Archive for February 26, 2011

“We can be heroes…”

It’s more or less gone according to plan.

Fianna Fáil and the Greens have gotten the reward they so justly deserved for their period of governance, and have been wiped out. If Dev’s party can make a comeback – and that’s a big if – they will be totally unrecognisable from the party that ruled and destroyed our country like it was their own private fiefdom.

Enda will be like the cat who got the cream, and despite his frightening limitations, it’s hard not to be just a little bit happy for him. That the system is the way it is is not his doing, but he has worked it brilliantly to maintain his leadership and win his crack at the big-time.

Sinn Féin and the rest of those on the left stand on the threshold. If Ireland is to truly become a modern democracy based on ideas, it will be their doing. Should they move too far to the left (Sinn Féin) or to the centre (Labour) they will destroy this new era before it even begins but I believe they will rise to the challenge, and that eventually Sinn Féin will most likely eclipse Labour, simply becasue they will be in opposition when the worst of the savagery is inflicted on Ireland’s poor and working class.

But the true heroes of the day are to be found among the independents like Mick Wallace, and even more so among the ones that didn’t get elected.

Whatever their political creed, they were for the most part ordinary people who decided that they could no longer sit idly by whilst their country was destroyed by those in power. These are people with mortgages and families and jobs, people with no prior knowledge of the system, who decided to take it on anyway to see how much change they could effect.

I’m sure they have found it difficult – after all, the Irish political system is specifically designed to keep people like them out, lest our democracy become representative in anything but name. They have fought bravely and generously, and given a voice to many.

The likes of Michael Loftus, Anne Cronin and Kate Bopp have sacrificed their own time and money – a lot of money – to give the electorate the broad choice that is so often lacking in Irish politics.

Together they have sent a message to whoever is elected today that, whether or not they are joined by a slew of independents in the 31st Dáil, the people are starting to find their voice. No longer will they be silenced or appeased. There is a new road to take, and it leads to Leinster House.

The counts are ongoing, but even when all the votes are counted we will not have reached the end. This is only the beginning,and whatever about the end of civil war politics, we have seen the start of something new for Ireland.

Candidates of the people, from the people and for the people. And that may well be the greatest victory of all.

The Last Word

It’s been an interesting few weeks, and now this phase of our political history is coming to a close as the nation prepares to go to the polls. The parties will observe a moratorium on media activity from two o’clock today, and many would say it’s not before time.

I started this blog with the intention of analysing some of the maelstrom of political communications activity and on the whole, having watched countless hours of TV and read reams of articles, it has been amateurish – with very few exceptions.

No party has managed to differentiate itself, and in many cases the contenders have been caught out and forced to climb down on their various policies. Broadcast media have been particularly good on this front, with the peerless Vincent Browne fighting the good fight until the bitter end.

Most of the strategies, from the hide-and-seek champion of Mayo and the Labour ads in the papers to the hysterical and aggressive amnesia of the outgoing Minister for Historical Revision Michael Martin, have been negative.

The level of political skill displayed has barely risen above basic, as elementary tactics were deployed on complex issues, and were subsequently- and rightly – found out. The Irish electorate is a lot more literate than the politicians would have you believe.

We are more than capable of understanding the big issues, but instead they tell us they have a five-point plan or that they found a €5 billion hole and expect us to accept it.

This is lamentable, given Ireland’s desperate need of strong and courageous leadership. Only some of the Independents, the Greens and to a lesser extent Sinn Féin have managed to portray themselves in a positive light. In the case of Sinn Féin it is apparent that the southern electorate will need a lot more time before the sins of the past can be fully forgiven.

What is most striking is the lack of minority representation in the political discourse. Not only were women grossly underrepresented on the various political debates, I cannot recall seeing a single “foreign national” being asked for their view or interviewed as a candidate. Add to this the way the gay community have been kicked about from pillar to post (especially by the ludicrous Lucinda Creighton and her friends in Fine Gael) and it doesn’t add up to much in the way of diversity.

