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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: February 23, 2011 @ 1:11 am

    Primetime Debate

    Harry McGee

    For an anorak, it was all your showers raining down at you at once.

    The 90 minute debate was an absorbing battle, given an extra dimension because it was triangular.

    It took a while for it to get to an involved tempo. When it did, the exchanges were bloody and bruising and it was interesting to see leaders gang up with each other to score a point against the other guy, if they both broadly agreed on a point.

    It was Eamon Gilmore’s best debate.  He was Mr Consistency. He had the best opening line and wsa never seriously back-footed. He got in a couple of good digs at Micheal Martin on health (and was also able to name a tax that Labour would reverse when challenged by Martin – aspects of the universal social charge).

    On a major point of disagreement with Kenny – on Fine Gael’s plans to cut 30,000 from the public service – I though he came out best

    He said if you exclude people in the front line, you were not talking about taking out one in ten. You were talking one in five. He told Kenny if he didn’t proceed with compulsory redundancies his figures didn’t add up.

    Was he the best of the three? That’s a more difficult question because Micheal Martin mixed mediocrity at the start with some brilliance in the second half. For the altar boy , the level of aggression was surprising. Perhaps a bit too much. He really dominated, scored some points, but there was definitely overkill.

    He really hammered Kenny on detail, especially on tax and the €6.5 billion in cuts. His parody of Kenny parroting the same line – 14 years in power, five-point plan, and let’s get working – was devastating. Kenny underlined it moments later by repeating exactly the same lines.

    Kenny was not the winner and will not have persuaded any new voters. But he was very good in the first half, came out with some very good lines, looked relaxed and presidential.

    His strategy of completely ignoring Martin’s hectoring and probing worked very effectively.

    One such line, on Martin:

    “He was a central member of the Government which could not tell the truth of the IMF being here. It tok the Governor of Central Bank  to tell us in a phone call.”

    But Martin was persistent and when he finally got Kenny to engage he really scored some big points.

    (I know I’m straying into boxing parlance – I just can’t help it… it was a 15-rounder!)

    As the debate wore on Kenny flagged and really struggled when pounded with detail.

    It didn’t look great when he didn’t  come back when Gilmore and Martin rebutted his claim the ESB and Bord Gais customer networks were not strategic State assets.

    There were a couple of new details that came out tonight.

    An admission by Martin that the banks will need further capital.

    Fine Gael’s plans for NAMA are to allow several private interests to take over the running of it. Included in small print of party manifesto. Kenny argued that NAMA, as it is, is a secret society and this move will bring competence and competition.

    Disclosure that a medical journal in Holland has expressed some doubt about the costs and efficacy of the Dutch universal health insurance model, which has provided the template for the Fine Gael plan.

    I think Martin set out to expose that both of the opposition parties were not acknowledging the pain that their policies would entail.

    In that he succeeded. His persistence nd strong command of detail paid off.  But he was too aggressive, too disruptive. That does not go down well with some voters. But he was addressing the FF core and may have persuaded some of them not to stray.

    Will it make any difference?  Not too much. Kenny has had a great campaign. This has been his biggest setback but I doubt it will affect his party’s inexorable march to power – and a coalition with Labour.

    BTW I think Miriam O’Callaghan was great. It was like she had them all on those extendible leashes you see dog owners use. She’d let them at it, give them the impression they were unleashed, but when they strayed too far off the point or when it was time to move on, she yanked them all back into line.

    • Niall Devitt says:

      Satirical piece! Well done ;)

    • Elizabeth says:

      I disagree with you that Miriam O’Callaghan chaired the debate well. She allowed Micheal Martin about twice as much airtime as the other two. Martin came across as an aggressive bully – the brass neck of him after landing us in the state we’re in and It was completely undemocratic of RTE not to allow Sinn Fein participate.

    • David says:

      An excellent report. unlike last night’s Late Debate which I felt must have been listening to an entirely different debate.

      This leaders’ debate was incredibly insightful. We had two debaters showing their skills and Kenny not knowing how to get involved. Almost every contribution he made was a pre-prepared sound bite attacking Martin, as opposed to addressing the point. At times Kenny looked like a schoolboy who strayed into an adults meeting, looking at his notes, playing with his pencil. As a demonstration of leadership I scored Gilmore 9, Martin 8, Kenny 3. And as you say Miriam did brilliantly. I would anticipate that many voters will be swayed to vote tactically (for Labour) as a direct result of this debate.

