Sunday 15 September 2019

Last night's TV: Primetime presential debate

28/09/'11 Presidential Candidates, from left, Gay Mitchell, David Norris, Mary Davis, Sean Gallagher, Martin McGuinness, Dana Rosemary Scallan and Michael D Higgins pictured at RTE Radio Station this afternoon..Picture Colin Keegan, Collins, Dublin.
28/09/'11 Presidential Candidates, from left, Gay Mitchell, David Norris, Mary Davis, Sean Gallagher, Martin McGuinness, Dana Rosemary Scallan and Michael D Higgins pictured at RTE Radio Station this afternoon..Picture Colin Keegan, Collins, Dublin.

Johnny Fallon

THE presidency is a somewhat unusual election in Ireland. Unlike a general or local election the candidates get plenty of national media exposure. It is certainly not difficult to get your name known or your face out there.

Indeed, it will be interesting to see the reaction to Sean Gallagher’s decision to not to use roadside posters, because in this type of election media appearances and comment in national newspapers can have a far greater impact than a poster has.

We are set for a series of debates between all seven candidates and will be pretty much worn out listening to their message by the time this election is over. However after the first set of radio and TV appearances of the campaign proper some patterns are already evident.

Sean Gallagher certainly knows how to use his warm image and his experience of TV, but his early forays suggest that he is not used to the long debate format. Gallagher starts brightly but then begins to fade.

This has two reasons; firstly he is simply not used to keeping focus in the argument for so long. He is well aware that the message can be neatly summed up into a few words so expanding it out over an interview seems almost tiresome.

Secondly, he seems afraid to be forced into attacking, but if you want to win the presidency you are going to have to fight and Gallagher is at some stage going to have to start telling us not just why he is the best, but why he is better than the others on offer.

It is also clear that David Norris problems are not going to go away. He seems almost exasperated listening to questions. It appears that he believes the public is over this issue and he is desperate to move on, that is an error.

If Norris wants to move on then he will have to deal with the questions fully. He will not be president while letters or other documents remain unpublished and there is a suggestion that he has not revealed everything.

Martin McGuinness has been solid, he too is tired of the questioning of his IRA past but he is dealing with it. McGuinness knows however that after the Norris controversy dies down he is next in the firing line. His approach so far seems to be that avoiding mistakes is essential and that he will gradually ease into his campaign.

This is more than enough for him to get a very solid vote and to do Sinn Fein proud, but if they want to win it McGuinness needs to stand out more in the debate and to get to grips with politics in the south, where he seems a little unsure.

The language and mannerisms of Mary Davis seem to suggest that she has spent some long hours looking at other presidents and trying to emulate their approach. She has been composed but still lacking in a vital ingredient.

Our last two presidents were elected in very different circumstances; right now the country is hungry for someone with a bit of fight. Davis has so many of the attributes we like but so far seems unable to rise above the sound bytes and platitudes into the realm of taking on opponents and being a fearless leader.

Dana was surprising. She is a polarising figure, you either love her or hate her and the same goes for most of her views. What struck me the most about her contribution to the debate was her willingness to get stuck into discussion on the actual role of president. It was clearly evident that Dana is the only candidate who has been through this ringer before and faced the same questions, this will undoubtedly stand to her.

Gay Mitchell hasn’t done much wrong but a change is already apparent in the Fine Gael campaign. Mitchell, it seems has already given up the ghost. In shades of Austin Currie in 1990 Mitchell does not appear to be focussed on what he is going to bring to the job because as things stand he feels he can’t win it. A decision has been made. The government cannot afford to lose an election or it raises questions about their popularity.

Michael D. Higgins is the clear favourite, Fine Gael are the attack dogs. Mitchell’s function is now to take the fight to McGuinness, Norris, Dana, and anyone else that threatens Higgins. Mitchell does not care about transfers. His job is to hoover up enough votes and then when the time comes to convince that vote to transfer to his coalition partner. Job done for team government.

Michael D. Higgins has won the debates so far. It is above the attacks, with Mitchell getting stuck in Michael D. is presented as the calm unifying force that everyone likes. It is essential he remains so. It keeps him transfer friendly and it stops people getting annoyed by anything he says.

Unless other candidates wake up to the strategy, it could already be game over and Michael D. will be booking the removal vans to take him to the Áras. Fine Gael will not attack him, and the others are too busy responding to Fine Gael attacks on them.

Johnny Fallon is a political consultant

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