The leaders’ debate last night: fun to watch but would it change your vote?

I believe Robert Peston, the British political journalist, has spoken with admiration of last night’s debate on RTÉ between Micheál Martin, Leo Varadkar and Mary Lou McDonald. He saw it as civilized, rational, courteous in comparison with shouting matches and insults flung on his side of the Irish Sea.

It was courteous – Leo Varadkar even retrieved Micheál Martin’s notes when Micheál  got a over-excited and swept them to the floor.  The two interrogators,  Miriam O’Callaghan and David McCullough sat like judges at an episode of The Apprentice, while the three party leaders had to stand and explain themselves.

Miriam O’Callaghan didn’t quiz Mary Lou as to when she’d last been to confession, but she did do her best to remind viewers that Sinn Féin is linked in the public mind with violent republicanism.  Much attention was focused on Paul Quinn, a young man brutally murdered thirteen years ago in South Armagh. Would Conor Murphy of Sinn Féin accede to Quinn’s mother’s requests and withdraw his claim that Quinn was involved in a criminal gang?  Watching, it struck me that no such concern for feelings is displayed in RTÉ reporting of the killings of various drug gang members around Dublin. The general feeling is created that they’re a bunch of hoods and half-deserve the lethal punishments they mete out to each other.

Back at the debate, Micheál Martin is speaking at a speed that would make a scalded cat look slow-moving. Leo Varadkar has quickened his pace somewhat also, so he can slide in reminders that Micheál and his party brought the Irish economy to its knees in 2007. Mary Lou got in a nice line about Micheál being about to “mansplain”  economic matters to her and kept her delivery moving at a relaxed, steady pace. At one point she even did a Leo, pausing for several seconds before responding to a question.

Who won? Well, if you’re looking for clarity and timing, Mary Lou probably outpaced her two opponents. If you were looking for passion, Micheál was passionate about pretty well everything, excited, his face tight as a bunched fist. If you were looking for a decent spud, Leo looked all that: big, calm for the most part, the yin to Micheál’s yang.

Will it change any minds? I don’t believe it will. And why should it? Why should people decide who they’ll vote for, based on their debating skills?  Verbal punch-ups are fun but they’re more circus stuff. Putting bread on the people’s tables is nearer to what politics is about.

There’ll be other debates before polling day, notably between the economics spokesperson for each party, but that’s never as much fun as watching the head honchos put through their paces.  Last night was as Robert Peston pointed out civilized fun, but it didn’t really mean a damned thing. People know who they’re going to votefor, and the I-haven’t-made-up-my-mind-yet  to pollsters is just a polite way of telling them to mind their own damn business.

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