    • Tim says:

      Micheál Martin came across as an ill-mannered, uncouth little fool. His constant interruptions were grating, signifying a man desperately clinging to his last few days of power. If he was trying to portray himself as a strong, combative player, he failed miserably.

      Kenny was a bit wooden, but came across reasonably well. Gilmore performed better than him, and often seemed bemused at the sharp exchanges between Kenny and Martin.

    • Ellen says:

      I was an undecided voter until the debate last night. Kenny proved to me that he is just the pretty boy(using the word lightly) and that its all the people he has behind the scenes that keep that party running. He has no charisma. I dont trust him. He started every response with “14 years of failings by FF” blah blah blah Ive heard it all before and we were all in the middle of it when the FF bubble came crashing down but I dont need to hear about it over and over and over again. I thought Martin definitely poked holes in some of FG’s plans, especially to do with tax and downsizing the public sector. I was happy when he pulled Kenny up on his parrotting of the same lines aswell! Im definitely voting tactically now.
      In response to Elizabeths comment about Sinn Fein not participating.. why would they? Its not like they’re in the running.

    • Fionnuala says:

      I agree with Elizabeth, Miriam O Callaghan was terrible in chairing the debate and allowed M Martin twice as much time as the other two. I turned it off about 25 mns from the end as I was sick to death of listening to Mr Martin taking over the whole debate, he is a big bully. He seems to be on every programme I turn to lately. I thought the comment by ” Sheamus” on the doorstep ” why didn’t M Martin actually do something when he WAS IN POWER was very good and to the point. Lets not forget Mr Martin also bullied and frightened the Irish people into voting yes for Lisbon 2 and everything he said would happen ie JOBS,JOBS, JOBS did we get them NO.

    • Jaygee says:

      David, a good showing by Labour was essential, to counter the negative coverage of their efforts so far.. I hope the electorate repudiate the uninspiring policies of FF and FG and the historical baggage they carry with them. Big chance in this election to rebuild the political landscape and restore some decency to the system.

    • Niall says:

      Leadership debates are but sideshows to the main theatre of operation, particularly where there there are forty three separate competitions. The debating format appeared amateurish and the clustering of the three party leaders around a table was reminiscent of a bar discussion rather than a debate. From the offset, Kenny appeared nervous but regained composure – Martin appeared shrill by continuously interjecting and Gilmore comfortable in the knowledge that he was playing the only card left to him – the shoring up of public sector votes.

      When it comes down to what members of the public will remember of the debate, whether they were impressed with Kenny or not, is that: Martin has been in government for fourteen years, Fine Gael has a five point plan to get Ireland working. It may not resonate with the political anoraks but its the simple uncomplicated messages that work with the majority of the electorate. The approach Kenny is taking has Karl Rove written all over it.

    • Des Deasy says:

      Disagree with this report on almost every count. It was, in my view, a totally uninspiring “debate” between 3 people who would do well to hold down jobs as primary school teachers. How can FF continue to get away with using Honohan as their excuse for the 2008 bank bailout and its appalling consequences.

    • Jane says:

      I agree with Harry McGee on most points, though I really don’t think Miriam managed to limit M.Martin to his designated time – he just pushed his way in, continured regardless and hectored the other two endlessly. That is not ‘debate’. Otherwise Miriam did a brilliant job.

      It was good to see Enda a bit more relaxed and able to speak, for the first half anyway, then he flagged a bit. It was a relief to see him able to just stop and let the hectoring go on without him, he certainly seemed more statesman-like in that mode. He flagged in the second half and really failed to clarify the public sector redundancies issue – it continues to be a large elephant in the room.

      I thought E.Gilmore was the best prepared, clearest on his priorities and showed genuine understanding of our real concerns. He seemed trustworthy. It was also good to see that Enda and Eamonn are able to agree without rancour on some issues and show that they will be able to work together and make common decisions. We need that assurance for what looks like will be a Fine Gael/ government.

      I admire Micheal’s pure hard neck and stamina, but Fianna Fail are really nowhere.

