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.