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WINNERS AND LOSERS

RTE's promos for the Frontline Presidential Debate implied that this was THE BIG ONE. The only one with a studio audience, who set the questions and therefore the tone, and the only one hosted by Pat Kenny.

It turned out to be true. This was the liveliest, most entertaining debate of them all, boasting one bombshell and one complete implosion. You wish it had come earlier in the campaign. So how did the seven fare?

The old wisdom that television debates ultimately have a negligible effect on how the public votes in an election will be tested to the limit after the current frontrunner's chaotic performance last night.

Gallagher, who looked stiff, tense and uneasy throughout the evening, hadn't been handling brickbats about his involvement with Fianna Fail or the toxic Charlie Haughey at all well, while Pat Kenny's persistent questioning about how certain monies had come to 'lay resting' in one of his accounts ("How can you mislay 89 grand?") left him looking rattled and unconvincing.

And then came Chequegate, delivered by Martin McGuinness, who claimed he'd earlier spoken to a man who told him Gallagher had visited his house to personally pick up a €5,000 cheque for a Fianna Fail nosh-up Gallagher had personally organised at the Crowne Plaza Hotel, and also to drop off a photograph from the event.

Gallagher stated that the man rented an office to Gerry Adams during the General Election.

When pressed by Kenny, Gallagher first said he had "no recollection" of this man giving him any cheque. Under increasing pressure from McGuinness, he conceded: "I may well have delivered the photograph. If he gave me an envelope..." -- cue hoots of laughter from the audience and an awkward pause from Gallagher -- "...if he gave me the cheque it was made out to Fianna Fail headquarters and it was delivered and that was that. It was nothing to do with me."

Oops. Afraid it had, Sean.

A week is a long time in politics; so, sometimes, is 90 minutes.



MICHAEL D HIGGINS

Kenny asked him if he hadn't been "too presidential" by not engaging in attack on the other candidates. Higgins said he hadn't, thereby proving, again, that he's probably the most presidential of the lot. There was nothing thrown at him here that he couldn't handle and he effectively niggled away at Gallagher.

This was a good, solid performance during which Higgins used charm and self-deprecating quips about his age -- deadpanning that Gallagher's labyrinthine explanation of his accounting system was a little "too complicated" for him -- to great effect.



MARTIN McGUINNESS

For much of the evening he was Gallagher's main tormenter, keeping him wriggling on the hook by venturing that there was "something rotten" at the heart of Fianna Fail and that Gallagher was "up to his neck in it".

But he simply unravelled when he found himself staring down the barrel of a direct question: does he regard the IRA killings in Northern Ireland as murder or casualties of war?

He couldn't give a straight answer and fell back on a well-rehearsed routine which continually referred to dealing with the reality that there was "a conflict".

There was one deeply disingenuous incidence of double-speak after Kenny had asked him if he could bring himself to say he believes Jean McConville was murdered. "I can bring myself to say the family of Jean McConville believe she was murdered," he said.

Those who were always guaranteed to vote for McGuinness are still guaranteed to vote for him. But a significant number of transfers might wander after this performance.



DAVID NORRIS

Norris's performance, which showed some of the sparkle of old, will have done him no harm at all. He was witty, funny, erudite, interjected intelligently and made one fine point about the possibility of polls being self-fulfilling prophecies.

He delivered a standout moment -- and the biggest laugh of the night -- when Kenny asked all the candidates if, should they be elected, they'd resign if damaging information about them came to light: "I 'm sorry to disappoint the Irish public but the closet is absolutely empty!"



GAY MITCHELL

You can take as many pops at the other candidates as you like during a debate -- and Gay Mitchell has been popping like a bowl of Rice Krispies on every occasion. You can even take a pop at the host if you wish, and he did so here, criticising Kenny for the way he was conducting proceedings.

But the one thing you can never, ever do is take a pop at the studio audience for asking the wrong sort of questions. Mitchell did just that, losing his temper with a rant about how there weren't enough questions being asked about the presidency.

It was a spectacularly bad call. Mitchell has a brilliant understanding of the constitution and the role of the president, but his tetchiness has continually undermined his strong points. He imploded last night in a puff of purple pique.



MARY DAVIS

With Kenny seemingly uninterested in following up Davis's role on various state boards, she had a quiet night of it and acquitted herself well, especially when reinforcing her claim that the constitutional amendment to widen the powers of the Oireachtas inquiries could dilute the rights of citizens. But it's probably too late to have any significant impact. If only she and some of the other candidates had been this coherent earlier in the campaign.



DANA ROSEMARY SCALLON

The wheels had already come off Dana's campaign long before her tyre blew out. This was another utterly inept and irrelevant performance, which once again suggested she's not entirely sure exactly what she'd be signing up for if the electorate went collectively mad overnight and voted her in. The silliest comment last night has to be, "I don't trust the Dublin 4 polls, I trust the people I meet on the street." Dear, oh, dear.

AND FINALLY . . .







PAT KENNY

He might be to light entertainment what Derek Mooney is to cage fighting but when he's in his proper setting, Kenny is the best TV current affairs broadcaster we have.

He was in his proper setting here and he marshalled the evening brilliantly, cutting the candidates off when they waffled, abruptly shunting them back on track when they threatened to veer off and never, not for a moment, putting up with any nonsense, yet still giving them time and space to talk. An excellent performance.