But before the page is turned, let’s just sum up what it is that you will be voting for when you pull the curtain behind you in the polling booth tomorrow. Based on what has been said and written over the last few weeks, it’s a very scary prospect indeed.

If the opinion polls are to be believed, tomorrow is the day that democracy destroys Ireland for a couple of generations. Whichever of the main parties ends up leading the next government, the Irish people will have given them a mandate to accept the debts of rogue traders and wide-boy bankers as their own.

This is important, because it immediately neuters our ability to negotiate our way out of the current mess we are in with our European neighbours. Whatever we try to do to get the economy back on track, our friends in the Eurozone will point to our votes and say “but your people agreed”.

All the major parties (FG, FF, Labour) now accept the banking debts as ours, and if the expected 40% of voters weigh in behind Fine Gael, they will be partying on the streets of Frankfurt. A five-year party is about to start for them,  complete with new and improved bonuses for those who destroyed our country, and tomorrow we will agree to foot the bill. By voting for Fine Gael, Labour or Fianna Fail tomorrow, that is essentially what we are saying.

The more people that vote for Fine Gael, the more likely it is that our next Taoiseach will be a glorified county councillor from Mayo who thinks it’s acceptable to tell nigger jokes in public. That alone should be enough to make voters run for the hills- until you look across the House and see the alternatives.

We are also accepting that Ireland is to remain a society of haves and have-nots. Those who have resources- cash, credit, access to political power – will continue to ensure that only the weakest in society – the old, the sick, the children – will be called on to pay the debts foisted upon them. They were the ones who benefitted the least from the property boom, but they will now be asked to foot the bill.

Don’t be put off by Mícheál Martin’s spoofery that social welfare payments went up by 130% during his time in office. That essentially means that someone getting €100 previously now gets €230 – not exactly millions, as Michael would have you believe.

His laughable assertion that cancer sufferers now live longer than previously is also a bitter pill, as he has consigned most of them to a life of poverty anyway. And besides, who will take care of them when their children move to Australia and England in search of work?

But what we are really doing tomorrow is voting to extend the recession indefinitely. A quick calculation on a beer mat (should be easy enough, as most now can’t afford a pint to put on it) shows that Ireland cannot meet it’s debts. It’s impossible. And the more people that move away, the more everything goes down, from the tax take to the price of housing to domestic demand.

If the situation seems hopeless, it isn’t. Tomorrow is a chance for the Irish people to send a message to the rest of the world that the party isn’t starting- it’s well and truly over, and that far from footing the entire bill we now expect those who feasted on our largesse to help clear up the mess.

It’s a chance to show the rest of the world that we have learned the lessons of the past- we are not going to abandon our children and our old people to poverty and misery, just because others tell us it’s in our best interests to do so.

It’s a chance to show the rest of the world that, caught between the Devil and the deep blue sea, we choose to jump. We have dealt with the Devil for too long, and the deep blue sea holds no fear for us anymore.

It doesn’t matter how you vote, but make sure you do. And if the outcome is not to your liking, feel free to put yourself forward and let others vote for you and your ideas the next time the nation goes to the polls, because this is how democracy- as practiced in normal countries- actually works best.

For though our democracy will destroy us for the foreseeable future tomorrow, ultimately it will save us in the end. The Irish are a fundamentally decent, caring people and it is only when we stop listening to these instincts – as we did during the Celtic Tiger years – that things go so horribly wrong.

From despair to… where?

Voters react to Enda's latest mention of his five-point plan

The term “content aggregation” frightens the living daylights out of most journalists. A content aggregator basically collects information and spits it all back out again in a convenient format such as a website or an iPhone app, allowing the discerning consumer to pick and choose what they want to read.

For journalists it means something different- getting paid once for an article that can be reproduced via hundreds or possibly thousands of different outlets. As one who has (through no conscious effort on my part) had interviews reproduced in over a hundred different African newspapers, I’m not sure whether I feel honoured or ripped off.

