AFTER ROUND ONE on TV3 last week, it was RTÉ’s turn to have the party leaders debate each other in Limerick tonight.
Renua’s Lucinda Creighton, the SocDems’ Stephen Donnelly and People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett joined Enda, Joan, Micheál and Gerry on stage at the University Concert Hall.
Claire Byrne had the unenviable task of moderating proceedings as the seven party leaders went at it….
1. An altogether more civil affair
Despite this being a seven-way debate it was far less shouty than last week’s slugfest on TV3. A lot of that had to do with the excellent work of Byrne who, bluntly, took no bull.
Several times she cut the leaders off when they started squabbling and talking over each other. It proved effective and popular with the audience:
2. Enda holds his punches…
Perhaps it was the format and the fact there were three extra voices to be heard this week, but it was hard to escape the sense that the Taoiseach was once again silent for long periods.
Kenny seemed to think that staying out of the rows would benefit him. Perhaps it did, but it also allowed the others, like Donnelly and Richard Boyd-Barrett, to make their case, while Adams and Martin squabbled, and Burton answered questions she wasn’t asked.
3. … and consults the archives
It’s clear that the government parties are set on targeting Micheál Martin and the Taoiseach repeatedly went to his notes to drag up the Fianna Fáil leader’s past. First he recalled how Martin told Bloomberg and Fox News in 2010 that Ireland wouldn’t need a bailout.
Later, Martin staunchly defended his record on health, saying he “disagreed fundamentally” with Byrne’s analysis of it as she put a question to him.
“Rubbish, rubbish!” shouted Kenny across the studio before he dipped back into his notes and dragged up a pledge Martin made as minister for health in 2002 when he said the government would “permanently abolish waiting lists in two years”.
Broadly, Martin didn’t have as good a night as he did last week, the format not allowing him to aim as many direct criticisms at the government as he did on TV3.
4. Stephen Donnelly vs. The Establishment
It was flagged beforehand that the SocDems could do well out of this debate and indeed Stephen Donnelly, one of their three leaders, was a strong performer throughout. His basic argument was that the political establishment was wrong on everything, from cutting USC to the best way of supporting businesses.
He made the difficult argument that now is not the time to abolish USC with “economic storm clouds gathering”. It was a view that diverged from most of the other leaders on stage, but it might well have appealed to voters who aren’t buying the current round of auction politics from the others.
Perhaps most interestingly Donnelly found a fan in the Taoiseach, who knows well that he might need the SocDems after the election:
But Burton was less enamoured by the Wicklow TD, no doubt aware that the SocDems are threatening to take Labour votes all over the country:
5. Angry Gerry
There was a particularly heated exchange between the two opposition leaders early on in the debate when Micheál Martin said that Adams had been denying IRA membership for 30 years and expected people to believe them.
Adams challenged Martin to go to the gardaí if he had any information to that effect. Martin shot back that there isn’t a guard in the country who believes Adams.
But by that stage the Sinn Féin leader had launched into an extended rant, with his voice raised and lots of gesticulating, about how all of this didn’t help the homeless children, people on trolleys and others all over the country.
Adams’s anger at facing the usual questions over his past clearly got to him and he seemed more shaken by it than he was last week on TV3. Twice he referred to Martin, Kenny and Burton as “the three amigos” but the joke fell flat on both occasions.
6. Richard Boyd-Barrett takes off
The AAA-PBP representative was fairly subdued early on, but when he excoriated the government over cutting the dole for under 26s he got the first round of applause of the night. Buoyed by that he increased the volume and the hand waving and before you knew it was just like his regular shouty Dáil performances.
“If the public sector does not create jobs, our young people will not come back here,” he said to yet more applause. They were putting their hands together again when the Dún Laoghaire TD slammed the government for closing down local emergency department services. On the clap-o-meter, Boyd-Barrett was the undoubted winner of the night.
7. Joan struggles again
The Tánaiste is having her first experience of TV debates in this election and, to be frank, she just isn’t at the races. She was the worst performer last week and she struggled again tonight. Several times she spoke about issues completely unrelated to the question she was asked.
When asked about broken promises, Burton spoke about the economy growing by an average of 3.1% over the next five years. When asked about jobs, she talked about the government having reopened Templemore and recruiting extra gardaí. In the section on housing, the moderator’s intervention was telling:
At one point, Burton began speaking over Kenny to make a point that he broadly agreed with while trying to make his own. He looked rather bemused at the intervention.
8. Lucinda on the edge
The Renua leader was to the far-right of the stage and seemed to get very few opportunities to contribute.
She talked of the need to depoliticise health, overhaul the tax system and introduce a flat tax, and got time to speak about the party’s controversial three strikes crime policy. But none of it seemed to enthuse the audience. Of the three smaller party leaders, she was the least relevant on the night.
9. Claire Byrne for Taoiseach
It’s somewhat cliched these days to praise a moderator after a scrappy debate, but Byrne really was excellent. At no stage tonight did the debate get out of control or even threaten to get out of control.
She cut off the leaders when they started shouting at each other and she wasn’t afraid to challenge them when she felt they needed challenging:
As it happened: It’s the RTÉ general election leaders’ debate