    • Henry Huntsman says:

      Miriam was brilliant, eh? She was only okay, I thought. At times she let the debate descend into barracking and trivial point-scoring – Michael Martin in particular overdid the agression. Also she allowed too much interruption, although with three heavyweights it was to be expected that the referee would have a tough job. Maybe Miriam has a brilliant reputation, because media commentators have been saying she’s brilliant for years now. As for the debate, yes I think Gilmore did alright and Enda Kenny managed not to fall over the furnitiure. Inded he frequently looked presidential. Michael Martin only caught him out in a sixth-form debating kind of way, it being so difficult to overlook the last decade of political history. people are down on Enda because ehe isn’t a great mass communicator. But then Barak Obama is a tremendous mass communicator and he has achieved little or nothing of note in the two years since he got elected. Tony Blair was a great communicator too. Does the Irish electorate want style or substance?

    • Peter Burke says:

      Martin was amazingly arrogant (verging on the ignorant at times) and bullied Miriam O’Callaghan to the point she allowed him enough rope to hang himself with-which he proceeded to do. He broke the cardinal rules of debate by (a) not having a coherent point to make and (b) by constantly bullying the facilitator. Gilmore fell into his trap at least two times and a shouting match ensued. Kenny was cool and calm and essentially ignored Martin (which is how to treat a bully). All in all Kenny did well – Gilmore regained some lost ground and Martin made a show of himself and showed why people should not vote FF in this election

    • Tom says:

      Absolutely Fionnuala MM is a big bully who should leave poor Inda alone. After all he is the man that will lead us to redemption with his five point plan and we will all live happy ever after. Martin asked the difficult questions of our (as yet) uncoronated king that Miriam O’Callaghan refused to do. If she took more control of the debate Martin would not have needed to push the point. Difficult questions should be asked of the prospective government. We need change but it should be credible. Remember ‘Change we can believe in!’ not ‘Change for change’s sake’.

    • Caitriona McClean says:

      In the second half of the debate it was revealed beyond doubt that Fine Gael are being elected on Enda’s ability to spoof and please the electorate by answering economic points by Micheal Martin by simple personal abuse. That is bullying and great credit to M that he didn’t resort to anything physical. His diplomatic skills will never be stretched internationally as they were last night.

      The election is not about economics, it’s about the electorate believing that Fine Gael would have done differently ( which the records shows they wouldn’t ) and Enda’s immoral and endless abuse of the government handling of an international economic crisis (likened to 1929) together with tough and swift decisions to keep the economy working by ensuring some sort of banking.

      The recovery plan suggested by FG is an uncosted outline plan that in part has not been thought through( assets selling and health plan were dismissed last night by Gilmore and Martin and Enda had no answer)

      We are on a learning curve, electing GF to punish FF is going to hurt and delay recovery. This is the price of allowing FG record to go unchallenged. Not once did they advocate intervention in the banks and the building industry and their tax and expenditure plans in 2007 went further in the wrong direction than the Gov. Micheal Martin made the mistake of apologizing and Enda used this shamelessly while hiding the reality of their own position.

    • Mick says:

      Enda Kenny reminds me of some (not all or even most but certainly some) schoolteachers I’ve met over the years. Even when presented a decent point he’ll choose to ignore them – “strategy of completely ignoring Martin’s hectoring and probing worked very effectively.” This doesn’t show us anything strong about Kenny,and if anything, shows him up as been unable to think on his feet.

      I think he looked relaxed and presidential, but I don’t agree that’s a good thing. It was just his means of staying out of the fray, but it was also apparent that he has nothing to add other than his “five point plan, lets get Ireland working.” If ever their was a puppet on a string leading the country, then surely it’ll be Mr. Kenny. Perhaps luckily, he won’t have much of a say in things considering the IMF are going to be the ones really calling the shots for the foreseeable future.

      @Elisabeth. I couldn’t agree less.

      One thing I would have liked to see was a proper platform for some of the new independents who aren’t getting the TV coverage to be given a chance to debate among some party members…

    • Dave says:

      Another disagreement with how O’Callaghan chaired the “debate”. It wasn’t until about halfway through that a debate even threatened to emerge – prior to that it was just 3 simultaneous interviews that kept “moving on” to the next topic whenever anyone dared to call their opponents on the rubbish they were spouting. That, combined with her constant second-guessing of the election outcome were very annoying.

