Wednesday 22 November 2017

Last night’s TV: Primetime Presidential Debate

It was all about the candidates’ past again last night as Miriam dealt McGuinness a killer blow says Diarmuid Doyle

Before Dana became the first candidate in Irish political history to negatively campaign against herself, the real fun in last night’s Prime Time debate centred on the ongoing examination of Martin McGuinness’s past.

McGuinness’s not so secret history in the IRA has become as essential to this campaign as time travel is to Doctor Who so we were expecting the question, albeit not in the manner it finally arrived.

It had all started a bit quietly, as Miriam O’ Callaghan attempted to find out about the religious beliefs of the candidates.

This, as you might expect, provided some early opportunities for waffle. David Norris was not found wanting in this regard, speaking about the “grace of belief”.

Michael D Higgins described himself as a spiritual person before being accused by Dana of trying to secularise the country.

Then it was McGuinness’s turn. “How”, O’Callaghan asked him, “do you square with your God that you were involved in the murder of so many people?”

For a moment, McGuinness looked like he’d seen a ghost, or ghosts.

In all the times he has been asked about his past, the question can never have been put exactly like that, and never while the guts of a million people were watching. “I think that’s a disgraceful comment to make”, he said.

“You were in the IRA”, O’Callaghan insisted, an out McGuinness gratefully accepted, going on to recite the familiar story of Northern Ireland in the 1970s and why it led to so many like him joining up.

But O’Callaghan wasn’t finished. She wanted to know if he went to confession. (He does). Did he think the Irish army wanted McGuinness as commander in chief? (“Some of my best friends are soldiers”, he didn’t quite say). How do you leave the IRA, anyway? Do you write them a letter? Ni cheapim.

Relations between O’Callaghan and McGuinness were poor all night. He described another of her questions as “stupid” and could be heard moaning off camera at one point about how unfairly he was being treated.

When later he made an obvious joke about peacemakers being blessed, O’Callaghan – a bit pompously, it has to be said – intervened to suggest that he must be speaking ironically.

The other candidates were invited to join in the lynching, but only Gay Mitchell took up the offer. “You’re all playing so safe”, O’Callaghan complained, before finally, reluctantly moving on.

It was all a bit humdrum after that before Dana’s bizarre intervention, which came near the end when all the candidates were supposed to explain what they would do if elected.

Suddenly Dana was reading a prepared statement, which she must have had in front of her from the very start.

“It has come to my attention that yet further allegations, this time of a most untrue, malicious and vile nature, have been leveled against a member of my family”, she said.

“Let it be known that lawyers have already been instructed to forensically investigate a particular communication disseminating this vile and false accusation, which attempts to implicate me and destroy my good character.

“We have now been advised that all possible lines of inquiry are being pursued with the prosecution authorities in the United States.

“May I assure the Irish people that I will leave no stone unturned to expose the malicious intent at the heart of these untrue allegations”.

The Irish people, as O’Callaghan pointed out, had no idea what she was talking about. If they were looking for assurances, it was that their first ever Eurovision winner wasn’t as mad as a box of frogs.

David Norris’s judgement looks wise and calm compared to Dana’s. She’d been doing ok up to that point – mainly by keeping her mouth shut – so sending hundreds of thousands of people onto the internet in search of dirt about her and her family was counter-intuitive, as her fellow Americans say.

Perhaps she was looking for a sympathy vote. Perhaps she was trying to create an excuse to abandon a disastrous campaign. Who knows? Who cares?

What did we learn from last night?

We learned that while Sean Gallagher might claim to be running as an Independent, he is the official candidate of Genetic Fianna Fail, a dislikeable bunch who want to distance themselves from their former party colleagues, but don’t quite have the guts to condemn their behaviour.

Gallagher was given several opportunities to acknowledge that Fianna Fail had “let the country down”, but couldn’t agree with even that mild statement.

Given the high expectations he had created with his recent surge in the polls, Gallagher was the worst performer last night (Dana excepted, of course). The bag of cliches into which he reaches every time he’s asked a question is starting to lose its effectiveness. The magic beans are no longer working.

It’s far from beans that Gay Mitchell was reared, as he keeps reminding us.

He is starting to sound one of the characters in the famous “Four Yorkshiremen” Monty Python sketch in which everybody tries to outdo each other in terms of their terrible upbringing.

(Character 1: “We lived for three months in a brown paper bag in a septic tank. We used to have to get up at six o’clock in the morning, clean the bag, go work down mill for fourteen hours a day week in, week out”. Character 2: “Luxury”).

In the end, and yet again, the debate was all about the candidates’ pasts – Gallagher’s in Fianna Fail, Norris’s letter-writing, Davis’s as quango queen, McGuinness’s as leader of a gang of killers etc.

For that reason, and yet again, Michael D Higgins probably emerges as the winner. He doesn’t inspire, has no policies and no vision for what he would do as president.

But he has no past either, certainly none that will come back to haunt him, and in this election that seems to be enough.

He’s sleepwalking his way into the Aras.

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