Essentially, news programs are the most basic form of content aggregators. They take in everything from around the world – Libya, the New Zealand earthquake, Michael Healy Ray and his godawful cap -and parcel it up nicely for our consumption. I missed the debate last night so I was glad to have the news programs to give me the highlights.

Here’s the conclusions that could be drawn from the soundbytes proferred by the fourth estate as I made my way from Copenhagen back to Stockholm.

1) Enda is already Taoiseach, and he knows it. He is already laying out his program for government, he is already talking to the unions, the EU and the financial markets via foghorn diplomacy. He is still wooden and unconvincing, but he is becoming more statesmanlike by the day.

2) Eamon is sorry. Sorry for the newspaper ads, sorry for the criticism, sorry for departing from the script. Belatedly, he is stretching out the hand of friendship, but shouldn’t be surprised if it gets slapped away. He went all-in, and blew it. Enda might throw him a few chips to keep him in the game, but don’t bet on it.

3) Míchael has not just lost this election, but is well on the way to losing the next one as well. At a time when he and his party should be prostrating themselves before the electorate and begging for forgiveness, he is coming across in debates and radio appearances as boorish and aggressive. His vapid insistence that cancer sufferers in the Free State have never had it so good says all we need to know about Fianna Fáil and their impending doom.

It’s bizarre that a man from a boxing family doesn’t understand the significance of throwing in the towel- it’s not something done because you want to lose the current fight, it’s because you want to live to fight another day.

Aside from being an insult to the voters, his appalling performances lately have led to a situation where he won’t even be leader of the opposition; instead he will be kowtowing to Gerry Adams, one of those he shamefully attacked to deflect from his own shortcomings. Whatever about Adams’ own pecadillos, Martin and his cohorts effectively stole €150 billion from the Irish taxpayer – glass houses and all that…

All of this. of course, doesn’t amount to much – the content aggregators in question were all Irish news outlets, but Ireland is only a tiny piece in a bigger puzzle at the moment.

Yesterday afternoon I met with an ex-colleague who is well-versed in the tribulations suffered by Danske Bank through their involvement in Irish markets, and they – both the bank and the colleague – don’t seem to see things getting any better any time soon.

They despair of any sort of solution that doesn’t involve a default or meltdown of some sort. For the Danes, the date of the election is an irrelevance; it is the date of the inevitavble default they are focussing on.

Independent candidate Kate Bopp made an appeal on Twitter that the electorate refrain from voting for local issues this time around, instead concentrating on issues of national importance.

I’d go a step further and suggest that it is the international dimension that is most important this time round; regardless of the fact that our democracy has cast up three candidates ill-suited to the foreign stage, this is where our future will be decided.

Nobody Loves You When You’re Down And Out

Life is a bed of roses for Labour leader

A few months ago it actually seemed possible. In the middle of Garglegate and the attendant witch hunt, it was whispered and then said out loud- Eamon Gilmore could be Taoiseach.

Those sporting blue shirts under their canvassing macs now openly mock the notion, but for a brief, fleeting moment Ireland was on the cusp of becoming a modern democracy.

Instead of being defined by what side they took in the Civil War, parties would now nail their colours to more traditional masts of right and left.

But what began with a socialist bang has now gone out with a whimper, and Labour only have themselves to blame. Their decline in the polls is hardly down to the political skill and charisma of the likes of Enda Kenny and Mícheál Martin – they have none.

Labour’s ills are very much of their own making, and they were made at the very top. When Enda Kenny was bunkering down and staying out of the limelight, Gilmore and Joan Burton were turning on the righteous anger- and the Irish people immediately turned off.

Though wonderfully hospitable and generous neighbours, Irish people are not natural socialists. Eight hundred years of occupation means that a dislike of and contempt for government is inbuilt in our DNA, and voting for bigger government goes against their nature. For most Irish people, casting a vote for Labour is like political chemotherapy – it might get rid of the cancer, but it’s still not something to look forward to.

