The second leaders’ debate of the 2016 general election was broadcast last night on RTÉ in front of a live studio audience at the University of Limerick.
Enda Kenny, Michéal Martin, Joan Burton and Gerry Adams were joined by Stephen Donnelly of the Social Democrats, Richard Boyd Barrett of the AAA-PBP and Lucinda Creighton of Renua on a packed stage.
Here are the conclusions from an interesting night’s television.
Wider field allows smaller parties to shine
If the studio audience is any indication, then Stephen Donnelly and Richard Boyd Barrett performed the strongest of the candidates with both receiving extended applauses. The format of the debate was in some ways conducive to this result, allowing the smaller parties to focus on selling themselves while the leaders of the established parties had to fend off and launch their own attacks. That being said, the plain-speaking and confident delivery of both Donnelly and Boyd Barrett, and to a lesser degree Lucinda Creighton, would have won them new fans. The question is whether the electorate will keep this in mind on polling day.
No Green voice a missed opportunity
Earlier on Monday, the Green Party failed in their legal challenge to be included in the leaders’ debate. The success of the smaller parties on the night will only have contributed to their disappointment but the electorate missed out too. The rationale behind RTÉ’s decision was that only a party with at least three elected TDs could take part, but considering that the electorate did not elect Stephen Donnelly or Lucinda Creighton under their current banners it is curious to include them and not the Green Party who have performed well in the past. The widened field saw different perspectives aired but the lack of an environmental voice was noticeable and a disappointment following the recent Paris Conference.
Enda wants a Labour coalition but can Joan deliver it?
Claire Byrne had yet to finish posing the question to Enda Kenny of who he would go into coalition with before he declared, “Labour. We want the stability of returning the government that is in office.” He followed this up by ruling out a Fine Gael – Fianna Fáil coalition.
Kenny has been steadfast in this stance but recent polls suggest that a Fine Gael and Labour coalition may not possess the numbers to form a stable government. More worrying was that Joan Burton cut a subdued figure last night and was the focus of many attacks. If this form continues, 26 February may appear as more an execution date than polling day for Labour.
Little of interest for the youth vote
Heading into the general election, much of the talk was on how the political classes would look to repeat the youth involvement that was seen in the recent marriage equality referendum. So far, there has been little evidence of that movement being replicated – even to a small extent. Last night was more of the same. There was a discussion on creating jobs, but the stodgy discourse is unlikely to captivate and inspire, and the issue of abortion was not brought up – perhaps because it was such a non-issue last week.
The fire from the TV3 debate was put out
Where did the passion from the TV3 debate disappear to? Gerry Adams won some laughs for his depiction of Kenny, Martin and Burton as the three amigos, and Martin stoked the flames when he questioned the Sinn Féin leader’s IRA past, but there was little else of note. The crowded stage no doubt contributed to this, but with the smaller parties enjoying the exposure this may go down as a lost opportunity for Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin to land a fatal blow on Fine Gael.
Emergence of a left-right cleavage in Irish politics
Irish politics has been dominated by the two civil war parties – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – since the foundation of the State. This sets Ireland apart from much of the rest of Europe. Last night’s debate might signal change in this area. Adams and Boyd Barrett positioned themselves as alternatives from the left, while Kenny, Burton, Martin and Donnelly see themselves as more centrist and, while they may not come out and say so, Renua and Creighton look like a party on the right.
And the Winner is… Claire Byrne
Perhaps it was an inevitable conclusion given her name forms the title of the programme, but Claire Byrne emerged from the night with the greatest enhanced reputation. From the start she was a commanding presence, banning the candidates from using jargon – and subsequently giving Boyd Barrett a rap on his knuckles when he brought up “fiscal space”. Under her watch the two-hour debate flagged but never bored and not one candidate escaped her strong line of questioning. Byrne has a selection of highlights to boast from the debate but her retort to Stephen Donnelly when he said he wanted to ask for the Garda opinion on battling crime – “we’re going to have endless amounts of guards if we continue as we are this evening” – visibly shook the Social Democrat leader.
By FERGUS CARROLL
(PHOTO: Twitter @RTÉ News)