Election 2016: Five things we learned from the leaders’ debate

Seven leaders, a strong chair, small party leaders perfoming well and a Nicola Sturgeon

Micheál Martin and Enda Kenny ruled out a coalition on RTÉ's leaders debate. Video RTÉ


1 The not-so Secret Seven: A debate with seven participants was always going to be a tricky one. The last time there was a seven-way debate was during the Presidential election in 2011. That debate – for the right reasons, and the wrong reasons, courtesy of a rogue tweet – shaped the outcome of that contest. Given the difficulties with keeping order in the first leaders’ debate last week, it was always going to be a tricky proposition to have a coherent debate. None of the seven is a retiring wallflower. And the three leaders (two nominated) of smaller parties were all assertive personalities with strong views and lots of passion. It could have made for a mess but in the end there were fewer interruptions as leaders generally gave way to the speaker.

2 A strong chair: Claire Byrne was the most assertive of all eight people on stage. The notion of an open mike, allowing the speakers to react and interrupt, was discouraged. She controlled the proceedings from the start and her line of questioning was particularly tough. The difficulty with that is the challenging question is more difficult to use against somebody coming from the opposition side. It was not as raucous as last week and maybe it chopped and changed a bit. Overall she was impressive. She took no prisoners. But that necessary control meant that overall the debate might have lacked a little passion.

3 The leaders of the smaller parties emerged strongly. Stephen Donnelly and Richard Boyd Barrett are fluid speakers and the latter can do passionate rhetoric far better than others. Both made very strong contributions. Donnelly sounds like a disinterested economist being called in to give his view. “What we need is a stable tax base,” he said when expressing the view that the abolition of USC could not be done. “The economic storm clouds are gathering”. He was weaker in the second half. Byrne said he spent a lot of time wanting to talk to people rather than coming up with solutions. “You are all management consultant speak”. Boyd Barrett was strong on the two-tier health system and inequality in pay. He was back-footed a little on mortgage write downs but managed to make multiple references to vulture capitalism. Lucinda Creighton was also confident and composed but surprisingly did not attack her opponents as much as the others. She focused almost wholly on setting out Renua’s positions and policies. It was a straight - and effective - pitch at her base.

4The Big Four:While perhaps bested by the three others , Micheál Martin was possibly marginally the strongest of the four main party leaders, not least for his combative dogged style and his command of detail. Enda Kenny again never raised his voice, although he did launch a few attacks on Fianna Fail. Generally he held his own and made no mistakes. Gerry Adams attacked more than any other leader, zeroing in constantly on the big three. It backfired a little on him when pressed by Claire Byrne on the details of his party’s rural policy he waffled a little. His denial of IRA membership, as always, was a recurrent them for others. Joan Burton looked tired and found the format the hardest. She was subdued at the start. She came more into it later and got Gerry Adams to back down over a claim about Peter McVerry.

5 Was there a Nichola Sturgeon? The leader of the Scottish Nationalist Party emerged as the big winner of the debate during the British general election last year. Donnelly looked like he was moving there but fell back in the second half. Boyd Barrett had his moments. Kenny and Martin were the best of the big four.