#GE16 – Assessment of Final Leaders’ Debate

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The third and final leaders’ debate of the 2016 general election was broadcast last night on RTÉ.

After the seven way debate last week, the spotlight was again squarely focused on Enda Kenny, Michéal Martin, Joan Burton, and Gerry Adams.

The debate was moderated by Miriam O’Callaghan as the candidates made their last pitch to the viewing public with the election just days away.

Ahead of Friday’s vote, here is how The City evaluated last night’s debate.

No signs of détente between Enda and Michéal

Ahead of Friday’s vote, bookmakers are offering ever shortening odds that a Fine Gael – Fianna Fáil coalition will form the government of the 32nd Dáil. Recent poll numbers support this theory but if Enda Kenny or Michéal Martin are warming to this possibility behind the scenes, it was not in evidence during the debate. Kenny delivered his most assertive performance as he looked to take on Martin, who for his part did not hold back from challenging Fine Gael’s record in government. No telling blows were delivered however, and this may be the best result for both parties if they are to become coalition partners.

Joan recovers and Gerry falters

In the aftermath of last week’s debate, Joan Burton was roundly viewed as having performed worst. The Labour leader felt the squeeze from the smaller parties on the stage, as well as Sinn Féin, amid growing concerns that the party will be decimated by Friday’s vote. Labour supporters will have been relieved to see Burton perform more confidently last night as she landed notable blows on Gerry Adams – “Gerry, what cloud cuckoo land are you living in?”. She finished strongly, declaring Labour a party of progressive politics and committed to repealing the 8th amendment.

The Sinn Féin leader meanwhile delivered his worst debate performance last night. He stumbled over his words when under direct questioning more than once and his question, “Who’s Senator Cahill?” is unlikely to be received well by voters. While Adams missed a chance to appeal to the undecided voters, his party’s strong support were likely unperturbed by his performance.

Mental health and the environment make belated appearances

Following the second debate, The City bemoaned the lack of any discussion on issues appealing to younger voters – in particular an environmental discussion. Last night saw a discussion of each party’s commitments to the environment as well as a discussion on mental health – a topic that apparently everyone on stage was keen to bring up, O’Callaghan included. The discussion of these issues was welcome, if long overdue. Suicide remains the biggest killer of men under the age of 50 while the recent Paris Conference raised concerns over Ireland’s commitment to its environmental objectives. It remains to be seen if these topics, and the leaders’ positions on them, will hold much sway when the electorate fill in their ballots.

Accusations of ‘cronyism’ leave mark

Another of the new topics introduced by Miriam O’Callaghan was that of cronyism. An apparent admission of guilt by Enda Kenny – “What I did was make an appointment that didn’t need to be made” – on the appointment of a onetime Fine Gael candidate in a Seanad by-election to the board of the Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) will have raised the most eyebrows but no leader was exempt from the spotlight. Martin was questioned over the appointment of Celia Larkin – a former partner of Bertie Ahern – to the National Consumer Agency, while Burton and Adams were questioned over the appointment of activists from their parties to public and cross-border bodies.

No losers emerge from debate

 

There is an oft repeated refrain in the sport of professional cycling that you cannot win the Tour de France in one day, but you can lose it. This appeared to be the mantra of each leader on stage last night as they all prioritised making no gaffes over delivering inspired performances. This was perhaps best evidenced by the reoccurrence of the leaders making little attempt to answer the questions posed by Miriam O’Callaghan and instead rattle off pre-prepared answers. This was best described by Sarah McInerney in a panel discussion following the debate when she compared the leaders to leaving cert students who provide a rehearsed answer even when the question they prepared for doesn’t come up.

As safe a strategy as this was, this may yet go down as a missed opportunity with the time to make an impression fast diminishing.

by FERGUS CARROLL

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