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Personal drug use and a potential grand coalition: The key moments from the first head-to-head TV debate

There was no Sinn Féin representative present but the party was not far away from the debate.

Varadkar and Martin in the Virgin Media Television studios.
Varadkar and Martin in the Virgin Media Television studios.
Image: Maxwell Photography

TAOISEACH LEO VARADKAR and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin took part in the first live TV debate of the election campaign last night. 

The 75-minute programme was moderated by Pat Kenny and was broadcast on Virgin Media One. 

The leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil clashed over housing, healthcare, pensions, crime and Brexit.

So what were the main moments? 

Feeling confident?  

Tonight’s debate took place against the backdrop of Sinn Féin sending a legal letter to RTÉ to pressure the national broadcaster against its planned two-person, head-to-head election debate on 4 February. 

Announcing the party’s action, Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty said Martin and Varadkar have “shared government for the last four years”. 

Presented with the past four years of confidence and supply in tonight’s debate, Martin was quick to distance himself from the idea that his party was anything more than a silent onlooker. 

When Kenny said Fianna Fáil facilitated the passage of laws and were essentially “the same old faces” that Martin was talking about, the leader shot back that they were “not in government”.

“There was no Fianna Fáil Minister for Health, no Fianna Fáil Minister for Housing,” he added, clearly choosing the most controversial ministries to make his point. 

Martin then returned to the oft-repeated line that his party was making sure “there was a functioning government” in the country. 

Perhaps the single biggest development out of tonight’s debate was Varadkar’s apparent openness to a grand coalition between the two parties. 

It came in response to Kenny suggesting that the two parties simply “get together” after the election. 

Varadkar made it clear that such a situation would not be his preference but, significantly, he didn’t rule it out either: 

We have to be grown-ups, my preference would be to form a coalition with old partners like Labour and independents, maybe new partners like Greens. But if it’s the case that people vote in a certain way and the only way we can form a stable government is for Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael to work together, well I’m willing to do that.

The Taoiseach was pushed further on this and he confirmed that he was referring to working with Fianna Fáil either as part of a confidence and supply agreement or as coalition partners.

Martin was then asked what he thought of these proposals but the Fianna Fáil leader instead attacked Varadkar for “not being grown up” himself.

Say no to drugs, kids. Or at least answer the question. 

In a summary of a serious election debate, one would usually wait until the end of an article to deliver some light relief, but Varadkar’s answer on whether he had ever taken illegal drugs was so awkward that it’s worth noting at this point. 

During an exchange about crime, Kenny asked the question of both leaders and said he was seeking “an honest answer”. 

Martin quickly answered that he never done so but Varadkar said he’d answered that question “in a Hot Press interview 10 or 12 years ago and answered it truthfully”.

The exchange could have ended there but Martin laughed and both he and Kenny enquired: “which is?”

There followed four seconds of excruciating silence before Varadkar said: “Yes, but it was obviously a long time ago”. 

There is clearly a debate to be had over the merits of asking politicians such questions but Varadkar probably should have given his eventual answer up front. 

Speaking on the Tonight Show after the debate, Fr Peter McVerry dismissed it as a pointless question, adding that only people buying drugs regularly should have to account for their moral decision.

Either way it was a standout moment in the otherwise standard debate. As much for the cringe factor as anything.

In the Hot Press interview, by the way, Varadkar said he had smoked cannabis in college and when asked whether he had experimented with other drugs said: ”Not since I’ve held elected office, anyway. I’ve been extremely law-abiding since I’ve been elected to politics.”

Empathetic Leo

Depending on you point of view, Varadkar’s answer on the drugs question may provoke some anger, eye-rolling or maybe even a little sympathy.

But it was noteworthy that at several points during the debate the Taoiseach attempted to account for a perceived lack of empathy towards the issues in society his government has presided over.

Only on Monday the Taoiseach rather clumsily referenced his own home ownership when saying he felt every person should be able to buy their home.

Kenny referenced a separate Peter McVerry comment in which he said that Varadkar’s party perhaps sometimes lacked the empathy required to lead.  

Varadkar acknowledged that this had been said about his party and indeed about himself personally, adding that he “probably can’t put it into words as well as my opponent does”.

“I show my empathy, I show the fact I care in the work I do. Maybe I don’t say the right words, but I show them in the work that I do,” he added. 

In the past few days there have been some suggestions that Fine Gael may be better off sidelining Varadkar for the remainder of the campaign. 

The admission could be seen as a way for the Taoiseach to silence those calls and stay in the game a bit longer. Either that or he just wanted to be honest about his failings.

You decide. 

United Ireland

While Sinn Féin weren’t represented at the debate, the party was mentioned repeatedly.

Both Varadkar and Martin took turns at ruling out a coalition with Sinn Féin but the party was also mentioned in relation to the debate around a United Ireland. 

While neither said they supported a border poll over the next five years, Varadkar seemed more open to the idea beyond that, stating:

I believe in a United Ireland and believe a United Ireland can be achieved in my lifetime. And we should never rule out or totally dismiss the possibility of a border poll because that is in the Good Friday Agreement. And believing in a United Ireland is a legitimate aspiration for people north and south. 

Martin was then asked if he could envisage a United Ireland in his lifetime, to which he responded that “it’s possible, it very well could happen”. 

“But actually what do you mean by a United Ireland,” he added. 

“I think we have to evolve. I would much prefer Pat, if I’m honest, to have people fully working the Good Friday Agreement.”

About the author:

Rónán Duffy

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