Saturday 22 October 2016

At last we get good political boxing, but roll on Saturday's count

Published 24/02/2016 | 02:30

The final leaders’ debate on RTE’s ‘Prime Time’
The final leaders’ debate on RTE’s ‘Prime Time’

A shame in many ways that we did not get such gusto in debating a little earlier. It might have motivated voters more ahead of Friday.

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For those who like their politics, it was good fare. But we were not given a game-changer here.

We still face a situation - rather reminiscent of the Eurovision Song Contest - where the counting of votes, from 9am on Saturday, will be more gripping than the actual election contest for those votes.

All four leaders went into proceedings with quite a lot left to play for.

There is still a significant level of undecided voters and there is also the intriguing question of where transfers will go. In many cases, the quartet were playing for threes, fours and fives; those strange and elusive preferences which might secure anchor tenancy in Government Buildings in the coming weeks.

So, how did they do?

Taoiseach Enda Kenny kept things tight.

He pointed up his previous apology about his "whingers" gaffe and also spoke about "spreading" the recovery - rather than keeping it going.

The Taoiseach was made look uncomfortable on a few occasions, especially on the question of fairness in tax changes. But he kept going.

Clearly, this was about keeping things going. Any real late fractional gains must come in a "ground war" as this "air war", for better or worse, is over.

Joan Burton needed to take most from this exercise but it was never realistic to expect that with one bound our heroine would be free.

She was strongest again attacking Sinn Féin and again weakest telling Labour's story.

But the Labour leader is entitled to points for courage in fighting through adversity.

Sinn Féin's Gerry Adams again benefited from "crowding." The biggest damage inflicted upon has not been in the three debates but in forensic television interviews, and more especially the RTÉ radio interview conducted by Seán O'Rourke last week.

It was curious but perhaps ultimately unsurprising to hear that he affected not to know who "Senator Cahill" is.

She is of course Mairia Cahill who challenged him and his Sinn Féin colleagues on their record in handling allegations of sex abuse against "associates" in the IRA.

Once again Fianna Fáil's Micheál Martin was the best of the competing "scholars".

Last night he more completely divested himself of any residual fear and guilt and continued his "war" even managing to sound half-convincing that he was a successful Health Minister in the almost five years from January 2000 until September 2004. Good trick that. As a party leader he has delivered on a campaign. Intriguing days and choices may lay ahead for himself and his party.

As moderator, the often stellar television presenter, Miriam O'Callaghan, had to feel the bar was set very high by her colleague, Claire Byrne, at the Limerick debate involving a challenging number of seven leaders.

Ms O'Callaghan began by showing all four leaders a "yellow card" on the sidelines: debate but don't talk over one another.

She followed on by challenging each one with inconsistencies in their current campaign statements and previous stances adopted. The leaders complied with her injunctions - it was good work all round.

It all made politics about as accessible as it can be without reducing it to mush.

For anyone with the real stamina to stay with it, this debate was worthwhile. But in ways all leaders reverted to type. Enda was careful and considerate; Joan was historic and verbose; Micheál was swift and clever; Gerry was busy re-writing history and clever in debate.

What are we left with? Well, quite possibly a hung Dáil, or a Fine Gael-led mosaic, or a longer haitus as we await bigger political changes.

Last night final leaders' debate confirmed a growing feeling over the past week. We are about to see the father and mother of a count starting on Saturday.

Irish Independent

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