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Election 2020: Fine Gael likely to be happier after leaders’ debate

Inside Politics: Varadkar seemed better prepared than Martin and struck a more humble tone than in Dáil exchanges

The Taoiseach was widely judged to have bested Micheál Martin in their first head-to-head televised debate

Good morning.

Leo Varadkar and Fine Gael probably left the Virgin Media studios in Ballymount the happier last night after the Taoiseach was widely judged to have bested Micheál Martin in their first head-to-head televised debate.

Varadkar started the contest well and struck a more humble tone than he usually does in Dáil exchanges or in doorstep interviews by acknowledging the failings and shortcomings of his party. In response to suggestions that he lacked empathy, the Taoiseach had a preprepared line ready to go: “I show the fact I care in the work I do,” he said.

Varadkar also said he would be open to a grand coalition with Fianna Fáil after the election if it is needed to provide stable government, a statement clearly designed to wrong-foot Martin.


The Fianna Fáil leader did not reply on this point during the debate, moderated by Pat Kenny, and declined to answer questions on the subject when asked by reporters as he left Ballymount last night. The same questions are likely to follow him on the campaign trail today, as Varadkar probably intended.

Another issue that will outlast the televised proceedings is the Taoiseach’s reply when he and Martin were asked by Kenny if they had ever taken illegal drugs. Kenny asked the question just before an ad break and at the end of a segment on crime and security.

Varadkar paused and looked awkward, before referring to a Hot Press interview he gave while in Opposition in 2010.

It says: “Speaking to Hot Press, the politician admits he smoked cannabis in college, and when asked if he ever experimented with ecstasy or any other illegal drugs as a teen replies, ‘Not since I’ve held elected office, anyway. I’ve been extremely law-abiding since I’ve been elected to politics.’

Overall, Varadkar seemed better prepared for the contest than Martin, who failed to change gear from the usual Dáil sparring between the pair.

Before yesterday, the momentum was with Martin after both the B&A poll for the Sunday Times put Fianna Fáil ahead of Fine Gael by 12 points, while Ipsos/MRBI put Fianna Fáil two points ahead of Fine Gael - 25 to 23 - with Sinn Féin just behind on 21 per cent.

The debate’s effect on the wider campaign is that it has checked Fianna Fáil’s roll and given Fine Gael TDs cause for some hope that all is not lost, even if they still face an uphill struggle. It will also remind many TDs why they voted for Varadkar as leader in the first place.

We have a post-debate Election Daily podcast here.

The main emphasis of our election lead in the paper is the controversy over the raising of the State pension age.

Colin Gleeson has an account of what was said during the leaders' debate here.

Ed Power's television review is here, and he says Varadkar, when asked the drugs question, "looks like the tiniest rabbit caught in all the headlights in the world".

Best reads

Conor Gallagher interviews Cathal Berry, the former Defence Forces commandant who is standing in Kildare South.

Miriam Lord was out with People Before Profit.

On the op-ed pages, Newton Emerson says ruling Sinn Féin out of power in Dublin "infantalises Stormont".

Michael Noonan has an op-ed responding to one from Conor Lenihan of Fianna Fáil earlier in the week. Noonan says Fianna Fáil was not an 'innocent bystander in the crash'.

Election Diary

Leo Varadkar is canvassing in the Omni Park shopping centre in Santry with Fine Gael Dublin North West TD Noel Rock and holds an event on online safety in his native Castleknock.

Fianna Fáil’s education spokesman, Thomas Byrne, holds a briefing on his policy area.

People Before Profit launches its ‘Access for all on public transport’ at Clontarf Road Dart station.

The Social Democrats launch ‘A new deal for parents’ in Temple Bar.

Brendan Howlin is in Cork to unveil Labour’s climate change policy with Cork North Central candidate John Maher and Cork East TD Sean Sherlock.

#GE2020 coverage

We have a dedicated section on our website devoted to all things election.

We will also have a daily Election 2020 political blog to give you live coverage - written, audio, video and social media - of the campaign as it happens. If you see anything that might be worth noting (especially if it’s quirky) you can contact Harry McGee via Twitter @harrymcgee or at

We will also have a daily Inside Politics podcast, hosted by Hugh Linehan, which will give you analysis each day from our award-winning team.