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Lise Hand: From his soapbox, King Kenny sweeps all before him

IT was a grand sunny morning in Connemara yesterday when a gridlock of leaders arrived at TG4 with a flurry of advisers and spin-doctors for the first ever TV debate as Gaeilge.

It was an invasion. The various posses from Fine Gael, Labour and Fianna Fail all ignored each other in the corridors, though a few of the bolder party workers sidled into press huddles with rival party leaders as their proximity to each other offered the rare opportunity for an eavesdrop on the enemy.

And there were a few warlike shapes thrown by Eamon, Micheal and Enda as they arrived at the station.

"Micheal Martin's thumb-prints and fingerprints are all over the economic wreckage they've inflicted on Ireland," sniped Enda, while Micheal slipped a stiletto into Fine Gael's beloved Five-Point Plan.

"From our analysis, Fine Gael has hidden a lot, they're saying certain things up front on income tax, but in the back door you've a lot of taxes coming through that they're not highlighting," he insisted.

"In terms of the public expenditure side of the equation Fine Gael is saying it is going to save €5bn through waste -- without specifying where that's going to come from. That doesn't add up at the end of the day."

But Micheal also had to put a very brave face on the dismal Fianna Fail figures in yesterday's Irish Independent poll which put his party at 12pc.

"I think we have a significant challenge in this election, there's no doubt about that, but certainly we're getting very good feedback from our candidates in the constituencies across the country," he said gamely.

Nor could he even take much satisfaction that his own personal popularity rating had knocked Eamon off his long-held perch as Number One Leader.

"It would be useful if we could translate some of it into votes for the party," he said a little dolefully.

Inside the studio before kick-off, the trio posed very stiffly and silently for the obligatory photo with moderator Eimear Ni Chonaola, though Micheal kept Eamon and Enda waiting for several anxious minutes before he breezed in.

When the recording began, the travelling pack of press gathered in the station's canteen. Alas, most had only the cupla focail, so were mainly watching in case someone threw an actual punch as opposed to a verbal one.

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But once again a studio floor was left blood-free, with the liveliest exchange reserved for a row over Fine Gael's proposal to scrap Irish as a core subject in the Leaving Cert -- a wheeze which has the ranks of Mna na Ti in every Gaeltacht area up in arms.

However, afterwards all three debaters seemed chuffed with their performances.

"It went very well, I'm absolutely delighted," reckoned Micheal.

"I'm very pleased, it's a historic debate," said Eamon.

"I enjoyed the occasion," added Enda.

It was a brief moment of harmony before the three leaders hit their respective campaign trails and resumed the war mongering.

Labour had got an early shot in yesterday with an attack ad on Fine Gael which appeared in the national newspapers. And Enda wasn't amused.

On a campaign stop in the Limerick town of Bruree (where Eamon de Valera spent a large part of his childhood), Enda fired off a volley of his own.

"I'm disappointed to see where Labour has drifted here and I'm not sure whether that smacks of panic or desperation, but I just want to say that I have no interest in misleading advertisements," he sniffed.

In politics it's almost de rigeur to kick an opposition party when it is down in the polls, and Enda did so with a degree of relish when he got out the trusty soapbox in Clancy's Bar in Bruff.

"[Fianna Fail] now recognise there are two words that their members -- including their leader -- will not speak in public during this campaign because they know that those two words -- Fianna Fail -- have broken the backs of the people of Ireland and have broken the trust of the people of Ireland in the last decade," he said.

That Enda Roar which sounds so stagey when unleashed in the Dail chamber actually works perfectly well when he's atop a soapbox on a street, one hand in his pocket, the other pointing and jabbing the air.

In Newscastle West, candidate Patrick O'Donovan was mightily excited as he introduced the party leader.

"He brought our party back from the dead and he'll bring our country back from the dead," he proclaimed.

Goodness. He'll be bringing Fianna Fail back from the dead next. But that might be an ask too far, even for the mighty Enda.