Mick Clifford: Unwieldy and shouty debate produced plenty of heat but very little light

There is a lingering suspicion that everybody in Thursday’s TV leaders debate was administered a high dose of adrenaline as they entered the studio. All were out of the blocks as if they’d been pumped up on something, and none more so than co-presenter Ivan Yates.

Mick Clifford: Unwieldy and shouty debate produced plenty of heat but very little light

There is a lingering suspicion that everybody in Thursday’s TV leaders debate was administered a high dose of adrenaline as they entered the studio. All were out of the blocks as if they’d been pumped up on something, and none more so than co-presenter Ivan Yates.

He began proceedings by suggesting that the lot of them were “chancers and charlatans”, which would sound the business if issued from a barstool. Younger people may be unaware that Mr Yates had a previous career as a politician. The 60-year old media presenter has been drawing an index lined ministerial pension worth over €75,000 for the last eighteen years. He knows what makes politicians tick.

There followed twenty minutes during which much heat was pumped into the studio but little light emerged. The seven leaders bumped and grinded in their efforts to answer a question before the next was fired at them. They spoke over each other. They interrupted and wagged fingers and all the time Mr Yates and his co-presenter Matt Cooper kept sticking it to them. Eventually, things calmed down and a fair to middling debate ensured for last hour or so.

Earlier the seven arrived in dribs and drabs to the Virgin Media Studio. Another debate, another ninety minutes wired for sound and on guard for a slip or stray word. Three days after their last clash they came together again, down two of the original compliment. Catherine Murphy had her turn at being the leader of the Social Democrats, taking over from her co-leader, Roisin Shortall.

And People Before Profit’s Richard Boyd Barrett handed the hard left baton to Mick Barry, the Solidarity TD. Boyd Barrett had been one of the shining lights the first night but there was no chance that he would be put out again. The PBP/Solidarity alliance is still together against all previous form on the left and that takes a lot of delicate balancing.

On arrival, all except the Taoiseach stopped to throw a few morsels out to the waiting media pack. Mick Barry said he was looking forward to debating “tweedledum and tweedledee”, leading to fears that his contribution would be heavily informed by cliches.

Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald during a seven way leaders General Election debate at the Virgin Media Studios in Dublin. (Niall Carson/PA Wire)
Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald during a seven way leaders General Election debate at the Virgin Media Studios in Dublin. (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

Mary Lou McDonald said she would go on the attack and in the debate she was true to her work. And then Eamon Ryan was asked about his strategy. “Be honest, speak the truth, speak your mind,” he said. The election has not been as green as some thought it would be, but Ryan’s blunt honesty about where the planet is heading has always been refreshing.

Yates kicked off with his insult and suggested “this is a fundamentally dishonest election” in terms of the auction politics on offer.

Leo asked not to be put on the bold step with the others as he had overseen a government that had been prudent.

That set the tone for the evening. Matt Cooper got stuck into Micheál Martin who was having none of it. “Matt, you interrupted me twice now,” he said.

Then Mary Lou came in for it. Her figures were not endorsed by the Department of Finance, Yates told her. She said she didn’t accept that giving a break to people was some kind of a reckless giveaway. That was a signal for Martin and Varadkar to jump in to tear apart the Shinners manifesto. And on it went with skin and hair flying but little in way of cogent points being made.

“Eamon, get a grip,” Yates said, when the Greens leader suggested we should increase the size of the state apperatus.

“You have been less promiscuous,” Yates told Brendan Howlin and then asked him whether the election was dishonest.

Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin during a seven way leaders General Election debate at the Virgin Media Studios in Dublin. (Niall Carson/PA Wire)
Labour Party leader Brendan Howlin during a seven way leaders General Election debate at the Virgin Media Studios in Dublin. (Niall Carson/PA Wire)

What quickly became obvious was that the moderators were operating on the basis that the campaign had not yet really come to life and this was an opportunity to see the leaders get down and dirty. The theory was soundly based but the execution turned out to be unwieldy and shouty.

During the first add break rumour has it that the man with the adrenaline shots ran around the studio stabbing everybody with a syringe full of downers. When they came back, the debate was a little more enlightening, although it may have been too late for some fleeing viewers.

Everybody did ok on their own terms. Varadkar was assertive as was Howlin. Mick Barry made clear points and managed to throw in anecdotes from his own constituency. Catherine Murphy made sense on health and Mary Lou McDonald emerged unscathed from attempts to tear apart her party’s economic policies. Martin was firm and clear and Eamon Ryan finally got a chance to put climate change on the table.

The emerging narrative was the antipathy that exists between Fianna Fail and Sinn Fein, or more specifically their respective leaders. While there was little of substance for the undecided voter in this debate, the outcome of the election was brought into focus through the testy exchanges between the pair.

There is no way that Martin will lead a Fianna Fail into a coalition with the Shinners should the numbers dictate. Whether that shuts off the possibility of the two parties coalescing in any circumstances remains to be seen.

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