It’s staggering how often a hugely hyped and over-anticipated event like the World Cup Final has turned into a tense defensive battle.
And in a way so it was in the head-to-head between the two potential Taoisigh of the country, Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny last night. Presenter Miriam O’Callaghan described it as the “climax” of the election campaign but you felt that perhaps the denouement will not come until next weekend.
Nevertheless, it was intriguing, somewhat bruising, and told us a lot about the two leaders. It might have lacked the venom and sound-bytes of the previous night, but there was far more engagement on issues with both scoring heavily on key issues.
If there was a winner it was Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, who had the edge when it came to challenging Mr Kenny on his health costings, his tax proposals, as well as getting Mr Kenny to admit that his justice spokesman Jim O’Keeffe did not have the correct information at his disposal last week.
The biggest stumbler Mr Ahern faced was when Miriam O’Callaghan prefaced the next section with a reminder that the Government was in power for ten years, had record resources at its disposal but hadn’t delivered on the particular area, be it health, crime or education. On a couple of occasions, he found himself in the uncomfortable territory of admitting that promises had not been achieved.
Mr Kenny showed he has travelled a massive distance in terms of dealing with intensive and detailed debates of this manner. Like Mr Ahern, he relaxed quickly, recovered from any gaffes or admissions, and was assertive without being aggressive.
While acquitting himself well, he found himself very much on the back foot on a few occasions when it came to explaining the details of his promises.
He found himself in difficulties explaining how promises in his contract would be realised – the 2,300 extra hospital beds; the medical cards for under fives in particular. Impossible, said Mr Ahern for both, an argument Mr Kenny never fully managed to nail down. Mr Kenny also never address Mr Ahern’s assertion that FG’s tax policies would most benefit the richest 3%.
His worst moments, surprisingly, came on crime. When it was put to him that his justice spokesman Jim O’Keeffe had admitted there was no increase in crime rate, Mr Kenny had to essentially dress Mr O’Keeffe down on air, with an excuse that Mr O’Keefe did not have the statistics to hand. No matter how he phrased it, it was always going to look bad.
And the Taoiseach also scored heavily with his argument that the 2,000 extra gardai promised by Fine Gael provides funding for only 1,000 plus those who will go into training in Templemore this year. This was a biggie. While the Government has struggled (and arguably failed) to get 14,000 cops by the end of this year, Kenny's plan provides not for 2,000 but for 1,000 extra on top of them. It's promise of 2,000 but based on them being additional to there at the moment not including those in Templemore.
However, for many of the arguments – with both going into detail – the results were marginal or inconclusive. Both men were relaxed but Mr Kenny kept a polite and friendly composure throughout, compared to the edgier and slightly more aggressive pose struck by the Taoiseach.
Mr Ahern did find himself in difficulties on health, especially on a question Ms O’Callaghan asked about cystic fibrosis. Mr Kenny was strong here, especially in his portrayal of the “gargantuan failure” in A&E and primary care, as well as the failure of government to provide 3,000 beds. He also gouged a bit at the edges on the huge amount of public monies that was spent and wasted on PPARS - Mr Ahern's general response about the huge numbers in the health service didn't convince.
On other specific points, he was also able to successfully argue that the Government had failed in its promise to build a metro for Dublin by 2007. He was also marginally stronger on the issues of stamp duty and on quality of life.
The format was as five years ago, with both leaders making a pitch at the start and then debating five pre-agreed topics including health, education, crime, value for money, and the economy.
In his opening response to Ms O’Callaghan the Taoiseach, looking relaxed, spoke about his record over the past ten years and made an effective pitch by pointing to his working class roots in Drumcondra.
The Fine Gael leader immediately confronted by one of his Achilles Hells, lack of ministerial experience, answered confidently by referring to his time as Minister for Trade and the leadership qualities he has shown since becoming FG leader.
When the subject turned to priorities, Mr Ahern said that a strong economy was paramount. Mr Kenny agreed but said that it was the last Fine Gael government which sowed the seeds.
Mr Kenny quickly turned to his contract and his promise that he won’t seek re-election if he doesn’t achieve all its goals. Ms O’Callaghan asked the obvious question about who would judge if he achieved or failed. He answered that it would be self-obvious.
The presenter then honed in on the controversy surrounding Mr Ahern’s finances. Again there were close uncomfortable questions but he answered them relatively comfortably.
“I gave the matters to the Tribunal confidentially. And they were leaked straight out. That was my only objection,” he said.
It was clear that Mr Kenny did not want to engage in this. And it was also clear that the propensity of the debate would remain well-mannered.
As the debate moved to the most fractious issue, the Taoiseach accepted there were issues in A&E and primary care but put it in the context of huge improvements over ten years.
The debate then moved on the economy. Again the exchanges were technical and detailed. Mr Kenny agreed that the Taoiseach had “presided” over a successful economy but argued that Ireland had lost competitiveness. Ahern again referred to the achievements of his Government. This was home turf for him and he easily dealt with the details. Though Mr Kenny showed himself much improved when it came to specific and tricky questions in this area.
Ahern shaded it on the actual debating points. There can't be any doubt about that. But these debates are also about demeanour, composure and delivery. And Kenny never looked like a politician incapable of taking on the role of Taoiseach. Both will take something from it.