Jim Carroll

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On the Polls: last night changed it all (they really had a ball)

The problem with the presidential campaign is that we haven’t had enough nights like last night. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re getting to the end of the campaign and the seven would-be Aras dwellers are probably sick and tired …

Tue, Oct 25, 2011, 08:37


The problem with the presidential campaign is that we haven’t had enough nights like last night. Maybe it’s the fact that we’re getting to the end of the campaign and the seven would-be Aras dwellers are probably sick and tired of the sight of each other given the amount of time they’ve spent together between TV, radio and non-media debates, but last night’s debate on The Frontline was more than the usual set-piece of cliches and proclamations. Punches were thrown, hard questions were asked, true colours were seen: it was what a debate in a race like this is supposed to be like. Forget the excuses that it’s hard to get a good show going with seven candidates; it comes down to the host (Pat Kenny was superb again – that’s why he gets paid so much, folks), a lively audience (yes, there were probably plants but every candidate had their chance to get their man or woman in the stalls) and some cracking questions which got to the heart of the matter.

Sure, we’ve had snatches of colour before. There was Vinnie Browne throwing the contents of his library at Martin McGuinness on TV3. There was Miriam O’Callaghan asking the same candidate a bunch of questions about his IRA past, which obviously made him angry and uneasy given his insistence on a post-show chat with the host. But last night was the first one which focused on the front-runner, the man who has come from nowhere to be the candidate the polls claim will win the race on Thursday.

Sean Gallagher got a grilling on The Frontline and he failed the test completely and utterly. For once, all those Fianna Fail ties which have been the untold or partly undisclosd part of his narrative just could not be brushed away with the sweep of a hand. Gallagher hummed and hawed over a tale of €5,000 donations, envelopes, photographs with Brian Cowen and cheques lodged to the wrong account, a couple of things guaranteed to get the studio audience (and some of those watching on TV) howling with derision. The image stuck of Gallagher the Fianna Fail bagman and all the work he has done to distance himself from his past disappeared in the heat of the moment. Cornered and wounded, Gallagher tried hitting out at McGuinness with a line about fuel smugglers, convicted criminals and Gerry Adams’ landlord, but that one was dealt with by the Sinn Fein man with the same ease as he dealt with the dumbfuck question earlier about the rights and wrongs of someone from “up there” coming “down here” to live in the Aras.

Will it hurt Gallagher? Here’s where we enter the realm of the known unknowns. If you were to go on the reaction of Twitter to the debate, Gallagher was done for and Michael D Higgins can start working out where to hang the pictures in the big house. But Twitter and other social media are an echo chamber where you get to filter out the voices you don’t agree with. Furthermore, there are hundreds of thousands of people who have a vote on Thursday who are not out there glued to Tweetdeck or Echofon. They’re the ones who have already told pollsters they’re voting for Gallagher, the man they know from Dragon’s Den or an encounter with the candidate on his canvas. They probably already knew he had Fianna Fail ties – it’s been a hot button topic in the media during the second half of the campaign – but it hasn’t swayed them yet. Whether last night’s debate – whether they even watched last night’s set-to – has changed their mind will only be known when the votes are counted on Friday. What a Gallagher victory, if it happens, might say about us as a nation will be analysed to death in the weeks and months ahead.

Gallagher wasn’t the only one who got burned by last night’s fray. For all the sharp, brilliant digs he had at Gallagher, Martin McGuinness prevaricated yet again over his IRA past and refused to mention the word “murder” in relation to the deaths of innocent civilians. For the Sinn Fein man, “murder” and the IRA past is his equivalent of Gallagher’s envelopes and Fianna Fail heritage, the loves that dare not speak their name. He may have won kudos for how he rattled, snared and wounded Gallagher, but it’s unlikely at this stage of the game that he can break through and win the game. The best he can do is increase the Sinn Fein vote and if he doesn’t do that, the whole plan in bringing the gunman into the southern game will have been for nothing. Heads (or knees) might roll, but let’s not go there until the post-election wrap next week.

Higgins knows that his best tactic is to stay well out of the action and he did last night yet again. Now and again, he waffled as only Higgins can waffle (flowery and erudite waffle, but waffle none the less) and you began to wonder if you could put up with seven years of this. Then again, as we’ve seen again and again during this campaign, you wonder if you can put up with seven years of any of them. David Norris had a decent debate, though it’s too little too late for him and his campaign has been a sad and sorry one. Neither Dana nor Mary Davis did anything stupid last night, but they didn’t do anything to change their status as campaign also-rans either. It hasn’t been a great campaign for either, with both seemingly stunned by the vicious questions about their past and the tough due diligence they now face.

Aside from the Gallagher grilling, the most interesting aspect of last night’s debate was Gay Mitchell’s rabid reaction to a question about Denis O’Brien and the Council of State. Perhaps it was the stress and the strain of a long campaign, but it raises some interesting questions that it takes the mention of the name of the multi-billionaire Malta-residing globetrotting businessman for Mitchell to blow his cool. Dude went ballistic, totally chicken oriental. Even Pat Kenny seemed a mite taken aback by the backlash from Mitchell and was probably thinking he was in for a post-debate McGuinness-like “chat” with the Fine Gael man in his dressingroom afterwards.

So, here we are and there we have it. We’re down to hours, rather than days. Gallagher is due to be interviewed on Today with Pat Kenny on RTE Radio One this morning and The Last Word on Today FM this afternoon (great scheduling by his campaign team) so we can expect more revelations and shilly-shallying today. There was talk last night of Sinn Fein unveiling the mysterious donor at a press conference today, though that nugget, which allowed Kenny requestion Gallagher, seems to have come from an unofficial Sinn Fein source (Continuity Sinn Fein?). Still, the damage has been done, which was probably the intention anyway. It’s all down to the plain people of Ireland now. That’s a scary thought, isn’t it?

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