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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 15, 2011 @ 10:11 am

    The Frontline Debate

    Harry McGee

    There is something a little bit surreal about televised leaders debate.

    It’s like a guy managing an ailing company meeting his creditors and being told that the only way he can convince them he can continue is by slapping on the rouge and playing Widow Twanky in the Christmas pantomime at the end of the pier.

    But on such an artifice can the compositon of future governments be determined.

    I had to write the page one story for todays’s print editon on tonight’s debate and was dreading it.

    For obvious reason:

    A five-way debate is an unwieldy  vehicle.

    The questions from the audience and a 45 second limit being put on every contribution didn’t sound too great.

    The chances for serious engagement and argy-bargy seemed limited.

    I got a bit of flak from this blogs commentariat earlier yesterday for perceived visceral hatred of Enda etc.

    Nothing of the kind. I was merely pointing out what is generally accepted: He’s not up there with Paul Krugman on the economics front. He’s not the most spontaneous guy in the world. He’s not a naturally talented debater.

    They are his weaknesses. But he has many strengths as a leader – good organiser, energetic, very astute politically -  and one of them is recognising his own limits. In the classic debate about whether a taoiseach should be a chairman (or chairwoman) or a chief,  Enda is clearly in the chairman category. Unlike Cowen, there are no expectations surrounding him.  And there is a possibility that like Albert Reynolds or John Bruton he will be a good taoiseach, a much better one than Cowen who was a disappoinment/disaster/ despite being the anointed one by everybody, including all of us hacks.

    Little Diversion: Everytime I see a flock of starlings I think of journalists and the commentariat (and that includes Shane Ross, Brian Lucey, Eamon Dunphy, me  etc).  When things were going good all flocked together in one direction (Seanie Fitz for Taoiseach anybody?) and then when the direction changed all changed direction in perfect unison and formatin (jail the bankers, worst Government in the world).

    The debate last night was a pedestrian enough affair.

    The format was unwieldy. A debate of political leaders grafted on to the  Frontline format was always going to be tricky and it just didn’t work.

    This is serious stuff. And questions coming from audience members (carefully chosen etc) just didn’t work for me.

    The second difficulty was the fact that five leaders were debating. And the fact that answers were confined to 45 seconds which is so little.  Nobody was going to inflict a knockout blow on any of the others, or be able to dig into a debate about a specific weakness of an opponent.

    Every time somebody got involved in a bit of an exchange, Pat Kenny intervened (and he had to) because it was time to move on.

    That said. Here are my verdicts.

    Enda Kenny. He survived. And that was a victory. He avoided banana skins. He deflected well when Eamon Gilmore tried to pin him down on the alleged €5 billion hole in Fine Gael’s plan. He’s can be wooden and mechanical and a lot of his lines he had learned beforehand  ‘de ghlan mheabhair’. But he affected a reasonable and relaxed tone throughout, seemed unruffled and calm. He just didn’t engage for the first half unles asked. And that suited him. In the second half his confidence levels upped. Had a couple of pre-heated lines about Martin as  ‘Rip van Winkle’ that worked. Was not the best debater. Was not the worst.  The biggest winner though because he survived. And he even managed to put his hands in his pockets  (That was deliberate – handlers telling him to appear insouciant like Nick Clegg).

    Micheal Martin. Was back-footed on health and could not annex the time and space he had in the TV3 debate to give the narrative (he’s at his most effective on a long run of sentences). And so Kenny’s Rip van Winkle and Gilmore’s ‘Great Pretender’ lines about him stuck without him being able to hit back. But he was the only one who went on the attack an had a few successful jibes at Gerry Adams (now I wonder where Fianna Fail perceive the biggest threat coming from when fighting for last seats in constituencies?).  Good veiled reference to the Northern Bank Robbery when Gerry Adams started talking about white collar fraud.

    Overall Martin was marginally the strongest performer.

    Eamon Gilmore: Strange mixture of subdued demeanour, frustration and occasional successful passion. He had a couple of great lines. I loved his take about biggest bank robbery in the history of the State and it was carried out by the banks themselves. If he was referring – subliminally – to the Northern Bank when saying this out, top marks to him and to his team. The Indo was flagging in its usual understated way that Gilmore would mount a “desperate” attack on Enda Kenny. Well he mustn’t have been reading it yesterday for it just didn’t happen.

