GE 16- 7 things we learned from the leaders’ debate

The first leaders’ debate of the 2016 general election saw Enda Kenny, Joan Burton, Micheál Martin and Gerry Adams engage in what was a lively, passionate, and often chaotic event.

Moderators Pat Kenny and Colette Fitzpatrick sometimes struggled to maintain a hold on the proceedings but the debate ultimately provided engrossing viewing for the public.

Ultimately no clear winners or losers emerged from the debate, with each candidate enjoying their highlights as well as their minor struggles.

Here are some of the main talking points from the evening.

1. Economic stability is Fine Gael’s top selling point

“This is not the time for instability” said Enda Kenny… on many occasions. Kenny used last night to hammer home this point and presented Fine Gael as the safe option for the electorate. As repetitive as the strategy was, it may prove to be a successful one and his drawing upon the imagery of young emigrants beginning to return home would have a struck a chord with many at home. However….

2. Was Enda Kenny statesmanlike or disinterested? 

While the other candidates on the stage had their fiery and passionate moments, Kenny’s were few and far between. He was also happy to wait to be called upon by the moderators in direct contrast to the others. This was most likely a tactic going into the debate – with the intention of presenting Kenny as statesmanlike and above the squabbling of his rivals – but Kenny took it to the extreme and appeared disinterested and distant on more than one occasion – most notably on the discussion surrounding housing.

3. Gerry Adams invokes spirit of 1916

How many people were surprised to hear Gerry Adams began his opening remarks by saying that Sinn Féin “want to deliver on the promises of the 1916 proclamation”? Far more surprising was that Adams did not explicitly return to this motif again throughout the rest of the debate. It is true that criticism may have been directed his way if he tried to draw upon the imagery too often but don’t be surprised if Sinn Féin make adjustments in future debates, especially to deflect attention from other quarters.

4. Micheál Martin is the most natural debater among the candidates

While by no means suggesting an outright victory, Micheál Martin was the most assured candidate on the stage last night. He needled Kenny from the start, saying that: “we need to put aside the rehearsed slogans” but he was most impressive when the debate turned to health. Here he was able to trump his work in introducing the smoking ban while questioning Kenny’s record in this area. “You hired James Reilly for Health. That was the biggest mistake you made”. The question for Martin is whether his performance persuaded voters to forgive his party for their previous sins. Only time will tell, though the sense is that more will have to come for this to happen.

5. Abortion debate was a damp squib

Given the prominence of the ‘Repeal the Eighth’ movement, this portion of the debate could have generated interest but instead this segment revealed no new information. While Labour and Sinn Féin are committed to a referendum on this subject, both Kenny and Martin dodged the questioning of Colette Fitzpatrick on this topic. Kenny spoke of ‘depoliticising’ the topic so that a “citizens convention” could discuss the merits of it but he refused to offer a more explicit stance than this. Martin followed suit, though he did state that he dislikes the slogan of ‘repealing the eight’ – as he finds it ‘too simplistic’. While the positions of Kenny and Martin provoked some public ire – if the social media reaction is anything to go by – a more concrete stance would risk alienating elements of their parties’ own support base.

This compounded what would prove a disappointing night for many of the younger viewers tuning in with the student housing crisis a notable omission from the housing discussion.

6. A perfect storm as Adams taken to task for Special Criminal Court task

In light of the events of recent days, it was no surprise that Pat Kenny turned to Gerry Adams immediately to begin the discussion on crime and security. Adams was subject to a sustained period of questioning on his party’s stance on abolishing the Special Criminal Court and Pat Kenny drew blood when he asked if this was motivated by the fact associates of Adams were tried through this process. The reluctance of the other candidates to intervene and end Adams’ interrogation only added to his torment – undoubtedly his weakest moment of the night.

7. Joan Burton comes out swinging… but not at Fine Gael

The Labour leader entered the debate facing questions on whether she is on course to lose her Dublin West seat but put these concerns aside as she gave a determined performance. Perhaps fearing that Labour are under pressure to losing their support from the left to Sinn Féin she made repeated attacks on Gerry Adams – at one point telling him to “stop waving your finger at me”. However, her refusal to criticise or distance her party from their coalition partners may yet cause problems for Labour. This was most conspicuous when she refused Pat Kenny’s invitation to criticise Enda Kenny’s (non) stance on abortion.

Lasting Impressions

Viewers who tuned in last night were treated to a passionate, if at times chaotic, debate. As Pat Kenny neatly surmised at one point, “I’m here listening to this at the moment and if I can’t understand what’s going on, what chance do the people at home have?”. Furthermore, any viewers who tuned in hoping the TV3 debate would have resolved all – if any – of the election questions would have been disappointed.

Ultimately this debate fizzled out to a draw among the candidates. While each had their highlights, none truly distinguished themselves and they were unlikely to have strongly appealed to outside of their established support. Regardless, the debate was an important – if not defining – moment of the campaign.


(Photo: Sarah Joy. Source: Flikr)

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