So to last night’s TV3/Newstalk debate where the leaders of three right-wing establishment parties sought to pummel into submission the leader of a left-wing anti-establishment party – when two of them weren’t squaring off against the third. It was an extremely scrappy affair with no clear winner. Micheál Martin of Fianna Fáil seemed the most confident of the four party heads, and did a surprisingly good job of defending FF’s deplorable record while in office. Full marks for chutzpah, especially given his previous role as one of the ministers who initiated the gutting of the health services. He also managed to get in a few digs at the present Fine Oibre coalition that clearly hit home judging from the waspish reactions.
Gerry Adams of Sinn Féin came a close second, providing a strong line on the economy in the face of collective hectoring, especially from a Labour Party leader who seemed to be auditioning for a melodramatic TV soap opera (what idiotic pre-debate adviser came up with the “finger of intimidation” stunt?). However it was disappointing that he failed to land any firm blows when a number of obvious targets presented themselves. Then again fighting from a corner in an extremely hostile environment, with at least one unsympathetic moderator, probably didn’t help. SF has to come up with some voter-friendly soundbites on the obvious need for reform or abolishment of the Special Criminal Court very soon.
Fine Gael’s Enda Kenny looked to be in school principal mode, interjecting every now and again, though he and Martin got into a few knockabout rounds. He didn’t do himself any favours, he didn’t do himself any harm, so all in all, a promise of more of the same. It does give proof to his previous wisdom of avoiding debates. It is not his strong point and his habit of waffling, or Alan Partridge style anecdotes to illustrate otherwise serious points, doesn’t help.
By far the worst performer was Joan Burton of the Labour Party, continuing her nosedive into political mediocracy. If animosity was the primary characteristic of the debate last night the cause for much it of lay with the Labour boss. Clearly the fear of being replaced by Sinn Féin as the party of the left and centre-left in Irish politics has her rattled (though Labour jumped the line to sup the right-wing soup long ago). About the only thing in her favour was her firm stance on the need for constitutional change in relation to the provision of abortion services. Which of course was undermined by her patently false claims about FF and SF policies, not to mention her dismissal of the socio-economic hardships still being suffered by the Irish people as a whole. Out of touch, much?
About the only thing one could take from the 90 minutes of discussions and arguments was Labour’s disdain for Sinn Féin, perhaps surpassing even Fine Gael’s, and Fianna Fáil leaving the door open to some sort of agreement with FG (and Labour) in a future minority or coalition government. Hopefully the presence of political leaders from other parties on the left will provide some real balance in the next debate.