The Taoiseach and Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin went toe to toe last night in the first of two head-to-head debates ahead of the February 8 general election.
The debate, moderated on Virgin Media One by veteran broadcaster Pat Kenny turned into a best-of of both parties’ main themes to date - for Mr Varadkar, that what has been done thus far under his Government isn’t enough but with a plea for the electorate to back his party to build on what it has achieved, while for Mr Martin, the aim was to showcase that change is needed with a new Government that is as adept at meeting targets as it is at setting them.
The Taoiseach threw out an early curve ball by suggesting that his party would always “behave like grown ups” and would go into power with Fianna Fáil in order to maintain stability, despite it “not being his preference”.
“We’ve been behaving like grown ups,” Mr Martin replied, “while you have been attacking me constantly.”
Both party leaders made it clear that their willingness to consider all coalition partners stopped short with Sinn Féin.
Mr Varadkar said he had “nothing other than respect” for Mary Lou McDonald, but added that it is “not a normal political party”, citing Sinn Féin’s historic opposition to the Special Criminal Court.
“I’ve a fundamental problem with how that party is governed,” said Mr Martin, meanwhile.
The Fianna Fáil leader denied that he had been propping up Fine Gael in Government via confidence and supply for three years.
“Nothing inhibited the Government from delivering on its targets in health and housing,” he said, adding that Mr Kenny could not be seriously suggesting that Fianna Fáil “should have collapsed the Government in the middle of the Brexit negotiations”.
The Taoiseach said that “yes we’ve been in for nine years”.
“They were in for 14, and we know what happens every time they get in - boom and bust,” he said.
He added that every time his party is in coalition it “ends amicably”, while any Fianna Fáil variant always ends in “scandal and acrimony”.
In truth, it was hard to say that either leader had landed a knockout blow, with both spending as much time dealing with Mr Kenny’s questions as sniping at each other, though the Taoiseach may feel slightly the happier with his performance, having come across as sincere while still making his points without resorting (too often) to the snide attacks he has garnered something of a reputation for.
Mr Martin accused his opposite number of “coming along every five years and making promises, about free this and free that”.
“Have you any shame at all?” he said.
The Taoiseach countered that “the deputy made lots of promises that he didn’t keep in Government, but I’m not going to go down that route”.
He said he wanted to “express his deep regret” for anyone who has spent a night on a trolley in his time as Taoiseach adding that he understands the problem.
“I’ve been to every emergency department in this country,” he said, before saying that the genesis of the issue began with a previous Fianna Fáil government cutting 1,400 beds.
Meanwhile, both men acknowledged that they have private health insurance.
In a battle of excuses with regard to the various issues besetting their respective parties, Mr Varadkar acknowledged that a number of Fine Gael members “have brought embarrassment to the party” but added “none of them are candidates in this election”.
“You facilitated Dara Murphy,” Mr Martin said in pressing the point about the Cork TD who recently resigned his seat for a job with the European Commission, before failing himself, again, to say whether or not his own TDs on the bold step, Timmy Dooley and Niall Collins, would be in his Cabinet after a successful election campaign.
In terms of crime, Mr Martin said that “the country is awash with drugs” when asked what needs to be done about casual use among the middle classes.
Mr Kenny then asked a question that has been asked of both men before: “have you ever done drugs?”
“Never, ever,” Mr Martin said.
“I’ve answered that question 10 years ago, and gave a truthful answer at the time,” said Mr Varadkar.
“Which was?” was Mr Martin’s retort to the Fine Gael leader, who has stated in the past that he smoked cannabis while in college.
Both leaders denied that when it came to Government it was a plain choice for them - either letting down the greens or the farmers.
“They are not mutually exclusive,” said Mr Martin, before adding, oddly, that he “regrets” the statement made by John Paul Phelan, a Fine Gael junior minister who described some members of the Green Party as being “nutters".
Both also said they would hope to continue in their positions as party leader should they fail to win the election, which would render Mr Martin the first Fianna Fáil leader in history not to be ordained Taoiseach.
“My intention is to win,” said Mr Varadkar.
In summing up, Mr Martin said he wants to “start treating more people, to build more houses, and to tackle the scandal with homelessness”.
“We want to show that Government can and will help them,” he said.
The Taoiseach meanwhile said it comes down to choice between the party that caused the bust versus the party that healed the economy and “got you a good deal on Brexit”.
“Fianna Fáil isn’t offering you change that you can trust,” he said.
Whether either man has done enough to materially affect the opinion polls remains to be seen.
Two more weeks to go.