 'your da was a murdering IRA b******.'
“In politics, you’re supposed to exchange facts and debate, then you come to a compromise. The DUP can’t do that, they don’t want to do that. So what they do is they 'IRA’. "
On his own background, Dion said his grandmother was a Presbyterian from Rostrevor who moved down to Tralee in the 1940s and “converted to lapsed Catholicism”.
“I grew up with an abhorrence of what the IRA was doing, and I don’t abandon that tradition," he said.
"But when I talk about it, it’s not from a point of view that I have a point to score.”
“She’s the queen of Irish podcasting. These are the mysteries of life – you can do a podcast that will fall flat on its face, or some become part of the psyche," said Joe.
“Her listenership is huge. All across the world, people just come up to me and tell me ‘I love your wife,’ even though they’ve never met her."