Five takeaways from the leaders’ debate

Each of the four had something to win and something to lose, writes Harry McGee

The Context:

Each of the four had something to win and something to lose. Micheál Martin probably bested Enda Kenny in the two previous debates. There has been momentum behind Martin and his party since last weekend. With Martin vying with Kenny in opinion polls as a possible alternative as taoiseach, the onus was on the Fine Gael leader to put in a big performance.

Joan Burton and Gerry Adams went into the debate with the most ground to gain. Labour has got little traction in the campaign and might become a cropper while weak media performances by Adams (where he showed poor grasp of detail) has sucked some oxygen out of Sinn Féin's growth bubble.

Kenny versus Martin


In the previous leaders’ debate, Kenny’s strategy had been to stay mainly above the fray and effect a statesmanlike persona. It was a safe strategy but left him a spectator for large sections. Martin has been assertive in the previous two debates and continued tonight where he left off. He is by far the most comfortable of the four leaders in these exchanges where you have to literally think on your feet. He was backfooted a little when asked about his 2005 appointment of Celia Larkin.

Kenny was far more assertive tonight and indeed was the first to go on the attack. He came out with his reputation intact but if he wanted to hole the Martin steamer beneath the waterline, it did not happen. Miriam O’Callaghan was most effective when asking about cronyism. Kenny faltered over the appointment of John McNulty and admitted for the first time his responsibility.

The other two

Tonight Adams seemed briefed to within an inch of his life and got through most of it without giving away hostages to fortune. For the first half it was the Gerry Adams show with exchanges between himself and O’Callaghan dominating the debate. He faltered a little when asked about specifics in his party’s health package but survived. He was not as attack-minded as in previous appearance.

He had also a very poor moment when Enda Kenny referred to Senator Cahill and Gerry Adams asked “Who is Senator Cahill?”. Kenny replied: “Mairia Cahill”. Ouch!

Joan Burton didn't have a great night in Limerick last week and there was a marked change in disposition. She was more measured in tone and argument and did not get involved as much in the haranguing that cropped up from time to time. She did intervene now and again. Under most pressure on David Begg appointment.

Exchanges of the Night

All four leaders used a tactic whereby they were asked a question and within a millisecond were giving an answer that bore no relation to it.

If you had watched the previous debates some themes may have been vaguely familiar. None bore any relation to O’Callaghan’s questions. They included: Slab Murphy, Gerry Adams’ IRA past, his medical treatment in the US, Micheal Martin’s time in health, Fine Gael’s universal health insurance, and Labour’s broken promises.

It was more subdued and less testy than before and it flagged a little in the second half, with some waffle. Joan Burton was strong when criticising Adams for backing Slab Murphy, a man who did not pay tax.

O’Callaghan was briefed and kept it all intelligible. She asked some very pointed question on cronyism, and tackled Enda Kenny on unfairness emanating from its own tax calculator.

Her most common refrain of the night was “That’s not what I asked you” as leaders ignored her questions.

The presenter’s most dramatic moment was when she instructed Adams to “stop talking” as she tried to move on to another speaker. Adams asked her, as he asked Brian Dobson, did she earn over €100,000? Of course, she did.

The Winners and Losers

It was a rather low-key and pedestrian debate than the previous two. But having said that, the leaders were given some more time to air their views.

That was illustrated by the fact the main talking point on Twitter for a while was the audibly creaking set, or was that the creaking of the hoary old arguments being put forward.

The most uncomfortable moment for all four leaders was when they were asked about cronyism, and given specific examples.

O’Callaghan was well briefed but it was impossible to stop the leaders straying from the subject.

In these debates the trick is not to lose. If you are caught out on detail or make a big blunder, it can scupper your campaign. Look at Sean Gallagher in 2011. So not losing is often a win.

There were no losers. No clear winners either. Adams is not great at these very specific debate. Kenny had improved but was not outstanding. Burton was much improved. Martin probably has the edge in this type of debate but if he has, it’s a thin one.