At this point in time, the Irish electorate don’t want righteous anger- they have enough of that themselves. What they want is leadership, not the pointless political posturing Labour pursued.

Burton’s bizarre performance on Vincent Browne when she attacked all round her gave birth to the Moan Burton tag, and simultaneously put paid to her ambition to be finance minister.

And as for Gilmore’s righteous anger, that is long gone and he is now reduced to begging the electorate for transfers to shoehorn Fine Gael into a coalition they do not want. The man who would be Taoiseach may now end up outside government altogether, splitting the leadership of the opposition with Gerry Adams as Míchael Martin looks on enviously from the back benches.

There will of course be no shame in that for Martin- he was given an impossible job, and having any TDs at all in the next Dáil wil be a triumph for him. Nor does he seem like the sort to be ashamed of anything anyway.

Not so for Gilmore and Burton, who will be looking wistfully across the chamber at the government benches and wondering what might have been if they had taken the age-old saying to heart- better to keep your mouth shut and have everyone think you’re an idiot than to open it and confirm their suspicions.

“There’s only one team in Tallinn”

Time to blow the whistle, this game is over.

Today’s poll results remind me of a famous soccer team in Tallinn, Estonia, which Scotland won after just three seconds of play – the Estonian team hadn’t turned up, so the ref abandoned the game and awarded it to the Scots as the Tartan Army sang “There’s Only One Team In Tallinn” and danced in the empty stands.

With neither Labour or Sinn Féin able to make the breakthrough necessary to fully bury the Party of Dev and put it up to Fianna Fáil, the coronation of Enda has begun.

If the raft of opinion polls are to be believed, this time next week Fine Gael will have won the general election and will be seeking to form a minority government held together by support from independents.

How bitterly ironic that an election fought on a platform of politcal reform could well deliver exactly the type of parish pump politics we sought to remove ourselves from as Enda and company scramble to deliver hospital wings and youth employment schemes to tighten their grip on power. But there might be grounds for optimism.

Previously, the independents (with a few notable exceptions) were made up of former party faithful who had either walked or been given the boot for some indiscretion; but regardless of who did the jilting, their party loyalties usually remained firm.

That is not something that Enda Kenny and his cohorts can count on this time around. The independents that are likley to invade the Dáil are political ingenues, new to the game and oblivious to the need to support everything the government asks to remain in power.

As such they are much more likely to jump out of the cauldron long before Enda brings it to the boil. Power in Ireland is hard-won, but they will not fear a snap election; Enda will.

It was an indication of the political shallowness of the Taoiseach-in-waiting to see him grandstanding for the faithful at Landsdowne Road today. After 35 years keeping another teacher out of a permanent job, His Graciousness has finally decided to step down.

And in a very magnanimous gesture, he has decided not to accept a one hundred thousand euro pension for a job he barely did, instead throwing down the gauntlet to those leaving jobs that they had actually done to forego their entitlements. In Enda’s world, this is politics; in the wider world, he will be eaten alive.

He just gave away a hundred thousand euro of his own money without a fight- Ollie Rehn must be dancing on the table. But however much Ollie is looking forward to repeating the three-card trick he pulled on Brian Lenihan, he may not get the chance to do so.

It wouldn’t be wise to go putting away your voting cards just yet. This election may be all but over, but the crisis that precipitated it, and Ireland’s more general malaise, remains more threatening than ever.

Kenny hasn’t the sense to woo Labour into a more stable setup, and in not doing so he will put himself at the mercy of people more principled than he.

This in turn will guarantee an early return to the polls, where he will risk the anger of a people who have already had too much of this nonsense. The people want solutions, the politicians want power, and as it stands the two are mutually exclusive.

This game might be over, but the season is only just beginning.

Hopefully by the next time an election comes around, those of us who live outside the republic will have a chance to vote- visit ballotbox.ie for more details.

Irish Politicians – Networking Or Not Working?

