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Ian O'Doherty: TV3 debate definitely not a knockout

GOOD Lord -- what has Vincent Browne done with his hair? No, my viewing companion informed me, that's Ursula Halligan; she's introducing the debate. Oh, right. Sorry about that Ursula.

TV3 doesn't often get the nation talking, unless it's about how bad 'Xpose' is, but they've had us all chattering about last night's eagerly awaited, well, awaited anyway, debate between the party leaders. Well, some of the leaders, anyway.

TV3 had initially suggested that if Fine Gael's Inda Kinny stuck to his public declaration that he would refuse to show up they would simply install an empty chair in his place -- but decided, presumably, that as an empty chair would be likely to give a more charismatic performance than the Mayo man, it would be giving him an unfair advantage. So they stuck with just the two main leaders, Eamon Gilmore and Micheal 'The Choirboy' Martin.

Martin looked at times so pious and pure that it wouldn't have come as much of a surprise if he had suddenly stopped talking about Fianna Fail's, ahem, revolutionary plans to save us from the mess that they created and burst into the first few bars of Aled Jones' 'Walking In the Air'.

After Halligan's introduction, Browne appeared and explained, through tightly gritted teeth, that he wouldn't be interrupting or questioning the answers. What's that Vincent? You won't be interrupting people when they're trying to make a point? That's a level of cruelty against poor old Vincenzo that's akin to putting a Rottweiler in front of a particularly appetising child and telling him that he can't eat it.

Both sides got off to a nervous start, and can you blame them? Martin's first contribution was a surprisingly nervous affair, while Gilmore's opening salvo included the massively reassuring assertion that: "Ireland is a good country."

Well, thanks for that, Eamo, because we all thought you were going to come out and say the place is a complete kip and we should all get the Hell out of Dodge while we have the chance.

Martin came out swinging, but you can hardly expect a televised debate to be the time for tearful apologies.

Labour has a tendency to deliver good soundbites from the ditch, but when they finally get onto the pitch they lose their bottle and Gilmore, pugnacious though he was, seemed stymied by frustration at Martin's steadfast refusal to engage him in the trenches.

Martin, incredibly, managed to keep a straight face when he spoke of the need to reform the health service, as if this was suddenly a strikingly revolutionary idea. And, rather like Gilmore's opening salvo, the Fianna Fail leader helpfully informed us that he didn't want people to die.

Gilmore made the groundbreaking assertion that he would like to see a 'fair' health service, just as he would like to see a 'fair' education system, but Martin, who lest we forget, and regardless of one's political differences, has behaved with truly immense dignity in the tragic wake of his child's death was genuinely impressive when he spoke about education, particularly education for those of our Irish children who have special needs.

Gilmore's response? Well, God love the man, but all he could say was a simple: "I agree."

And so, as limply as a week old carrot, it all just petered out, with Martin taking the day on points, if not by a knock out.

God Help us -- how many more of these have we got to sit through?

Irish Independent