      Dare I say Vincent Browne was a superior debate chair. And I can’t stand Vincent Browne.

    • Noel says:

      It was quite a depressing spectacle. Our choice for leadership in such stark times limited to uninspiring performances by Kenny and Gilmore. Martin must have been stunk by a wasp just before they went on air, his aggressive tone didn’t do him any favours even if he won more points. Kenny didn’t inspire, but he didn’t fall into any pot holes either. Shame we have grown to have such low expectations of the stature and competence of our leaders. If FG had a leader of stature people could have bought into, they’d be looking at the realistic possibility of single party govt. On balance Ireland Inc should be better able to swallow the additional pain and strife coming down the tracks with an FG/Lab govt rather than an FG with a few mulchie independents. Gilmore did ok in the debate, but you thought he could have demolished Martin had he had a real ‘go’. Given FF are irrelevant to the outcome, Gilmore seemed moderated in his attacks on FG his only real competition. It smelt like reality was setting in and these two were preparing for business next week. The question is how long will FG wait after the election before Kenny is jettisoned for a real ‘Taoiseach’ – 18 months? Varadkar and Coveny lay quietly in the long grass ready to save the nation?

    • Damien Flinter says:

      I listened to half it on the radio.Martin sounded like Jack Russel tied too long in the shed. Kenny was his usual plank and Gilmore was half awake for a change. Miriam gave Martin so much room I think she fancies his angelic blink of righteousness, which makes him look like he has the same trainer as Blair.

      I reckon Adams won. Can you say that on the IT?

    • Pat says:

      Martin was the rambling outsider with nothing to lose so he just tried to be as disruptive as possible. Kenny didn’t allow him to interrupt his train of thought and definately stood back a bit. Gilmore was articulate but put forward some strong and some weak arguments but overall was ok. I trust Kenny more than Martin simply because of the way Martin kept up with the charge that the others were not credible. Given all the wrongs Fianna Fail have inflicted on this country I simply cannot bring myself to find anything credible in what they say….. negative campaigning and a plan written by the IMF…. give me either of the other 2.

    • David says:

      All this chatter of Michael Martin being a bully. There was nothing stopping the others butting in and saying their piece. I think this report is biased. O’Callaghan is over rated. Essentially what I got from the debate was that Kenny’s right hand does not know what the left is doing. I was delighted to see Martin really pressing him on matters of taxation and job losses in the public sector. I was equally delighted to hear Martin parrot Kenny – ’14 years in gov etc… I was also glad to hear that FG’s own health spokesperson has to ‘look into the dutch model on health’ a bit more. That is laughable – to think FG are going into an election and they haven’t researched their own policies properly? Gilmore seemingly done well – I would argue that this was not the case as he just refrained from shouting and engaged sucking up to Woody [Kenny].

      The whole IMF debate was interesting and I think the only honest person at the table last night with regard to this matter was Martin. I am concluding this because of a debate on Vincent Brown a few nights ago. Can you really imagine Kenny or Gilmore going to Europe and telling it how it is? Me neither

    • Billy says:

      I think that last night was great for the undecided voter, Kenny was made to look like the political puppet that he is, he could not answer questions when drawn on his OWN policies. Not to mention how stupid an idea to sell ESB and Bord Gais, and how would state owned companies be non-strategic?? The health care plan is ridiculous, they plan on setting up a whole new system while laying off 30,000 employees = DISASTER!! I thought Gilmore came off very well clear and consise about his parties plans. I’m definately voting startegically, FIne Gael on there own with all the snide hidden taxes would prolong the problems we have.

    • richie says:

      If debating skills are necessary to be effective in government, then Micheal Martin, who, in my opinion won the debate (again), should be proud of his record of achievement over 14 years, spent entirely on the Government front bench. Except his record is a series of train wrecks.

      So, debating skills are not a factor in good government. The most critical quality desirable in senior Ministers is sound judgment and if we look at the records of the three leaders, then Micheal Martin comes a poor third.