Open the papers, turn on the TV or check out your favourite blog, and the message is the same – this is Ireland’s first social media election, and commentators are queueing up to tell us how important Twitter and Facebook are going to be. But will the iPhone and the Android make a big difference at the ballot box? WIll the independents tweet their way into the Dáil? Will Enda’s ridiculous e-valentine force the electorate to fall out of love with him?

The answer is – probably not. Social media is becoming more and more important, but except in very limited circumstances it’s not going to make a difference.

The reason is simple -it’s a medium, not a message. Enda’s beloved five-point plan is still a five-point plan wheter it’s the subject of a Facebook group, a blog, a tweet  or one of those appalling campaign videos that are fast becoming the trademark of Fine Gael.

No matter where Gerry and Pearse go, they will still have to deal with questions about Sinn Féin’s bona fides on the economy.

And whether it’s a webcast or News at One, a viral video or a LinkedIn group message, Mícheál Martin still ruined the country (it appears that even he has been destroyed by the HSE, as setting it up seems to have given him amnesia). No amount of tweeting (even as gaeilge) will change that.

Social media is only useful in terms of spreading ideas – it does not create them, and as yet there is still a marked absence of big ideas in the campaign to date. The parties are still skirting each other like teenagers at a disco under the watchful eye of the ECB chaperones, but Twitter will not come up with an answer to the bank bailout disaster by itself, no more than it can ask the pretty socialist by the far wall up to dance for you.

But what social media will do is level the playing field. A Twitter account, a blog and a website cost next to nothing, and a PR person recently told me that a Facebook page is actually more valuable than a bespoke website these days. These simple tools combined with the few hours of donkey work involved in reaching out to various networks can help candidates at the lower end of the campaign financing ladder to even out the discrepancies.

I’ve been impressed so far by the likes of Kate Bopp and Michael Loftus, and less so by the main parties, for one simple reason – the independents are managing to come across as much more human than the auto-generated, knee-jerk trash being spouted via the communications departments of the major parties.

Whilst Kate is linking to audio recordings of debates and Michael is using Twitter to build a network, it is frankly embarrassing to see the strategies being used by some of the people at HQs who really should know better – canvassers breathlessly retweeting “great reaction on the doorsteps tonight, voters srsly concerned about quality of silage in West Cavan” when in fact no-one mentioned it at all.

The debates are even worse. It wouldn’t surprise me if FG had people lined up to tweet “thought Kenny did well there”, even for the TV3 debate that he didn’t show up for. The affirmation of the leader and the manifesto in 140 characters or less has become the new “we are where we are”.

Social media users see through this formulaic rubbish, and the Fianna Fáil canvasser who has the guts to tweet “got handed my arse by a single parent about USC tonight, and rightly so” will most likely win their candidate a damn sight more votes than our silage-loving canvasser mentioned above. Despite the possibility of anonymity, honesty is paramount in the not-so-brave new world of Twitter and Facebook – everything else is just anti-social media.

Those involved in the media in general are never slow to overestimate their own importance, but the truth is that very few commentators have any actual sway at all. The likes of Constantine Gurgdiev, David McWilliams and Miriam O’Callaghan have the capacity to reach a vast number of people, but for most tweeters the reach is limited and the effect equally so.

And yet one of the few growth industries in Ireland during this election has been that of social media commentator; but whilst it is interesting to hear what others are saying, it’s far from scientific and definitely not representative. Vincent Browne starts every show by mentioning the blog, the text line, the hash tag and the e-mail address, but the only thing that ever gets mentioned are a couple of tweets by Colm Tobin (not the novellist) before he looks at the headlines in tomorrow’s papers (Vincent, not Colm).

This election will not be decided by social media, no more than it will be decided in Brussels or Frankfurt. This election will be decided in the think tanks at the HQs of the major political parties – the party that comes up with the creative solutions to solve this country’s problems and the cojones to implement them will win the day. Those that don’t risk being wiped out, their places taken by independent candidates providing a fresh voice, if nothing else.

So far, we still haven’t seen any big ideas, on Twitter or anywhere else. And time is running out.

