WE’RE JUST DAYS away from going to the polls but we had one last chance to see the leaders of the biggest parties fight it out for our votes.
After a three-week campaign, there was a sense of jadedness among the four politicians taking centre stage at RTÉ studios in Donnybrook.
But Enda Kenny, Gerry Adams, Joan Burton and Micheál Martin did their best to deliver some killer blows while remaining unscathed themselves.
Here’s how it all went down….
1. Gerry had a bad night
Landed with the IRA question straight out of the blocks, Gerry Adams stumbled multiple times on his way to the finish line.
Dismissing Miriam’s inquiry about his role during the Troubles, he said that Ireland has moved into a new era.
However, he found it difficult to move swiftly into his answers, getting stuck when asked repeatedly for more details about Sinn Féin’s plans for healthcare reform. Eventually, he spoke of recruiting as many consultants as it possibly can.
He probably provided the most awkward moment of the night when Enda Kenny mentioned Senator Mairia Cahill and he had to ask to who he was referring to.
As well as the obvious blunders, Adams was continuously weak on detail despite earlier claims that he wasn’t ‘at sea’ on numbers. He then tried to fall back on his old strategy of hammering the government without regard to the specifics of the question.
In the end, his pre-prepared and oft-repeated jibes about the ‘three amigos’ fell flat in light of his poor performance.
2. Nobody was comfortable talking about cronyism
A significant portion of the second half of the debate was given over to talking about political appointments – or cronyism as Miriam O’Callaghan was adamant to call it.
With decades of Irish politics behind them – and thus imperfect records – none of the four were strong on the issue. At times, each of the leaders looked uncomfortable with the line of questioning.
Joan Burton had to deal with the David Begg appointment, which was made without going through the proper public channels.
Across the podium, Enda Kenny maybe forgot what he had or hadn’t taken blame for during the McNulty affair. The Taoiseach admitted for the first time that he had appointed Donegal man, John McNulty to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art.
It had previously been claimed that Arts Minister Heather Humphreys was behind the move which would help qualify him for a vacant seat in the Seanad.
Gerry Adams was quick to point out the ‘scoop’ – but it probably wasn’t the knock-out punch that he believed it was at the time. In reality, how many people remember or still care about the controversy?
In a rare televised slip-up, Micheál Martin was asked about his appointment of Bertie Ahern’s partner Celia Larkin to the board of the National Consumer Agency. He replied: “Yes, I did appoint Miriam O’Callaghan.”
And finally, Adams was also caught on his party’s record on appointments to cross-party boards and “good republicans”. He tried to fudge an answer about not having the power to do so. But neither the moderator nor the audience was buying it.
The only winner here was O’Callaghan herself.
3. There was another solid turnout from Micheál
Since the general election campaign began less than three weeks ago, Martin’s popularity has rocketed to 54% (from 33%). This has been mostly down to his hard-to-poke-holes-in performances in widely watched televised debates.
He continues to be strong on defending his record in government as a Fianna Fáil minister, despite the connotations that CV entry brings.
He had a couple of hairier moments tonight, as mentioned, but generally there’ll be another happy Fianna Fáil camp. He skilfully manoevered out of the cronyism questions, defended his previous actions in health and housing and got decent criticisms in on the government’s plans to abolish USC, stating that it would be wrong to take an entire tax out of the system.
We just have to see now if the leader’s success over the three debates will translate to votes on the ground?
4. Enda was grand, not good, but grand
But that will be enough for the sighs of relief from Fine Gael strategists to be heard over the creaking floors of RTÉ.
Political correspondents were being told before kick off that Kenny would bounce back from Whingegate and “outperform expectations”.
The spinners were hoping if they said it enough, it would come true. And, in fact, it worked. He was a tad improved on other debates, if not a bit quiet.
The Taoiseach will never try to jump in on questions and probably had the least speaking time of the four participants. But that will be just fine by him. He needed to ensure there were no big gaffes tonight. The McNulty mention aside, he managed to do this.
His weakest moment came during O’Callaghan’s robust questioning on the fairness of the USC abolition. His repeated answer of, “The point I’m making is that every worker benefits” could only be described as waffle.
5. Joan was much improved
And she needed to be. She had been slated after her last two appearances, mostly for butting in across others.
She was by no means a wallflower tonight but there was certainly less commentary about her insistence to talk. Although quieter, what she did say was more effective.
With strong answers for most questions, she had a particularly good moment when pointing out to Martin that her party had restored the minimum wage.
The Labour leader also got a memorable line in – one of very few of the evening – by asking Adams what “cloud cuckoo land” he was living in.
She was the only person to mention the Eighth Amendment during the 90-minute debate, shoehorning it into her closing statement. Unfortunately, she was looking at the wrong camera throughout.
6. We missed the other leaders
The nerves were gone but there was a definite air of tiredness among the four tonight – the silly slip-ups over names, the lack of detail about everything and the absence of sharp retorts or one-liners could all be put down to borderline exhaustion.
There was also a familiarity about the whole affair, like a third-place play-off at a sub-standard championships.
We’ve seen them play each other before and the outcome really doesn’t matter all that much.
The studio really could have done with another few teams in the mix to liven it up. Even if they can’t take the trophy, we missed the dulcet tones of Richard Boyd-Barrett, the incessant questioning of Lucinda Creighton and the number crunching of Stephen Donnelly.
7. Nobody really has a clue about climate change
And if we were waiting for them to get het up, climate change certainly wasn’t the thing to do it.
Although there was considerable delight among some of the watching public that the topic was being brought up at last, the leaders themselves didn’t have a whole lot to say.
Which was obvious as there was a lot less of the ‘Joan, stop talking’ or ‘Gerry, don’t talk over him’ pleas from O’Callaghan during the section.
Burton’s answers on the changes the Irish public need to make to their personal behaviours and the investment needed in transport systems was the strongest input of the night.
8. No question about the Eighth Amendment
Once again, there was no question about the parties’ stances on the Eighth Amendment. Despite it being a lively segment in the TV3 debate a fortnight ago, RTÉ One has not asked the question in either of its programmes.
Enda Kenny and Micheál Martin will be relieved at not having to respond to questions their parties haven’t formulated answers to.
9. It was all about the creak
What was that sound? The most tweeted about item of the entire show was the creaky RTÉ stage.