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Debate analysis - McDonald shows vulnerability as she fronts up without safety blanket of 'exclusion alibi'

John Downing


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Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald during the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. PA Photo. Picture date: Tuesday February 4, 2020. See PA story IRISH Election. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald during the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. PA Photo. Picture date: Tuesday February 4, 2020. See PA story IRISH Election. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire

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Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald during the final TV leaders' debate at the RTE studios in Donnybrook, Dublin. PA Photo. Picture date: Tuesday February 4, 2020. See PA story IRISH Election. Photo credit should read: Niall Carson/PA Wire

Then there were three – three leaders slugging it out on television – with only three full canvass days left.

There was big stuff at stake for all of them.

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Now that Mary Lou McDonald had battered her way to the top table all “exclusion alibis” were gone and it was up to her to perform.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar had to somehow show he and his party still had fight in them despite a stuttering ill-starred campaign.

Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin had to keep brushing aside the opinion poll results and portray himself as the most likely option as Taoiseach.

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A debate like this, so close to polling day, would normally have no prospect of altering the election outcome.

But, with Sinn Féin now shown ahead of Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil in the latest opinion poll, we are in seriously uncharted waters here as the political status quo since the 1930s could be upended.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar gives answers questions outside Crescent Shopping centre in Limerick. He said he welcomes the inclusion of Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald in Tuesday night's Prime Time leaders' debate.

Ms McDonald had helped her party climb and climb in the popularity stakes by in large part casting themselves as “excluded”.

She told discontented voters that the “old parties” were trying to dictate to Sinn Féin, and by extension to the voters. But now that alibi was gone.

The Sinn Féin leader was shown up as vulnerable when it came to two legacy issues which have a current ring to them.

She failed to give a straight answer on whether her party now supported the Special Criminal Court.

After considerable cross-questioning by co-compère Miriam O’Callaghan and her two opponents, Ms McDonald eventually said she believed the State “fighting 21st century criminals needed some kind of special powers”.

Her party no longer wanted to abolish the Special Criminal Court – which jailed hundreds of IRA terrorists over the decades – but it did want its workings “reviewed”.

Mr Martin pointed to her party’s continued opposition to the Special Criminal Court.

“The old IRA comrades decided they could never vote for the Special Criminal Court or support it,” he said.

Again Ms McDonald was on thin ice when the Taoiseach raised the issue of Sinn Féin in government in the North where indicators on homeless, health, instances of suicide and a raised retirement age all compared very poorly with the Republic.

She fell back on “blaming the Tories’ 10 years of austerity” and urged the Taoiseach to raise these issues with the London government.

Rather poor stuff. Another case of pass the parcel here.

Against that, Ms McDonald did well by looking and sounding confident for the most part.

And she, like the other two leaders, avoided too much talking over each other and behaved with a deal of civility.

It was clear she was conscious that coming into this debate on a high – there was a risk of loss.

She therefore kept to safe empathy for working families, young people’s quest for houses and pensioners.

By contrast, the Taoiseach’s task was most difficult of all.

Mr Varadkar must show that he is still fighting – even though on some of the opinion poll numbers people suggest Fine Gael will actually go further backwards on a poor election last time in 2016.

It could be reduced to the early 30s in terms of Dáil seats, comparable with its worst ever days out.

Yet he managed to front up a courageous and never-say-die approach garnering some belated kudos for the Fine Gael leader.

His attacks on Fianna Fáil did not work too well and last night his prime target had to be Sinn Féin’s economic policies. It is too late for Leo Varadkar to stray too far from his core economic message and emphasis on the upcoming perils of Brexit.

But he did hit some smarter soundbites, for example comparing giving Fianna Fáil control of the economy again to “giving John Delaney control of the FAI again”.

Mr Martin has made a latter day career out of gainsaying opinion polls since he took over leadership of the battered Fianna Fáil party in January 2011.

So, he still strove to portray himself as the only real viable Taoiseach after Saturday’s General Election.

He insisted Fianna Fáil still has the benefit of having twice the number of candidates in the field as Sinn Féin.

He can still claw back ground, and like Mr Varadkar, his line of attack on Ms McDonald was primarily around the economy.

He pointed out that Sinn Féin’s plan to abolish the Local Property Tax would leave local councils short of €450m in funding. Its company tax plans would destroy jobs, he warned, and moves to make the banks not offset their losses against tax would rebound on the consumer.

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