Who’s the best change agent of them all? That was the theme that informed the leaders’ TV debate last night.
The three leaders, Leo Varadkar, Mary Lou McDonald and Micheal Martin were put through their paces in what was easily the best debate of the general election campaign.
All had difficult moments. There were a few policy issues for the two men but Ms McDonald definitely had her most uncomfortable debate of the campaign.
Ironically, some of her worst moments centred on whether her own party has gone through enough change.
The three contestants – put standing behind podiums in front of the seated Miriam O’Callaghan and David McCullagh as if hauled before school principal – were first quizzed on how exactly they were fixed for change?
“I think this is going to be a change election,” Leo Varadkar started. “What people have to ask is who is going to e the new government and who do they want to lead the new government.
“But bear in mind that all change isn’t change for the better,” he said, referencing Trump and Brexit.
Michael Martin is a changed man. “I worked in transformative change in education, health and so forth. Now I want to bring real, cogent change.”
For Mary Lou McDonald it was quite simple. “The theme of this election that has emerged is a thirst for change.
So has the Sinn Féin leader changed her position in the Special Criminal Court? The party has long opposed the court which was effectively created to deal with the IRA.
“I am for the courts,” she said. “The Special Criminal Court exists.” She went around the houses like this a few times before Miriam gave up.
Varadkar, who had started out as if trying to shake off pre-game nerves, was in like a shot. “She won’t give a straight answer because she doesn’t want you to know the answer.” Change, where are you?
From there it was onto housing where Martin is gung ho to build and build, Leo is just getting to grips with the problem after being two years – the previous seven he says were spent cleaning up Fianna Fáil’s mess – in real charge. Mary Lou wants to be ambitious but can’t say who will build all the houses.
“Fianna Fáil was and is the party of developers, Fine Gael the party of the landlords,” she said by way of explanation as to why we have such a problem with housing.
The joint principals nodded sagely and Miriam said we’d be moving onto health after the break. David then addressed the camera with a look that was halfway between classic Vincent Browne and classic Mr Bean.
The best of the health issue came from Martin when he pointed out that Varadkar had once noted that extra beds wouldn’t be a good idea in tackling problems in the service.
The economy provided Varadkar with his retort. He suggested that little had changed in Fianna Fáil since the days of the illusory Celtic Tiger.
“Asking him to run the economy is like asking John Delaney back to run the FAI,” the Taoiseach said. Martin responded with a tight smile.
There were no major trip-ups from any of the candidates on the issues, but a theme did emerge. Varadkar was intent on targeting Martin’s policies, attempting to presumably sway the voters who have switched back and forth between their two parties over the last two elections. Martin was intent on picking holes in McDonald’s policies.
And Mary Lou, for the greater part, concentrated on pointing out the shortcomings of the other two but was not as sure footed when probed on how exactly she was going to be this great agent of change.
On pensions, she was asked about her comment that the “demographics will look after themselves”, in relation to why she wanted to revert the pension age to 65 despite forecasts that it is not sustainable. Her reply appeared to be that in a society where people were taken care of the demographics would not turn out to be as bad as is being predicted.
“So you are encouraging people to procreate,” McCullagh said, his left eyebrow shooting for the ceiling.
It was the line of the night. Vote Sinn Féin to increase the birthrate, lower the national age profile and we will all live happily ever after.
All three had awkward moments on the issue of errant party members. Varadkar tried to explain away the double jobbing Dara Murphy but didn’t manage to convince. Martin claimed that comparing votegate pair Niall Collins and Timmy Dooley to Murphy was unfair, and he was correct even though the comparison hadn’t been made.
Mary Lou McDonald had her worst moment when the case of Paul Quinn was introduced. The 21-year-old Armagh man was beaten to death in a savage and calculated attack allegedly by an IRA gang in October 2007.
Sinn Féin’s now minister for finance in the North, Conor Murphy, had in the aftermath of the murder suggested that Mr Quinn was a criminal.
Miriam O’Callaghan pointed out to Mary Lou that in an interview on Monday she told Bryan Dobson she didn’t believe Murphy said any such thing. Miriam produced the specific quote.
The Sinn Féin leader said it was wrong and shouldn’t have been said and Murphy would apologise.
For those with memories of the party’s past it did raise the question as to how far they have now come.
Will the debate change anything? Party hacks and the pols themselves place great store in the format. At least last night there were opportunities to enunciate policies and pick holes in opponents’ positions.
The electorate can’t claim that it has been given the chance to see the whites of their eyes. Apart from that, maybe it was all just, wait for it, plus ca change.