Miriam Lord: Clash between Coyote Casey and Talking Tea Cosy disappoints

Viewers of RTÉ presidential debate got an even-handed free for all

President Michael D. Higgins, speaking during a presidential debate on RTÉ, has defended his use of the government jet to travel to Belfast to deliver a speech. Video: RTÉ

 

We thought it was going to be Coyote Casey versus the Talking Tea Cosy. Michael D Higgins, dodging the hits like Road Runner, with Peter Casey stalking him like Wile E Coyote, waiting for the chance to drop an anvil on the presidential head.

There was a magnificent full moon over Montrose. With any luck, one of the candidates might go doolally. This was probably the main reason people tuned in to watch the latest debate in what has been a dull and uninspiring presidential election campaign.

“I can certainly say I would be one of the more interesting and exciting presidents,” carolled Casey, as his fellow candidates sniggered.

In the end, the scrap between Higgins and Casey didn’t live up to the advance billing. What viewers got was a more even-handed free for all, with the TV “dragons” devouring each other and the remaining three candidates staying, mainly, above the fray.

As he is so far ahead on the opinion polls, and this was “the last chance debate”, there was a feeling before the off that Michael D’s rivals had no option but to go for the jugular.

At the start of hostilities, Higgins was neither president nor candidate – he was a moving target. And for the first 15 minutes of the debate, he was the focus of intense questioning. First from presenter and master of the raised eyebrow, David McCullagh – who did a ruthless job as moderator – and then from the five pretenders to his job.

McCullagh landed the line of the night when Seán Gallagher, who came second to Higgins in the last election, quibbled at being called a “Dragon”, conveniently ignoring the reality television show which propelled him, and his colleagues Casey and Duffy, to the election starting gate.

“Perhaps in seven years time we will have three candidates from Ireland’s Fittest Family.”

The continuing row over Higgins being flown in the Government jet last May to an engagement in Northern Ireland reached its entertaining peak when the volatile Casey, following through on a crunching opening tackle from his fellow reality TV star Gallagher, looked at an angelic Higgins and shouted: “He couldn’t lie straight in the bed! He couldn’t lie straight in the bed!”

A pained Higgins shrieked: “My life has been about authenticity!”

We closed our eyes and swore we were hearing Oliver Callan. As he shipped a lot of flak, the president eventually declared: “there are far too many innuendos flying around.” Presumably not just in the jet.

Lots

Earlier, the final podium places were decided when representatives of the candidates drew lots – a bit like Winning Streak, but without the glamour. At the outset of the campaign, positioning Higgins and Gallagher side by side in the middle of the crescent of candidates would have seemed like perfect placement for a grudge match which has been seven years in the making. But that was before the recent shake-up in the rankings.

Gallagher, the high flyer of the last election, was shot down in flames

Filter-free Peter Casey, liable to say anything, was cast number one contender to take out the reigning champ. Gallagher, who did so well last time out, seemed destined to fill the role of safety buffer between the two perceived front-runners. The commercial property landlord seemed tense when he arrived in RTÉ last night – the first of the lineup to make an entrance. Perhaps conscious he had to do something spectacular to halt Casey’s gallop and take Michael D out of the race.

The media observers were pinning their hopes for a good brawl on multi-millionaire businessman, Casey. If he didn’t launch a rocket at the President before the end of the show there was every expectation he would at least let off a few bangers. So much so that when he walked into the foyer of the Television Centre, the waiting hacks said nothing, rendered silent by their overwhelming desire for fireworks and blood on the carpet.

It was all rather awkward, Casey smiling wordlessly at the reporters and the reporters blankly staring back. After the initial piling in on Higgins over the jet, the debate settled down to what was largely a row between the three male “Dragons”.

The three men, stood together wearing an interchangeable dark suit. They then indulged in an interchangeable argument and spent much of the debate savaging each other, with Liadh Ní Riada and Joan Freeman lobbing in the occasional dig and Michael D standing, presidentially, above it all.

Next into the firing line was Gallagher. He should have been expecting the “what have you been doing for the last seven years” haymaker. But he walked into it anyway. In the course of a lot of huffing and puffing, the businessman said it was because he had been fighting a case against RTÉ ever since his ordeal in the final debate in 2011. He pointed to one crowning achievement as a result: “as we stand here tonight, there are no live tweets coming in”.

He followed up this great revelation with the sort a bewildering reply which cried out for for the attention of Joycean scholars. Gallagher, the high flyer of the last election, was shot down in flames. When he declared, rather loftily, that he is a type of social entrepreneur “providing workspace”, Gavin Duffy pointed out “you’re a commercial landlord” while Ní Riada reminded him he was “lining his pockets”.

Headbutting

Duffy and Casey then started headbutting each other. By the end of the debate, the business-orientated Dragons had devoured each other. Three were left standing – Higgins, Freeman and Ní Riada.

Freeman struggled to get her “vision” out. It concerns her interest in mental health.

“Look, I’m the expert here,” she said, not for the first time. But she did well, showing her frustration with the bickering of the businessmen. Joan said she wants to open “wellness centres” around the country if she becomes president. An hour into the debate, and we could have done with a stint in a wellness centre.

Duffy expounded again on Brexit and continued to push his plan to have a Youth Corps.

McCullagh then got stuck into Liadh over her claim that, as a Sinn Féin politician, she only earns the average industrial wage. She said her error was one of “semantics really” and that she should have answered the question more clearly.

The programme began with a compilation of some of the saccharine mission statements emoted by the contenders. Somebody encountering the participants for the first time might have mistaken it for the opening shots of a comedy programme.

It was an entertaining debate, but despite our fervent hopes, there was no rocket from Casey, who came along with a pocket full of damp squibs. Michael D Higgins will be relieved after the programme – he suffered no major hit. The two women on the ticket – Freeman and Ní Riada – were also measured and more considered in their approach. They did well. But the Talking Tea Cosy, despite the predictions of a bloodbath, survived unravelled.

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