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Lise Hand: No winners in damp squib debate

THEY all looked a bit nervous. Maybe it was because they thought they had wandered onto the set of 'Who Wants to be A Millionaire' instead of RTE's 'Frontline' set.

Would Enda phone a friend and ask Angela to help him with the IMF stuff? Would Gerry ask the audience to help him on some of the basic figures such as the rates of child benefit in the Republic? Is Micheal going to phone out for a Chinese takeaway?

The five of them lined up behind single podiums, four in camera-friendly red/pink ties, and John Gormley in a blue one he borrowed from "someone in the office", which made him blend somewhat into the background -- which proved a presage for the debate to come.

And maybe he was carried away by the spirit of St Valentine's night, or perhaps he just wanted to put the poll's front-runner on the back foot, but before the cameras began to roll Gerry Adams strode over to Enda Kenny and engulfed him in a manly bear-hug.

But it was the only luvvy moment in a five-part performance which was lamentably free of improvisation and free-flowing soliloquies or dialogue.

There were a few one-liners which some of the leaders had prepared earlier.

"Well Gerry, you're a bit of a magician if you can pull all that off," sniped Micheal.

"No cuts, everything's going to be great. You'd make a great host of the 'Late Late Show', because there'd be something for the audience every Friday night with Gerry Adams as host."

However, it was a rare side-swipe in what was a turgid 90-minute bout where punches were doggedly exchanged but no serious haymakers finding their targets.

The five protagonists were too wary, the format too constricting.

There were flurries of blows -- Micheal took on Gerry Adams, Enda Kenny and Eamon Gilmore had a bit of a minor tangle, and Enda declared that Micheal's statements were "a bit like a chapter from Rip Van Winkle".

All eyes were on Enda after the palaver over his refusal to play ball with Eamon and Micheal on TV3 -- would he go down in a heap under a sustained attack from the two tough guys?

In fact Enda managed to dodge the punches, didn't trip over his own feet, and remembered to address his answers to the audience and talk about issues such as funding for small businesses -- something which the others were too busy squabbling with each other to remember.

But the whole set-up didn't allow for a free-for-all and no time for any of them to dig themselves leisurely into a hole, or to bury each other -- after all, when the dust settles on this election, none of them knows just who will require the support of who.

So who won? Well, Enda didn't make a mess of it, so he came out unscathed, and Gerry Adams had a good night, Micheal was confident, Eamon was a bit anonymous, and John was fairly invisible.

But it was all a bit uninspiring. There'll be a lot of floating voters still bobbing out after that.

Irish Independent