      Enda Kenny’s record, while in opposition over the 14 years, stands up rather better. His management skills are demonstrated by the stellar acheivement of bringing FG back from the dead, almost single-handedly, to where they are now, poised on the point of a overall majority. They were underlined by the quality of the team of frontbenchers he assembled and pushed into the limelight — recognising his own limitations and demonstrating an absence of ego, to boot. Then there was the brilliant coup of the manner in which he saw off the heave against him, last summer — confounding the experts while at it.

      Labour look poised to double their seats, thanks largely to Eamon Gilmore’s leadership of his own party, and his performace over a long period of holding the Government to account; what Labour’s prospects would be without him is questionable, since at times the other Labour figures, apart from Joan Burton, are an unexceptional lot.

      My point is this — televised debates between leaders can do electoral harm, since the public can be persuaded by media hyping that the winner of a debate will be the best choice to whom to entrust the government of the country.

    • peter forrey says:

      If Micháel Martin wants to put the
      interests of Ireland 1st instead of his
      disgraced party
      he should resign from Fianna Fáil,
      hang his head in shame,
      go down on his knees and beg
      forgiveness from the Irish people
      and do community service for the rest of his life.

      He can think of the many years of tribunals that were
      concerned with corruption in his party costing many many
      millions of euro.
      If he thinks his new found sense of “doing
      the right thing” is to be taken seriously he is
      sadly mistaken, in my view he is further making a mockery
      of the Irish people by absolving himself
      from responsibility. Its very easy to say sorry, doing
      something meaningful in response to the
      dreadful catastrophe inflicted upon the Irish Nation
      is something he is in-capable of
      doing. Leopards do not change their spots they
      just climb up a different tree. He was in government long enough
      to have made his mark….for the better.


    • Andrew says:

      The depressing aspect of the leaders’ debate is the simple idea that we are either likely to – or believed to be likely to – vote for one party rather than another, on the grounds that – in general – the commentary suggests. For example, the charisma or otherwise, of candidates, whether a candidate appeared relaxed or not, this strange notion of ‘presidential bearing’, a candiate’s ability to remember the details of their manifesto, and so forth. Debate can be entertaining. It can be instructive. But it is also incredibly limited in what it can convey. I’m happy to give someone a prize for being a good debater (a decent book token seems about right), but political leadership has to be assessed by more nuanced criteria; what is their track record in decision making (whether in government or opposition)? And not just the decisions made, but how they were made, and how they were justified? I would be far more interested in in-depth interviews about how a candiate operates (which is important), rather than a polished, repetitive account of what they would like to do (which is relevant only if the candidate has a proven capacity to make things happen, or let things happen around him or her).

    • Frank Uccellini says:

      Interesting if not particularly enlightening. But what is the point of these debates really? All of the policies espoused are already part of the record, as are the challenges. The programmes for all parties are developed and base upon making certain assumptions and projections, none of which at the end of the day are guaranteed. People know this; there’s enough healthy skepticism amongst the electorate not to believe the glib answers or put much faith in the campaign “promises”. So what can these debates really show?

      Politics has been describes as the “art of the possible”. Much of the choice actually comes down to perception and even philosophy: how will a candidate’s and his party’s overall philosophy guide them in facing the challenges and issues as they arise? Given this, the responses regarding specific minutia of policies is less relevant than the overall direction their potential government will lead. Deciding what constitutes a “strategic state asset” is one of those philosophical questions, and the exchange between Mr Gilmore and Mr Kenny was enlightening.

      Overall, Mr Kenny performed well. He didn’t “trip over the furniture” or “fall in any potholes”. Given the most recent opinion polls, he was the only one with something to lose, and he didn’t. He may be somewhat stiff before the camera, but succeeded in looking “statesman-like” without appearing aloof (or worse, disengaged) in my opinion.

      Mr Gilmore gave his best performance to date. He was coherent and consistent and put across Labour’s “Plan B” (acting as a check on the possible excesses of a single-party government) well. His comment that he and Mr Kenny will “have to have a long discussion” on many issues struck just the right tone.

      Mr Martin lost credibility, personally, in my opinion. There’s little credibility for his party at this point; Mr Martin’s strength up to this point has been the stamp personal integrity he was able to put on the national campaign while his candidates worked on small-scale, constituency level. All that effort went for naught last night. He seemed shrill and desperate.