Note: Non-Twitter users can follow the Twitter activity of many candidates in #ge11 on http://www.politweets.ie

Watching the Detectives

I miss Peter Starck.

A colleague and mentor at Reuters once described journalism as a trade like any other, but Peter was a craftsman. A correspondent since time immemorial. he passed away from cancer last year, and is sorely missed. A couple of weeks before he passed away, he called me in hushed, hurried tones just before nine o’clock at night as he was having problems with his e-mail.

I later found out that the reason for his urgency was not some pressing story; it was the fact that the lights would be switched off in his hospital ward at nine o’clock. Even as the end approached, his natural curiosity never left him.

With a voice that boomed across the newsroom, he would call politicians and captains of industry and even if they had never heard of him (and most of them had), he somehow managed to convey to them that he wasn’t calling on behalf of himself; he was calling on behalf of the world. He was our detective, our Columbo. He found out what we wanted to know, and he told us.

He once addressed a group of students, spellbinding them with his opening remarks. “My name is Peter Starck, and I am a Reuters journalist. As such, I know nothing; it’s why I ask questions”.

Peter was alluding to the fact that, when writing or reporting for Reuters, there is no opinion, only fact- anything that looked remotely unsubstantiated or that could be interpreted as the writer’s opinion had a big red line drawn through it. There were heated discussions when the news agency started to consider how to apply this principle to social media and blogging, and to this day there are those who are uncomfortable writing their own thoughts – even with the tightly-controlled editorial guidelines that apply- rather than writing straight news.

A dedicated father who often rushed home to help his children with their homework only to return to the office later, Peter always maintained that writing was important, but reading even more so. He taught us that, in order to understand the world around us we needed to be able to read both a newspaper and a balance sheet; only then could we independently draw our own conclusions. With his knowledge of financial jargon and accounting practices, he put many analysts to shame over the years, pointing out where their reports fell short of the mark.

In the context of the Irish election, Peter’s advice has a special resonance. A basic understanding of finance is absolutely key to making an informed decision when it comes to voting, and most parties take advantage of the fact that people find economics difficult to understand. The People’s Economy is an excellent site set up by David McWilliams and his economic cohorts – regardless of whether you want to bear the brunt or burn the bondholders , half an hour on that site will let you know exactly what to expect from either course of action. Even though it contains a lot of different opinions, there are also plenty of juicy facts to get your teeth into.

The second key area is the newspapers, and this is where Peter is so sorely missed. Journalism without bias or opinion is very hard to find in an Irish general election, and it should come as no surprise that newspapers and media outlets have their own agendas. Without Peter to ask the questions for us and keep both the politicians and the media honest, we have to ask these questions ourselves.

So every time you read an article in the next ten days, keep the following questions in mind- why am I being told this? What are they really trying to say? Who is telling me, and why are they telling me now? What do these numbers mean? Are there other numbers that show the opposite to be true? What are the other guys saying? Is this fact, opinion, or opinion presented as fact?

Because like journalists, as voters we know nothing; it’s why we have to ask questions.

This post is dedicated to the memory of Reuters Correspondent Peter Starck (1957- 2010). Rest In Peace.

Over Before It Began

The main event that became a non-event, last night’s debate put Enda Kenny’s decision not to take part in the TV3 debate into perspective. If this phony war was anything to go by, we should be grateful to the Fine Gael leader for not showing up, and the TV stations would be as well off to cancel any remaining debates, as well as interviews, colour pieces and any other coverage they have planned, for like the leaders themselves, it says nothing.

The stalls were set out early and strictly adhered to as repetition rhetoric became the tool of choice. Enda mentioned his five-point plan repeatedly whilst Gerry concentrated his republican ire on the toxic banks. Over in the Labour camp Eamon was talking about jobs whilst Mícheal was indulging in the old US Republican tactic of (im)plausible deniability. John Gormley is trying gamely but has long since given up the ghost.

