Wednesday 16 January 2019

Andrew Lynch: Kenny holds his own in big debate battle

Ray D'Arcy once claimed that he would emigrate if Enda Kenny ever became Taoiseach.

After last night's contest, the Today FM presenter might want to check that his passport is fully up to date.

Enda might not have clearly won the debate, but he sure as hell didn't lose it -- which means that with just 10 days to go in this campaign, the Fine Gael leader remains firmly in pole position.

Instead of analysing this debate as a five-man brawl, it probably makes sense to break it down into three separate battles.

There was the race to become the next Taoiseach, in which Kenny narrowly beat Eamon Gilmore. There was the race to be the next leader of the opposition, in which Micheal Martin clearly defeated Gerry Adams.

Finally, John Gormley is in a race all of his own as he pleads with the electorate not to eat up the Greens -- and on that score, he may have made ground.

Right from the start, it was clear the format would prevent any one leader from really standing out. There were simply too many people on stage, forcing Pat Kenny to interrupt whenever two of them tried to get stuck into each other.


The programme lasted 90 minutes (and felt even longer), but most of it was pretty dull and seemed unlikely to change many voters' minds. That suited Enda Kenny just fine.

He arrived fresh from his photo-op with German chancellor Angela Merkel in Berlin, buoyed by opinion polls that have given him the aura of a winner. Looking prime ministerial as he stood centre-stage, he stuck closely to his script and sailed through the debate without a single uncomfortable moment.

Eamon Gilmore had a few good lines, but seems to have lost some of his confidence.

He made one serious attempt to rattle Kenny on a supposed €5bn black hole in FG's economic plan, which came to nothing when Enda was able to produce the right figures. The Labour leader ended up having an average night -- and given his slippage in the polls, average isn't good enough.


Micheal Martin proved once again he is technically the best debater of the lot (and thankfully left his comedy Chinese accent at home). However, the other leaders did a good job of keeping him on the defensive by constantly referring to his 14 years at the Cabinet table.

As time went on, the Fianna Fail leader looked increasingly frustrated by the 45-second limit -- and as a result, failed to deliver the game-changing performance that he so desperately needs.

Gerry Adams was certainly a lot better than he was in the 2007 leaders' debate, when his ignorance of the Irish economy was cruelly exposed.

This time the format was tailor-made for the Sinn Fein president, allowing him to run through his familiar soundbites about burning bondholders and protecting the little guy.

However, he made one serious blunder when he accused the other parties of "fraud", and was immediately savaged by Martin, who reminded him of the Shinners' own criminal history.

Will any of this matter on February 25? Opinion polls suggest that last week's TV3 debate between Martin and Gilmore made no difference at all, and the same is probably true of this one. However, there are still two three-way contests to come -- giving the FF and Labour leaders a couple of final opportunities to knock Kenny off his perch.

Enda's supporters see him as a bit like the main character in The King's Speech, a man who spends years finding his true voice but eventually manages to unite the country behind him.

Last night's steady performance confirms that he's well on the way to his political Oscar.

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