Election 2016: Final TV debate out to persuade swing voters

Encounter of Enda Kenny, Joan Burton, Michéal Martin, Gerry Adams seen as crucial

The final televised debate of the general election campaign will on Tuesday night see the leaders of the four main parties attempt to shore up their vote and persuade undecided voters to back them on Friday.

The debate between Taoiseach Enda Kenny, Tánaiste Joan Burton, Michéal Martin and Gerry Adams has long been seen as crucial in persuading swing voters in the final stretch of the campaign.

The debate, which takes place in RTÉ’s Donnybrook studios, will be moderated by Miriam O’Callaghan. It begins at 9.35pm.

Each leader, however, will have a different focus. Fianna Fáil leader Michéal Martin was perceived to have performed well in the previous two contests and party sources say they expect him to come under pressure on Tuesday night.


With Fianna Fáil rising in the polls, one source claimed Mr Martin will be attacked on “all fronts” but said the Cork South-Central TD will “concentrate on solutions and the future”.

However, it was acknowledged there are “two chances” of Mr Martin being allowed to do so.

“He is known as a good debater so they will try to finish him at every opportunity,” the source said, adding that Mr Kenny and Ms Burton will “shout him down at every chance to rise him”.

It was also claimed that Ms O’Callaghan is expected to put in a strong performance as moderator, following commendation of Claire Byrne’s role in managing last week’s seven-way debate.

After two steady performances in earlier debates, Fine Gael sources say Mr Kenny will focus on those who have yet to make up their minds before polling day and emphasise that "now is not the time to take risks".

“We’re fighting hard to convince people not to throw their blood, sweat and tears of the last few years away. At this stage people are actually thinking about the election.”

Mr Kenny on Monday appealed to those thinking of voting Independent to continue their preference for Fine Gael, a sign that the party needs the transfers of non-party TDs to see some deputies over the line.

Tánaiste Joan Burton will attempt to further distance herself from Fine Gael and claim that Labour is needed in government to promote "progressive values".

The stakes are high for Ms Burton, with her party falling in the polls and facing significant losses on polling day. The Tánaiste was also seen to have performed poorly in earlier contests, but party sources have questioned how much effect the debates will have on voting intentions.

“Get through it unscathed, distinguish ourselves from Fine Gael, show progressive voters why they need to vote Labour to avoid Fianna Fáil-Fine Gael,” is how one party figure described Ms Burton’s expected approach in the debate.

She will repeat the message of recent days that “only Labour” can push for progressive measures in coalition, such as a referendum on the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution, which gives equal right to life to the mother and the unborn.

Sinn Féin sources indicated Mr Adams will use the debate as another opportunity to shore up to the party's core vote. The Louth TD is expected to make a direct plea to those thinking of voting Sinn Féin to turn out on the day and do so.

“He will be saying that if you want change, you have to go out and vote for it,” said a Sinn Féin source, adding that another task will be to win over some people who may be tempted to vote for Fianna Fáil or Independents.