| 6.2°C Dublin

The big debate verdict

SICK and tired of presidential election debates? We were until about 10.50 last night, when Dana dropped her "vile and malicious allegation" bombshell.

Or was it a smoke bomb designed to distract attention from the emptiness of her campaign and garner a little sympathy -- and maybe a few votes? Or perhaps Dana just dropped an egg that will send her skidding even further to the margins of irrelevancy. After all, her CV includes a song called Something's Cooking in the Kitchen.

Whatever. It brought what had been a largely muted and fractured debate in which none of the candidates exactly covered themselves in glory to an electrifyingly surreal and chaotic end.

Dana nearly broke down. David Norris went off on a rant. Miriam O'Callaghan was bemused. "What are you talking about?" she asked. "What is the nature of the allegation?"

We don't know yet, but we do know how The Somewhat Less Than Magnificent Seven performed on the night. It's ratings time.


A texter to Tonight with Vincent Browne on TV3 later wryly remarked that Michael D had taken the Ronan Keating approach to the debate: "He says it best when he says nothing at all." And that was about the size of it.

Spared the intense grilling Miriam O'Callaghan meted out to some of the others, Higgins kept his foot and his mouth well apart, and said nothing likely to stall what is increasingly looking like a slow, if not always steady-in-his-gait, amble to the Aras.


Once again, Mitchell demonstrated his inside-out, upside-down knowledge of the Constitution and how the job of President fits into the political structure. But this was still another dull and uninspired performance unlikely to alter the perception of him as a bit, well, cold and superior.

He can't seem to let his Martin McGuinness obsession go, either, taking digs at McG whenever the opportunity arose -- and sometimes even when it didn't. Some commentators believe that tactic has backfired. And besides, as we'll see in a moment, McGuinness doesn't need any help tarnishing his own campaign.


Basically, he didn't handle Miriam's questions well. Her suggestion that his Catholicism would be difficult to reconcile with his involvement in murder was met with a snippy, "That's a disgraceful comment."

He accused her of making "a stupid statement" when she pressed him on his knowledge about who murdered David Kelly's father and suggested uncomfortable encounters would be a regular feature of a McGuinness presidency. This was the closest we've seen to McGuinness losing the rag, and while it won't change the minds of his hardcore republican supporters, it's likely to have an effect on the second preferences.


Healthy opinion poll signs and woolly waffle about creating jobs (which, as Miriam reminded him, is not the President's job) aside, Gallagher seemed to be The Candidate Who Stands For Nothing In Particular. Until last night, when it appeared clear what he stands for: Fianna Fail.

The crucial damage was done when, at Miriam's prompting, he couldn't bring himself to state that the party he'd joined as a teenager, but now claims he's no longer involved with, had screwed up the country. It was a damaging performance. The ties that bind may be the ones that drag him down.


"How can you be on so many boards and not be an insider?" Miriam asked the woman who claims to be the ultimate outsider. Davis pointed out she was on three state boards. Miriam had suggested 25.

Davis is recovering well from the fuss over that particular subject.

And more impressively, she kept her cool when others around her were losing theirs under Miriam O'Callaghan's relentless grilling questioning.


Though he escaped the kind of grilling Vincent Browne gave him, there was nothing here to suggest Norris can recover an inch of lost ground. Miriam wondered if he had "the right judgement" for the job. He protested he'd been the victim of "a media firestorm, the like of which had never been seen".

The disability benefit issue? It had all been "legal". And the letters? He had already "answered that comprehensively". It's all on his website, apparently. Her questioning of him seemed almost perfunctory; so, now, does his campaign.


The bombshell aside, this was another dismal performance that highlighted Dana's poor understanding of the role. Miriam went relatively easy on the American citizenship angle, which has been done to death, and instead targeted Dana's "right-wing fundamentalism".

She responded that if she was a right-wing fundamentalist (and she doesn't think she is), then "the Constitution is right-wing fundamentalist". Ah, so that's that cleared up.


Vincent Browne was always going to be a hard act to follow. Wisely, Miriam didn't try. She handled the evening solidly and professionally, proving her star status. Though constantly referring to the need for balance and equal time for the candidates, she went after McGuinness and Gallagher hardest.

There was the odd misstep, such as when she asked the other candidates if they thought Gallagher was a Fianna Fail candidate (what where they going to say?).

Her question to each of them about whether they had a problem with the oath to God was the perfect cue into McGuinness and the IRA. She is the only presenter to have got under the skin of the Provo executioner.