But ninety minutes is a long time, and there were slips. Míchael Martin buried Fianna Fáil as a republican party, attacking Gerry Adams with shady references to his past- this the same Adams that Reynolds and Aherne leaned on so heavily to create their own political destinies. It was cheap and nasty; one tweeter pointed out that at least Martin wasn’t responsible for sending people to early graves; those who analyse his record as Minister for Health would suggest otherwise.

It was the only point where the debate threatened to spark into life and as it happened, Pat Kenny cut to a commercial break- proof if ever it was needed that commercial considerations are what really steer our political discourse in Ireland.

Elsewhere, Kenny kept his frustration with Labour in check as Gilmore pointed out the five billion euro hole he says exists in their plan – he knew it was coming, but that doesn’t always help. He was over-reliant on figures and is seemingly incapable of getting his charisma across in the medium of television, but last night is not about what Enda Kenny won- it’s about the fact that he didn’t drive a coach and horses through his election chances by putting in a poor performance.

Of all the leaders, Adams was the most improved. Opposition politics is the easiest kind, as you can say what you like without ever risking being held to account for it, and Adams used this platform to attack those he perceived as being overpaid, mostly politicians and bankers. It was predictable and only mildly entertaining.

Inexplicably, none of the other four leaders managed to pull the pin on the only hand grenade that appeared on the night, namely Mícheal’s admission that there is only €4.5 billion available from the National Pension Reserve Fund, down from around €5.3 billion in the third quarter of 2010. In terms of the telephone numbers that Fianna Fáil have insisted on throwing at dead banks, €800 million may not seem a lot but it is a massive slice of one of the only reserves we have left and all parties seem to have plans ti use it to stimulate growth.

Martin’s blithe assertion that there was less money there than assumed deserved much greater scrutiny, but both the leaders and the moderator missed the chance to give him a well-deserved grilling on the subject.

The whole point of a debate like this is to get away from the script and move on from the manifesto, and give the electorate a taste of the personalities and philosophies that lie behind the policies. If last night is anything to go by, those personalities will remain carefully hidden and the philosophies explained only in as much as they support the message. The stakes are too high for anything else.

In other words, don’t expect anything new from any of these guys any time in the near future.

Gloves Come Off For TV Debate

Seconds out, round one...

As the contestants prepare for the debate which is due to begin in about an hour, you can be sure that someone, somewhere will be playing the Rocky music to psyche themselves up. My money is on Mícheál Martin, but it could just as easily be Enda “the Empty Chair” Kenny. Much of the rhetoric will be about struggles and battles, and at least one paper will go with the “Valentine’s Day Massacre” headline, no matter what the outcome.

When it comes to public speaking, one of the best I’ve ever seen was not a politician but a boxer. Dubliner Steve Collins was super-middleweight champion of the world in an era when super-middleweight was about the toughest division in boxing. I brought him to Canary Wharf in London to talk to a sales team who were spread out around the world, all working alone trying to create new business. The Celtic Warrior wasn’t polished, but to this day those who listened to him still talk about him, and for a public speaker there is no finer accolade.

Collins spoke about life in the ring, and the tactics he’d use to get an opponent to break his rhythm. He’d mimic his opponent’s movement, his footwork and head fakes, and choose his moment carefully. When the time came, he’d throw in a little nod of his own- if the opponent followed he was on the hook, and a couple of seconds later he would be on the floor. Boxers call this tactic “lead and pace”, and anyone tuning in to RTE tonight will see plenty of it.

Collins also had a memorable response to a question about how he dealt with the thousands of blows aimed at him. “In my line of business, you’re not going to last very long if you keep letting people hit you in the f**ckin’ head,” he said gruffly. He reckoned in his entire professional career, he’d only really been hit maybe two dozen times, or less than once for every professional bout he undertook. Boxing is about power, but it is also about concentration and control, and Collins had the nous and the discipline to know that and keep a cool head, even when the other guy was trying to knock it clean off his shoulders.

