| 3.1°C Dublin

James Downey: Martin won battle, but not the war

MICHEAL Martin won the TV debate with Eamon Gilmore, and by a comfortable margin. A great many people don't want to believe that, and they protested in their thousands yesterday.

Typically, it used to be the Fianna Fail supporters who flooded the radio stations with their calls. This time, it is the people on the opposite side. They couldn't believe their ears when they heard Martin declared the winner. But he did win, and in the first 15 minutes, and for a reason closely related to the passionate feelings of those very people.

There is only one issue in this election campaign. The Fianna Fail-led government which has held office for the last 14 years has been a calamitous failure. It has ravaged the economy. It has trampled on the spirits of the people.

On the day of the debate, we heard about yet another mysterious banking bill. This one provoked exceptional fury. Fine Gael said they wouldn't pay it. We'll see.

You would have thought that Eamon Gilmore was the best man in the country to summarise and express the people's anger. He is the most popular party leader. He is articulate. His manner, a combination of confidence and aggression, seems to attract both traditional Labour voters and waverers. But on Tuesday night he literally lost the plot.

He should have struck again and again on the point of Fianna Fail economic mismanagement. He should have repeated the attack when it came to the failings of the various public services, especially health -- a subject on which his opponent was particularly vulnerable.

He should have picked up any slips of the tongue on Martin's part. Admittedly these were rare, but they did happen. He said, for example, that "most" Irish children can read and write. That amounts to an admission that not all Irish children can read and write. The sad truth is that the literacy rate is falling.

Where he really faltered, though, and only partially recovered in the course of the debate, was when he tried to defend Labour's proposal that the four-year austerity plan should be spread out over an extra two years.

Irish politicians who understand anything about finance and economics are few and far between. On Tuesday night's evidence, they do not include Eamon Gilmore or Micheal Martin. But the fact remains that Gilmore failed to make the case for the extension, and Martin scored with his assertion that the move would cost an extra €5bn in interest.

On the broader front, Gilmore tried hard to identify Martin with the failings of the Ahern and Cowen governments, but Martin wriggled out of it skilfully.

In terms of manner and presentation, Martin's performance was breathtaking. Here is a man who has just taken over a party with its morale on the floor. He does not even pretend to seek to win the election. He cannot openly repudiate the past, of which he was a part. Yet he talks as if he had just come new-minted out of the crucible. His style may not have a universal appeal. Most of us prefer creamy pints to green tea. His ability to master his briefs may impress professionals, but it too obviously derives from hard work and not genius.

Brian Cowen at his best appeared to absorb a brief without even reading it. Still, Fianna Fail will be relieved to hear someone speaking for the party who appears to be (almost) gaffe-free.

Now the question is whether this performance will put a bit of heart back in the party. Specifically, will it bring back discouraged supporters and get them heading for the doorsteps in the rain?

That will depend on a huge number of considerations, many of which have little or nothing to do with television debates or, indeed, with the issues raised either in the studio or on the doorstep.

Generally speaking, policy is unimportant, and not many will be eager to argue the case for Fianna Fail's economic competence. Personal friendships and old loyalties come into the reckoning.

There are plenty of constituencies where the party has a real chance, or an outside chance, to hold a seat.

But the party loyalists, such as remain, are not accustomed to fighting hopeless causes. They are accustomed to winning. They regard it as their right. Now, for the first time ever, they are invited into a fight that they literally cannot win.

Gilmore's and Labour's position is enviable by comparison, but very far from ideal.

Although he lost the television debate, he came out unbloodied. Quite likely he will pick up ground in the subsequent confrontations if he ups his game a bit. In addition, he needs to present a more amiable face to the public. He is much more pleasant and intelligent -- in a word, nicer -- than his dogmatic and repetitive style suggests.

His real problem is unusual: aiming too high. He is campaigning on the slogan "Gilmore for Taoiseach". Across the political world, that proposition lacks credibility.

And he cannot rely on his popularity as measured by comparison with Enda Kenny. Popularity is ephemeral anyway, and it is proverbially dangerous to underestimate an opponent. Gilmore will not underestimate Martin the next time round. He had better not underestimate Kenny.

Kenny may not be a smooth television performer, nor an expert number cruncher. But just watch him out on the stump. Like a conjurer. And on Tuesday night, while the debate went on in the TV3 studio, he was an addressing an audience of 300 (plus a reported 150 standing) in Carrick-on-Shannon. How long since we first heard that the day of the public meeting had ended?

No doubt they were all Fine Gael faithful. Probably he didn't influence a single vote. But we have no evidence that the debate swung a single vote either.

Irish Independent