Election 2020 final debate: It’s speed-dating for coalition partners. Any hot prospects?

Róisín had her moments, Eamon smiled too much, Peadar talked about a woman he knew

The backstage riders for the final Leaders' Debate (RTÉ One, Thursday, 9.35pm) must have involved industrial quantities of Gaviscon.

Because the biggest question in Thursday night’s debate between the leaders of the smaller parties – or, as Miriam O’Callaghan called them, in a vain attempt to add a frisson to the proceedings, the kingmakers – wasn’t what they planned to do if they got into government.

The biggest question was whether any of them actually had the stomach for it.

Coalitionovirus is highly transmissible in the final hours of campaigning and frequently fatal, as RTÉ political correspondent Paul Cunningham reminded viewers of the Nine O'Clock news directly before the debate, when he painstakingly catalogued the list of victims of past epidemics (Labour, Greens, PDs.)


Despite this bleak prognosis, Peader Tóibín (Aontú) – who had gone all the way to the High Court to ensure he got to make his pitch – looked only delighted to be there. So did a slightly less ecstatic Brendan Howlin (Labour); a preternaturally cheery Eamon Ryan (Green); a generally quite pleased Róisín Shortall (Social Democrat); and a characteristically taciturn Ruth Coppinger (Solidarity-People Before Profit). Whether the audience shared their enthusiasm by the end of a debate that ran the gamut from dull to insipid is doubtful.

The moderators’ appealing double act – which involves O’Callaghan being, by turns, encouraging and exasperated, and David McCullagh alternating between wry and withering – got its second, welcome, outing this week.

The candidates took their places at podiums opposite them, as neat as a freshly pressed boyband, and McCullagh kicked off by asking each of the five to give them in 30 seconds “the one thing that’s an absolute red line” in their coalition negotiations.

The first big reveal of the night wasn’t who had the best ideas or the most promising pitch, but whether any of them could actually count. The leaders promptly dived into a long list that included, but was not limited to, the housing crisis; the health crisis; climate change; integrity; work-life balance; ending the waste of public money; tackling commutes; and creating a balanced spatial delivery.

Only Eamon Ryan seemed to recall the Leaving Cert advice to answer the actual question. “To tackle climate change and the biodiversity crisis. Our world is on fire,” he said.

It probably looked very convincing written down, but lost something in his insistence on grinning all the way through it, like a delighted Dad at the school play. There’s arguably no stake higher for any generation than the climate issue, and yet on climate, the debate got off on a footing that felt decidedly low stakes, and it never really recovered from there.

Ryan’s sincerity is no doubt, but his communication style lacks the grit to suggest he means business. Maybe it’s the prospect of a return to government within his grasp, but he couldn’t seem to stop smiling.

The debate watchers' bingo cards filled up quickly. Identity politics (ding!). Inner circles (ding!). Vulture funds (ding! ding! ding!). Greta Thunberg (ding!). Wolves (DING!).

There were a few novel proposals, such as Ruth Coppinger’s suggestion that she would nationalise the construction industry.

But as a TV event, it flatlined early on. The most heated exchanges were between the presenters and the candidates – such as when Shortall  exasperated O’Callaghan by offering a prescription for the crisis in insurance that was long on cliche and low on detail.

“We need action on it. We’re talking about taking action on it, not just talking about it,” she said, neatly summing up what some might say has been the existential misery of the entire general election campaign.

Later, McCullagh – in full wry mode – tackled Brendan Howlin on his party’s eight times in government. “Maybe you’re just not very good at coalition government?”

“Every time we were in government, things were better when we left,” Howlin replied.

“The voters didn’t seem to think so,” McCullagh quipped.

For the most part, though, the atmosphere was anything but testy. It didn’t take long for coalitionovirus to break out, when Eamon Ryan interrupted Shortall to say that he agreed with Brendan Howlin, who hadn’t actually said anything. “We tend to agree on most things,” Ryan said sweetly.

“Most things, yes,” Howlin cooed, while Tóibín stood between them scowling like a one of Ryan’s homegrown organic gooseberries.

Peader Tóibín made a similarly obvious play for the overstretched commuting class. He knows a mother who said her relationship with her daughter “is telescoped into half an hour of stress each week”. And even though the maths didn’t quite add up (they spend less than eight minutes a day together?) it will probably have struck a chord. Or it might have, if the overstretched commuters hadn’t already nodded off.

The night’s winners included Shortall, who showed leadership on some issues; Tóibín, who had the opportunity to put a bit of shape on what Aontú does actually stand for. It included the flourishing friendship between the Greens and Labour. Oh, and the sheep who don’t need to fear the reintroduction of wolves. The losers included anyone hoping for a bit of last-minute drama before the broadcasting moratorium kicks in.

First Dates might have been unfolding over on RTÉ 2, but the night’s real romantic overtures were happening here, in the election studio, in what sometimes felt less like a debate than a speed-dating event for prospective coalition partners.