It might finally be time to lay ghosts of the Civil War to rest
Published 13/02/2016 | 02:30
Well, we finally might have had our 'Aha' moment in an election campaign which has so far been more dour and dogged rather than purposeful and passionate. The interchange between the four main party leaders, in their first major television debate, reflected what has been a certain grimness in the hustings so far.
But it had its moments. Most importantly, it provided clarity - the unwitting kingmaker in this election will be Joan Burton, as reflected in the fortunes of her Labour Party.
Barring some extraordinary and unforeseen events, the die is now cast. The number of Dáil seats which can be achieved by the minor coalition partner will determine if Enda Kenny can return as Taoiseach. The only other options are another election, or the unthinkable - some form of link-up between Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil.
This reality has of course always been a key factor in the campaign. But the primary effect of the TV3-hosted roustabout was to make this crystal clear. No other permutation or combination of results will affect the election outcome in the same way.
No wonder that throughout the debate, Kenny and Burton, through thick and thin, maintained a remarkably united front.
The general consensus is that Micheál Martin was the most effective in this first - and crucial - TV confrontation between the big hitters.
Of the four, he certainly seemed most at ease, but Kenny will also be pleased with a performance that was safely bland and avoided any clangers.
However, the overall accolade for best performance should go to Burton. Caught between the proverbial rock and a hard place, as the junior coalition partner, she was on the ropes from the very start. And with a new poll suggesting she may even lose her Dáil seat, she is now engaged in an unenviable battle for political survival. Therefore, it was not surprising she gave as good as she got throughout.
All the leaders on Thursday night were primed and prepped to the hilt by a battery of behind-the-scenes advisers and handlers. And while there were some verbal flashes here and there, much of the argument and counter-argument was too predictable.
Burton found it most difficult to hold herself in check, and there were a few choice occasions when she decided to let things rip. Both her strength and her weakness as a political debater is a tendency to wear her emotions on her sleeve, especially when she feels under sustained attack.
Such an approach on this occasion will have done her no harm at all. It's now all or nothing for Labour - time to throw caution to the wind. No doubt conscious of those crucial party seats being targeted by Sinn Féin, she was at her most evocative when confronting Gerry Adams.
"That's a lie, Deputy Adams - that's a direct lie,'' she countered, when discussing the Special Criminal Court. And a pivotal moment in the proceedings was, when glaring across the studio at the Sinn Féin leader, she exclaimed: "Stop waving your finger at me and trying to intimidate me."
A pre-election TV debate in this format can be highly unsatisfactory. We had lots of interruptions, people talking over one another, and too often a determination to dodge the question.
The old tactic of stonewalling and playing the clock, while throwing out something completely left-field to change the direction of the exchanges, was called on too often.
Nevertheless, the overall shape of the battleground is now clear. Despite the heartache wrought by Celtic Tiger, spendthrift ways, a pot-pourri of goodies is on offer from all sides. Maybe it was ever thus.
The old mantra of 'What's in it for me?', and the unshakable durability of self-interest among the electorate, means the lure of the giveaway is impossible to resist by politicians and voters alike.
But since everybody is offering various forms of goodies, it was hard for any clear-cut winner to emerge when discussing issues like tax. We were constantly assured there really is going to be something for everybody in the audience - regardless of who comes to power.
On public spending issues, such as health and housing, the stated positions of the four leaders are all too familiar.
The Government parties are on the defensive; for the opposition, it is the pivotal point of their attack. It will be a major challenge for the producers of the next TV debate to insert some novelty into the jaded discussion.
Meanwhile, given recent events on the crime front, there was little surprise that matters relating to the courts, justice, and security provided a particular cutting edge to proceedings.
Gerry Adams was seriously on the back foot - at one time being attacked by the other three party leaders almost in unison.
It was also where Micheál Martin was at his most forceful, taunting the Sinn Féin leader on the residue of IRA-style "kangaroo courts" in Northern Ireland.
But one way or another, Labour and its fortunes hold the key to the election. If the party suffers a meltdown, Kenny may be sending for the Fianna Fáil leader, determined to make him an offer he just can't refuse.
A Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael coalition. The ghost of the Civil War finally laid to rest. Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Tánaiste Micheál Martin.
For some reason, it all no longer seems unimaginable. There's even a bit of a ring to it. Taoiseach Enda Kenny. Tánaiste Micheál Martin. Maybe that's the real 'Aha' moment.