After the Ranelagh Rumble earlier, we had the donnybrook at Donnybrook last night as the four leaders of the parties that aren’t the big two slugged it out in a high-octane TV debate.
This was the undercard but in many ways it was always likely to be a more exciting and bruising dust-up than tonight’s main attraction – the debate between Bertie Ahern and Enda Kenny tonight.
For each of the four leaders, Pat Rabbitte (Labour), Michael McDowell (PD), Gerry Adams (Sinn Fein) and Trevor Sargent (GP)are strong personalities in their own right – and all except Sargent are able debaters.
And in an exchange with personal and nasty moments, it was Rabbitte and McDowell who emerged most strongly – on the the force of their arguments, their ease, and the best lines.
Adams did not lack confidence but lack of mastery on economic issues was exposed a few times – as he was caught waffling. Sargent, not a natural debater, was always going to find it difficult. In the end he held his own without really making a killer point.
But optically, it was terrible for him. The extensive cog notes he had written neatly on the palm of his hands were easily spotted – and will probably dent his marks more than anything he or anybody else said.
The format of the PrimeTime special was simple. Each opened with a statement while bathed in a spotlight. They were then ushered over to a table in turn by presenter Mark Little. The format reminded you of a game show. They even threw in the tense music. The Weakest Link came to mind.
All four were a little nervous and stilted when reading their statement off an autocue.
Michael McDowell immediately continued his row from the afternoon, accusing the Greens of flip-flopping over corporation tax. More scare stuff – the first real row. Sargent sallied back strongly. McDowell had the first good quotable quote: “I’m surrounded by the left (Lab); the hard left (SF); and the left-overs (Greens).
The pattern became obvious early - it was mostly going to be McDowell against the other three.
The second topic was another hot potato one – the Government’s controversial collocation proposal. Here it was McDowell v the rest. Sargent contended it was a “quick fix”. McDowell went in hard.
Second fast quip by Rabbitte, looking more like the Cheshire Cat.
“You are over-energised by that pole you climbed up in Ranelagh,” he quipped.
Little moved it to crime and ASBOS and immigration with McDowell trying to divide the Greens and Labour.
Rabbitte’s second great line: “Michael is like a menopausal Paris Hilton. He is an inveterate attention seeker.”
A few minutes later it started getting personal. When the discussion moved to drugs, he accused Adams of getting E25m from FARC guerrillas in Colombia who are financed by cocaine.
Sargent scored a good point when he said there were only 27 detox beds in the entire State. As did Rabbitte when he said there were more dog wardens than labour inspectors. More insults. Sargent accused McDowell of being hardline and the PDs of being peddlers of despair and deceit. McDowell scored with an argument asking people to imagine what it will be like in three years. Adams returned to a broad republican team.
None let themselves down but Rabbitte pipped it, with McDowell pipping the other two.
from this morning's Irish Examiner
Postscript: Sargent said that he had the notes written down on his palm just in case the autocue went down at the start - in context, it was relatively minor but it would have been better for the notes to have remained hidden from view.