    He did tackle Kenny on the €5 billion hole in its plan but just didn’t sustain it. When Kenny avoided the question, he tried to persevere but then gave up because Kenny was pushing them on. There were moments to ignore the Queensbury Rules and this was one of them.

    Gilmore is associated in people’s minds with outrage and indignation, on the back of Dail performance. You can’t continue in that mode all that time because you become a parody of yourself. But perhaps he over-corrected last night.

    The leaders of the minor parties could be very pleased with themselves. Adams was a disaster four years ago and if you have read previous blog posts here, he is defending economic policies that are, um, well, dodgy. Martin landed a couple of blows but Adams took them on the chin. His command of detail was also very good and he ignored what the others were saying, addressing all his comments to the public.

    Gormley was surprisingly good. He didn’t get invoved in any nasty spats but managed to give the impression that he was straight-talking and realistic. I expected him to struggle to overcome the charge of political irrelevancy but he was strong and can be pleased with his performance.

    • Ruddy Annoyed says:

      You must have been watching a different debate, because in the one I was watching Kenny destroyed Martin on his record in health and in government for the last 14 years, while Martin when trying to have a go at Adams for SF’s past ended up lurching into stating more or less stating that Northerners should mind their own business and actually said outright that “fraud happens everywhere” as if it’s no matter for concern at all. Wonder where floaters with concerns for the ‘national question’ will bring their votes now? Nevermind floaters, what about genuinely Republican FFers (however few they might be)? Overall Martin was observably the most panicky and shrill performer.

      I suppose the snidely-delivered faint praise you offer Kenny above is about as far you can go without utterly humiliating yourself in light of your disgraceful piece yesterday, as unbalanced a bit of character assassination as has ever sullied the pages of the IT.

      Go have a look at the IT’s own live poll on last night’s debate for how the electorate really viewed it.

    • gav says:

      Watched the debate. Was not impressed by Enda at all. We need a strong leader. If the best that can be said is that he survived then it’s not him. Enda stood at the back. Obviously his aim was to say nothing wrong, but in the end he just said very little. I was also put off by his trip to Germany for a photo op with Angela Merkel. How can we expect him to put Ireland’s case forward next month if he is running around looking like he wants to get her autograph. Who will be surprised if next month he returns from the EU conference with a miniscule reduction in the loan interest rate and describes it as a victory and the best deal that was available in the circumstances. Despite the obvious and gapping holes in the policy of SF at least they would put up a fight. I think that the best long term outcome for Ireland is a large enough vote for SF, to show Europe how angry we are as a nation (but, perhaps, not large enough to get them in government).

      We have more cards to play in this crisis than we realise. From defaulting to using our cooperation tax rate as a bargaining tool, there are cards available. We just need a strong player to play them. I don’t think that’s Enda. Other FGers potentially, but not Enda.

    • Eoin says:

      Your right. Enda was wooden and looked a bit scared to me. Didn’t stray from the script he was given by his media people. He didn’t do anything wrong and didn’t put his head above the parapet. He was content to let Gerry and Micheal trade a few blows without getting involved himself. Our next Taoiseach ? Don’t know about that yet !

    • sinn feminista says:

      Interesting what impresses you…snide comments and ‘smart’ answers…
      The real reason everyone is so deflated is because no one managed to land ‘a knock out blow’ on Gerry Adams…AS IF…
      Is that really what this debate was supposed to be about…scoring cheap points against Sinn Fein…?
      It was interesting when the camera panned in on the audience and the blank/bemused expressions on the faces of those asking the questions as the usual suspects squirmed and writhed their way out of giving a direct answer… except Gerry Adams that is who said what Sinn Fein would do, how they would do it, and why they would do it…
      Interesting too how reluctant the others were to follow suit and confirm that they would take cuts in salaries and pensions or cap the highest earnings…Instead all they had to offer was smoke and mirrors…
      This man has a wealth of experience negotiating on on the backfoot for most of his political life and guess what…he won…!
      It was good that some of his humour came through…that and his modest manner…
      Eamonn Gilmore and Enda Kenny were like a couple of snarling dogs giving Martin his best line of the night when he said and these two want to go into Government together

    • JerryF says:

      Nothing in the ‘debate’ will be nearly as surreal as Enda Kenny as taoiseach. I just hope he has to go into coalition with Labour so that the FF remainders and Sinn Fein can form a real and serious opposition that can come into government in a couple of years. You think Gerry Adams is ‘dodgy’? Apparently David McWilliams does not.

