THEY came, they smiled, they debated — and we all went home none the wiser. Last night, the nation held its breath, paddled away from Love Island, and tuned into the celebrity death match between Leo and Micheál.
The election campaign TV debate set-piece has entered the annals as a game changer. And last night it was the Taoiseach who badly needed something to change the game. He is lagging in the opinion polls. The seductive notion of change appears to be taking a grip among the electorate. A third term for Fine Gael has never looked as shaky.
This clash — and the rematch in RTÉ next week — have been billed as the centrepieces that could add or lose percentage points on election day. But, as expected, a scored draw was the initial assessment of what went down.
From early evening they were agog in Virgin Media. The entrance to the industrial estate in the TV station’s west Dublin depot was heavily guarded by both members of An Garda Síochána, and TV people wielding clipboards. The studio building was heavily lit as if Harry and Meghan were about to show up and tell all to Pat Kenny.
There was already tension in the air before the arrival of the combatants. Virgin Media and RTÉ personnel appeared to be at daggers. Delicate negotiations ensued to permit the national broadcaster to film from whatever angles it wished.
Reminders were issued that the shoe will be on the other foot next Monday when RTÉ are hosting the party leaders. In the end, sense prevailed, and everybody came to the conclusion that this election is big enough for the two of them.
The Taoiseach arrived first in his convoy, was met and greeted by the Virgin people, and strode in. He was asked whether he might like to address the assembled media before progressing on to his dressing room, but after a moment’s hesitation, he decided he’d keep his talking for the studio. He gave a little wave and a hesitant smile before disappearing into the building.
Then in trooped three of his front bench — Pascal Donoghue, Helen McEntee, and Regina Doherty. This was a first. Party leaders are routinely surrounded by their frontline lieutenants but never not in recent memory has one appeared for a set-piece debate with this level of reinforcements.
Micheál Martin showed up about 20 minutes later. He was looking relaxed, but one man’s relaxed countenance is another’s complacency. He didn’t have to be asked twice to issue the cúpla focaíl.
“I’m looking forward to the debate,” he said.
“It’s an opportunity to discuss the very serious issues facing this country and we’ll be in a position to present the electorate with our plans for the next five years.”
Within an hour, they were before the cameras wrestling for their political lives. The early fare saw skirmishes aplenty, with Mr Varadkar landing a number of blows, and Mr Martin reeling to some extent.
“You are the same old faces,” Pat Kenny put it to Mr Martin, referencing the confidence and supply arrangement: There would be no change with Fianna Fáil.
The Corkman disputed, then Leo intervened with what appeared to be a new offer. If it came to it, he was willing to work with Fianna Fáil in some capacity in the national interest.
The offer came out of left field and perhaps hinted at the changing strategy in response to opinion polls. After a while, the fare settled down.
On it went through the past — Kenny bringing them back to the civil war, Leo wanting to rake over the Celtic Tiger — and on to health, housing, and climate change.
In the end, neither made the big leap forward, but nor did either suffer any serious blows.
It’s onward now to the next canvass, the next debate, all the way to polling day. By then we might all be running to Love Island for a dose of salvation.