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Boyd Barrett an easy picking for predatory Dobbo

Eilis O'Hanlon


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Richard Boyd Barrett. Photo: PA

Richard Boyd Barrett. Photo: PA

PA

Richard Boyd Barrett. Photo: PA

Twitter had no doubt who triumphed in the seven-way leaders' debate on RTE last week.

It was Richard Boyd Barrett, whose every utterance was applauded warmly by the audience in Galway, and who was winning the battle of the tweets at a canter online.

Unfortunately for the Solidarity-People Before Profit leader, he then had to leave the comfort of his echo chamber and return to the real world, where he met a grown-up, in the shape of RTE's Bryan Dobson, who promptly skewered the left-wing populist with all the practised ease of a kingfisher diving on a minnow.

The format of the Election 2020: Bryan Dobson Interviews is far from ideal. In half an hour last Wednesday, the former Six One News anchor and current Morning Ireland host had to gallop through three other party leaders as well as Boyd Barrett, which didn't leave much room for nuance. Supporters of all four soon took to social media to chide Dobson for interrupting their hero or heroine; though, funnily enough, the same people hadn't seemed to mind when Dobbo did the same job of filleting Taoiseach Leo Varadkar's PR-polished waffle a few days earlier.

Nor did they cry foul on Friday night when Fianna Fail leader Micheal Martin faltered slightly under the same keen inquisition.

What the exchange with Boyd Barrett proved is that it doesn't need that much time to expose Solidarity-People Before Profit as the opportunistic populists they are; but the interview with Martin benefited from the extra time because it allowed more space to explore some topics which have so far slipped under the radar.

In retrospect, the Corkman might have been wishing he'd been allowed in and out of the studio in as double quick a time as the leaders of the smaller parties. But he aspires to be Taoiseach, and the polls are consistently showing that to be a likely enough outcome, so it's only right that Martin should put his feet to the fire and let Dobson add more kindling to the flames.

Whining that Dobbo gave Martin a hard time misses the point. It wasn't his job to make life easy for him.

Loyal Fianna Failers lost their patience all the same, as you would if there was a little terrier yapping at your heels; and to be fair, the critics had a point. There is a tendency in political interviewing these days to seek that "gotcha" moment which catches a guest unawares and sets the next day's news agenda, and Dobson did come across at times like a man in a hurry. If so, he was surely just aware of the clock. Half an hour passes quickly.

Martin himself had no real cause to complain, and privately, afterwards, he probably didn't. Dobson didn't come at him out of left field. He stuck to the main issues of the election, starting with housing and then moving on to health (Martin's former domain as a minister), which any man who would be Taoiseach ought to have expected, as well as jabbing in some pithy questions about FF's previous record in office.

Martin had some wobbles, as when his previous and relatively recent support for a rent freeze was brought up, or when he blamed "people in headquarters" for his having signed a manifesto from the National Women's Council over which the FF leader isn't now prepared to stand. But overall, he handled himself pretty well.

It actually helps a serious politician like Martin to come through such a grilling, because, the odd misstep notwithstanding, he was able to show that he was on top of the detail, and his animated, strangely compelling hand gestures spoke of a man eager to get to work.

He faced far hairier moments when in government during the crash, and he'll face many more of them if he becomes Taoiseach, so half an hour under lights in an RTE studio oughtn't to be too onerous an imposition.

This format even suited his character better than the febrile atmosphere of a multi-party debate, which often descends into insults and auction politics.

One on one, even with frequent interruptions, Martin was able to get in some effective digs at Varadkar for politicising Brexit after largely benefiting from cross-party unity for the past few years.

In many ways, the two men on air on Friday have a lot in common. They both come across as experienced pros who know how to get things done, and who are glad to be back where they believe they can do some good - Martin in government, and Dobson in a TV studio again, sparring with fellow heavyweights.

It's a pity more attention hasn't been paid to the dodgy numbers behind all the pledges, but it seems we live in an age of promises rather than prudence.

Now Dobson has the rest of the weekend to prepare for tomorrow's clash with Mary Lou McDonald of Sinn Fein, who's had it fairly easy so far. It should make for an equally fascinating bout.

Sunday Independent