    • jh says:

      Martin, the marginally stronger performer? What were you watching??
      Apart from that, everything else is pretty much how i summed it up. Gormley seemed genuinely honest and spoke with the least amount of waffle. Most impressed with him.

    • Realist says:

      Martin “the marginally stronger performer?” Weird conclusion for anyone not educated or indoctrinated in the political life and what passes for debating skills in the Irish Republic. Martin was defensive, aggressive, arrogant and a “whore for the mike”. At the same time, he was determined to promote (what he sees as) his successful governmental career e.g. institution of the HSE. That tells us all we need to know about FF! NO change.

      Interesting his attack Gerry Adams. Clearly the fight for last seat has begun. I’m not an admirer of Adams, but he did come across as the sort of street fighter worshipped by that majority of Irish people who traditionally vote FF, despise intellectuals, prefer economic illiterates and accept politics as a form of bar room brawling.

      What was lacking was gravitas and genuine engagement (apart from Gilmore). Enda Kenny was wooden, uninspiring but well-coached – a puppet of the handlers. Really sad for a man with ambition to lead the country. I’m sure he’s a ‘nice’ man but a man devoid of spontaneity.

      Whilst I detest the righteousness of the Greens, Gormley’s performance came close to suggesting he understands the formal rules of intelligent debate. That self-satisfied smirk is unfortunate.

      Again, as a mere outside observer, I would hand the ‘cup’ to Gilmore. Mannerly, intelligent, a good handle on his brief and capable of passionate disdain for the self-interested oligarchy that has managed to brainwash the deferential, under-educated Irish since your euphemistic ‘independence’.

    • CG says:

      I agree with JH. Gormley not only stood apart from the others on account of his blue tie but because of his honesty, his common-sense approach in endeavouring to rectify past mistakes, his lack of empty promises and high-flown rhetoric, the fact that he did not turn his answers into political speeches, and his accurate assessment of what was wrong in this country and what needs to be done. I’m not exactly an ardent follower of the Greens, but I was impressed.

    • sinn feminista says:

      So Enda Kenny aspires to be like Nick Clegg…?
      Do Fine Gael read the political press…have you seen what has happened to the Con/Dems since May…?
      Clegg may have had his hands in his pockets on the podium but he hasn’t hadthem in since…financially speaking…! He has broken virtually every Election promise achieving an all time party low in the party’s popularity…
      However the old adage that the Whigs…erstlwhile Liberals….are really the Tory party at prayer…seems to hold true!

    • Jane says:

      The best thing about ithe debate was that there were five parties – at last we get to hear a more open debate (such as it was) instead of the detailed nit-picked versions of how we are basically going to continue as per usual. I found John Gormley refreshing and, dare I say it, Gerry Adams a breath of fresh air. Yes, there are still lots of choices possible in how we respond to our economic mess. I believe Labour still has some interest in social solidarity but have got themselves tangled in loyalties with the unions. FF are a diversion and Fine Gael simply looks after business and the golden middle.

      We could use another five-way debate with longer time for fewer subjects. Wouldn’t mind hearing some People Before Profit and othe Independents – at worst we could cog some of their ideas.

    • Shane says:

      It’s a strange set of affairs when the leader of a party which is knackered, badly bruised by the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression and largely associated with so-called cronyism can actually out perform all of the other leaders. Gilmore lacked passion, Kenny seemed wooden, Gormley was good but not at his best and if Adams mentions citizens or rights one more time I’ll smash the television. Furthermore, if Sinn Féin are in anyway involved in the next government I’ll surrender my Irish passport and live in exile. Martin was the only one to answer questions with sincerity and without the rhetoric that has come to dominate this election campaign. He openly acknowledged that governements can’t create sustainable jobs. If anyone is scratching their head and wondering why Fianna Fáil have managed to monopolize political power in the country for so long, then Martin’s performance is the answer – they are the only party not detached from reality. I know Martin probably can’t say it, though I’m sure he thinks it, but if you borrowed 350k to buy a two up – two down in some poxy suburb then don’t blame the banks – you are the fool!

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