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Lise Hand: Will they? Won't they? Shades of Love Island as big parties can't avoid recoupling talk

Who needs bikinis and palm trees and hook-ups when we have Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin post-breakup? asked Lise Hand who was in Ballymount last night for the Virgin Media Big Debate.

Lise Hand Journalist-at-large

MICHAEÁL MARTIN LOOKED soulfully at Pat Kenny as he explained why he had been trapped in a loveless political marriage with Leo for so long. There had been three of them in the relationship, he said sadly.

“Because of Brexit – are you seriously suggesting we should have dumped them in the middle of Brexit?” he said.

Anyone tuning into Virgin Media One last night expecting to see ‘Love Island’ must’ve wondered who the hell let two totally square lads into the villa. In suits! What the hell!

But who needs bikinis and palm trees and hook-ups when we have Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin post-breakup? After four years of an experimental domestic arrangement, the confidence-and-supply agreement between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil finally fizzled out, the election is in… well… half-swing.

A week in, curveball issues relating to crime and the pensions gap had most of the parties running around looking for voter-friendly responses, in between taking pot-shots at each other and solemnly chanting that opinion polls are mere trifles and the only poll which matters is the one on 8 February.

But the head-to-head debate would change everything said, oh absolutely everyone. It would be a chance for the two leaders – one of them destined (by dint of electoral math, bar an asteroid strike on Fine Gael or Fianna Fáil HQ) to be the next Taoiseach.

Despite Sinn Fein’s rise in two successive opinion polls, there was no room at either of the scheduled leaders’ debates on Virgin Media and RTÉ for Mary Lou McDonald, who has been (metaphorically) left with her nose pressed against the glass like a Dickensian orphan.

It was Leo Varadkar’s first such debate as party leader, and he brought along a few mates – Paschal Donohoe, Regina Doherty, Helen McEntee and Simon Harris – just like a nervous flyer might be accompanied on a plane by their emotional support animals.

Wearing a white shirt bright enough to dazzle the inhabitants of the international space station, the taoiseach eyed the large posse of media lying in wait at the entrance and muttered to his staffer, “Do I have to talk to them now?”

The answer apparently was no.

Micheál Martin, a veteran of leaders’ debates – this is his third election rodeo – just brought one advisor and breezed over to the journalists. He was looking forward to it, he assured everyone.

After all, it’s not as if the two men didn’t know the debating measure of each other, having traded gibes across the floor of the Dáil chamber for the past few years.

But this was different.

Unshackled from their shotgun political marriage, both leaders were now free to throw crockery at each other. Would this go down in political history as the Battle of Ballymount, where one left the other with the scalp of his enemy?

Eh no. Not so much.

After all, politics isn’t showbiz for ugly people – it’s showbiz for people who couldn’t get within an ass’s roar of real showbiz.

It was mainly a cagey opening match of a two-leg tie. Both opted to play the ball and not the man. There’ll be plenty of time to go in studs flying before the final whistle.

NO FEE VIRGIN MEDIA ELECTION DEBATE MX-11 Varadkar and Martin in the Virgin Media Television studios. Source: Maxwell Photography

Micheál was quick to distance himself from his former political partner. They had stayed together for… Brexit only, he assured Pat Kenny. “We were not in government, we were making sure there was a functioning government in place,” he insisted.

In the meantime, Leo was making overtures to old flames. “Fine Gael would like to form
relationships with old allies such as Labour,” he declared.

Pat wanted to know if there was any chance of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil recoupling for, like, a grand coalition if the numbers made any other options impossible.

Micheál looked coy. Leo didn’t rule it out entirely.

Neither of the men landed a heavy blow on the other, though a few boots went in. “When Fianna Fáil get into power it all ends in tears – boom and bust, unemployment and us waving our friends off from airports,” sniped Leo.

Micheál let fly in turn over an (as-yet) unfulfilled Fine Gael promise to introduce free GP care to the under 18s. “You promised this five years ago and you did nothing about it. You promised that five years ago! Have you any shame at all? Do you think the people are fools?” he demanded, wearing his most disappointed face.

Chances are most people wanted to see something of Leo in the wild – Micheál is a familiar animal in the political zoo. And such a moment happened when Pat Kenny suggested to the Fine Gael leader that his party is “lacking in empathy and about human touch”.

Leo paused. “I know people say that about me, I might not be able to put that into words like he does,” he said, gesturing to Micheál, “Maybe I don’t say the right words, but I show the fact I care through the work I do.”

 But then in the second half of the debate came the Big Pause.

“Have you ever taken illegal drugs?” asked Pat.

Leo looked like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an oncoming tractor protest. Glaciers rose, receded and fell, the Brexit trade deal was negotiated, and still no reply.

Eventually, prompted by both Pat and Micheál, he muttered that he had dealt with that question in an interview years ago. Which was true, in a Hot Press interview in 2010 he had confessed to smoking cannabis in college, but that he hadn’t inhaled an illegal thing since he had been elected to office.

He was oddly unprepared for what was surely an obvious question, given all the focus on drugs and crime right now. But his flummoxed reply may well humanise him more than all the slickly prepared answers could do.

Both men defended their records on health and housing as best they could in the teeth of damning evidence to the contrary.

Leo kept his usual smart remarks to himself and Micheál got out unbloodied.

It was probably a narrow victory to the Fine Gael leader; Micheál did as well as was expected, and Leo did better than anticipated.

Afterward, Leo scooted out past the still-waiting media. “Goodnight, I’ll see you tomorrow or at the seven-way, no doubt,” he said cheerily.

Goodness.

One assumes he was referring to the seven-candidate debate in Galway next week.

Either that, or he actually is joining the cast of Love Island.

Lise Hand will be a regular contributor to TheJournal.ie for General Election 2020. Check out all her work here

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About the author:

Lise Hand  / Journalist-at-large

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