FOR THE FIRST time in five years Enda Kenny came face-to-face with Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams in a live television and radio debate tonight.
The trio were joined by Joan Burton at the TV3 studios in Dublin for the first debate of the election campaign, which was simultaneously broadcast on Newstalk.
Pat Kenny and Colette Fitzpatrick were the moderators and here’s what you need to know.
1. The arrivals set the tone…
It was almost as if Adams and Sinn Féin were looking to win the pre-match mind games by arriving in the campaign battle bus, while the other leaders came in modest chauffeured cars.
Adams laughed it off, insisting it was a mode of transport he’s now used to and joking that it allowed him to use the bus lanes. Why was he the last of the four leaders to arrive? “I was having a bath,” he answered without missing a beat.
By contrast, Kenny seemed less assured as he arrived for his first TV debate in five years. He welcomed us to a building that isn’t his and which he described as “brand new”. TV3′s HD studio has been open for over two years.
2. … and they were rowdy from the off
After perfunctory opening statements, the leaders talked tax and, as soon as he could, Adams was on the attack, claiming Kenny would personally benefit from the Fine Gael proposal to abolish USC. It wasn’t long before Burton hit back with her own jibes, accusing Sinn Féin of “fuzzy economics”.
Martin tried to raise Kenny’s remarks before Christmas about bringing US-style tax rates to Ireland and, generally, the leaders engaged in lots of interrupting each other throughout this section of the debate. Burton’s timely intervention was welcome:
3. LOUD NOISES
The shouting, the interrupting, and the talking over each other only got worse as the first part of the debate wore on. Martin’s past record in health was, of course, attacked by everyone – although Burton did credit him with introducing the smoking ban.
At one point Martin slammed Kenny’s “brass neck” and then told the Taoiseach: ”You’re interrupting non-stop because you can’t face the truth.”
Ironically, Enda constantly interrupted this sentence by shouting “facts, facts, facts” across the studio. The end of part one was most welcome.
4. Gerry sidesteps the Special Criminal Court…
The Sinn Féin president was subjected to some incisive questioning from Pat Kenny on the Special Criminal Court, but he repeatedly sidestepped the matter and instead focussed on the lack of Garda resources.
Even when Burton went on the attack, Adams accused her of “fairytales” and said the government had made “a mess of justice”. Given the difficulty this matter poses for Adams he handled it reasonably well.
5. … and gets into a shouting match over the past
In one of the most devastating critiques of the debate, Martin lashed Adams over the “kangaroo courts” that led to the disappearance of Jean McConville and the “kneecapping of thousands of people”.
This led to an extended shouting match between the two opposition party leaders with Adams at one point saying to Martin:
Go away and catch yourself on.
6. Enda stays quiet
Kenny was silent for the first 10 minutes of part two before condemning the threats to INM journalists. Then he launched into a lengthy attack on Adams, listing some of the devastating crimes carried out by dissidents in what seemed like pre-prepared lines.
It wasn’t the first time that Kenny seemed to be rehashing lines he’d come up with earlier. After his early clashes with Martin he did, as much as he could, stay out of the rowdier exchanges between the other three.
In doing this Kenny was clearly trying to rise above the fray and present himself as a statesman. It’s exactly what he and his handlers would have hoped for, but it’s questionable as to whether it worked on the viewers at home.
7. Eventually, they all calmed down
Things became far less heated when abortion and repealing the Eighth Amendment came up. Colette Fitzpatrick asked some cutting questions about women dealing with cases of fatal foetal abnormality that put all of the male party leaders on the backfoot.
Kenny stuck to previous comments he’s made about the need for a sensitive discussion and listening to the profound experiences of women who come forward. Martin implied this issue was bigger than the election, and said his party would offer a free vote.
Not for the first time, Burton pointed out she was the only woman in the debate, telling Fitzpatrick: “As a mother… you asked both of the men there…” Her answer was the most effective in terms of outlining what her party would do – repeal the controversial amendment.
Interestingly, when Pat Kenny asked participants who they’d call if a constituent came to clinic after having an illegal abortion, ambulance or cops, no one said cops. In fact, the Taoiseach was the first to reply with: “Ambulance.”
8. Joan’s gaffe as Martin hits back
After Burton once again blamed Fianna Fáil for the past, Martin came into his element on homelessness. He launched a strong attack on the Tánaiste after she committed a gaffe of sorts by saying of homelessness advocate Fr Peter McVerry:
Martin pointed out that Fianna Fáil built thousands of social houses in government, in contrast to the current coalition’s record.
9. Did anyone win?
That was one of a number of telling contributions from the Fianna Fáil leader who was forensic in his takedown of government actions over the last five years in housing and other areas. He was the strongest performer of the four.
Burton seemed to spend a lot of the night attacking Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin, while Adams coped reasonably well with uncomfortable questions and stuck to his own, well-worn attack lines.
As for the man who shied away from debates for five years, Kenny’s ability to stay out of most of the unseemly squabbling, particularly in the latter stages of the debate, meant he emerged unscathed.
But for a lot of people watching at home this was, for large parts, a loud and uninformative shouting match.
As it happened: The first Leaders’ Debate of the 2016 general election