‘Sorry, I’m a little confused,’ Joan Freeman said. She wasn’t the only one

Prime Time’s presidential debate had no winners – and the big losers were its viewers

"Sorry, I'm a little confused," Joan Freeman interjected about midway through the seemingly interminable Prime Time: The Presidential Debate (RTÉ One, Tuesday, 9.45pm). She was not the only one. Indeed, had she finished her sentence right there she would have been the candidate most persuasively in tune with this bewildered nation, a true representative of these beleaguered people of Ireland.

After weeks of bitterly unhappy expressions from most of the candidates that not all six contenders had appeared in every debate, we might have been forgiven for expecting them to make the most of this one.

Instead we got the usual. We got potshots at the incumbent, Michael D Higgins, whom three reality-show business-tycoon candidates hoped to unseat the same way they might hope to unseat someone at a fairground dunk tank: throw wildly and hope to hit something. We got, bizarrely, a considerable amount of time devoted to arguing about who would be attending a debate the following night, as though this were some sort of rhetorical purgatory.

Michael D Higgins took the George Bernard Shaw approach to anyone who would try to undermine his integrity. Never wrestle with pigs: you get dirty and the pig likes it

Mercifully, we also got an expert needling of the candidates’ respective characters , delivered with clarity and tenacity by the debate’s moderator, David McCullagh. But mostly we got to hear about their “vision for the presidency”, or rather we were promised that we would hear about it after either the next accounting spat or the next commercial break. That vision seemed endlessly deferred. “I’m trying to think about the viewers out there,” Freeman said – it was nice to be remembered – “listening and looking at us, and [wondering] what are you saying you’re bringing to the presidential office over the next seven years?”


I'm still none the wiser. Millionaire candidates made much of Higgins's use of the government Learjet and a now notorious trip to Belfast, which the millionaires considered a dreadful extravagance for which they, perhaps, were better suited. "It's all on the record," Higgins said of his jet use, which sounded otherwise appropriate. Only Peter Casey, who now bears the expression of a man whose lark has got way out of hand, seemed to be trying to get more mileage out of it. "I'm really not going to comment on people who say I am not capable of telling the truth," Higgins said, taking the George Bernard Shaw approach to anyone who would try to undermine his integrity. Never wrestle with pigs, the writer advised; you get dirty and the pig likes it.

Casey did little to remove the stain of his recent racist disparagement of Travellers. “I don’t regard Travellers as a different race to me, so how could I be racist?” Casey asked, with his own callous improvisational logic, now standing a considerable distance from the presidency and far, far beyond parody.

What chance does the Sinn Fein MEP Liadh Ní Riada have to represent her country as president when her own children have instructed her to no longer represent them? That frank admission came when McCullagh raised the matter of Ní Riada's 2016 radio interview in which she said she would not allow her daughter to receive the HPV vaccine at school. Although she now considered her words "naive", Ní Riada managed to suggest that her naivety was a product of "lack of information" rather than the singular display of a politician speaking publicly on a matter she had not adequately informed herself about.

Asked about the figures her Pieta House charity had published on suicide prevention – an immensely hard thing to quantify – Freeman was characteristically defensive: “This is not a good place to do that.” But McCullagh’s approach throughout was to draw attention to the way the candidates represented themselves, and their respective endeavours, and thus make us wonder how they might represent us.

In Seán Gallagher’s mind, his personal feelings and those of the nation seemed one and the same. His legal settlement with RTÉ, he claimed, had brought more change than “if I had been a minister for communications for the last six years”. The idea that what’s good for Gallagher is good for us seemed like his campaign theme. “You’re a property developer,” McCullagh put it. “No, I’m building workspace,” he countered.

Even his colleague Gavin Duffy, who could spin his own job description as “more management consultancy and communications training” than PR, didn’t buy it. “Seán, you are a commercial landlord and you’re trying to sell it as social enterprise,” Duffy said. “Clearly it is not.”

We have watched the race for Áras an Uachtaráin become a kind of overheated reality show, prey to Peter Casey's rabid reactionary waffle or Seán Gallagher's vapid sloganeering

Gallagher, who portrayed all the authority of a wrestling commentator squinting into a headwind, seemed most disappointed by his own voters, who did not recognise the wisdom of his retreat from other debates. “I had to explain it to them,” Gallagher said, unhappily, “because even they, unfortunately, didn’t understand.” The fools! How many more people does Gallagher have to sue to get his message across?

There were no winners in this debate, though. Freeman, for all her worries about expressing a “vision” for the presidency, brought no more clarity to her theme of “wellness”, whose every elaboration brought only a bigger headache. Ní Riada wriggled under too many questions about previous interview gaffes without being able to cleanly dispatch them. And even Higgins, the only candidate you could call presidential, made most criticisms against him seem like a gross slur to his lifetime in public office.

The biggest losers in the end, though, might be us. We have watched the race for Áras an Uachtaráin become a kind of overheated reality show, prey to Casey’s rabid reactionary waffle or Gallagher’s vapid sloganeering. (“We don’t need legislation, we need imagination,” MC Seán freestyled, with as much coherence as his campaign could muster.)

At least Prime Time recognised it. Placing the former Dragons' Den pals onstage together in a tittering boys' club was, we were assured, determined by random draw. But other appearances seemed stealthily considered. Even if RTÉ had added buzzers to the podiums, the stage couldn't have looked better suited to a gameshow. That seemed like discreet satirical comment. Just as having a podium at chest height and a water glass at knee level seemed like a subtle test of who could best preserve the dignity of the office in awkward circumstances. That also made McCullagh's frequent joshes, respectful but wry, all the more necessary, underlining that this kind of circus is not normal.

“I think you should stop calling us dragons, David,” Gallagher complained at one point.

"Perhaps in seven years we'll have three candidates from Ireland's Fittest Family," McCullagh replied. "Who knows?"