The Frontline Debate
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.