When Teddy Kennedy failed to immediately report the accident on Chappaquiddick Bridge, there were quite a few political commentators who declared that this failure of judgement showed him as being incapable of taking the life-and-death decisions a US president must take. Others, however, pointed out that most US presidents don’t make these life-and-death decisions while upside down in a submerged car.
Something similar holds with political debates. They attract viewers in large numbers, any gaffe is seized upon and can prove fatal on voting day, and many people see it as a test of leadership under pressure, which is how leadership tends to come. On the other hand, leaders of political parties don’t need to be star performers on live television in order to be impressive leaders.
Which brings us to the leaders’ debate in the south this Wednesday, on Virgin Media with presenter Pat Kenny. Leo Varadkar and Micheál Martin will be judged by their confidence, their body language, their strength of argument and their ability to rattle off statistics on a given topic. Mary Lou McDonald, the Sinn Féin leader, will also be judged – except she won’t be there. Virgin Media have made it clear she’s not invited.
Does it matter? It does. Today’s Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll shows Fianna Fail at 25%, Fine Gael at 23% and Sinn Féin at 21%. Taking into account the statistical margin of error, it’s fair to say that all three are near enough neck-to-neck.
If Sinn Féin isn’t included, it doesn’t mean that support for that party will fall off. But it certainly won’t help. As I say, these TV debates tend to be fun but artificial and not necessarily an accurate measure of the leader or the party’s quality. But it’s a bit like the advertising of Guinness. It’s safe to say that if that company stopped advertising on TV, people would still consume the black stuff. But if other types of pint are advertised and Guinness isn’t, people would begin to think there was something wrong with the product – had it given up the ghost? That’s why Guinness spends millions advertising a product everyone already knows about.
And that’s why Virgin Media’s decision to exclude Sinn Féin is further proof that southern media, like the southern establishment generally, would dearly like people to forget about Sinn Féin and get back to the good old two-party carve-up. If you believe in fairness and have a voice, raise it against this high-handedness. Look what happened when Fine Gael tried to pull the RIC circus trick.