Gilmore goes on attack but fails to land decisive blow
LABOUR Party leader Eamon Gilmore failed to secure the comprehensive victory in the first leaders' debate that would ignite his party's 2011 General Election campaign.
But Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin took several hits last night on his record in Government over the past 15 years.
The Labour Party leader went head-to-head with his new Fianna Fail opponent, while Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny snubbed the debate, choosing instead to address a party meeting in a town hall in Co Leitrim.
Mr Gilmore failed to secure the win that would raise him above Mr Kenny as the potential leader of the new government.
Mr Martin performed better than expected and frequently went on the attack -- despite his own track record as a minister in government, which Mr Gilmore highlighted.
The new Fianna Fail leader made by far the stronger start once the TV3 debate exchanges got going, continually hitting Mr Gilmore on his party's policies accusing him of "chopping and changing".
"You are going to tax too much and you cannot tax out of a recession," he said.
By contrast with the passion he has shown in Dail exchanges over the past three years, Mr Gilmore was quite reserved in his approach to the debate.
However, the Labour leader did score points by highlighting Mr Martin's time in office.
His best moment came when he sucker-punched Mr Martin on the setting up of the Health Service Executive (HSE).
"You did more reports than you did reforming. It is now time for action. It is now time for reforming of the health system," he said.
Mr Gilmore continually and deliberately described Mr Martin as "minister", even though he knows the Fianna Fail leader resigned from Cabinet last month.
The ploy was an obvious attempt to remind people of his former role in Government over the past 13 years.
When Mr Martin copped onto the tactic and objected, Mr Gilmore said he had been more than 4,955 days in office.
But Mr Martin did not attempt to abandon his record in government and referred to his time as minister for Enterprise, Health and Education.
Mr Gilmore finally went on the attack at the end of the first leaders' debate and said Mr Martin had a "hard neck".
He asked him if he realised that people were going to have to emigrate and the impact of the universal social charge on their pay packets and accused him of being "out of touch".
Labour strategists saw the debate as an opportunity to project the party's own policies and were pleased with the outcome.
"He nailed Martin on the HSE. He was deliberately referring to him as 'minister'. He's well ahead on the popular vote," a source said.
But Fianna Fail also claimed a victory for their leader and felt Mr Gilmore did not spend enough time focusing on the future.
"Micheal is very strong on the toughest issues. Eamon was reverting to abuse every time he's caught on the bluff," a source said.
Fianna Fail deputy leader Mary Hanafin predictably claimed Mr Martin had secured a "decisive victory".
The party leaders clashed over Central Bank governor Prof Patrick Honohan's report on the banking crisis.
While Mr Martin was correct to say the report had backed the idea of introducing a state banking guarantee, Mr Gilmore equally correct to pull him up for failing to highlight the reservations.
At a Fine Gael rally in Carrick-on-Shannon, Mr Kenny told the 300-strong crowd he'd debate with the other leaders in the next few weeks.
"I want you to know and I want the world to know, you're looking at a leader who will change the way politics will work," he said.