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Lise Hand: 'Nobody wiped the floor with anyone else... except perhaps Miriam O'Callaghan'

A behind-the-scenes look at last night’s RTÉ Leaders’ Debate.

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LEO VARADKAR’S DISEMBODIED voice floated through a live mic from the Prime Time studio into the room next door where the media were awaiting kick-off of the three-way debate.

“This podium is a bit low – is there a way to make it a bit higher?’ he asked politely. “It’s my height, you know.”

Micheál Martin, a tall chap himself, was in complete agreement.

“You’d have to reach down,” he concurred, an apparent reference to the shelves on the podiums where the trio were to place essentials such as water, cog notes and burnt offerings to the God of One-Liners.

This was the last moment where the leaders of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil were in harmony for the next 100 or so minutes.

Not that it prevented the leader of Sinn Féin from lumping the duo she pointedly described as “the two men” together at every opportunity.

If Mary Lou McDonald mentioned Fine Gael in one breath, then Fianna Fáil was name-checked in the next. She was gung-ho to paint the pair as joined at the political hip like an inept Beavis and Butt-Head.

Live TV debates during an election are frequently bigged up in advance as Crucial and Key with a liberal sprinkling of fight metaphors about heavyweight contenders, low blows, knockout punches and some unfortunate political pugilist finding themselves on the ropes.

But last night’s Prime Time debate – which could’ve been just another slugfest between the Big Two in a humdrum, predictable mehlection campaign – had been transmogrified into a potential winner-takes-all scrap by the late inclusion of McDonald due to Sinn Féin’s spectacular surge in the polls.

Having made stacks of political hay over its leader being shut out through an establishment stitch-up, Sinn Féin’s wish was granted and McDonald joined the fray. Though when she was hit for six towards the end of the debate she may have wished that she had remained consigned to the sidelines.

This was a big debate for all three leaders: buffeted by the unexpected arrival of a mighty wind of change, Fine Gael’s poll numbers have been rocketing downhill faster than a Jamaican bobsleigh team, while Fianna Fáil are struggling to protect hard-won gains from being snaffled by Sinn Féin who in turn needed to present itself as a viable and responsible alternative government option.

Making their opening statements, Varadkar sprang from the traps like a starving greyhound, launching straight into a high-speed attack on both his opponents and warning that “not all change is for the better” while even shoehorning in a Brexit mention, for all the good it might do.

McDonald was having none of it, declaring “the theme of this election is a thirst for change – these two men have been in government together for the past four years”. Micheál Martin jumped in swiftly – “That’s a big lie,” he protested.

It was a tense start from the trio who each has a lot at stake. There is still a large number of undecided members of the electorate milling about looking for a home for their number one votes.

But anyone tuning in expecting a shouty slugfest would have been bitterly disappointed.

Instead, what unfolded was a surprisingly substantial discussion of policies, of past actions and of future plans.

And this remarkable turn of events – an actual debate, by the hokey – was the work of co-moderators David McCullagh and Miriam O’Callaghan who deftly swapped the role of interlocutor, kept the interviewees from knitting wooly answers and firmly shut down the sort of rowdy cross-podium roaring which melts the collective head of tv audiences.

There had been a bit of speculation as to what approach Varadkar and Martin would adopt when crossing swords with McDonald, as both would be all-too aware that two blokes piling in on a woman – even one who is as formidable a debater as the Sinn Féin leader – would be a very bad look indeed.

She had no such compunction, and neatly skewered her opponents on some issues such as vulture funds, and the rental and housing crisis.

“The reality is, each in their own individual ways, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael have created this crisis,” she charged. “Fianna Fáil was and is the party of property developers, and Fine Gael is the party of landlords,” she declared in a neat, easily digestible soundbite.

But if Varadkar and Martin were somewhat circumspect in engaging with the Sinn Féin leader, some of her more fuzzy responses were dissected by the moderators, such as her party’s stance on the Special Criminal Courts.

“I support the courts,” she dodged under close questioning from O’Callaghan. “I believe that we need special powers,” she equivocated unconvincingly.

And in a debate unusually devoid of pantomime faux-outrage, the most dramatic moment was also courtesy of O’Callaghan when she pressed the Sinn Féin leader on comments made by senior party member Conor Murphy – then finance minister in Stormont – following the brutal murder of 19-year old Paul Quinn from Armagh in 2007 in which he falsely alleged the dead man had been involved in criminality.

Miriam O’Callaghan quoted McDonald’s response to a question on the issue during a television interview the previous evening in which she had stated, “he is very clear he [Murphy] never said that, that is not his view”.

The moderator then produced a verbatim transcript from Murphy’s BBC interview a month after the murder: “Paul Quinn was involved in smuggling and criminality – I think everyone accepts that,” she read aloud.

McDonald was snookered, and floundered badly.

“This things should not have been said…” she began before O’Callaghan interjected. “But last night you said that they weren’t said,” she pointed out.

The rattled leader replied, “To be honest with you, my recollection was that he had not been as explicit as that.”

O’Callaghan pressed on.

“So your remarks last night were wrong too?” she asked.

“Yes well obviously I was not… I remembered Conor being not quite as direct on this matter,” McDonald explained hesitantly.

It was a striking sight to watch this usually sure-footed politician skating precariously on thin ice.

But the others stumbled too – Leo Varadkar once again had to pick over his less-than assured handling of a range of issues from hospital beds to the Dara Murphy/Verona Murphy/Maria Bailey fiascos, while Micheál Martin offered the daftest answer of the night when asked about what he regarded as his biggest political mistake and offered an insight about “having to stand out from the herd”.

Martin landed a few skelps on Varadkar, but also had to take the zinger of the night on the chin. The Fine Gael leader, in a line he had clearly prepared long before he set foot in the studio, declared, “Putting Micheál Martin and Fianna Fáil back in charge of the economy would be like putting John Delaney back in charge of the FAI.”

Back of the net. Martin was sick as a parrot.

Whether or not the trio’s various strikes and stumbles will have changed the minds of viewers is hard to predict. Nobody wiped the floor with each other.

However one participant may have literally wiped the floor. Before the start of the debate, the live studio mic also picked up production people fretting about scuff marks left on the studio floor by a posse of photographers brought in for a pre-game photo shoot.

“Here let me do it – I’m very good at mopping,” Miriam O’Callaghan offered.

And there we all were, thinking it was only politicians who declared their talent for cleaning up messes left by other people.

See more of Lise Hand’s columns for TheJournal.ie here.

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About the author:

Lise Hand  / Journalist-at-large

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