Presidential debate gives viewers few talking points

Sat, Oct 1, 2011, 01:00

ANALYSIS:Election candidates tread carefully to avoid slipping on political banana skins

THE WOMEN had it, at least in terms of colour. One in crimson, the other hitting a purple patch, Mary Davis and Dana stood out from the monochrome maleness dominating a very crowded political pitch.

Dana even brought along a prop – a copy of the since abandoned EU constitution – to wave around, and not just to improve the air circulation.

Host Ryan Tubridy said his hope for the first presidential debate of the election campaign was that viewers would say afterwards, “we know more than we did two hours ago and it was an informative, interesting, challenging debate that enlightened people about who should be the next president of the country.”

So how did they do? Gay Mitchell won’t have added much traction to his flagging campaign from this appearance. Dressed in a conservative dark suit, his performance was solid but unspectacular.

Mention of his lord mayoralty prompted the obvious question about his plans to bring the Olympics to Dublin. Gay said he “set up 10 committees” to further his plans, which is probably why the idea went nowhere.

Mary Davis delivered what was probably her best television performance so far, coping comfortably with Tubridy’s questions about 23 board appointments and her perceived lack of political experience. Looking striking in crimson, she defined politics as “making big things happen” and suggested while not a conventional politician, she was “a politician in that sense”.

Martin McGuinness struggled to impose himself, or to explain why he wants to be president; mostly, it seems to boil down to the need for leadership. Tubridy left the awkward questions about the IRA until the end, which was probably a good idea, but elicited little new on the subject. At one point, McGuinness appeared to suggest that Northerners joined the IRA because “they didn’t have an embassy to burn down” as Dubliners did.

Poor Michael D struggled to find time to enumerate his various qualities. There was vision, independence of mind, courage – Tubridy struggled to get a word in. Higgins cleverly highlighted his track record at the top of politics – the creation of 40 arts centres when he was a minister, the purchase of Collins Barracks – though he digressed from time to time. Overall, he did nothing to disturb his position as frontrunner in the race.

Outsider Seán Gallagher listed “developing confidence in others” as one of his main jobs in life, and on the basis of this performance he will have increased the confidence of his fellow candidates. Beyond repeating his mantra of entrepreneurship, he struggled to give his idea play.

And what about David Norris, who was relegated to the second-half debate because he had been on the show a fortnight before? Once again, the letters issue was raised, but he held the line and claimed there was no “traction” among ordinary people to seek their publication. He pleaded for time to outline his vision but time was all but up.

And so the debate wended its way to a subdued end. By then the candidates appeared relieved not to have made any serious errors.