THERE was a reason why this was called Vincent Browne's Big Presidential Debate and not Vincent Browne's Small to Medium Presidential Debate. For the average viewer, this was THE BIG ONE. The one where the usual niceties go unobserved.
Browne might be viewed by some as an eccentric presence in the TV news arena, yet television's Torquemada often makes for compelling viewing.
He was at his best here, gleefully roasting all seven candidates over the spit, having first basted them in his unique concoction of spittle and venom.
It started innocuously enough.
Mary Davis bemoaned being the target of "negative polling". David Norris insisted -- again -- that he'd never disparage others or engage in negative campaigning.
"There are people sitting at home in negative equity," began Dana, in a bit of negative word association before Browne cut her off in mid-irrelevance. Irrelevance, incidentally, was the keynote of Dana's evening.
Sean Gallagher hoped the debate wouldn't descend to the level of what we saw in the general election, whatever that meant.
Michael D Higgins insisted the country needed someone who could "inspire". "You're ALL saying that," barked Browne.
McGuinness also decried negative campaigning, before puffing himself up about his undeniable achievements in the peace process. Norris, whose efforts to ingratiate himself with everyone, but especially Michael D, is wearing thin, hopped back in again with, "I know what it's like to be a second-class citizen."
Dana started to ramble cluelessly about the president doing something about the bank guarantee, before Higgins cut her off: "The President can do nothing about that now." After 20 minutes of this, plus some interminable, wasteful blather about sending out leaflets, Browne was moved to ask, not for the last time, "What has this to do with the presidency?"
The turning point came when Browne, after a lengthy and fair appraisal of McGuinness's role in the peace process, turned to his claim that he left the IRA in 1974. Like a conjurer pulling rabbits from a hat, Browne produced from under his desk a veritable mini-library of books, all of which stated McGuinness had remained in the IRA long after '74. For good measure, he added his own view, based on his time as a reporter in Northern Ireland, to the wide perception that McGuinness is telling porkies.
"How come that we are all wrong?" he asked. It was a sucker punch from which the normally unflappable McGuinness never recovered and it made for brilliant TV.
But this wasn't purely a mano-a-mano affair. The Browne stuff was liberally spread over everyone else, too.
Gallagher, a Fianna Fail supporter, was accused of being "at the inner core as they ravaged the country".
Davis was told she'd had some "spectacular failures" on the highly remunerated boards she's served with. Higgins was excoriated for sitting on his hands back when Labour was in government with Fianna Fail.
After Norris embarked on the kind of melodramatic speech in honour of his Anglo-Irish heritage that seemed designed to draw a round of applause (had there been an audience), Browne brought him down by demanding to know where the "legal advice" he couldn't disclose the contents of the notorious letters had come from.
Norris retorted that this was "barstool stuff" and that his conscience is clear. But he looked more rattled than at any time during the campaign proper.
The only ones who got off lightly were Mitchell, who Browne curiously failed to question about his old associations with far-right Christian politicians in the EU, and Dana, who he seems to have dismissed as a pointless makeweight whose acquaintance with the role and powers of the president seems to be of the nodding variety.
If I had to predict who'll win the election, I'd have to say Higgins, who looked most presidential when standing back and allowing the others to dig their own graves with their mouths.
But the real winner last night was Vincent Browne.
He could well be the most popular man in Ireland, at least for today.
Ever consider running for president, Vincent?
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