Michael Clifford: Change is certainly coming, but from where is still up in the air

Michael Clifford: Change is certainly coming, but from where is still up in the air
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald exchange words as Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin looks on prior to the start of the final TV leaders’ debate at RTÉ last night. Picture: Niall Carson/PA

Each of the three party leaders were falling over themselves to present the face of change last night, writes Michael Clifford

Who’s the best change agent of them all?

That was the question underlying the TV three-way debate between the leaders of Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, and Sinn Féin tonight.

Leo’s changing, Micheál wants to give you a change, and Mary Lou is a changeling that leaves the other pair in the slow lane.

So it went as the debate progressed. Each of the three were falling over themselves to present the face of change. They all know what the voters want, so the trick was to avoid sounding boring while setting out the change agenda.

The build-up suggested that we could be in for a major set-to. Weekend polls had laid out for each leader what their respective offensive and defensive strategies should be. Mary Lou had only to avoid any potential falls or trip-wires and repeat a few choice slogans. She is in the driving seat. If questioned on her party’s sums, keep it vague and respond with authority even when she’s on shaky ground.

The established party leaders had tougher assignments. They had to beat up on each other, but not to the point that might suggest they were more interested in fighting than leading.

They also were both itching to throw a few digs at Mary Lou, but were so, so careful not to let it look like they were beating up on a poor, defenceless woman whose only desire in life is to bring change to the people.

All three were relatively late in arriving at RTÉ, and then they came in quick succession. Mary Lou McDonald was first through the door, where she told waiting reporters she was looking forward to the debate.

She was greeted by the station’s head of news Jon Williams, who told her:

We are genuinely delighted to have you.

That welcome, in light of the saga that preceded her inclusion in the debate, was delivered without the slightest hint of irony.

There were no introductory remarks in this debate, it was straight into the biggest question of all. How’re you 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 be 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 Clifford: Change is certainly coming, but from where is still up in the air

Micheál 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.”

Next up was the Special Criminal Court.

Despite repeated efforts from both David McCullough and Miriam O’Callaghan, Ms McDonald didn’t give a direct answer.

“I am for the courts,” she said. “The Special Criminal Court exists.” She is in favour of a review.

That was enough for the other two to jump in delight.

“We’re going to hear more of this,” Mr Martin said.

And we did, a lot more. It went on and on, sniping at each other. Ms McDonald, the frontrunner at the outset, came under fire but managed to keep the show on the road. All she had to do was avoid disaster.

How credible she, and her two opponents, came across to the voters remains to be answered next Saturday.

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