Pat Stacey: A feeble showing as ringmaster Browne loses his bullying bluster
There was more than one man missing from the first leaders' debate on TV3 last night. Fine Gael's Enda Kenny, as we all know, did himself no favours by snubbing the event in favour of a vital town hall meeting in Carrick-on-Shannon in Leitrim.
But where was Vincent Browne? He was in the studio throughout the whole thing all right, his craggy face exhibiting its default setting of ennui mixed with impatience and his voice even more raspy and breathless than usual, as though he'd run up three flights of stairs seconds before the cameras rolled.
But this wasn't the same snapping terrier that Irish television viewers recognise.
Once the preliminaries were out of the way and Eamon Gilmore and Micheal Martin had been turned loose on one another, Browne was barely there, like a weather forecaster who turns up for work in a sky-blue suit and then finds everything but his head and hands dissolving into the blue-screen map behind him.
I'll leave it to the political analysts to decide whether Gilmore or Martin landed the most stinging blows. As the ringmaster in charge of the circus, however, Browne made little impact on either the candidates or the audience watching at home. TV3 might as well have given the gig to Ray Foley for all the difference Browne's presence made.
He mentioned at the outset that the rules didn't permit him to follow through on his questions; yet even by the rigorous standards of fairness necessary to televised election debates, this was a pretty feeble showing by the combative journalist once dubbed 'Mad Dog' Browne.
Limited to interrupting the leaders when their time was up, Browne seemed lost, neutered. He frequently appeared to be deeply absorbed in his sheaf of papers, as if he was more interested in the question he'd be asking next than how the leaders were answering the one he'd asked previously.
The strange decision to address them by their first names, rather than call them Mr Gilmore and Mr Martin, sucked any potential edge out of the situation. When Browne snapped, "Micheal -- let Eamon in!", it sounded like a father scolding his son for locking his little brother in the garden.
With Browne, as with Eamon Dunphy, you get the feeling that unless he's the main attraction in the show, there IS no show.
Subtract the bullying bluster from the equation and there's little of substance left.