      Regarding Elizabeth’s comment about the exclusion of Gerry Adams, I partially agree. If Fianna Fáil were represented, why not Sinn Féin? They have equal chance of forming the next government.

    • seanog says:

      Enda Kenny came out of the debate with flying colours. Michael Martin was on the defensive all throughout the debats and Eamon Gilmore held his own.

      Miriam O’Callaghan did a better job moderating the trio than Pat Kenny did with the five-way debate. However Miriam, at one point, allowed the three to engage in a slagging match which turned me off.

    • Wolfgang says:

      What a load of hot and painful waffle by Mr. Martin. Must have been hurtful to the many people damaged by this Government.
      The real problem is that there are still to many people in Ireland who ‘believe’ this type of FF spin. Some call it even debating skills. How bad does it need to get before they wake up. Does anybody of them read Newspapers from outside Ireland? The Internet provides this possibility.
      I have no comments to make about the other participants. I was not impressed.
      And Marian must have forgotten her stopwatch at home. Or is she a FF member?

    • seanog says:

      Enda Kenny came through with flying colours. Michael Martin was on the defensive all throughout the debate and Eamon Gilmore held his own.

      Mairam O’Callaghan did a better job moderating the trio than Pat Kenny did with the five-way debate. Miriam at one point,allowed the three to engage in a slagging match which turned me off.

      However, it was a good debate.

    • Killian Brennan says:

      So disappointed with Miriam O’Callaghan. She gave an inordinate amount of time to Micheal Martin as he was the one who ‘shouted most.’ Her questions were predicatble and repetitive. I didn’t feel I got value for my money. I’m just about to renew my TV licence online. Eimear Ní Chonaola ,on the TG4 debate,asked all the important questions. The sort of questions inside-the-Pale presenters seem too scared to ask.

      The real crux of Irish politics at the moment is that we are not the masters of our own destiny. Our new paymasyers on Europe are. . It’s the frightening post-bailout fact. The important decisions are now taken by the EU. Ní Chonaola took this new reality head-on.

      The next Government will have to tackle the state broadcaster over its soaring deficit. Might I suggest that they start with their ”stars” exorbitant salaries. I don’t feel that my TV licence fee of E160 should go to supporting such mediocrity.

    • ciaran davis says:

      are we really a democratic country, only three political parties? Surely the public deserve to hear the other party leaders such as the Greens and Sinn Fein, because who has the right to say the three main parties policies are correct especially the mess we are in. All parties should get their shoulders behind the wheel and work out what is best for Ireland.

    • Ruby says:

      I couldn’t watch the whole thing, all I saw was three guys blustering at each other, talking over each other, not a word of sense from the approximately 20 minutes I saw. Niall at 10.41 was right, like three men jabbering at each other round a pub table.

      If these are our choices for election day, God help us all.

    • Terence Cosgrave says:

      Yes, the only way to deal with a bully is to ignore him, which is hopefully what the voters will do with Martin..

      And if Sinn Fein was excluded because they won’t be in government, what was Martin doing there in the first place?

    • a.commenter says:

      @18 …apparently not!

    • RayD says:

      God help us with those three. Of course other party leaders with Dail members should have been there but that would be democratic and it is a longstanding RTE agenda to keep them out. I bet that the 5-point plan will not survive for even a week after the election. It is full of nonsense and is mostly unimplementable. I also bet that SF will get more than an 11% vote.

    • a.commenter says:

      If the Leaders debates were limited those in the running then what was Micheal Martin doing there..?
      the whole charade was a total sham…
      If the network media wanted a ‘debate’ then they should have had Economists Trades Unionists and other socio/political/economic experts putting hard questions to these marionettes instead of giving them a platform to robotically chant their like mantras like some cult zombie…I said cult!

    • Ciaran says:

      I have never voted Fianna Fail at any election in the 30 years since I turned 18. However, observing the degree to which Enda Kenny is unable to think for himself or articulate his position by any means other than parrotting lines learned by rote from his spindoctors actually scared me. He is an unimaginative automaton and I do not believe he has anything to offer as Taoiseach. He will be puppet of the unelected officials of his party

    • grainne says:

      I agree with all this post bar the Miriam O’Callaghan comment – imagine if she’s started on health or the public sector how the debate might have played out very differently.

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