Andrew Lynch: No hype, no ego, just a cracking TG4 debate
At last -- Election 2011 has produced a real star. She isn't offering to run the country and you won't see her face on any posters. By doing such a brilliant job of hosting TG4's leaders' debate as Gaeilge, however, Eimear Ni Chonaola has shown herself to be a major broadcasting talent -- and someone who deserves a much higher profile.
When the schedule of debates was first confirmed, TG4's event was assumed to be the poor relation. Apart from the language difficulties, Ni Chonaola is a virtual unknown compared to Pat Kenny, Miriam O'Callaghan and Vincent Browne.
According to the most recent figures released by the station, she earns between €37,008 and €50,595 -- a pittance compared to the massive salaries that RTE routinely hands out to its
The lack of hype surrounding this debate worked to TG4's advantage. While Monday night's highly anticipated Frontline turned out to be a real slog, even for political junkies, this was lively, passionate and much more natural.
Instead of acting like a diva or showing off with smart-alec interruptions, Ni Chonaola asked simple questions about the fundamental issues.
She then intervened whenever any leader started to waffle, calmly insisting they return to the subject under discussion. Inevitably, the subtitles failed to capture every subtlety of the Irish language -- but the result was still an absorbing programme.
As for the debate itself, the seating arrangement said it all. Enda Kenny was rock solid in the centre of the screen, knowing that only a monumental disaster can stop him from becoming Taoiseach now. Eamon Gilmore and Micheal Martin sniped at him from the wings, but neither succeeded in knocking the Fine Gael leader off his stride.
Kenny is finally learning how to be natural on television, controlling his nerves and keeping those stiff hand gestures to a minimum. Martin was the most aggressive performer, landing a few jabs without doing any serious damage. Gilmore is like the Goldilocks of this election -- sometimes too hot, sometimes too cold, but this time getting the temperature just right.
So where does this leave us? The latest opinion polls show that FG's bandwagon keeps rolling along, with an overall majority now tantalisingly in sight. With barely a week's campaigning left, only one question remains to be answered -- would people prefer a single-party FG government or a more balanced coalition with Labour?
Election campaigns are all about peaking at the right moment. FG worry that the prospect of one all-powerful party ruling on its own could frighten some people away. In any case, a pure FG cabinet would probably need the support of a few high-maintenance independents to stay in power -- a high-wire act that could end up giving them all vertigo.
Next Tuesday's final leaders' debate, hosted on Prime Time by Miriam O'Callaghan, will give Kenny, Martin and Gilmore one last chance to make their pitch. If it lives up to the standard set by TG4 last night, it'll be worth watching.