Opinion by Colm Flynn
It looks like the election in Ireland will be called this week. At the moment the smart money is on Feb 25th as the election date but until it’s called we won’t know for sure. There is no news on the format of any leaders debate. There isn’t even a complete line up of leaders as the current government party are desperately trying to elect a new leader by Wednesday. Assuming a debate, I expect it will be a three way debate between the Fianna Fail, identity to be confirmed, Enda Kenny (Fine Gael) Eamon Gilmore (Labour). It’s likely that the main/only topic will be the economy.
Lenihan or Martin?
The tone of the debate will depend somewhat on who the new leader of Fianna Fail is. The two leading candidates are Brian Lenihan (the current Finance Minister) and Micheal Martin (the former Foreign Affairs minister). They are both good performers and should do much better in the debate than the outgoing leader Brian Cowen. Fianna Fail will want to talk about the future while Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore will want to talk about the past.
If the Fianna Fail leader is Mr Lenihan expect the other two leaders to really examine his time as Finance Minister and in particular his role in the banking bailout. His health may also be an issue but more likely an undercurrent rather than overtly mentioned. Mr Lenihan can tend to be a little long winded and detailed when discussing very complex financial issues. If he is given the time to finish what he is saying then it will play well with those examining the detail but he may lose the majority of the viewers.
Mr Martin hasn’t the same close knowledge of the financial issues as Lenihan but that may mean he is clearer in what he says. He was not as closely involved in the banking bailout (other than “collective cabinet responsibility”) so opposition attack would be more about the overall government performance.
There are two other candidates (Mary Hannifin and Eamon O’Cuiv) for the Fianna Fail leadership but they really have no chance of winning and the cynical view may be that they are only running to take advantage of some free publicity with a general election just weeks away and their respective seats at risk.
Kenny & Gilmore
It’s also likely that we’ll see Mr Kenny and Mr Gilmore target each other as all the polls indicate the next government will be a coalition between them with the only question being who will be the larger party and become the Taoiseach (Prime Minister).
Mr Kenny’s track record in debates and public interviews is poor. This has seen his personal poll performance being exceptionally low even when up against one Taoiseach widely believed to be corrupt and another as widely believed to be incompetent. His performance in the last debate is seen as instrumental in his party losing the last election from a winning position with a week to go.
Enda Kenny has also made a few high profile gaffes in interviews which have resulted in him taking more of a backseat recently and leaving his front bench do the critical interviews. He recently had to defend his position within his party and this may be mentioned. I’d expect both opponents to try and bog him down in detail in the hope that he makes a major mistake.
Eamon Gilmore is a far more polished performer and is likely to win the style debate. He can be extremely cutting in his remarks and all the most memorable lines are likely to come from him. However he is often accused of having no specific policies or proposals. There is a joke slogan doing the rounds here at the moment “Vote Labour. We’ll tell you what for later”. The other two leaders are likely to focus on this when they launch attacks on him. There may also be some hints about his past involvement in the Workers Party but he has dealt well with these issues when raised before.
To a certain degree the result of the debate in the popular opinion is predictable. 1. Gilmore. 2. Kenny. 3 Fianna Fail. It will be interesting to see if the election debate judges viewing this from outside Ireland will agree.
The public opinion of Fianna Fail here is so low (8% in the last poll) there is unlikely to be much of a honeymoon bounce for the new leader. However if he were to peform well enough to grab second place on the night from Mr Kenny it could see a repeat of the result of the last debate/election in that Mr Kenny and Fine Gael would snatch defeat from the jaws of victory and find themselves as the junior coalition partner behind Labour with Mr Gilmore as Taoiseach. So while an incumbent government defeat is certain in the election there is still much to play for in the debate.