Expect to see the others lead and pace Kenny into trouble. He’s quite an arrogant man and won’t like to be shown up, so Martin and the others will try to make him appear arrogant and lose his temper- if he does, he’s done for and won’t last six months in office.

Martin will ride the blows- he hasn’t lasted this long in politics by standing still, and his abdication of responsibility for the last fourteen years shows him to be quick on his feet.

But the one with most to lose tonight is Eamon Gilmore. A good performance on The Week In Politics last night has thrown him a lifeline, but if he turns on the indignation as he has at recent press conferences he’ll seem boorish and petty. If he can take the moral high ground and refrain from personal attacks when defending his tax policies he’ll be fine. If he can’t he’ll be on the ropes from the get-go.

As David McWilliams pointed out this morning, the debates are a sideshow and won’t tell us anything that will be of any use; like professional boxing, money now steers everything and what happens in the ring is almost secondary.

But as the country fights for its future, it may well offer some pointers as to who we have in our corner, and how they’re going to help us fight back.

Turning the spotlight on TV pundits

Vincent Browne, tormentor-in-chief of Joan Burton and Conor Lenihan

Sometimes, no matter what you do as a journalist, you can’t get it right.

Take the Middle East, probably the most sensitive situation in the world, and certainly one of the most volatile. It doesn’t matter what way you report what happens there, you will always be accused of bias, often by both sides and often about the very same story.

There is no doubt that certain journalists in Ireland are biased; what is amazing is that some of them can be biased and still retain their objectivity. In a world where Fox News and Sky News are referred to as some sort of benchmark, Ireland is particularly well-served on the TV front.

RTE has the cast of Prime Time and its myriad news programmes, whilst Ursula Halligan does trojan work in producing anything at all, given TV3′s resources. What she does have is Vincent Browne- a combination of Noam Chomsky, Jeremy Paxman and Old Man Steptoe, Browne may not be the slickest broadcaster going, but he is certainly unique in terms of his journalistic skills and his ability to cause a row.

He makes no secret of the fact that he his own opinions about how the country should be run, but there are no prisoners taken when he lets fly on TV3- everyone gets it in the neck, right or left, even the poor souls brought on to read out the tweets.

Sean O'Rourke- dog with a bone

Over on RTE, Seán O’Rourke is turning into one of the most feared interviewers in Irish politics, adding a Brownesque righteous indignation to his undoubted intelligence. Though RTE are often accused of a Fianna Fáil bias, Seán doesn’t let go of any bone too easily, regardless of what party is holding it.

There is a tendency to interrupt Sinn Féin and independent candidates (sometimes even by guests- witness the odious Terry Prone grilling Mick Wallce on TV3) but even that is dissipating. The strong performances by Sinn Féin’s Pearse Doherty and the dawning realisation that the electorate is serious about its support for independent candidates has put paid to any notion that journalists can be dismissive towards them.

Between them, the TV posse have created some marvelous moments in this election- Conor Lenihan’s alpha-male moment on Vin B, the meltdown of Joan Burton’s manners on the same show, and Donogh Diamond’s excellent chairing of the finance spokespeople’s debate on RTE. Diamond irritates the hell out of me, but he is a talented professional and once that debate got going he wisely stepped back and let it develop.

Our print journalists aren’t as impressive; it’s harder to hide your bias when there is no-one to call you out on it, as an interview subject or a panel guest can. Opinion masquerading as fact has long been a preferred tactic, particularly at Independent newspapers, and for hysterical knicker-wetting, look no further than the “Irish” Star and its editor, the indescribably irritating Ger Colleran. There is much to admire about our neighbours across the water, but their journalism- particularly the political kind- is not one of them, and it’s in the DNA of papers like the Star.

On any given night on the telly however, we are spoiled for choice. For that we should be grateful- not just for the array of talent at our disposal, but alos for the fact that this type of programming gets made at all.

It’s much easier to buy in some rubbish from the US or let one or two commentators have their say. Our neighbours across the water have Paxman, Jon Snow and…Adam Boulton. Go figure.